AREA HOCKEY: Pioneers on the pond
From humble beginnings to a powerful program, the history of Marshall boys hockey continues to reach new heights with each step
MARSHALL – Going all the way back to the late 1960s to now, the sport of hockey in the town of Marshall has seen monumental changes coming in the form of new rinks, teams and opportunities in which to participate.
From what began as a group of grade school friends organizing a club team after years of playing on the Redwood River, all the way to playing in a state of the art facility at the Red Baron Arena and Expo, the work of countless volunteers, players and coaches have paved the way for one of Marshall’s most cherished traditions that has no signs of slowing down in the years to come.
Hockey on the
The year was 1968, and the Marshall community was still buzzing from the high school’s cinderella run to a state title in boys hoops in 1963. By and large, hockey was still a niche sport in the area, with roots established in the northern part of the state and into the metro, but opportunities to play in Marshall were few and far between.
With the only existing rinks available being used solely for figure skating, a young Steph Jacobson and a group of his grade school friends took matters into their own hands and migrated to the Redwood River to play.
“They didn’t want you playing hockey on the figure skating rink,” said Jacobson. “We lived right across from Legion Field, and a lot of the kids in that neighborhood on Marleen Street and Parkview just kind of migrated to the river and skated because we didn’t have to fight with the figure skaters and the rink managers to get ice time.”
Upon reaching middle school, the group that was once separated by different elementary schools was now under one roof. United with a love for the sport, the group formed the first hockey club in Marshall that would transform into its first team, the Marshall Hornets.
“There was a bunch of us kids that started skating on the river, and when we got to junior high we were all in one school instead of separate grade schools,” said Jacobson. “We formed a school club, a hockey club.”
Outdoor rinks emerge
Acknowledging the growth of the sport and requests for new facilities to play by the group’s parents, it wasn’t long before a new rink located by the East Side Grade School was built. It was far from perfect and was still outdoors, but it was a step in the right direction.
“I think the first rink that they put up in town was at East Side Grade School, and they put up, not knowing how a hockey rink was shaped, they actually put in square corners instead of rounded corners, but at least we had some boards,” said Jacobson.
In conjunction with the change of scenery came the club’s first year of organized competition, consisting of matchups with some of the neighboring towns.
“We skated there for a year, and then a lot of the parents saw that there was an interest,” said Jacobson. “A lot of the kids were skating/playing hockey so they contacted people from the Parks and Rec, directors from other communities. We’d play Luverne and Pipestone, Adrian, Windom, Redwood Falls and Brookings (who) all had teams and we worked to get some games with them.”
Not long after, another rink was built in Tiger Lake, equipped with more of the features one would expect from a traditional hockey rink–save for the chicken wire.
“I think it was around 1972 that they moved the rink to where the library is now, Tiger Lake,” said Jacobson. “They put up lights and netting in the back with chicken wire and rounded corners.”
After a year of competing against local town teams, the Hornets joined a more competitive league comprised of South Dakota teams in cities like Huron, Brookings, Watertown, Aberdeen and Britton.
It was around that same time that the previously coach-less club received a boost from a Southwest Minnesota State professor named Allan Holmes, who agreed to lead their team and teach them the fundamentals of the game learned from growing up in Canada.
“I guess through discussions with my dad, (Holmes) offered to coach us and so he would have us out on the rink,” said Jacobson. “That was the first time that any of us had been coached in hockey. He’d run us through various drills, most of them skating drills, because skating is really key to the game and for the most part the stick-handling and stuff comes later, so he kind of worked on our skating and positioning. If you see kids skating in mites and mini-mites they basically just follow the puck around as a group and that’s kind of what we did. So he taught us to play your position and passing and that sort of thing.”
In addition to serving as an on-ice instructor, Holmes also chipped in as the team’s chauffeur – towing the Jacobson’s family motor home with the players inside, to and from games.
