‘Hockeyland’ comes home

Northern Minnesota’s obsessive relationship with hockey has endured since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. For some, the hockey lifestyle defines an entire 20-30 year period of life, perhaps longer as new generations continue the tradition. 

Even those who don’t play hockey see their lives affected by the game. Classrooms empty during state tournaments. Local fast food joints overflow with traffic at odd times in the middle afternoon. And of course, ice time comes as precious as family time, to the degree there is a distinction. For some, success or failure in hockey reflects success or failure in life.

I never played hockey or even learned to skate very well. I went to Cherry, a little school set amid the hay fields east of Hibbing. We didn’t have an arena and most of our three-sport athletes were already busy with the school band and the local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. But when I moved to Hibbing as a young adult the magnetic pull of hockey night couldn’t be ignored. My wife and I sometimes attended high school games even though we didn’t know any of the kids or how the sport worked. We learned quick.

Prior to 1915, Iron Range hockey was a winter novelty, nothing more than a diversion between baseball seasons. Even among winter sports, curling was more popular. The first Iron Range hockey game took place in 1903, but organized hockey didn’t take off until the first arenas were built more than a decade later.

Indoor hockey changed everything. Not only was hockey fun to play when your face didn’t freeze off, but it was tremendously fun to watch. Even more fun than baseball, according to some. 

For perspective, imagine today’s northern Minnesota winters without cell phones, television, radio, or adequate home heating. That’s how much these people needed something to do. Once Range audiences got ahold of hockey, they went nuts. Town baseball teams on the Iron Range went from being among the state’s best to an afterthought as kids started dreaming of the ice rather than the diamond.

And no Range town adopted hockey more aggressively than Eveleth, though others would try. It became clear that big indoor rinks created huge advantages in the recruitment and training of the best talent. And so Range towns began a veritable arms race for the best arena. 

In fact, there may have been political implications. When legendary Hibbing mayor Victor L. Power lost his re-election bid in 1922, one of many reasons was his failure to construct the Memorial Building before Eveleth built the legendary Hippodrome. 

How Eveleth did that became its own political controversy. Power’s sometimes ally and fellow attorney Victor Essling was mayor there. He would face charges for illegal spending on the Hippodrome before the funds were properly levied or allocated. In fact, the governor removed Essling from office and spent weeks railing against his actions. However, later court cases would find that the governor overreached in doing so. Essling covered some of the costs from his own pocket.

In the following election, Eveleth voters returned Essling to the mayor’s chair despite his blatant breech of proper spending protocols. The people wanted hockey, no matter how they got it.

In the 1920s, Eveleth arguably became the epicenter of North American hockey. The Eveleth Junior College team was considered among the best college teams in the country, rivaling the powerhouses at Harvard and Princeton. When the stars from Eveleth all went to St. Cloud State, SCSU became nationally ranked. 

In fact, for the next 50 years, Range towns like Eveleth would develop dynasties that confounded opponents across the state. Today, the tradition remains, but strains from new challenges. The Eveleth Hippodrome just celebrated its 100th anniversary, but will no longer be the home of the local high school hockey team.

That’s the subject of a new documentary called “Hockeyland.” The film premieres in Duluth and on the Range next week and should draw the attention of any true Iron Range hockey fan. 

The film is directed by Tommy Haines, who spent part of his childhood in Mountain Iron.

“We’re so grateful to the families and communities of Hermantown and Eveleth-Gilbert for sharing their season and their lives with us,” said Haines. “These unique Minnesota stories deserve the big screen and we’re excited to bring everyone together for the premiere.” 

The film debuts at the Zeitgeist Zinema 2 in Duluth on Wednesday, Feb. 2 and Thursday, Feb. 3. at 7 p.m.. Both feature a questions and answers session afterward. The Iron Range premiere will be Friday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at the historic Hibbing High School auditorium. A reception will follow that showing at Boomtown Bar and Grill on Howard Street.

After that “Hockeyland” will enter the independent film festival circuit, with stops in Minneapolis, New York, St. Louis, and Missoula, Montana. A theatrical and home viewing release will happen next fall.

I have a small role providing historical perspective in the film. However, the story mostly focuses on the kids from Eveleth-Gilbert and Hermantown as they navigate momentous seasons in the changing landscape of Hockeyland. The film has been well reviewed by publications like The Guardian and Indiewire, the latter of which calls it “A must see … as fresh as a newly Zambonied sheet of ice.”

Northern Minnesota has suffered from hockey fever for more than a century. And though much has changed, that fever seems unlikely to break any time soon.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. I hope it comes to a streaming service soon. I remember reading the Guardian review. I guess the question for me and it connects to all sports “competition” who does and how is the behavior being monitored ? For all those who “make the team” so many are well you know left out. And boys will be boys. I will see the film when it comes available to see if any of this comes up.

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