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It takes a village of volunteers to make a junior hockey team work

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By Jamie Lund

Just like high school sports, including hockey, rely on volunteers to make an event happen, so does Cloquet’s Minnesota Wilderness NAHL Junior hockey team.

Most people know the coaches are paid, but most don’t know that it takes about 15 volunteers to run every game.

Toni Johnson (also known as Coach Corey Millen’s sister) is the volunteer coordinator. Luckily Toni’s husband, Mark, was a youth coach for their son Tyler’s team, so she has had years of practice under her belt already.

Toni begins contacting her list of 53 volunteers on Monday to see who can commit to working the games that weekend. She averages two to three hours a week and if she is short on volunteers, Toni works where she is needed for that night.

“People have been great and very committed so it really helps to have a good core of volunteers,” Toni said.

There are couples, families and siblings who are part of the volunteer family at the Wilderness.

Mark volunteers as either security or goal judge, as does her cousin (and Cloquet Police Chief) Wade Lamirande.

Wade’s wife of 28 years, Tammy, volunteers selling merchandise. The two are empty nesters whose three children all played hockey and they enjoy being around the players and other families, a common theme among the volunteers.

The Johnsons twin daughters (who did not play the sport) volunteer at the adult beverage booth. Cassi Abrahamson and Abbi Sewell enjoy getting out and supporting the community as well as getting to know the regulars.

Abrahamson is an elementary school teacher and the Wilderness players volunteer in her class reading to the students.

The Wilderness team volunteers to read to elementary students in Cloquet, Carlton and Esko every week as well as bag groceries at Super One to give back to the community that has welcomed them from all over the United States as well as Finland, Germany and Slovakia.

Not all of the volunteers are related to Millen.

Camen Daveau just happened to be at her brother’s home when the call came in looking for volunteers. Both Daveau and her brother, Cory Kubis, jumped at the chance to be goal judges.

Retired volunteer Patrick Began is all smiles and “looovves” to be the first person to greet people when they come into the arena. Began is the enthusiastic ticket seller who enjoys making people feel welcome and enjoys watching the level of hockey that the Wilderness team brings to Cloquet.

None of this would be possible if it were not for the billet (host) families. There are 12 families in the Cloquet area who welcome these young men into their homes.

Wendy Kolkin of Esko has three grown children who all played hockey. She misses the company of young people and enjoys fixing meals and taking care of them.

She gushes about how happy she is to have Brett Heikkila stay with her. Heikkila is a polite, mature and helpful young man who even helps out with clearing her driveway during this endless snowy winter when Kolkin works. Most of the core group of volunteers have not missed a game.

More volunteers are always welcome, as are billet families. Volunteers get into games for free as well and a discount on merchandise.

Anyone interested in becoming a part of the Wilderness volunteer family can visit to find out more. Look under the Fan Zone tab for billet families and under the Team tab for a volunteer application.