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Posted by Guest (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 1/6/2013 6:16:58 PM

By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal Correspondent

Everyone knows Minnesota is the State of Hockey. One of the iconic Minnesota hockey rinks is Braemar Arena, home of the Edina Hornets. Located off of Ikola Way -- named after another Minnesota hockey icon, former Edina coach Willard Ikola -- the arena has been home to 10 state championships and most years has been a nightmare for opposing teams. Friday night, Braemar was host to a girls’ hockey doubleheader featuring four of the top 11 teams in the Let’s Play Hockey rankings. Like most nights, however, that was not all that was going on at Edina’s landmark arena.

After watching the conclusion of the second-ranked Minnetonka Skippers’ 1-0 victory over 11th-ranked Hopkins, I sat down with longtime Edina hockey player and supporter Dean Williamson. We talked everything Hornets hockey and Braemar Arena.

Williamson, who played for the Hornets and the Minnesota Gophers, now has two kids in the Hornets’ system, including Taylor, a key contributor on the girls’ team who would start their game a few minutes after our conversation. Williamson was born in Edina and started playing in the youth program in 1972. After getting married he moved back to his hometown and has been involved in Edina hockey ever since.

Braemar was built in 1965, at the time consisting of the main rink that the varsity teams play on. Two years later a second rink was added and about 15 years ago a third rink was built. Williamson feels the notoriety of the rink started very early in its history.

“It probably gained a lot of its notoriety in 1969,” said Williamson. “It was a key time in Edina history where the Edina program was becoming a powerhouse. Edina had that classic game against Warroad and that big town, small town thing. It was a one-of-a-kind rink at the time and with the strong history it became such a popular rink.”

The success of the program allowed the legend of Braemar to grow.

“Every time Edina played, the place was packed,” said Williamson. “They had such marquee matchups here. You get so many big games that it becomes sort of a focal point.”
From Williamson’s point of view, a consistent coaching staff has been one of the biggest keys to the success of the Edina program. The program has had just three head coaches since Ikola started in 1958.

“Willard Ikola came. He taught in the school. He coached the players and then he coached the players’ sons. He had success, but everyone has that connection to Willard. He was the common tie everyone had. At the same time he understood the game and a style he liked to watch and have his teams play.”

The girls program has started to come into its own over the last few years in part because of that same consistency. For a few years they went through a number of coaches, but current head coach Laura Slominski has stabilized the head position and in turn stabilized the program. Slominski and her staff have not only given the program consistency, they have also excelled. They have advanced to the state tournament each of the staff’s first four years.

On this night the seventh-ranked Hornets took on the third-ranked Eden Prairie Eagles. A close game throughout, it featured great play in goal by both Edina’s Boomer Sonnek and Eden Prairie’s McKenzie Johnson. In the first period the Hornets outplayed the higher-ranked Eagles but Johnson was spectacular, just giving up one goal in the period. It took a turnover at the blue line and an odd man rush to have Sarah Nielsen, assisted by Taylor Williamson, get a puck past Johnson.

In the second period Edina quickly went on top 2-1 on a power-play goal just 30 seconds into the period. This time it was Jackie Pieper jamming home the short shot with Williamson picking up her second assist. After that it was all Eagles, but Sonnek was spectacular in goal, twice coming across the crease to make a big save on what looked like sure game-tying goals.

The third period was the most evenly played period, but neither team was able to get on the scoreboard. The star group of the period was the Hornets’ penalty kill. The Eagles had multiple power plays in the second and especially in the third period, but backed by Sonnek, they were able to kill off every penalty, which keyed the 2-1 victory.

No different from any other classic athletic arena, Braemar has its share of oddities that make it stand out. Until this season the rink didn’t have high school locker rooms.

“They were like jail cells,” said Williamson. “The high school kids had to get dressed at school, grab their bags and come to the rink. Those never changed until this September when construction started on the locker rooms here.”

A local man named Eric Anderson spearheaded a push to build locker room facilities at Braemar. Both public and private sectors of the community came together and got it done and for the first time in its history, Braemar has locker rooms for the high school teams.

“Not a lot of rinks have seating all the way around,” continued Williamson. “A lot of the rinks have one-sided and maybe two-sided seating. Now (at Braemar) you have the ability to watch 360 degrees around the rink. When you get a full rink the atmosphere is just electric. It is a nice, close, cozy atmosphere.

“The ceiling height is lower than normal,” concluded the former Gopher. “You will get a lot of pucks that go into (the ceiling) and vanish, never to be seen again. There is a silver reflective roof, but if you get a puck lobbed up it will get up there and never come down. I am sure there are a couple hundred pucks that are lodged up in the ceiling.”

The biggest push to improve Braemar is to continue to put more Hornets hockey history in the rink. They added a beautiful mural about four years ago, honoring the state championship teams of the past. They are currently working on a sort of Hall of Fame-type of wall with all of the former Edina players who spent time at either the Division I college level or in the National Hockey League.

A few years ago general manager Suzie Miller noticed a practical improvement that has really enhanced the community feel of the rink.

“You come in now and there are tables, there is wifi, there are computers, there are kids running around. It is nice to see that life come back to Braemar,” said Williamson. “So many people come to the rink to drop off their kid and they have an hour practice; it is kind of tough to go anywhere and come back. Part of (Miller’s) thought was ‘how do I make it a cozy atmosphere for people that want to come’? So she made a lot of improvements in that respect. It has created a whole new community in itself.”

There are close to 70 teams, from Mites to high school, in the Edina association. The arena – even before the additional Hall of Fame-type of improvements – is a tribute to the lifeblood of the Edina hockey legacy and the lifeblood of Braemar. Every team and every player in the association, from the varsity on down, has their picture on the wall.

During the first varsity game of the doubleheader, there were two other games going on in the other rinks featuring younger players. That is really the heart of Braemar. Sure they have seen their share of championships and glory at the highest high school level, but the pulse of this iconic place can be seen on the two smaller rinks and the heart of Edina’s hockey success.


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