(Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Elizabeth Boger, journalist at the Minnesota Hockey Journal magazine. She gave the Patriot permission to re-run an article that came out in the November/December issue of MHJ.)
Hockey may not be in season during the summer, but kids in Becker and Big Lake still spent countless hours shooting pucks. Their goal was to shoot thousands of them as part of the 10,000 Pucks Challenge, which encourages offseason development. Some of them even took it even further—racking up as many as 12,000 shots.
“The challenge just shows how motivated these kids are,” said Ben Rusin, president of the Becker/Big Lake Youth Hockey Association. “Even during the offseason, they’re passionate, focused and committed to getting better.”
When they weren’t shooting pucks in the driveway, the kids were rollerblading alongside the association’s parade float in nearby towns. They wore their jerseys and handed out candy to spectators—which went a long way in generating excitement for Becker/Big Lake’s hockey program.
“We’re definitely in growth mode,” Rusin said. “We have a great core group of Mite leaders that have been helping grow the program. Word is out that it’s fun to play, and we’ve got a lot of really passionate skaters and families.”
Bridging the Gap
Especially over the past few years, Becker/Big Lake is making strides to connect the youth and high school teams.
Zach Barzee, head coach of the Becker/Big Lake boys’ high school program, spends time guiding youth coaches and arming them with the tools they need to succeed. He advises them on everything from practice structure to building good habits, which could help lead to a smooth transition from youth to high school hockey.
“We’re all working for the same goal,” Barzee said. “And I think that’s a common theme throughout the state—bridging the gap between the high school program and the youth program.”
Barzee has worked to build a culture of hard work, accountability and positivity at the high school level. As his involvement at the youth level increases, he’s anticipating those values to trickle down and be a strong focus for the association.
“I think that’s going to make everybody feel like we are one big family,” Barzee said. “We’re one big team, and we’re all striving for the same goal of creating a positive environment for our kids to learn and develop as hockey players, and as people.”
Small but Mighty
Becker/Big Lake’s Learn to Skate days have proven to be a great way to attract new faces and increase turnout.
The Mite program is especially blossoming— consisting of nearly 40 percent of its overall registration this year.
“Our goal is to have at least two teams at every level for the travel teams,” Rusin said. “But now it’s looking like, as our numbers grow, we’d like to have three teams at every level.”
As more and more players flock to the rink, Becker/Big Lake is grateful for the opportunity to call Princeton Ice Arena its home ice.
“It’s worked out great, and we’re extremely thankful to have ice at Princeton,” Rusin said. “The Becker Big Lake Ice Association—which is a separate entity—does have a goal of building an arena here someday.”
With the potential addition of a hometown rink, Becker/Big Lake anticipates even more growth. In the meantime, the association relishes in its devoted members and volunteers that keep it running smoothly.
“We’re not a huge association,” Rusin said. “But our members are very passionate and committed. People really step up to help out and volunteer because we are a smaller association—everyone from the coaches to the managers to the parents to the board. It wouldn’t happen without the dedication, passion, commitment and volunteer time that’s put in by so many of our members. They truly care about our kids.”
Keeping it in Perspective
At the start of the 2022-23 season, Barzee asked members of a Becker/Big Lake youth team to raise their hand if they’d been on the ice recently. Despite being early in the season, nearly everyone had their hand up.
“That shows me how much these kids want to be on the ice, and how much they want to improve and put the extra time in,” Barzee said.
That dedication translates well on the ice, and it also runs much deeper.
“We practice so we can have fun playing games,” Barzee said. “But, you know, while being out there and putting the time in, spending time with their friends getting better at the sport—most of them develop a lot of life skills in the process.”
Becker/Big Lake is doing its best to help each player thrive on and off the ice.
“We’re trying to get them better at this sport, but we can’t lose perspective on the fact that the whole reason we’re doing this is so that our kids can develop into good people in the future,” Barzee said. “We want them to gain a lot of life skills, learn how to work with other people, learn how to deal with adversity, and learn to work hard. All of this is about the kids and making them not only good hockey players, but good people, too.”