Current Gophers turn kids into Gophers hopefuls

Gophers players aren’t just helping out at Diane Ness’ skating camps – they’re carrying on a tradition.

Matt Perkins

In the State of Hockey, there is one dream that many squirts and peewees share – to be a Minnesota Gophers hockey player.

And once that dream is realized, many Gophers return their good fortune by passing that dream on to another generation.

For 15 years, Gophers hockey players have been camp counselors for Diane Ness, who holds skating lessons and hockey camps at Charles Schulz-Highland Arena in St. Paul.

“It’s fun because I always wanted to be a Gopher growing up, and actually being able to skate with them was pretty cool,” sophomore forward Brent Borgen said. “If I can just do the same things those guys did for me, it’s amazing.”

Borgen, a Mahtomedi, Minn., native who first attended one of Ness’ camps when he was 10 years old, said it’s amazing the talent level that he sees day-in and day-out working at the camps.

But that talent level is also evident in the Gophers counselors, who happened to be Borgen and fellow Gophers sophomore Nate Hagemo on July 20 but vary from date to date during the summer.

Hagemo, an Edina, Minn., native, also said his admiration for Gophers hockey started when he was just a squirt at the camp.

“You always look up to those guys when you’re little, and they just seem so high above you,” Hagemo said. “It’s a lot of fun to come out and skate with them, and I’m sure these kids feel the same way.”

The squirts and peewees were waiting outside the rink in anticipation for their ice time July 20, and when the clock struck 10:30 a.m., they piled onto the ice not wasting a second of their hour-long session with a few Gophers players. The camp is held on select days throughout the summer.

Between the overload drills, which saw Borgen and Hagemo exaggerating their slow-motion strides, and the puck handling and shooting drills, which gave the kids an opportunity to score a goal on an assist from their heroes, the campers weren’t reluctant to poke some fun at the almighty Gophers – literally.

“I remember when I was a kid, I was too shy to go up to the Gophers,” Hagemo said. “But these kids have no problem poking me with a stick or giving me a smack.”

Hagemo said the best part about the camp was that it was laid-back and fun while being very effective lessons for the young Minnesota talent. He and Borgen said it was the best summer job possible.

And it’s also the reason why Ness said she would never go back to her pre-Gophers counselor days.

“I may seem mean at first,” Ness said. “But there is a method to my madness.”

And that method has been getting kids to come back, with more and more applicants every season.

Although she normally only invites Gophers to participate as camp counselors if they took lessons with her as a kid, she did invite former Gophers and current St. Louis Blues forward Johnny Pohl to help out for the past five years. Pohl said he has accepted because of the tradition which has developed during the last 15 years, giving every camper a taste of their dream.

“That’s what makes Minnesota such a good program is that pretty much everyone in the state wants to be a Gopher,” Pohl said. “Generation to generation, it just keeps going.”