BAUDETTE, Minn. — Just 10 months ago, it was perhaps the best of times for youth and high school hockey in Baudette.
On Nov. 30, in this town of around 1,000 residents located on the Rainy River, a dozen miles south of Lake of the Woods, for which the local teams and their school are named, a packed house of more than 800 was on hand to christen Baudette’s new $7 million community ice arena. The game, between Lake of the Woods and eastern neighbor International Falls (60 miles away), was dubbed the "Border Battle," as both communities sit one Rainy River bridge away from Canada.
Little did the folks in Baudette know then, but their battle with the border was just beginning.
“We had so much momentum after last year. Just the energy that comes from a high school season,” said Samantha Lyon, the arena director in Baudette. “We held the peewee 'A' region tournament here. We had something like 60 kids, Canadian and U.S., in our mite and mini-mite program, which is the most we’ve had in a long time.”
Then the pandemic hit, the Canadian border was closed to non-essential travel, and the near future of Lake of the Woods hockey was cast into some doubt.
Co-op with Canada
For two decades, the youth hockey association based in Baudette has been a cooperative arrangement where American kids and Canadian kids from just across the bridge in Rainy River, Ontario (population 800), team up for youth and high school hockey. It is a unique arrangement, blessed by USA Hockey and the Minnesota State High School League, which allows for kids from two nations to play together.
In small communities like these, the co-op has been a way to ensure full teams and competitive hockey for the kids who dream of becoming the next Keith Ballard or Wally Olds or Alex Lyon — Samantha’s younger brother, who has played 16 games in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers in the past three seasons. But with the border closed, and its reopening date unknown, the Rainy River became something akin to the Berlin Wall when it came to youth hockey.
Each month for the past half-year, the Canadian government has announced another 30-day extension of the border’s closure. This has been devastating for the tourism industry in this region where chasing walleyes on the big lake is the reason most people come visit. By late summer, with no easing of the border restrictions in sight and roughly half of their youth hockey players stuck on one side of the bridge or the other, it became clear that 2020-21 would not be a normal hockey season in Lake of the Woods County.
“For most of the summer we said, ‘well, let’s see how it goes,’ as did the rest of the world. So much of our decision making was trying to put our finger on how the whole pandemic would play out,” said Lyon, noting that another one-month extension of the travel ban was announced this week. “With each extension we kind of say, ‘Well, maybe it’ll open up next month.’ But it’s kind of looking like it’s not going to be a short-term deal. By mid-August we started saying, ‘OK we need to figure out something different.’”
Neighbors helping neighbors
As salt-of-the-Earth rural Minnesotans tend to do, they made a call to a neighbor for help in a time of need. Warroad, 36 miles to the west of Baudette, has been a civic and on-ice rival of Baudette and the Bears for generations. It was akin to the Packers asking the Vikings for a hand during a rough patch.
After much discussion, and clearance from Minnesota Hockey, the Warroad hockey community found a way to help out, and will allow a dozen or more youth hockey players from Baudette a one-season transfer, until international travel restrictions are lifted. Lake of the Woods will still field high school, bantam "B," mite and mini-mite teams. Squirts and peewees from Baudette will play in Warroad for this season only.
“We feel terrible for them, that they can’t have their own program at those levels,” said Jude Boulianne, who manages The Gardens arena in Warroad and is on the community hockey board. “You’ve got to put a little bit of town pride aside to help out your neighbor, especially in these times. It’s for the kids, giving them an opportunity to play at a level that they couldn’t attain with the numbers they have now.”
For the roughly half of the Lake of the Woods youth hockey players who reside on the north side of the border, Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey have worked out a system where Rainy River kids can do a similar one-year waiver to play in Emo, Ontario, which is 35 miles to the east.
It will create some challenges. The travel — more than 70 miles round trip to practice three or four times a week — is one factor. Suddenly being temporary teammates with your former rivals is another consideration. It is a role Lyon herself held 21 years ago, when she played boys’ peewee hockey in Baudette and their co-op with the Canadian kids first began. Their initial practice as a combined team was memorable.
“The U.S. kids stood on one side of the red line, and the Canadian kids stood on the other side of the red line, and it was like this cheesy ‘West Side Story’ standoff between us, like a movie moment in our heads,” she said, with a laugh. “Not long later, it didn’t matter, we’re all working on the same team.”
Due to the lack of a girls high school program at Lake of the Woods and other factors, in recent years at least two Baudette-area families with hockey-playing kids have relocated to Warroad, including former Minnesota Gophers forward Nick Anthony this past summer. With that history in mind, all of those involved have stressed the temporary nature of this arrangement.
“A very strong sentiment in all of this is we’re not sending our kids to Warroad for forever,” Lyon said. “It’s a one-year co-op. Warroad has been gracious enough to be able to host them and they’ve been very helpful partners in trying to make this happen.”
For the players from Baudette, there will be an adjustment period, as long-time rivals become teammates, at least for one winter.
“I’ve got some of my friends going over with me, so I don’t think it will be too terribly bad,” said Taylor Humeniuk, 13, who lives east of Baudette and will be a second year peewee on the Warroad co-op team. “They’re a very big rival. But I think it will be nice to get to play with some of the people that I kind of know. Their team has pros and cons just like ours, so it will be nice to get one big team together.”
Taylor’s father Rich said that carpools are already being organized to help deal with the travel to practice and games. He admitted that there is some disappointment of spending a season away from their normal teammates due to the border closure, but among many there is also hope for a good on-ice opportunity.
“Everybody can try to make a halfway decent season out of it,” said Mark Elliott, the District 16 director for Minnesota Hockey. “The Warroad and Baudette people need to be applauded for coming together and working together to do something good.”