Woster: Hockey — South Dakota's growing winter sport
A regular opinion piece by columnist Terry Woster
Sometime back in the 1980s, a guy used to show up at a city park in Pierre on Sundays in winter and skate around the ice rink with a hockey stick in his hands.
I’d lived my whole live in South Dakota. I’d never seen a hockey stick before. As a kid, I’d seen newspaper pictures of guys with sticks, but those guys were professionals, playing for the Bruins or Canadiens. I suppose the paper carried professional hockey standings near the baseball and football and basketball standings, but I wasn’t paying attention.
Hockey didn’t draw much ink when I was growing up. We didn’t have it as a high school sport. I’m sure I was isolated out in the middle of South Dakota, but I’d never heard of a high school that offered hockey. Gosh, the only colleges I’d ever heard of with hockey were back east. I only heard about them if one of the players did something that got his name and face in a magazine feature like “Faces in the Crowd" in the Sports Illustrated. And the papers dutifully ran stories when the Russians won the Olympic gold medal in hockey again, but people I knew paid little attention to stories like that.
High schools had football, basketball and track in my day. As far as I knew, that’s what colleges had, too. That’s just the way it was. I don’t think my school, Chamberlain, was that much different from many of the other mid-sized schools in our state, probably not that much different from similar schools in other middle-of-America states. I didn’t know enough to wonder why it was that way.
That’s a long way of saying the sight of a guy skating around the ice of a city park on a Sunday morning in January, swishing the ice with a wicked-looking hockey stick, drew double takes from people passing by.
We weren’t completely out of it, of course. By the 1980s, we knew hockey existed, but mostly on a miracle level. I may not have seen a hockey stick in person by then, but in 1980, I saw them on television. The whole country – including those of us out here in flyover land – got caught up in the American hockey team that clawed and scraped and skated its way to an Olympic gold medal in 1980, beating the Russians in the process. It was impossible not to be aware of that story and team. But, as I said, it was the stuff of miracles, more fantasy than reality.
Anyway, after the guy started showing up in the park with his hockey stick, he became the subject of coffee-shop conversation. One guy said he was sure the skater had been swept up in Olympic fever (USA, USA, USA). Another guy said he’d heard that the skater had recently moved to town from Wisconsin, where things were different. Hockey was kind of a big deal in that state, my guy said. He said the skater probably had played pick-up games of hockey on outdoor rinks when he was growing up over there in Wisconsin. The skater probably was waiting for other players to show up. We all laughed when someone said, “He’ll have a long wait, then, won’t he?"
It wasn’t very many years later that I heard an indoor hockey rink was being built over in Fort Pierre. Well, at least it’s indoors, I thought. It wasn’t many years after that when I read stories in the newspaper about teams from Pierre playing teams from other South Dakota towns and teams from North Dakota and Minnesota. What? Then I read about girls’ teams. Well, good enough. Then I read that the teams were competing well, skating and checking and passing like wizards. More kids played. More fans watched.
At this point, I’ve seen high school hockey matches in person. I’ve seen the University of North Dakota several times. I haven’t seen an NHL match, but I saw the semi-pro Albany River Rats play once.
I like watching hockey. When I think back, I kind of wish somebody had shown up on the ice in the Pierre city park to give that skater a game.