A mystery no more
One team’s journey of self-discovery from rink rats to champs
(Front Row L-R) Steve Miller, Lee Kirby, Matt Mannella, Blake Sorem, Connor Beaupre, Bart Archer, Ben Strathman, Justin Skyberg (Photo / LS ORIGINALS)
One team’s journey of self-discovery from rink rats to champs
One of my favorite hockey-themed movies happens to be “Mystery, Alaska.” If you have seen the movie you will understand the perspective.
If you have not seen the movie, a brief summary would include: an isolated town with a diverse group of hockey players that play against themselves in a traditional weekly game. Later in the movie they are introduced to outside competition.
This would echo the theme of our story.
The last five years, for a three month window each spring, a group of Luther Automotive employees would gather Thursday afternoons for an extended hockey scrimmage at Victory Memorial Ice Arena (VMIA) in Minneapolis. It didn’t matter if you were upper management, a front line employee, or a friend of a friend. We love to play hockey, and this was a chance to play. For some, it was their only outlet.
Our ages range from 16 to over 60. The young guns, the middles, and the graybeards. Five players, including myself, are graybeards.
Lights vs darks, let’s play.
We play March through May. We conclude in May because too many players would not be available after that month because of parental commitments, softball, and such. This year was different. We maintained ample numbers to continue playing, so we happily extended into middle August for the first time.
With August now passing, our ice time was no longer available. We had just finished skating our last session. Will we be distant friends until next March? We were inclined to explore other options. There was an alternative that surfaced in the locker room.
Forward Blake Sorem asked me about assembling an adult league team. Interesting. Never brought up before, but okay, he had my attention.
Sorem, “I thought you could coach.”
Coach? My inner voice questioned, as my mind processed. I began thinking of the movie Mystery, when player/coach Russell Crowe gets told he is ‘too old to play, but they would like him to coach’… only coach. Was I was getting pushed into retirement?
I pushed back. “Coach?” He laughed, “Player/coach.”
Workable. I yelled to others in adjoining locker rooms,
“Who wants to play in a league?”
The response was quick and enthusiastic.
The Process Begins
As the director of our Luther hockey Club, I introduced myself to Brandon Koontz, the director of the Men’s Adult Hockey League at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Nice man; very patient and accommodating. This league is sponsored by the Minnesota Wild and USA Hockey. They offered several skill levels on many different nights through the week. The workable night for us was Sunday, at a level we felt appropriate. We joined this league the next day.
Referees and rules. Oh my!
The Luther Hockey Club had been pushed out of the nest and forced to fly. A new chapter began.
The Season Starts: Our First Game
I hadn’t played in a game with a referee for 38 years, since Gerald Ford was president, longer than the lifetimes of half our roster. I am a grizzled graybeard. I know the game, but physically I slide into the ‘I ain’t as good as I once was’ category. I skate slow-ish, but with enthusiasm. My hands are still a little squeaky, but workable. I get to the right spots eventually.
Our non-structured game is more freestyle, possession oriented, and those with speed have a great advantage. The rules honored, but not enforced.
How long would it take us to get comfortable with a structured game? Assimilating would be smooth for the youngsters, but I was curious about the graybeards. Are we taking the right step? Are the pieces in place? Are we ready? Am I ready?
We would soon find out, as the league schedule had been released. We called ourselves the Luther Bulldogs.
Our first game was against something called the Freeze D.
I arrived early to check in, grab the locker room key and open the room. My nerves were growing with every passing moment. I left the locker room to watch the preceding game to smooth out some jitters.
Upon watching this game, I noticed their pace of play was exceptionally quick and the puck movement was very efficient. These guys were good, really good …
I whispered to myself, but loud enough get the attention of a young woman in her 20’s watching the game as well.
She turned and asked if I played next. I responded with a yes, and asked what level this was, assuming her interest was in this game. She said they were a level above ours. The level above ours?
“I play defense” she offered. Nice!
Some small talk, I wished her luck and went back to dress for the game.
