South Dakota is a unique state in the world of hockey.
South Dakota and Illinois are the only states that are home to teams in the Central Hockey League (Rapid City Rush), the United States Hockey League (Sioux Falls Stampede) and North American Hockey League (Aberdeen Wings). Even though South Dakota has three leagues, it does not have an NCAA collegiate men’s hockey program.
Of course, Illinois can one up us — it not only has CHL (Bloomington and Moline), USHL (Bensenville) and NAHL (Rolling Meadows and Springfield) teams, but a National Hockey League team as well.
Illinois also is home to the NHL defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Founded in 1926, the Blackhawks are one of the original six NHL teams. The Blackhawks were honored at the White House this weekend.
The NAHL for unpaid players ages 16-20 trying to earn college scholarships or minor league contracts has 26 teams in 13 states and Canada. Michigan is slated to get its fifth NAHL team this fall, when the Kalamazoo franchise will join teams in Flint, Trenton, Fort Gratiot and Traverse City. There is also talk of a new NAHL team in Brookings.
The USHL for unpaid players ages 16-20 trying to earn college scholarships or minor league contracts has 16 teams in nine states. The professional, minor-league CHL has 18 teams in 12 states. The ultimate level for any hockey player, the NHL, has 30 teams in 17 states, Canada and the District of Columbia.
39th annual tourney
Boys’ hockey is a relatively new sport in South Dakota when compared to some of its neighboring states. The 39th annual South Dakota boys’ hockey varsity state tournament is being played this weekend at the Odde Ice Center in Aberdeen. The first South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association boys’ state title was won by Huron in 1972.
High school boys’ hockey in Minnesota dates back to the 1930s; about 25 schools were on record as having teams. Minnesota organized its first high school state tourney in 1945 (Eveleth beat Thief River Falls 4-3). Minnesota is playing its 67th annual boys’ tourney this weekend in the Twin Cities at the Xcel Energy Center and Mariucci Arena.
The first boys’ hockey state competition in North Dakota took place in 1961 and was won by Grand Forks Central. Grand Forks Central holds the most boys' titles (25).
With boys’ hockey up and running, South Dakota was right in the mix from the beginning when girls’ hockey caught fire in the Midwest. South Dakota’s first girls’ state title in 1999 was won by the Sioux Falls Flyers.
Girls’ hockey in Minnesota started state tournaments in 1995 (Apple Valley beat South St. Paul 2-0). Now, the Minnesota girls’ state tourney will draw about 20,000 fans.
The first girls’ hockey state competition in North Dakota took place in 2003. The first state champions were Fargo South.
The Wings, Stampede and Rush hockey teams have helped grow hockey in their respective communities of Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Rapid City as well as the entire state.
Because attendance has been strong at Wings’ games at the Odde in Aberdeen, there has already been talk about expanding capacity at the Odde. However, nothing has been finalized.
The first-year Wings have averaged 1,036 fans per game through 25 home nights. That's in the top half of the North American Hockey League. With a record crowd of 1,470 March 5at Odde Ice Center to watch Aberdeen play Alexandria, some fans had to stand around the rink and watch the action because all the seats were full.
Considerably more kids have shown an interest in hockey because of the Wings, said Aberdeen Cougars’ boys’ coach Steve Salwei.
“The impact the Wings have had on the (Aberdeen Hockey) Association has been tremendous as far as getting the bigger numbers at the lower levels, the developmental levels.”
Rapid City rising
Rapid City hockey is on the rise too, thanks to several factors.
One of the factors is the arrival of varsity boys’ coach Dick Novak. The Rushmore boys won not only the varsity boys’ tourney last season, they have won some of the other sub-varsity state tourneys over the last two years.
The Rushmore boys’ varsity was winless the season before Novak took over the head coaching duties in 2007. In Novak’s first year, Rushmore went 4-20 and then 8-13-3 in 2008-09 before winning its state title last year. The youth hockey program started in Rapid City in 2000 followed by the boys’ varsity in 2002 and the girls’ varsity in 2003.
However, Novak, who played high school hockey in St. Paul, Minn., deflected the credit of hockey growth in Rapid City to others in the program and the Rapid City Rush.
“It definitely helps to have three indoor rinks in town,” he said.
The Rush stunned the Central Hockey League by winning that 2010 league title in only its second year in existence.
“Having the Rush here in Rapid City has been huge for hockey,” Novak said. “They have really increased the exposure of hockey here, especially among our young kids. Aberdeen has experienced that same thing with the Wings."
“Our pee wee and mite numbers are booming,” Novak continued. “Hockey is doing well here, and we have a lot of room to grow. But we are going ahead, unlike some associations.”
After winning back-to-back boys’ varsity state tourneys in 2008 and 2009, the Sioux Falls Flyers took their game to the next level in the 2009-10 season.
The Flyers joined the Midwest High School Hockey League. The 14-team league is comprised of upper level teams from three other states: Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.
The league started in 1976.
Last year, the Flyers finished with a 23-9 record and fifth in the league. They were also the first inaugural Midwest League team to qualify for the league’s post-season tournament.
This year, the Flyers were 20-10-2 to finish sixth. They qualified for the tourney again, but instead of losing all three tourney games like they did last year, the Flyers won the consolation championship.
The Sioux Falls junior varsity team finished with a 22-7-3 record to finish fourth in the Midwest League’s JV division. The JV Flyers finished sixth in this year’s MHSHL state junior varsity tourney.
With Sioux Falls being the biggest city in the biggest county (169,468 residents in Minnehaha County) by far in South Dakota, Sioux Falls has proven it can compete on both levels of the prestigious Midwest League. However, its varsity team in the South Dakota Amateur Hockey League has struggled this season.
“It has been tough because the Sioux Falls team for the Midwest League had the first picks for their varsity,” said Dan Byron, coach of the Flyers team in Aberdeen this weekend. “They have a lot of talent."
“We had the second pick of kids, but kids could choose whether they wanted to play junior varsity for the Midwest League team or play for us. A lot of kids, including some of the seniors, chose to play at the junior varsity level in the Midwest League rather than starting on the varsity for us. A lot of those JV kids would have been top liners for us.”
Byron said there is a learning curve, and Sioux Falls hockey is working through the process.
“Next year, I think we will have a better tryout process and understanding of what we need to do.”
John Papendick is the managing news-sports editor for the American News. Readers tell and e-mail him with stuff plus he reads all the daily newspapers in South Dakota on a daily basis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: aberdeensports.net/inthehuddle.
South Dakota hockey in rare air with 3 leagues, unique history
South Dakota is a unique state in the world of hockey.