WARROAD, Minn. — It’s 9 p.m. on a Monday. The stands are packed at the Gardens, an Olympic-size hockey arena in this small Minnesota town, just six miles from the Canadian border.
Cheers and jeers echo through the building, as brass bands from area high schools churn out rousing pop tunes and John Philip Sousa marches. The crowd claps along, shouting encouragement at the two high school girls’ teams on the ice. When the hometown Warroad Warriors score a goal, pandemonium erupts.
Welcome to Hockeytown, USA. Hockey may not be America’s game. That label sits more comfortably with football, baseball or basketball. But it’s Warroad’s game, something the entire community enjoys, almost to the point of obsession.
“It’s a way of life,” said Jay Hardwick, former senior player and high school coach. “Everyone — just about everyone — plays. And they’re at the rink all the time. You can get the whole town into this arena. Sometimes it seems like there are more people here than there are at home.”
Warroad has another claim to its title, to hockey fame. Since 1956, it’s been home to eight Team USA Olympic hockey players — seven of them silver or gold medalists. According to local sports lore, that’s more per capita than any other community in the world. Put another way, it’s proportional to nearly 35,000 residents of New York City winning medals in an Olympic sport over the years.
Two of those Olympians are part of Team USA in Sochi, Russia, this year. T.J. Oshie, 27, is with the men’s team. His fellow Warroad High School alum, 26-year-old Gigi Marvin, plays for the American women’s squad.
“It’s so incredible, having T.J. in Russia this year,” said Oshie’s proud father, Timothy. “We’re such a hockey family. I played, my father and uncles and grandfather all played. This is the ultimate for us, watching our T.J. represent his country.”
T.J. Oshie also plays for the St. Louis Blues in the professional National Hockey League. Marvin is a star player at the University of Minnesota, one of the top college hockey teams in the U.S. Literally dozens of young men and women from Warroad have gone on from their hometown arenas to play for university, professional and national teams.
So what is it about this pleasant town between the plains of the Midwest and the vast northern expanse of Lake of the Woods? What makes it produce so many top-quality hockey players?
That depends on whether the person you’re asking wants to crack a joke or give you their serious opinion.
“It’s kind of a quiet place to live,” said Gordon Christian, a 1956 silver medalist from the Olympics in Turin, Italy. “Not that much to do, at least back in my day. So we played hockey.”
David Marvin, Gigi’s uncle and coach of the high school girls’ hockey team, takes a more scientific approach.
“I call it the environment,” Marvin said. “Do you have the support from the fans, do you have the tradition, do you have places to play, do you have the will to work hard and a community behind you? We have all of that.”
The town also offers free skating to all children, and doesn’t regiment the time they spend on the ice. At arenas elsewhere, an hour playing pickup hockey or just whirling around the ice on skates can cost hundreds of dollars.
The town continues to send hockey players to the Olympics.
“Free ice time is important,” said Marvin. “It gets the kids hooked early.”
Henry Boucha knows all about having your fellow townspeople behind you. A member of a local Ojibwa Indian community, Boucha grew up playing hockey in Warroad in the 1960s and found himself on Team USA going to Sapporo, Japan, for the 1972 Winter Olympics. Then something happened that still brings a tear to his eye.
“Just before the opening ceremony, I got this telegram. It was more than 6 feet long, a huge piece of paper. Everyone in Warroad, the whole town, they all signed it,” said Boucha. “That little town so far away, and there they were, wishing me well in Japan.”
These days, the still-fit 62-year-old goes around hockey rinks in Minnesota, selling his autobiography, "Henry Boucha, Ojibwa.” As a Native American, he is proud of his heritage and his hockey career, and the book is a moving tale of both.
“I’ve identified other Native American Olympians — at least 14 of them — and I want to write their stories next,” he said. “Because it’s all about dignity, achievement and pride. It can really inspire the youth of today."
At Warroad’s Heritage Center, a hockey display takes pride of place alongside information on the area’s native people and the 18th century North American fur trade. There are pictures of Boucha, Gordon Christian and other famous local hockey players.
The curator is Beth Marvin — whose late husband, Cal, is a member of the USA Hockey Hall of Fame, honored for his role as an organizer, coach and national team manager.
Now 89, and still spending every weekday afternoon at her beloved museum, Beth Marvin looks back on decades of having hockey at the center of her life.
“Well, you can hardly avoid it around here,” she said.