Everyone was now dressed and eager to get started. No pre-game words of wisdom, or offerings from the coach. I didn’t want my nerves to be accentuated and broadcast to my fellow team-mates. Like a racehorse in the starting gate, you could feel the energy in the locker room. I was chasing the butterflies in my stomach, and I’m not sure I was alone.
We have played against ourselves, now we play against others.
The puck was dropped, my center Ben Strathman, who has hands like NHL star Pavel Datsyuk, won the first of his many face-offs. I was skating on his right wing that night and had settled myself enough to function. First shift went okay, but second shift not so much.
We had possession in the offensive zone, and I was planted high in the slot. Ben laid a pass on my tape. I not only misfired, I collapsed to the ice like a sandcastle built too close to the water. Not one of my better moments, and I missed another time, but that was my only self-inflicted tumble.
I was, however, tripped in front of their goal, looking for a rebound. Play whistled. I got back up, turned, and sternly commented to the player,
“You tripped me!!”
I could only smile. No penalty called.
Rookie Ben Studley played in his very first organized game of his young career, and played surprisingly poised. Overall, our Bulldogs played pretty solid, and performed much better as game went on.
Reflecting on my first organized game in almost 40 years, I felt I was a little over my head. Always felt a little behind, but played okay. Room for improvement. I did score a goal, but also took a dumb penalty immediately after I scored. Took a hard cross check to the back, then I received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for voicing my displeasure. Mistake. They scored on that power play to ruin the shutout. Well done coach.
Lessons learned? Time will tell.
We won 7-1 going away. Nice first game, but now a bye week.
It’s a Numbers Thing
When we signed up, the league asked for rosters and jersey numbers. When our jerseys came in, the numbers didn’t match what was requested. We sorted it out, recorded numbers, and adjusted official rosters on website.
During the first game, I was sitting on the bench next to Ben Strathman. Ben is one of our better players. I asked him what jersey number he would have requested. He responded with a wry smile, “8”
My number is 8. Really …
Our bye week was over and the next opponent was the K-Boyz.
Before this game, I handed Ben my freshly washed #8 jersey. I wore #6 from that point forward. Nice gesture, happy to do this. I changed the official rosters online and submitted.
Didn’t give it another thought.
Regular Season Roller Coaster
We lost our second game by the score of 6-1. Connor Beaupre scored our only goal to spoil the shutout. We never gave ourselves a chance to win this game. It was a poor showing overall and we came back to earth quickly. Our hope to go undefeated was put to rest early.
At the end of this game, Joe, one of our better defensemen, stated he was leaving our team to follow his greater passion, hunting. We kind of pushed him to play, so a push back was disappointing, but understood. It left a hole on our blue line. Not a great night.
We lost our third game, second loss in a row, 5-4, and were now 1-2 after 3 games. Better showing, but the wheels were starting to wobble. The transition to structure play was in full-stride and we were losing pace due to some inconsistencies that would show at inopportune times. I thought just growing pains. We keep pushing forward, as there was progress, but I was worried team confidence may start to wane.
Our next four games were against the top four teams in the standings to date, a very critical point of the season.
The Bulldogs went 2-1-1 in that stretch, including a 4-4 tie against the first place team. Mike Beyl was stingy in goal. Studley scored his first goal in organized hockey in this game, and it was a clean one. He had a pretty lively celebration. We don’t usually celebrate after goals in this league, but he earned it.
I was skating by the opposing bench for the change, and I heard a couple chirps toward Studley.
“Wow! Impressive!” “Way to go!”
“First goal” I offered. The comments stopped, they understood.
Number Issue Surfaces
The leagues website didn’t update for the Archer and Strathman number change.
Every time Ben Strathman would score, I would get credit. The referees were referencing an outdated roster. He was our best goal scorer, so I looked far better on the stats sheet that I was in reality.
One game, Strathman scored a natural hat trick and we won 3-0, shutout credit to Beaupre who was in goal that night. I was credited with all 3 goals, and listed in the league leaders for goals and points.
Some rumored I did this on purpose. I can neither confirm nor deny such allegations! I eventually called Brandon Koontz and it was fixed quickly.
Eventual credit where credit is eventually due.
