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50 Years And Counting

St. Paul Capitals are looking to the next half-century of hockey.

The St. Paul Capitals celebrated 50 years earlier this winter. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Capitals Hockey Association)

On a Saturday night in February, a gathering of dedicated hockey enthusiasts were brought together in the Capital city to celebrate a success story five decades in the making.

For 50 years, the St. Paul Capitals Hockey Association has provided generations of players – from mini-mites to Bantams – the opportunity to learn, compete and enjoy the sport on hometown rinks in their own community.

The organization has evolved from its inception as the Highland Hockey Association, which, in 1973, was one of many organizations supporting neighborhood and local park teams.

Highland joined forces with the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul in 1987, eventually becoming the Highland Central Capitals. In 2014, its current incarnation, the St. Paul Capitals as it is known today, became permanent.

Much has changed since the early days of the organization, but much has stayed the same, according to Capitals board president Julie Bustos, who’s been involved for years as a board member as well as a parent, having three kids participate in the program.

In the buildup to the 50th anniversary celebration, Bustos connected with a number of people involved in the early years of the association and heard first-hand how their shared experiences forged lasting bonds.

“There’s a lot of pride built into that,” Bustos said. “It was amazing to hear their stories about how much hockey meant to players both on the ice, as well as skills and things that they applied in their life off the ice, the friendships that they made that they still have.”

Matt Funk is the athletic director and boys hockey coach at Cretin-Derham Hall and knows the value the Capitals provide not just the community, but his program as well. Funk’s grandfather, Bill, coached at the University of St. Thomas, and in 1973, was one of the founders of the association, creating opportunities for three generations of Funks who went to play and coach in St. Paul high schools and colleges.

The St. Paul Capitals Hockey Association started as the Highland Hockey Association. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Capitals Hockey Association)

“We’re rooted in St. Paul hockey. It’s not just a game. It’s about the lifelong skills you learn and the memories and friends you make,” Funk said. “The history here is remarkable and we need to keep that going for generations to come.”

Mike Vannelli also knows all about hockey friendships and lasting traditions. The Vannelli family is synonymous with hockey in St. Paul. Mike’s father, Tom Vannelli, played for Herb Brooks at the University of Minnesota, and was a freshman in 1974 when the Gophers won their first national championship. As a sophomore, the elder Vannelli was second in scoring for the WCHA champion Gophers.

Tom was head coach at Cretin-Derham Hall and co-head coach with his brother, Greg, at St. Thomas Academy. Mike played his high school hockey for his father at Cretin; and he played four years for the Gophers under Don Lucia, where he won a national championship before several seasons in Europe.

But prior to skating at Mariucci – or for the perennially powerful Raiders – Mike Vannelli came of age with the Highland Central Capitals.

“There’s a phenomenal sense of community,” Mike Vannelli said. “There’s a lot of kids that are playing in the association that are second, third, some are even fourth generation. And so, it’s pretty special in that regard. And it’s a very tight knit community.”

Today, Mike Vannelli’s son and daughter play in the Capitals program, where he is doing double time as vice president of boys hockey, as well as coach of his son’s squirt team.

“There’s so many things that as a parent and coach that you see that they’re able to get out of it,” Mike Vannelli said. “First and foremost, it seems like they’ve built some amazing friendships that they’ll be able to carry with them the rest of their lives.”

Mike Vannelli points to the fun he sees his kids having with teammates – in practices and in games, both structured and unstructured, inside arenas and outdoors in parks – as invaluable experiences, providing not just enjoyment, but lifetime lessons.

“The qualities that they begin to get instilled in them through competition, accountability, just learning to be a good teammate; what that means, essentially translates to being a good person on and off the ice,” he said.

How can the Capitals keep moving forward? 
After decades of creating those experiences for thousands of St. Paul kids, the Capitals are now faced with an existential challenge: how to keep the organization vital and thriving for the next 50 years and beyond. Ice time has grown scarce, and expensive, while participation costs continue to increase.

During the 2023-24 season, fees for squirt and 10U were $1,220; and that number only rises for older players.

The Capitals are working to keep the program viable for future generations. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Capitals Hockey Association)

“We’re challenged with finding ways to try and keep that cost as manageable as possible,” Mike Vannelli said. “And there’s some folks within our association that have done an amazing job with some fundraising efforts that they’ve kicked off.”

With rising costs and dwindling numbers already having claimed most of St. Paul’s youth programs, the Capitals are working in-season and out to keep their program viable for future generations.

“It’s a little bittersweet to be honest with you,” said Jim Runyon, director of fundraising for the Capitals and a lifelong St. Paul resident who grew up playing in the Central Hockey Association.

Runyon can’t help but think of the thriving programs in the parks and recreation system when he was growing up. Associations like Battle Creek, Phalen and Conway, among numerous others, no longer exist.

“There were probably 25 organizations in St. Paul that offered really good, quality competitive hockey,” Runyon said. “So, to celebrate our 50th was great because you feel like ‘Wow, this is a long time that kids have been playing hockey here,’ but you also look at who’s still around and it’s kind of sad to see.”

But Runyon is quick to call out the silver lining the Capitals have sought: New fundraising efforts which are now the lifeblood of the program.

Kelly Rand, the association’s gambling coordinator, has set the course for the Capitals to raise funds as suburban programs like Woodbury, White Bear Lake, Eagan and Edina have through legalized gambling or, more specifically, pull-tabs and Bingo, through exclusive agreements with local establishments.

“A year and a half ago, we became licensed. We started with one bar, and a bar and restaurant,” Runyon said. “We now have two up and running and we’re trying to play catch up.”

Creating financial stability as hockey costs rise
The goal is to generate more than just fast funding – which is needed – but to create generational stability for the association.

“The costs of hockey are going up too fast,” Runyon said. “And in order to sustain it, we had to put on the brakes, and the only way to do that was to set up some sort of endowment.”

The growing need inspired the St. Paul Capital’s Legacy Fund, which will maintain proceeds for investment, with a small percentage coming out each year to fund the program.

“We have to work a little bit harder, but more importantly, we have to be smarter about what we do with our money,” Runyon said. ‘That money is dedicated and restricted so that for the next 50 years, kids in St. Paul will have an opportunity to play hockey.”

The results are encouraging for coaches, parents and their kids. And for leaders like Bustos, who’s seen hockey evolve since her playing days, before girls hockey was ever a thought.

Bustos competed exclusively with boys in the Tartan Area youth league until Bantams. So for her, the focus is always about providing opportunities for kids to participate – now and well into the future.

“How do we keep this association and the service that it brings to the community alive and vibrant?” she asked, rhetorically. “We want to produce the same kind of emotional connections and life connections and athletic development that we’ve been providing for the last 50 years.

“My dad coached me and now I’m coaching my kid and I want to make sure that my kid has a chance to coach their kids.”

Steve began playing hockey as a squirt in Bloomington, but when his family moved to Dallas, Denver and Des Moines, respectively – all by the time he was a freshman in high school – he adapted, developing an unconventional hockey background. Steve attended the U of M, where he lettered in football, before becoming a sports producer at WCCO TV, as well as writer and director of highlight films and content for the North Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins. Nowadays, when he’s not writing for MHM or Eden Prairie Local News, he’s a creative director for StoryTeller Media in the Twin Cities.

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