'A way of life': Esko Hockey Association sees membership spike
The program, which began in 1972, has seen the number of children who participate grow over the past several years. Its leaders say the dedication of volunteers is the main reason.
ESKO — A group of young kids are bundled in several layers, looking like tiny Michelin men.
They attempt to hit a black rubber puck with small hockey sticks as they balance on thin blades on a sheet of ice located behind the current bus barn in Esko. Most of the children are 6-8 years old. The referees don't look much older than the players as they do tricks on the rink while they wait for the team to finish warming up.
The children are part of the Esko Hockey Association, which has seen a spike in membership over the last few years, said Kyle Backstrom, the organization's president.
When Backstrom joined the board six years ago, he said there were about 35 children signed up to play. Now there are 92 young hockey players. Brianna Johnson in particular has done an outstanding job at bringing more players into the program, Backstrom said.
Cloquet Area Hockey Association director Justin Harriman agreed. A total of 284 youth hockey players are signed up in Cloquet. Of them, 75 attend the Esko School District, Harriman said.
One of the program's most well-known alumni is Karson Kuhlman, a center for the NHL's Boston Bruins. The Esko native began skating as a preschooler. He received a scholarship to play hockey for the University of Minnesota-Duluth and led the Bulldogs to the 2018 NCAA National Championship .
Despite how far he's come, Kuhlman said he remembers where his journey began.
“It’s a dream come true," he said. "And it all started on outdoor rinks in Esko.”
Now that he's an adult, Kuhlman said he appreciates the hours of time and dedication volunteers contributed to the Esko Hockey Association.
“I remember my dad and the other kids' dads painting boards and getting them up,” Kuhlman said.
Lilly Hanson, a junior at Esko High School who plays forward on the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey team, got her start on the rinks in Esko as well. The Esko Hockey Association made a significant impact on her growth as a player and helped her build lasting connections with teammates, she said.
“To this day, I still have some of the friendships I created from the very beginning in Mite 1s,” Hanson said. “I truly believe I would not be the player I am today if it wasn't for Esko hockey.”
The program's longevity has created a thread that binds its alumni together. Take Hanson, who played with her teammates for the Class A state title a few weeks ago. Her assistant coach, Dave Esse, played for the Esko Hockey Association through Bantams.
Esse said he remembers skating on one of the first rinks behind the school during the 1980 Olympics.
“They announced to all of us playing shinny (a pick-up hockey game) that USA won the gold,” Esse said.
Many people remember the warming shack, painted Esko blue with yellow trim inside. A large neon sign let skaters know the building was open. Over the decades, young players and volunteers held their hands over the old wood burning stove to thaw.
“It was very hot, and I remember the wood smell,” Esse said.
In 2012, the program faced a challenge from Mother Nature. A flood destroyed the area, including the warming shack.
Thankfully, the program wasn't without a home for long. Esko School District leaders decided to construct a multi-use building on the site the following year. The association shares space in the building with other sports teams.
Financially, the program is in a good place, Backstrom said. The board will continue to invest in the association and work to keep growing its numbers in the coming years.
“This is what we do,” Backstrom said. “It’s not just a game — it is really a way of life.”
History of the Esko Hockey Association
The Esko Hockey Association started in 1972 with Chuck Eckman, Joe Hudspith and Ed Sunnarborg, said Jerry Maunu.
Maunu is a hockey enthusiast who served on the boards for the Esko and Cloquet hockey associations and had two children come up through the program. He said the men built hockey boards in Eckman's garage and put up the first hockey rink near the current Esko High School parking lot. It was moved in 1973 near the former Kinnunen Lumber Company.
Julian Bertogliat, retired Esko athletic director and science teacher, remembers coaching his sons, Tony and Jesse, at the original rink behind the school in the mid-1970s. Jesse Bertogliat was the first Esko student to earn a full college scholarship to play hockey. Jerry Maunus kids, Matt and Michelle Maunu, and goaltender Josh Johnson would follow.
The shack and rinks were eventually moved behind the current bus barn on Canosia Road where they have stood for over 30 years.
After the 2012 flood, the Esko School District put up a new multiuse building in place of the old warming shack. One of the big rinks was split in half to make two smaller rinks, with the full-size rink behind them.
In the last 20 years, the association purchased an old ice resurfacer and is currently on their third one, which has its own custom garage.