Worst Hockey Memory of the Season
The dark cloud on an otherwise sunny day …
The last game of that four-game stretch was a 10-3 loss. They moved the puck against us like the ’85 Oilers, and we were missing a top player in Brandon Blommer on defense. He is a vital cog to our Bulldog team. We gave an honest effort and played a respectful game, but lost … by a touchdown.
We didn’t appreciate the condescending comments offered in the handshake line after this game.
“No competition” “easy game” “find another hobby”
Very poor sportsmanship, but it made us angry enough to unleash an edge to our game. We took that negative and made it a positive; a motivating force.
We were now 3-3-1 and had three left to play before playoffs. We had a better focus and a renewed energy as we could sense the finish line.
The Bulldogs finished the season on a three-game win streak, while outscoring our opponents 24-12 in those games. We now had a consistent structure to our game. Because of our strong finish, we ended in third place and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed.
Playoffs are Uncharted Waters
After the brackets were posted, I quickly looked to who the #2 seed was across our bracket. It happened to be the team the beat us four weeks earlier by a touchdown.
We were a better team than we showed that night. We had to take care of our business and win the first game, to get our chance to avenge that loss.
We had some challenges.
Defenseman Greg Goodman (hamstring), and D Derek Rosstedt (wrist injury), would miss all games moving forward.
We were now short two defenseman. Blommer, Steve Miller, Mike McAlpin, and Lee Kirby are very good defensemen, but we needed to devise a contingency plan to offer some possible help. I planned on moving Beyl from goal to defense, and Beaupre from forward into our goal.
A backup plan would be that Matt Snaza or Justin Skyberg, both speedy forwards with good sticks, could play defense if needed, same with Philip Klanderud. He is an experienced and versatile option. They are good forwards that would only be moved in a pinch. I was thinking we were set. Let’s roll.
The No. 2 seeded team happened to be playing before our first game, our next opponent if we won our upcoming contest. This team won their game against a pretty good team 10-2. They came right up the middle of the ice, found the open shot, and finished often.
Our playoff opponent was the team that we defeated earlier in the regular season by a score of 3-2, courtesy of a late goal with 12 seconds left in regulation time by Sorem. We knew they could skate with us.
We won our first playoff game in a tense shootout by an identical 3-2 score. Blommer converted our third chance to move us into the next round. Beaupre in goal made some key saves and was a wall in the shootout. Without his solid play in goal, our storybook tale would have ended that night.
Our Bulldogs had now won four in a row, and were slated to face the offensive bully on the playground. We got the bloody nose last encounter, but we are eager to counterpunch.
We would need the best we could offer to have a chance to win and advance.
The Gentle Bart of Persuasion.
I called on Joe Wanshura, the defenseman that left our team after the second game. I firmly requested he join us for this game. I was successful, he agreed to play. We kept it a secret from the team, so when he showed up, my thought was this would generate positive energy before the game. He is popular, and it worked as planned. Any nerves we may have possessed were now steadied. Confidence filled the room.
I shared with the group to ‘protect the middle of the ice, congest the lanes, and attack with the puck.’ Not breaking any new ground, but if we were successful at these keys, we would give ourselves a good chance for success.
Beaupre is a terrific forward and goaltender, but we thought having him in net would give us the best chance to win. Beyl had done a great job in nets, but we needed another solid defender. I wanted his size and strength in front of our net. I thought this was our best option.
I had done as much before this game as I could; now it was time to take the ice. We were ready.
Let’s Play Hockey!
We got out to an early lead as Strathman scored on the first shift and really settled us down and put them on notice. Our defense controlled of the middle ice and the forwards attacked.
So far, so good.
Our Bulldogs led 4-1 after 2 periods, and our opponents started using their mouths and sticks more than their skates. They began to play a bit chippy.
They scored a goal to cut it to 4-2, but they could not gather their focus soon enough, as Wanshura floated a 175 footer into an empty net to seal our victory.
Their team was far more respectful in the handshake line this time through.
We had avenged our previous embarrassment and now looked forward to playing the undefeated, first-place team for the championship. For our first year in the league, I felt playing for championship was quite an accomplishment.
