No home of their own, no problem for state-bound North Branch boys hockey

The North Branch High School boys hockey team celebrates after winning the Section 5A title last Thursday. Photo: courtesy John Olson
The North Branch High School boys hockey team celebrates after winning the Section 5A title last Thursday.

March 04, 2019 10:03 PM

It's still hours before sunrise and most of the community in North Branch remains snugly entrenched in slumber when sophomore Joey Kerchner and his teammates begin what has become a familiar routine throughout the winter months.

"I wake up around 3:50 (a.m.) and I hit the snooze button just to sneak in another nine minutes of sleep," he said. "Then I have to get up and start the car so it's warm."

"I usually pick up some of the guys who live next to me. And we have to be at the high school by 4:30 (a.m.)  if we want to catch the bus. Otherwise, we have to drive ourselves to the arena, which is about 20 minutes away, to get there to start practice at 5:15 (a.m.)."

Welcome to North Branch High School hockey. Where a trusted alarm clock is perhaps as valuable a piece of equipment as a stick or set of skates.

The Vikings do not have a rink of their own to call home. Instead, they share space at Chisago Lakes Ice Arena over 13 miles away in Lindstrom where scheduling considerations often mean early-morning practices well before the school day even begins.

Head coach Matt Cottingham said his team is on the ice before dawn probably two or three times a week over the course of a regular season.

"We usually get there before 5 and turn the lights off for just a couple of minutes to grab a little more sleep before we get out on the ice," fellow sophomore Cody Croal said.

"The first couple of days of the season are really hard. But your body gets used to the schedule. You adjust."

Indeed, the Vikings have not only grown accustomed to the early-morning bus rides, and home games played on another team's home ice.

In recent seasons, they've thrived on it.

"Four years ago, we won eight games - which at the time was the second-most wins in the history of the program," said Cottingham, now in his sixth season as head coach at the school.

"The next year, we won 17. And last season, we won 22 games and made it to the first section final in school history."

This winter, North Branch has gone further still.

With a 3-2 victory over, of all teams, Chisago Lakes in the Section 5A championship game last Thursday in Elk River, the Vikings earned the first state tournament appearance in program history.

Unseeded North Branch (19-7-2) will face No. 2 seed St. Cloud Cathedral (24-4-0) at the relatively late hour (for the Vikings anyway) of 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Class A quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center.

RELATED: KSTP Sports 2019 Boys State Hockey Tournament Central

"It really didn't hit me until the final three seconds when the puck cleared the net and I realized we had actually done it," senior captain Jake Richards said.

"It was an insane feeling. Here we are a team that doesn't even have a rink of our own and we're going to the state tournament."

Rectifying that situation by building a rink inside the school district itself has been a long-term goal in North Branch hockey circles.

Craig Moline, the president of the North Branch Area Hockey Association, said his group has been working to get an arena finished in nearby Stacy for a number of years now.

"It's still a work-in-progress," he said. "That's the best I can tell you. We've gotten work started. But we still have a ways to go."

Working without a city or county partner to share the financing, Moline said the NBAHA has already spent around $600,000 buying the land and beginning construction.

Fundraising efforts continue to raise enough money to complete work on the project.

"We still need about $3.3 million," Moline said. "We can fund about $2 million of that total through loans. But we have to raise the rest of the money ourselves.

"A lot of our fundraising comes through gambling (such as bingo and pull-tabs). And there are rules that govern that. We can't just spend it all on ourselves. A big chunk goes back to the winners, and we have to give back to the community as well.

"So it's been slow."

RELATED: Mahtomedi prepares for boys' state hockey tournament

In the meantime, though, Richards and his teammates haven't let the situation slow them down.

In fact, they've used it as inspiration.

"There's definitely an us-against-the-world feeling we have," he said. "It makes us work even harder. We know we don't have our own rink. But we want to prove to the rest of the state that we're still a really good hockey team."

"[Getting to the state tournament] is such a dream-come-true," added sophomore Tucker Sachs. "I can't even describe what the feeling is like. This is why we put in the hard work all those early mornings. To see it pay off is just amazing."

And the players on this season's team hope their success will help boost the prospects of getting an arena of their own completed.

"I think it will," said senior Justin Sachs, Tucker's older brother. "People see what we're doing and how successful we've been. Just think what more we could do if we had our own arena."

"Growing up watching the state tournament on television, or going there in person, it almost seemed like something we could never hope to achieve," Kerchner added. "But now we have. North Branch is going to be a part of all that. It's a really big deal."

And there are other advantages to still playing this time of the year as well.

"It's pretty easy to get ice time [in Lindstrom] now," Cottingham said with a chuckle. "We're the only team left in that rink."

"It's like a ghost town over there. We can practice at a normal hour."

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