The year is 1990, in Minnesota, girls were either playing hockey on boys teams or with girls teams that usually got on the ice really early in the morning, or really, really late at night.
Thanks in part to Title IX, girls ice hockey in Minnesota was growing faster than rinks could be built. Girls had to be given the same amount of ice time as boys, at a time when more rinks were needed, and many existing rinks were badly in need of updates.
To address the issue, legislation was introduced at the state capital called the Mighty Ducks Grant Program, referencing a rag-tag hockey team from the 1992 film “The Mighty Ducks.”
“‘Mighty Ducks’ was a plan to build more rinks so the success of girls hockey didn’t come at the expense of boys hockey,” says former Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) Executive Director Paul Erickson. “And the only way to get a win-win was to build more rinks.”
Erickson proposed an innovative approach to the problem by building four rinks at the National Sports Center (NSC), where he also served as Executive Director.
Super Rink Senior Director Pete Carlson recalls the concept clearly. “Instead of all these separate entities paying $2-3 million to add a new ice sheet, the idea was to have each of them pitch in $500,000 to the NSC Super Rink idea, and with that they would also receive a Mighty Ducks grant, providing the startup money for a $12 million project.”
The city of Blaine, which already had Fogerty Arena, was in since the NSC was located right in their back yard. But Coon Rapids was interested, as was Centennial Area, and so was Ramsey County, who already managed 11 arenas and was looking at adding a 12th.
The deal would require some cities to spend a half-million dollars outside their border, and one county had to be convinced to spend their allotted money in a neighboring county. As you might expect, getting city council members to spend allocated funding outside city limits generated more than a little opposition. Enter the Super Rink’s no-too-secret weapon…
Herb Brooks, former North Stars, University of Minnesota, and U.S. Olympic Hockey Coach, the architect of the legendary ‘Miracle On Ice,’ upset of the Soviet Red Army team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic games, was on the MASC Board of Directors at the time.
Brooks attended several city council meetings to make the closing argument, and let’s just say that he was awfully persuasive.
“When Herb went and talked about the Super Rink being built, nobody could argue with him,” says Carlson. “I mean, who WAS going to argue with Herb, you know? No one, and he was a big part, and a big reason why the Super Rink was built.”
The result of that deal is what we know today as the Super Rink: eight sheets of ice under one roof, drawing nearly two million people annually to the National Sports Center, in Blaine, Minnesota, and if it wasn’t for girls hockey, it would never had been built.
Even though the Super Rink opened in 1998, the All-American Girls Hockey Tournament was established four years earlier in 1994 and was held at multiple ice rinks around the Twin Cities area. (Carlee Hackl/NSC)
What the Super Rink brought, beyond equal ice time, was the creation of the All-American Girls Hockey Tournament. An all-girls tournament on a large-scale basis, something that had never been done before.
“It was just such an eye-opening experience because unfortunately at that time girls hockey was this thing, and it was getting bigger, but it wasn’t well known,” says Minnesota Whitecaps forward Ally Thunstrom. “To go to that tournament where it’s so focused on only girls and people aren’t staring at me because, ‘oh wow, that boy just took his helmet off and it’s actually a girl,’ was really eye-opening, and it was a really cool experience for me.”
Ultimately, the initial Mighty Ducks Program saw a total state investment of $18.4 million. 79 grants were awarded for new arenas, producing 61 new sheets of ice, while 74 grants were awarded for the renovation of existing arenas.
As for the long-term affect, as of 2017-18, Minnesota had 3,000 more girls playing than the next closest state, Massachusetts, and one-in-five female hockey players in the U.S. live and play in Minnesota.
And, the Super Rink?
“Now, looking back, the plan has worked,” says Carlson. “There was a clause in there that said, if the Super Rink didn’t work, if it didn’t make it, or if it didn’t reach its budget, there was a trigger that we could go back and ask for help from those cities or the county, and we’ve never had to do that, and we pride ourselves on that, and that is what a true partnership is, and it was definitely a win-win for everybody and a pretty good deal.”
This November the Super Rink will host 62 teams from four states and two Canadian provinces for the 27th edition of the All-American Girls Hockey Tournament.
At a time when Minnesota continues to produce more men’s Division I and NHL hockey players than any other state, women’s hockey now holds a similar distinction, and the Minnesota Whitecaps, boasting an almost all-Minnesota roster, are the reigning NWHL champions.
Now that the Mighty Ducks program has created equal opportunity, and the Super Rink has become the home for major tournaments for both sexes, the last remaining barrier is giving women the support to play hockey as full-time professionals.
While that might have been unimaginable back in the 1990’s, it now seems to be coming into reach, at least in Minnesota.