EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The first time Chris Nelson walked into the Moorhead Sports Center for a Spuds hockey game, he was stunned.
He wandered around the lobby looking at all of the trophies and team photos, watching 7-or 8-year-old kids running around in their Moorhead hats, jackets, and jerseys. The Spuds’ second goalie in history couldn’t believe how far the program had come since his days between the pipes.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable,’” said Nelson, now 70 years old and living in Eden Prairie, Minn. “Nobody knew we existed back then. For those of us who were there in the early days, this is beyond belief. We practiced on some pond between Dilworth and Glyndon at a gun range because we didn't have ice in Moorhead yet.
“We played varsity hockey at three different rinks the three years I was there.”
Nelson didn’t make it back to Moorhead for more than 40 years after he graduated in 1968. His family had moved away and he no longer had any connections to the area. But when his old coach Chuck Watson was inducted into the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Hall of Fame in 2011, former Spuds coach Dave Morinville reached out to a bunch of his old players and Nelson decided to go back for it.
That kicked off the process of the former netminder reconnecting with the program. In the intervening years, he has followed the team, made an effort to make it out to see the games when the Spuds play near his home in the Twin Cities, and has built relationships with a number of people surrounding Moorhead hockey.
Lately that reconnection has led to him forming what he calls a fraternity of former Spuds goalies.
“One trip it dawned on me that Moorhead’s got all of these NHL guys and the light is always shining on the forwards,” Nelson said. “Goalies are always identified as an odd lot, loners. There’s nothing for them. So I thought it would be cool to form for lack of better words a fraternity.”
He dug through the archives on the Moorhead schools website and came up with what is believed to be a comprehensive list of every goalie to play for the Spuds — 62 goalies. He wants to meet as many as he can and so far he has met 14 of the 62. He documents the encounters on his Twitter account @2ndSpudsGoalie.
Each time he meets a new goalie, he gives them a custom hat with a logo of a Spud playing goalie on the front and their name and some biographical information on the back — their name, what years they played, if they went to a state tournament.
“I was standing in line waiting to get some food at the Tobolt Foundation golf tournament event and I think I was talking to Todd Beedy, just chatting with him about random hockey stuff and he said to me, ‘This guy was a Moorhead goalie too.’ It was (60th Spuds goalie) Thomas Klein. I said, ‘Cool, this is exactly why I came.’ I got to meet another Spuds goalie from the past.”
One relationship Nelson has built since his return to the Moorhead hockey community is with this past year’s goalie Hudson Hodges who won the Frank Brimsek Award given to Minnesota’s top senior goaltender. The second goalie says he’s had several opportunities to talk with the 62nd goalie and offer him encouragement. And it must have stuck with the Brimsek winner as he invited Nelson to his graduation party this spring.
“I went to a game this year, it must have been against St. Michael-Albertville,” Nelson said. “I got there early as I was trained by my father to do. And I was standing at the back of the seating area and Hudson came over and spent almost the full period talking about the game and what he was seeing and talking about it. That is one of those things I really enjoy. I suspect part of it is the parent and or grandparent in me wanting to be there when you’re needed and to offer encouragement.”
Seeing multiple Spuds teams make state tournament runs, including the team Hodges played on this past year, seems completely unreal to Nelson. It’s hard for him to believe that the team that was in its infancy when he joined it has turned into a powerhouse in Minnesota high school hockey.
“Back in the early days, we played everything outside,” he said. “Moms and dads would come out to watch, but probably no other fans, and our biggest desire was to beat Fergus Falls and Detroit Lakes. And here these guys are beating teams we never could have imagined. We had 12, 13, 14 players in the whole city ... and to see all these players and all of this ice … ”