South St. Paul in the net

Hometown boy Adam Wilcox led his team to the Frozen Four.

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox, pictured second to the left, catches up with old high school teammates at Wakota Arena in South Saint Paul on Sunday. Wilcox grew up playing youth hockey at Wakota Arena before playing for the Gophers.

Lisa Persson

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox, pictured second to the left, catches up with old high school teammates at Wakota Arena in South Saint Paul on Sunday. Wilcox grew up playing youth hockey at Wakota Arena before playing for the Gophers.

Samuel Gordon

Adam Wilcox returned to South St. Paul’s Wakota Arena one Friday night during his freshman year of college.

Wilcox practically grew up at the 52-year-old rink, but on this night, he was just a spectator — on hand for his younger sister Lauren’s hockey game.

Wilcox bumped into his high school coach, Jeff Lagoo, at the game, and the two struck up what Lagoo described as “a good talk.”

As the conversation progressed, however, swarms of children flocked around the two.

“You can hear them whispering, ‘There’s the Gopher goaltender. There’s Adam Wilcox,’” Lagoo said. “The kids look up to him.”

As Wilcox’s high school teammate and close friend Tim Kohlmann phrased it, “When you are a star hockey player like Adam was, you are royalty.”

“South St. Paul is a blue-collar town built on hard, dirty work,” Kohlmann said. “And hockey.”

Wilcox personifies his hometown, where hockey isn’t just a sport; it’s a lifestyle.

Now, Wilcox is the best goaltender in college hockey, and he’s guided his Gophers to the Frozen Four in just his second year between the pipes.

“We all know the importance of that position,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “Adam really established himself after his freshman year.”

It’s been a joy for Wilcox, but it’s been just as thrilling for South St. Paul.

“You go to a Gopher game, and when they announce him from South St. Paul, the community is proud,” Lagoo said. “They feel like he’s one of us.”

And he is.

Wilcox still returns to his hometown rink, and he will sign an autograph or take a picture with any young fan who wants one.

“I think looking at his picture in Wakota Arena … drives kids to want to work hard at hockey,” said Kohlmann, who works at the arena. “I hear them talk about him like he’s a folk hero.”

South St. Paul residents often stop John and Christy Wilcox to congratulate them on their son’s success.

“They have kind of rallied around him … whether he knows it or not,” said Christy Wilcox, a city clerk for South St. Paul.

The town was built around massive meatpacking plants and stockyards — industry that drove its economy for decades, cultivating a gritty culture.

That culture exists on the town’s rinks, too.

Wilcox’s parents are both South St. Paul natives. His maternal grandfather played on the first South St. Paul high school hockey team. His uncles proudly wore the Packers sweater in the Minnesota high school hockey tournament.

“It was all about tradition,” Christy said.

And Adam dove head-first into that tradition.

He started skating when he was 2 years old and was comfortable in net a few years later.

Wilcox’s cousin and current NHL goaltender Alex Stalock lived with the Wilcox family for a summer and talked Adam into strapping on the goalie pads for some mini-stick hockey in the basement.

“That kind of got him going on it,” Christy said.

After that, Adam didn’t stray too far from the net or the ice.

He grew up with a rink in his backyard and a mini-stick rink in his basement. He spent his nights stopping wristers and slap-shots — emulating the unorthodox styles of his idols Stalock and former NHL goaltender Dominik Hasek.

Through the experience of backyard and street hockey, Wilcox forged a unique goaltending style, and acrobatic saves soon became the norm.

“Every time we were over at his house, we were always playing some kind of hockey,” Kohlmann said. “We lived for it. And he was always the most competitive player I’ve met. We would play until he won.”

Everything was a friendly competition for Wilcox, but hockey was always his sport of choice. And he established himself as a standout in South St. Paul’s youth hockey circuits.

“I watched him throughout youth hockey,” Lagoo said. “You knew he was something special.”

While 14-year-olds have the option to play Bantam hockey — the highest level before high school — Wilcox opted to try out for the varsity hockey team.

He was the only freshman to earn significant varsity playing time in Lagoo’s 19 years as South St. Paul’s head coach.

Lagoo said Wilcox’s young age didn’t bar him from fitting into the locker room culture.

Wilcox traded starts with a senior goaltender, and by the end of the season, the job was his.

And the town was buzzing.

“’South St. Paul’s got a special goalie, and he’s only a freshman,’” Lagoo said. “It was exciting.”

As a sophomore, Wilcox started every game, and he drew attention from major Division I programs, including Minnesota and
Minnesota-Duluth, where Stalock played.

Still, he was rather mum about his intentions — friends and family had to pry for information about his recruitment.

“I didn’t even know he was committing, until one night [when] I was working, and he texted me and said, ‘I just committed to the University of Minnesota,’” Wilcox’s mother said.

South St. Paul rallied around its sophomore star, but Wilcox knew the writing was on the wall.

In general, top goaltenders leave high school early to play junior hockey — a more competitive level that helps prep players for the Division I level.

Wilcox was no exception.

“It was tough to be away from home senior year,” he said. “I knew for a couple years that’s what I was going to do. I knew the decision was right.”

Wilcox bounced after his junior season and joined the Green Bay Gamblers — a junior team in the United States Hockey League.

He said the stiffer competition helped him polish his game, allowing him to harness and gain a more complete control of his athleticism.

Wilcox was eligible for the NHL Draft after the 2010-11 season, and the 2011 draft was held at the Xcel Energy Center — a 15-minute drive from South St. Paul.

“We just decided to go down there for the heck of it,” John Wilcox said. “We didn’t expect him to get drafted.”

In the sixth round, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning — a stunning but exciting moment for the family, John Wilcox said.

Adam Wilcox said the Lightning still monitor his development and occasionally check in with him.

He split the 2011-12 season with Green Bay and the Tri-City Storm in Nebraska before coming up to Minnesota for his freshman season.

All-WCHA goalie Kent Patterson’s graduation left the goalie spot vacant. Wilcox snagged the job and starred immediately.

As a freshman, he set the school record for goals against average en route to an All-WCHA Third Team selection.

As a sophomore, he’s even better.

His numbers are right on par with his 2012-13 stats, and he’s been the backbone of a team that lost several players to professional hockey.

“It’s a load off my shoulders, because he’s always going to be ready to play,” Minnesota captain Nate Condon said.

Minnesota will take the ice against arch-nemesis North Dakota in the Frozen Four on Thursday.

Some of the upperclassmen played in the Frozen Four two years ago. Wilcox hasn’t, but don’t expect him to be nervous.

Those who know him well say he relishes these opportunities and has dedicated his whole life to prepping for this moment.

“This is what we trained for after last year,” Wilcox said. “We expected to be here.”

Wilcox returned to Wakota Arena on Sunday afternoon, two days before his team’s departure to Philadelphia.

A group of his former high school teammates fiddled with a ball in the middle of the rink, but when Wilcox walked in, they lit up like a pinball machine.

Wilcox joined them in the middle of the rink, and the group exchanged pleasantries and laughs.

“He could easily move on and ‘big-time’ everyone and just kind of disappear, but he doesn’t,” Kohlmann said. “That’s why so many people here are so solidly behind him.”

He’s the Big Ten Player of the Year.

He’s the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year.

And he’s still what Lagoo calls “one of us.”