This team we were slated to play in the title game had been tied twice this year for their only blemishes. We owned one of those ties, but that was then, this was now. We were not planning a parade route, but we did have confidence we would challenge this talented team.
No status changes, as Goodman and Rosstedt were still unavailable, but our Bulldogs were playing their best hockey of the year. This wais what we optimistically envisioned when we joined.
We had earned the opportunity to play against the first place, undefeated, No. 1 seed Mighty D’s. We have respect for this team, as they seemed to play a respectful brand of hockey, with talented players up and down its roster. We had only played them once, and they had to come back on the power play to tie us 4-4.
We felt like we could beat anybody at this point and were eager to get going.
Our locker room was a little quieter before this game than others. It was not nerves, I would label it focus. We have come so far, we were one win away from storybook status.
Time to Answer the Bell.
From the first drop of the puck, the pace of play was torrid. If there were any pre-game nerves, they would soon be gone.
Sorem and Blommer scored in the first period for a 2-0 lead. Our pace was steady, our positioning solid. We were in control of this game and our emotions.
Again, so far, so good.
Strathman added another tally early in the second period, as our lead buildt to 3-0. Beaupre, solid in goal, defense active, and forwards possessing the puck; this was the best we had played all year. They did net one before the close of the period to cut the lead to 3-1. We were aware, but it didn’t shake us.
Strathman scored another to start the third period, and our three-goal cushion was back.
As the game clock continued to click, our opponents started to squeeze their sticks and use their mouths more than their blades. They were not used to playing catch up and seemed out of their element.
They scored a goal to cut the lead to 4-2. We started to get concerned, but game history and the clock was working to our advantage, until the whistle blew after a scrum in front of our goal.
It was not a good turn of events for the Bulldogs.
The men in stripes afforded our opponents a 5-on-3 advantage in the last three minutes of this championship game. This biased coach’s opinion thought it should have been coincidental penalties or, worst case, one man down.
My argument fell on deaf ears with no explanation given.
We gave up a power-play goal pretty quickly and now found ourselves protecting a one goal lead, still shorthanded. The clock had moved pretty quick up to this point, but wasn’t moving very quickly now.
We were surviving, but the last 25 seconds became very intense. Several shots on goal, Beaupre made several challenging saves, including a diving paddle save on what should have been the tying goal.
Our bodies littered the ice, protecting the front of our net. On their last and final push in the closing seconds, I blocked a centering pass with my body as time ran out. The buzzer sounded and the game was final. We had won 4-3; a cumulative sigh of relief from our team, disappointment from our opponents.
The Luther Bulldogs were League Champions.
The scrappy bunch from VMIA, now the Luther Bulldogs, won the league championship. We were a little disappointed that only five of their 15 players stayed for the handshake line, but this was their first defeat of the season so they may not have been too familiar with sportsmanship and humility.
There were no streamers or confetti that fell from the rafters. We didn’t need the fanfare. We knew we beat the odds, and bested good competition to earn our spot at the top.
When we first conversed about joining a league, we didn’t know what to expect or how we would fare, but took the first step on faith. Our goal was to just keep playing hockey. We grabbed the brass ring, reached well past our expectations and any goals that may have been made.
How ‘Bout Them Bulldogs!!
The Adult League at NSC was everything this humble group from VMIA had hoped.
It is tabbed a ‘beer league’ by outsiders, which I understand but think misguided. There are many very talented players on several teams, including ours.
With success comes expectations. Moving forward, expectations will be raised going into winter league, as we will not be taking any team by surprise. We are continuing in the same league for winter, but changed our team name to the LynLake Brewers for our next chapter. This name should make us pretty popular in this “Beer” League. We may give coupons in the handshake line!
Put a Bow on This Season
Thank you to all the members of the Luther Bulldogs for your efforts and perseverance, including forward Matt Mannella, who contributed to a very special memory. Thank you to Mark Morcomb, and Luther Automotive for their support. Special thanks to Brandon Koontz at NSC for helping us through the process and providing a great league to participate in.
It was a cumulative effort from many people to make this season successful. From the young guns, to the middles, to the graybeards, this is a hockey memory we were happy to experience, and now to share with you.
I hope you enjoyed our story.