Polar vortex warriors: the hockey players of Van Cleve

You always see them on the way back from class, but who are these Norsemen?

Austin Rush works to keep the puck away from his friends at the Van Cleve Park ice rinks on Wednesday, Feb. 13. The rinks are currently used recreationally and by players who are preparing for the upcoming inter-fraternity

Jack Rodgers

Austin Rush works to keep the puck away from his friends at the Van Cleve Park ice rinks on Wednesday, Feb. 13. The rinks are currently used recreationally and by players who are preparing for the upcoming inter-fraternity “Lakes and Legends” hockey tournament at Ridder Arena. 

Samir Ferdowsi

Snow and ice usually shut everyone inside. But for one brave University of Minnesota subculture, they are a call to the wild.

As soon as Como’s Van Cleve Park rink opens for the season (usually in early December) dozens of students and nearby residents skate over to play pick-up pond hockey. 

Sporting jerseys from their home states, those who may seem like a bunch of puck-crazed hooligans are curating a one-of-a-kind culture.

“I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, so getting the ‘pond experience’ is not something I had as kid,” said psychology junior and frequent rink-goer Austin Rush. “It really beats playing indoors. You just feel like a kid.”

Slipping by the rinks on any given day, you can usually peep a few Blackhawks jerseys, some Kings garb, Red Wings paraphernalia and Wild and Gophers sweaters, of course. This all-teams-welcome neutral zone makes for a meeting place to bond over sweet dangles and dirty lettuce. 

The Van Cleve rinks have been bolstering student culture at the University for decades. As long as most residents can remember, the ponds have been a wintery staple of the student neighborhood. 

“They’ve been here as long as I know, and a little longer after that,” said park manager Jordan Nelson. “They’re part of the neighborhood’s history.”

The rinks give skaters a reason to celebrate once the flakes start to fly. In fact, it’s hard to wait for them.

“Everyone on the rinks here are around the same age, so it’s great — hockey fans and non-hockey fans,” said junior supply chain management major Alex Landshof. “As soon as it snows, we’re looking out our window to see when they’ll come and clear the ice off.”

With rinks at 24 parks city-wide, all Minneapolis rinks are Minnesotan, but only Van Cleve is student-centric. From the free apple cider and hot chocolate to intramural broomball-friendly layouts, the Como rinks are for the Gophers.

“When I came to campus these were one of the first things I saw and that’s how I knew I wanted to go here,” Landshof said.

That’s the kind of Paul Bunyan spirit that makes -20 degrees feel like nothing. 

The rinks recently hosted a student-focused tournament. The first “Dinkytown Winter Classic” brought Gophers from all walks of life together to celebrate Minnesota and the icy culture we sharpen every winter. 

“Players are always willing to put together games with strangers, no questions asked,” said tournament co-founder and Carlson graduate Kyle Samera. “It doesn’t matter the skill, the players out there always find a way to even out the teams and have fun.”

With ten teams in the tourney, Samera and his team created an experience you can only find at a school like the University of Minnesota. Playing pond hockey with the gold and purple skyline as your backdrop — uff da. It doesn’t get more North Star than that.