January 11, 2003
Postcard: A brush with fame at Mariucci

It was a frigid Thursday night in January when the kitchen phone rang. My father called to tell me that my old high school, Warroad, had beaten arch-rival
Roseau 4-1 in the latest round of Minnesota's most celebrated high school hockey rivalry.

Cold winter nights, and hockey news from the tiny hometown that sits a slap shot away from the Canadian border, makes the Warroad boy in me think of the formative years. We spent many afternoon hours in English class daydreaming of the evening's coming hockey games. On other days our teacher, Mrs. Nordine, would have us put away the thesaurus and the short story collections for an hour, and she'd put a cassette in the classroom's boom box.

We'd hear the lilting voice of Garrison Keillor as he delivered another episode of "News From Lake Wobegon," a popular National Public Radio show about life in a fictional small town in Northern Minnesota. From the show's debut in the early 1980s until today, Keillor's segment always begins with him saying, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon."

By contrast, it was a busy week on hockey rinks all around Minnesota. Rivalry games like Warroad-Roseau went off at the same time as the Wild were in the midst of a six-game home stand, and the Gophers were hosting top-ranked North Dakota their historical arch-rival before some guys from Wisconsin wearing fire-engine red came along.

And the first week of new Governor Tim Pawlenty's four-year term featured the Guv hosting a celebrity hockey game at Wakota Arena, in his old hometown of
South St. Paul. Pawlenty assembled a team that featured his brothers and a few notable female collegians, and that was coached by South St. Paul native and former Gopher skipper Doug Woog. Team Pawlenty faced off against a squad of self-proclaimed "Minnesota Old-Timers" led by Wendell Anderson. After he played for the Gophers and skated on the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team (earning a silver medal in Cortina, Italy), Anderson went on to be governor of Minnesota and a U.S. Senator in the 1970s.

Anderson's team was no match for Pawlenty's younger squad, and the fear around Mariucci Arena on Friday night was that the suddenly-vulnerable Gophers would be no match for the red-hot Fighting Sioux.

Indeed, North Dakota led 3-2 after two periods (en route to a 4-2 win) when I left the press box for a walk around the arena concourse. At the second concession stand I passed, I thought the tall gentleman in line looked familiar somehow, and when he turned toward me, popcorn in hand, I was face-to-face
with Garrison Keillor himself, for the first time in my life.

When you're an aspiring rock musician from England, meeting Paul McCartney is probably a memorable event. When you're an aspiring quarterback from Virginia, bumping into Michael Vick would likely mean something to you. When you're an aspiring writer from a little town in Minnesota and you have a brush with Garrison Keillor, ditto.

Cautiously, I approached and said, "Mr. Keillor, I don't want to bother you. I just wanted you to know that I've always enjoyed your writing." After he shook
my hand and thanked me, I added, "I'm from a small 'Lake Wobegon-like' town in Northern Minnesota, so your writing has always hit home for me."

"Where are you from?" he asked, and I replied, "Warroad."

"I've never been up to Warroad, but I hope to get there sometime," he said. "Tell me, do they still play hockey outside there?"

"Not very often," I answered, truthfully. "It's just too cold most of the time."

"Well, I hope to visit there sometime," he said. I replied that it was nice meeting him, and we went back to the game.

I remember Keillor writing about the beauty of the game of basketball, and of summer baseball games played by the Lake Wobegon Whippets. He's even
eloquently written about his memories of Gopher football when he was a student at Minnesota. Before Friday's chance encounter, I'd never heard him mention hockey.

But with seemingly all of the state's attention turned to a hockey rink somewhere this week, it seems fitting to see Minnesota's most renowned living writer at an arena, watching hockey, eating popcorn, and inquiring
about the state of the game in the small northern towns.

I hope he enjoyed the game. I hope he gets to visit Warroad sometime. I hope to read a mention of Minnesota hockey in Keillor's next piece in the New
York Times or TIME magazine. But mostly, I hope for more hockey-filled weeks like this one.

I learned at a very young age that Minnesota winters can be long, unpleasant, and even deadly. But inside the little wooden barns and the glittering chrome and glass palaces with hockey rinks in the middle of them, there can be excitement, warmth and magic on those dreadfully cold winter nights.

Jess Myers

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