Inside ‘bonkers’ world of high-school hockey

Inside ‘bonkers’ world of high-school hockey


Each weekend, Hermantown Hawks captain Blake Biondi would lace up his skates and take the ice to a packed crowd from his small Minnesota hometown.

The thrills of performing and scoring top shelf in front of everyone he knows was a “larger than life” experience — games are broadcast on local radio stations and draw packed houses — in rural towns not all that far from the Canadian border.

“For people that don’t understand high school hockey in Minnesota, that’s what you want to do growing up,” Biondi told The Post. “You idolized the high schoolers as a kid.”

But there were also unfamiliar faces in the stands each time Biondi played — scouts looking for the next star in the National Hockey League.

“Hockeyland,” a new documentary streaming on Apple TV Tuesday, captures the unprecedented dedication, pressure and highs and lows on the ice facing young athletes in the high-stakes world of Minnesota high school hockey as two very different teams face off in the 2020 state finals.

Most of all, it captures a way of life like no other.

Indio Dowd and the Hermantown Hawks ready for a game.

“It’s bonkers. It’s 15 to 18,000 people coming out every year watching a bunch of high school kids play in the state championship. It’s an amazing culture,” director Tommy Haines, who bills his film as the “Friday Night Lights” of the north, told The Post.

“Specifically in Minnesota, you have these teams that still have this community-based model where it’s like football in Texas… parents flooding the rinks, they’re doing the concession stands, and they’re coming out and packing these stadiums in these small towns with 3 to 4,000 people.”

In the uninterrupted 2020 season, Haines followed a handful of players — looking candidly into their personal lives — from two schools across northern Minnesota, where there’s been a rich history of hockey players going on to the Olympics and NHL careers, he said.

There’s the Eveleth Golden Bears — a small program whose glory days of hockey are a thing of the past — that’s preparing to consolidate with a rival high school.

Eveleth, a small Minnesota town with a powerful hockey history aims for one last season of glory in "Hockeyland."
Eveleth, a small Minnesota town with a powerful hockey history, aims for one last season of glory in “Hockeyland.”

For those boys growing up in Eveleth — home to the US Hockey Hall of Fame — it was the final season of Golden Bears hockey as they know it.

“You’re playing with the same kids every year, from six to seven until the age of 18. And you’re out there, your last year of playing with your brothers,” standout forward Elliot Van Orsdel told The Post.

“It’s more than just a game. It really is. You’re playing for your family. It’s more than just you out there with your buddies. This is your family that you grew up with.”

For the Golden Bears, they had one last shot to win it all in 2020 before merging with a rival school.
The Golden Bears had one last shot to win it all in 2020 before merging with a rival school.
High school hockey standouts in Minnesota have a legitimate shot at going pro, Haines said.
High school hockey standouts in Minnesota have a legitimate shot at going pro, Haines said.

On the other side of center ice are the Hermantown Hawks, a powerhouse program that routinely produces pro-caliber talent.

“We just had Cole Koepke make his NHL debut last Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers,” Hermantown coach Pat Andrews, who trained much of the 2020 squad while they were kids, told The Post. “That’s our fourth NHL player in the last nine years.”

Senior standout and 2020 Montreal Canadiens draft pick Biondi — who currently plays NCAA puck for Minnesota Duluth — had to manage the pressures of having scouts at each Hermantown game and becoming a role model for his entire hometown.

Montreal Canadiens draft pick Blake Biondi called playing Hermantown hockey a "larger than life" experience.
Montreal Canadiens draft pick Blake Biondi called playing Hermantown hockey a “larger than life” experience.
David Greedy Photography

But the former Hawks captain took his admiration and devotion for Hermantown to an entirely new level.

Biondi — crowned “Mr. Hockey” — passed up opportunities to play in higher caliber development leagues that would have streamlined his chances to play in the NHL, his former coach Andrews explained.

Hermantown routinely produces pro-caliber talent like Blake Biondi.
Hermantown routinely produces pro-caliber talent like Biondi.
Courtesy Northland Films

“It’s just the loyalty to especially Hermantown but even just all over in Minnesota, the different towns,” Biondi said. “You want to stay in play [with] the people that raised you, your best friends.”

The thrills, gut-punch losses and raw emotions are all around as Biondi, his Hawks and the final Eveleth squad all vie for a state title in “Hockeyland.”

But these boys of winter aim to prove their hockey careers don’t have to end in high school.

“These kids have realistic dreams of playing not only in college, but then even the pros,” Haines said.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.