Finding a Minnesotan who isn’t aware of the joy and important life lessons linked to hockey can be a tall task. An equally difficult venture would be finding someone who wasn’t aware of the sports’ rising costs.
With ice time now regularly exceeding hundreds of dollars per hour, and the combination of new hockey skates and a stick resembling a semester’s worth of 1980’s college tuition, financial barriers have prevented some players from even trying, much less enjoying, the game.
Yet in Bemidji, the 2019 site of Hockey Day Minnesota, a unique sponsorship program has ensured hockey is made affordable for youth players, resulting in a steady rise of player participation.
Dating back to the inception of Hockey Day Minnesota in 2007, the event has been about celebrating local communities and their efforts to grow the game, making the hockey hotbed of Bemidji a perfect host for what is perhaps Minnesota’s most prominent holiday.
“Our numbers in youth hockey have been rising consistently for the past six years at least,” said Bemidji’s Brent Rud, an assistant coach at the Bantam level who also serves as a website coordinator. “Keeping registration costs as low as possible is absolutely critical for getting as many kids into the sport as possible. We have been working on many ways to get kids involved in hockey as cheap as possible.
"Once they try it and fall in love with it, parents figure out ways to keep their kids involved.”
Two-pronged fundraising approach key to low costs
In an effort to ensure affordable participation fees, Bemidji’s hockey sponsorship program, which began at least 10 years ago according to Bemidji Youth Hockey Association President Bruce Hasbargen, includes two major branches of revenue. The first, managed by the Bemidji Community Association Board, comes from the sale of light-up signs around the Bemidji Community Arena rink to local businesses. The second is derived from donations to sponsor particular teams or the entire BYHA by businesses and parents.
Money raised from selling signage is applied to Bemidji Community Arena costs and helps pay for upkeep, electricity and cooling and maintaining ice, while sponsorship funds are applied directly to the BYHA board’s budget. Together, the two revenue sources go a long way in lowering the activity fee for individual families.
We have not raised our rates during the eight years that I’ve been on the board.
- Bemidji Youth Hockey Association president Bruce Hasbargen
Rates for participation are $250 for the Mite level, $425 for the Squirt level and $500 for the Pee Wee and Bantam level and haven’t increased in nearly a decade – a feat that is almost unheard of in many youth associations.
“We have not raised our rates during the eight years that I’ve been on the board,” Hasbargen said. “I think that helps keep it affordable. When we’ve had increases in operating costs, we’ve been trying to not have that increase on the backs of our parents, so I think sponsorships have been very key.”
“At this point, if all the costs had to be incurred by players, then our rates would have to be doubled.”
Both Rud and Hasbargen estimated that the both aspects of the sponsorship program have grown since its creation. They cited the importance of the teamwork and communication between the Bemidji Community Arena board and the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association board. The BCA focuses on selling signs to fill the rink, while the BYHA targets donors and hosts an annual raffle to raise additional funds.
Sponsors get special treatment on association website
The efforts have resulted in close to 100 sign sponsors, team sponsors and donors being listed on the BYHA website. Sponsors are divided into 15 categories on the site based on the type of business (Apparel & Jewelry, Banks & Finance and Hotels & Transportation are three examples of the categories). Each business has a page devoted to it, and those pages include Bemidji-specific text, logos, photos and links.
In the case of the Hampton Inn & Suites, a caption underneath a photo of Alex Ovechkin lets viewers know that employee Melissa lists the Washington Capitals star as her favorite player.
Rud underlined the importance of the close working relationship between the town's youth hockey association and its community association.
“There has to be trust between the two entities that everyone is spending money wisely and keeping costs as low as possible for the good of the game in Bemidji,” Rud said. “Everyone is aware that if costs go up, it becomes harder and harder for some kids to participate. That is the last thing anyone here wants.”
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It’s clear Bemidji loves its hockey. Sponsors for both signs and teams rarely turn over from year to year, and the BCA board no longer has room to place additional signs in the community arena. Due in large part to local business involvement, a second sheet of ice is being built at the BCA rink. This isn’t normal for every community. Rud pointed to the unique size and vibe of the Bemidji hockey community as an enabling factor.
“Bemidji is a unique size,” said Rud about the northern Minnesota town of about 15,000. “We are just big enough to act like a bigger city and have amenities of a regional center, but we are small enough to seem like a small town where everyone pitches in and helps out for the good of the community. That small town feel where you get to know the kids and the people involved in hockey is huge. People feel connected through hockey and it helps us all get through the winters.”
Hosting Hockey Day is a source of pride in Bemidji
As hockey day Minnesota approaches, the tight-knit community in Bemidji is on full display. After the announcement that Bemidji would host the event was made almost a year ago, preparations began almost immediately, and the event has been the talk of the town ever since.
“No matter where I go or on my phone or in an email, I’m talking Hockey Day every day to someone,” said Bemidji's Tracey Pogue, a member of the Hockey Day Minnesota Executive Committee. “We just kicked off 100 days till hockey day on (Fox Sports North), and we had 100 people at a sponsorship only event. Every hotel room sold out in July 48 hours after the announcement. That’s 750 rooms.”
Pogue, who is one of the individuals tasked with the organizing the event, emphasized all that goes into assembling three days of games on the south shore of Lake Bemidji that will captivate Minnesotans from January 17-19. Both the Bemidji State University men’s and women’s teams will play games on the outdoor rink, as will the Bemidji High School boys’ hockey team. All three games on Jan. 18, Hockey Day, will be televised regionally.
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“The day-to-day never ends," Pogue said. "From all of the different committees, to putting the arena together, prepping the ground and working on the sponsorships.
"The biggest thing is the site location. This has been a six-month build. It’s not just hockey games, but we are turning this into a three to four-day festival with VIP events, specialty bars and food trucks.”
Not surprisingly, the hockey day committee has found an abundance of businesses willing to sponsor the event. Over 120 have already committed, 95 percent of which are represented in signs at the community area. Pogue specifically pointed out the tremendous effort that Sanford Health had put in to make the event a reality.
Proceeds of the event will be directed to the benefit of growing hockey locally in Bemidji. Pogue said that although there isn’t a firm estimate of what profits might be generated, any profits would be allocated to growing outdoor hockey in Bemidji.
“We decided that before we took one check, that all proceeds from the event would go to benefiting outdoor hockey in the city of Bemidji,” Pogue said. “We are working very closely with the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association.
“Maybe it’s the seed money of a future project. We want to give the opportunity for young kids who may not get the chance to put on skates to have that opportunity. Somehow, some way we want to get more kids involved in hockey.”
Hockey Day Minnesota kicks off at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 17th. The full schedule can be found at here.