By Andrew Vitalis, special to WCHA.com
As a senior, Melissa Hunt has been through a lot during her time in a Bemidji State uniform. She remembers a lot. Her first game and win as a freshman blueliner against Robert Morris (September 25th, 2015); her first road trip as a college hockey player one week later; her first collegiate point, which also happened to be her first career goal (January 22nd, 2016 at Minnesota Duluth). Looking back at things now, nearly four years later, the Hartney, Manitoba native can pretty much describe the sights and sounds that went hand and hand with each and every milestone moment during her freshman campaign. She also remembers specific details associated with special moments away from the rink- experiences that had a profound impact on her right from the start and ones that have helped her became the player, and person, she is today.
On top of that second list was Melissa's introduction to the Little Lady Lumberjacks- a program run by Bemidji's local youth hockey association that is geared towards attracting young girls to the game of hockey. What makes the group unique is that fact that they skate hand and hand with players from the Bemidji State women's hockey team, fulfilling a partnership between the University and the community; those who have reached the top of the mountain and players who are just starting to climb. Already jammed with the busy lifestyle that goes along with being a college hockey player, Hunt wasn't sure what to expect at first. It didn't take long for her to realize that it was a match made in hockey heaven.
"Just being able to help the kids," remarked Hunt when asked about her first memories after getting involved with the Little Lady Lumberjacks. "I remember the first day I went there, we were helping fit them for equipment and getting them ready to go on the ice. They were all so excited just to get out there and have fun. They split into three groups; the youngest group, the middle-aged girls and the older girls. They had games that worked really well for each age group and all of the girls were just excited to be there and happy to be there. It was nice to see the smile on their face and the way they looked up to you."
It's not uncommon for a college hockey team to interact with youth hockey teams in and around their community, but the Little Lady Lumberjacks are different. The Beavers aren't just there to support the program- they are a part of the program. The idea, meant to get more little girls to the rink, was spearheaded by former Bemidji High School head girls hockey coach Jackie Robertson, a former BSU player herself who came up with the idea of incorporating her alma mater in the association's approach to building more numbers at the youth level. After teaming up with longtime Beavers assistant coach (and BSU alumna) Amber Fryklund, the Little Lady Lumberjacks were born.
The program gives skaters and families interested in playing hockey the opportunity to skate and interact with members of the BSU women's hockey team. Players also have the opportunity to attend games and have a backstage pass to the lights and sounds of WCHA hockey; both on the ice and in the locker room. And that program is just the beginning. To date, the partnership between the BYHA and Bemidji State has continued to grow, and with that, so have the association's numbers. Just this past month, members of the BYHA girls 10U hockey teams attended the Bemidji State-Minnesota State women's hockey game and youth players were given the opportunity to interact with the Beavers and greet them as they took the ice. The game lasted about two hours, but the memories that each and every one of the players walked away with will last a lifetime.
"Having a University is a great thing. You have a lot of players around in the summer and players who are willing to help and run different programs from time to time. That helps. Players who kids are looking up to and watching all season long; dreaming about being a college hockey player one day and all of a sudden during the season and offseason they are right here around our kids and families. That's pretty cool. You try to capitalize on that which is something not too many programs have," replied Corey Rupp, former BYHA President and current member of the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association's Development Committee. "We have grown our girls program to the point where, for example at the 10U level, we have never had two teams and this year for the first time, we have two teams at that level. We have 25 girls in that program and we haven't had that, maybe ever. If we have had that before it's certainly been probably 20 years since that's happened."
"Our girls program was lacking for a few years. We didn't have a lot of girls come out and now that side is growing also. The Little Lady Lumberjacks program, it's an opportunity for the girls from Bemidji State to come out and skate with our younger girls. Some of the young kids who participate in the program, they aren't necessarily signed up to play hockey all of the time, but it's an opportunity for them to come out and skate and play games to start that spark or interest in hockey," added Bruce Hasbargen, the current Bemidji Youth Hockey President. "They do that once a week and that has helped grow our numbers. We are now starting to do things like that on the boys side, and that has also brought added interest to the game and the association."
"Being in a small town like Bemidji, with the University having a Division I women's hockey team- especially in northern Minnesota, I think it's a great opportunity for us to be female role models for those young youth hockey players in our community and in the surrounding communities," explained Fryklund, who has also spent time on the BYHA development committee in the past. "Taking that approach and having that in our background; understanding the bigger picture and what our purpose is, and that is to play the game and be role models, and have an impact any way we possibly can."
The benefits are all around them; on both sides of rink. Not only does it give the youth players a chance to learn from the best, on the other side of the red line, it offers perspective to Fryklund's squad, who can sometimes get bogged down with the ebbs and flows of college hockey. Each week, no matter what the results are on a given Friday or Saturday night, or the results of a final exam; Hunt and her teammates get to see first-hand the influence they can have on those around them. While at times it may feel that the game of hockey- and sometimes life- is skating backwards, they are paying it forward.
"The relationships that are built are something you can't ignore; whether or not those girls who first come continue on in hockey or they don't, they develop those life-long connections to the players here at BSU. On the flip side of that, our players have the opportunity to give back to the game. They have an opportunity to use their position as a role model to inspire those young athletes and those young groups of hockey players," mentioned Fryklund. "There are times when I wonder if our players are having more fun than the kids. For them to have that opportunity to give back to the game is a powerful experience for them. We have had many, many former players here who have gone on to coach. There has been a lot of interest that way, as far as our players wanting to get in there and help coach these kids and help them to get better. I think the experiences they have with that program and how they are able to interact with the community; that is one way they get interested in that (coaching). It all comes full circle."
"It definitely helps you remember what it was like when you were younger and how much you loved the game," explained Hunt. "There are a lot of girls that do want to be a coach after college. There are also a lot of girls who would like to teach their kids how to play hockey and teach them about the great things that go along with the game. It's really good to see the girls who do want to go into coaching and even the girls who still haven't made up their minds; to watch them take the lead and get in there and help these girls improve, it's really fun to see that internal coach come out in everyone. It keeps everything in perspective, and perspective is good at any level."
When Melissa Hunt first arrived on campus as a freshman, her hockey family consisted of 25 teammates. Now, thanks to programs like the Little Lady Lumberjacks, that family network has grown into a community…an entire city…a hockey culture dressed in white and Hunter green. If you are looking to make a difference on and off the ice, it seems Bemidji State is the perfect place to be.