A Hockey Life: Part 1
Wilderness Players Impact the Cloquet Community
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When most people think of junior hockey, they consider all the work that takes place on the ice.
But there’s so much more that goes on beyond the rink, as these young men have become truly immersed in the community.
“We’re such a small community here, and we do rely a lot on our support from this community,” said Wilderness Head Coach, Corey Millen.
When moving to Cloquet to live out their hockey dreams, the boys had one thing, and one thing only, on their minds.
“Hopefully get a Division I scholarship to a college,” said center Jack Forbort.
“I think everybody wants to play Division I hockey,” said forward Niklas Lehtimaki.
“I want to play college hockey, so that’s my goal, and that’s why I’m here,” said defenseman Tyler Hart.
Little did they know, being a part of the Minnesota Wilderness would mean so much more.
“We usually like talking and skating and hanging out with each other a lot.” Ask 7–year–old Lance Sayler, and he’ll tell you he’s the team’s biggest fan.
“We only missed one game so far,” Lance said proudly.
With dreams of one day being a defenseman, Lance took a particular liking to Tyler Hart, backbone of the Wilderness defense.
“Well I like him blocking the shots a lot, and protecting his goalie from hard shots,” said Lance of Tyler.
Off the ice, Tyler helps Lance with homework.
“We did math things with dimes, pennies and quarters and nickels,” Lance explained. “So we were doing a lot of hard ones and I passed all of them.”
Every Monday and Tuesday, the team visits different elementary schools in the Cloquet area to spend time with some of their youngest fans.
Whether it’s reading in classrooms, playing in gym class, or simply sitting down and having lunch, it’s safe to say the guys have become local superstars.
“They look up to them because, well, they see them out on the ice and you see these kind of big, strong athletes that are also really nice, nice boys,” said the Principal of Churchill Elementary School, David Wangen.
Balancing morning workouts in the gym, and afternoon practice at the rink, the players make sure to set aside time for helping out in the community, whether it’s ringing bells for the Salvation Army, or bagging groceries at Super One.
“We’re just really fortunate that such great young men are here in our community,” said Wangen.
And what the team brings to the community, they know will be reciprocated when the puck drops on game night.
“I think they understand that they gain from the community and the great hockey support that the town of Cloquet will give them,” Wangen added. “And then giving back and helping our youth is a great way to instill that tradition and that community vibe.”
A tradition that Tyler hopes to pass down for generations to come.
“He gave me a broken stick,” Lance exclaimed.
Where’d you put it?
“I’m using it. I’m playing with it for hockey, and it’s working out really good,” Lance exclaimed.
“There’s probably plenty of goals left in it, right?” joked Tyler.
“Yeah,” Lance agreed.
Has it brought you good luck?
“Scored top shelf the other night, didn’t you?” Tyler bragged on Lance’s behalf.
“Yeah,” Lance nodded proudly.
And Tyler knows all too well, it’s the little things that go a long way.
“When I was a little kid,” Tyler remembered, “looking up to the higschoolers, and even them just saying hi to me, that made my day. I still look up to guys, I mean I still idolize people, so I know,” he added.
The team, only in its second year, has no doubt brought something special to the people of Cloquet.
“I mean, there’s so many levels to it because not every kid is going to play Division I hockey,” admitted Millen. “But there’s so many levels, you kind of hope they get a great experience, they have a life experience, they have great friends, their billet families become oftentimes lifelong friends. So this whole experience is more than just hockey.”
And in return, they know their fans will support them the entire way as they try to turn their dreams of playing college hockey into a reality.