“My parents owned a motor home and so frequently on the away games coach Holmes would drive,” said Jacobson. “He had a station wagon and then my folks had the motorhome so we’d all pile into that and head over to the game. It’d get a little wild and crazy in there once in awhile, no parental supervision.”
A new crop
After graduating from high school and leaving the Marshall area, Hornet original Jacobson was unsure if the club would remain in existence with the interest level still in question. Thankfully for Jacobson, a new crop of Hornets, including current Marshall resident David Lange, carried on the tradition with the help of the Hornet’s new coach, Dan Benson.
“He really did a lot for Marshall hockey,” said Benson. “If you look back at it Dan put a lot of time into it. If he wouldn’t have been there doing what he did, I don’t really even know if we would have had hockey back then, and to get us competing with other teams from out of town.”
No longer competing with teams in South Dakota, the Hornets relied on Benson to set up games with teams from various towns with indoor rinks like Windom and Willmar. Lange remembers even traveling to places like Rochester and Alexandria for tournaments.
“In 1979 it was club hockey so there really was no conference or anything, you just kind of set up games with other teams,” said Lange. “We went up to an Alexandria tournament (and) played Little Falls and teams like Worthington.”
Still practicing on the outdoor rink located at Tiger Lake, Lange recalls the bitter cold days that usually brought about a frozen beard on coach Benson and even seeing pucks shatter against the boards.
Some days the team wouldn’t even bring pucks due to the poor conditions of the ice, but that would all begin to change with the town’s first indoor rink.
Industrial Park and “The Bubble”
Beginning in the early 1980s, hockey in Marshall took some of its biggest steps in becoming what it is today with the development of indoor rinks. The first of which, located in Industrial Park, was cement-based and had its fair share of issues with ice quality, but having to endure the elements of the outdoors was no longer an issue.
“It was nice that you had an indoor facility, but the ice was pretty chippy because it was on a cement base,” said Lange. “But you were out of the elements which was nice, that was a step up.”
Where the rink in Industrial Park fell short, another rink installed in 1987 took over as the town’s central hub of competitive hockey. The rink was to be enclosed inside of a dome-like structure known as “The Bubble,” and would require another key contributor to the Marshall hockey scene, Pat Foley, to travel to Palatine, Ill. to make the purchase.
“A bunch of us flew in a small plane from here to Palatine, Ill., where a man was selling this thing he called a bubble,” Foley said in a 2014 interview in the Marshall Independent. “It was an air-supported enclosure that was large enough to cover the hockey rink that we also bought as a package deal.”
Once the details of the transaction were complete, the rink and bubble were broken down into loadable pieces and hauled via semi-truck back to the Southwest corner of the state to begin construction.
In charge of financing the Bubble, Foley and the newly formed Marshall Amateur Hockey Association used money collected from pull tabs (a legalized form of gambling at the time) at local events to pay for the structure.
“I was the one who handled the financing for the bubble,” Foley said in the same interview. “The man in Palatine would call and ask if we could swing a payment of $3,000. I told him that we had $2,000 and that I would send him a check, even though we had enough money to pay for the entire sum.”
For close to the next decade, the Bubble served as the town’s go-to rink with the bulk of the youth and junior gold games being played there. The Bubble was replaced by the Lockwood Motors rink in 1994 and the first game played there came in 1995.
End of an era,
After years of participating at the junior gold level, the Marshall Hornets transformed into the high school sanctioned Marshall Tigers in 1997, where they began competition in the Minnesota State High School League at the friendly confines of the Lockwood Motors rink. Over the course of time, the Tigers program would grow in size and even make the state tournament for the first time in program history in 2013.
Flash forward to 2019 and the Tiger program is thriving not only at the high school level, but at the youth level as well, with competitive teams and a state of the art rink to play in at the Red Baron Arena. Needless to say the evolution of hockey in Marshall has been monumental, and it was through the efforts of players, parents, coaches and volunteers that made it all possible.