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Three Keys to Building a 'Winning' Program


With so many willing volunteers, the Edina Hockey Association is able to ensure that every athlete — regardless of skill level — will be placed on a team and have a chance to compete.

The sports landscape is shifting, and communities and organizations are struggling to delicately balance how to define “success.”

Is the overarching goal hearts or hardware?

Regardless of the community, sport or measure, Edina, Minnesota, seems to be “winning” on every front. Its youth hockey program consistently wins titles across gender lines and age levels, relishes exemplary indoor and outdoor facilities and thousands of coaches, players and volunteers who have powered the program for six decades.

Here are three keys to Edina’s success:

Keep your eye on the prize
“It’s all about the kids.” That is one of the most cliche — and disingenuous — statements uttered in youth sports.

Steve Velner, the outgoing president of Edina Hockey Association, insists that one of the strengths of the program is the consistency of landing coaches and volunteers who put the young athletes first.

After a distinguished playing career that included an Olympic silver medal, Willard Ikola brought the hockey program at Edina High School to unprecedented heights, eventually winning 616 games and leading the school to eight state titles.

But when asked about his coaching record, Ikola modestly said, “I never scored a goal or prevented one either.

“All the credit for our success belongs to the kids.”

Ikola wanted to shape young men, not just elite hockey players. That is why he encouraged his players to fish and swim in the summertime and play football in the fall or run track in the spring.

“Really, four months of hockey is plenty,” Ikola once told Sports Illustrated.

With so many willing volunteers, the Edina Hockey Association is able to ensure that every athlete — regardless of skill level — will be placed on a team and have a chance to compete.

The tradition of coaches who put the kids first has been consistent, Velner says.

He rattled off the names of four coaches in the program whose kids had long since aged out and one who didn’t have any children to begin with.

“One of the things that have made Edina hockey great are the adults who have given to the organization who are not parents,” Velner says. “It’s a cultural thing in Edina.”

Foster fun
Mike Vorlicky has already committed to play Division I hockey at the University of Wisconsin. But the Edina High School standout defender says his favorite memories from childhood were playing at outdoor rinks around Edina.

“I would go with my buddies, and we’d hang out all day,” Vorlicky says. “Dads and their buddies would be playing and have a fire and food. And when you play outdoors, you don’t worry about rules and just have a lot of fun.”

Edina Parks and Recreation maintains 12 outdoor rinks throughout the winter.

Rick Barnes was a longtime youth coach, and he kept coming out year after year because he had so much fun.

“It’s almost a social activity,” Barnes says. “Whether [the playing level is] A, B or C, you still play and have fun. Besides, we’re all here for the same reason: Have a lot of fun and win a lot of games.”

Find win-win partnerships 
Edina is an affluent Minneapolis suburb, and hockey is undoubtedly an expensive sport, from ice time to equipment. But the Edina Hockey Association does a remarkable job of attracting — and keeping — sponsors.

Teams can be sponsored for between $1,550 and $1,750, which entitles the sponsor to placement on jerseys and billboards at Braemar Arena, as well as on banners, brochures and on the website, not to mention general access to its 800-plus families.

The association details all of the sponsorship benefits in a 13-page document and provides a streamlined process for payment and deliverables. In addition, the association has a financial aid program, including two scholarships for athletes who are in military families.

In 2017, EHA netted about $150,000 in sponsorship revenue.

Sports in this article

Ice Hockey