Sports' rapid rise in popularity hits roadblock in shrinking number of regulation rinks
During the meat-grinder months of Minnesota winter, when icicles reach from gutters to the ground and clusters of ice fishing houses form small cities on the frozen lakes, there are few people wishing for more ice.
Chris Middlebrook is one of those few, and he faces a problem almost too ironic to be true. Despite having ideal climate conditions, the American Bandy Association president needs more ice – larger sheets of ice to be exact – to expand his sport in a state populated with ice skaters.
One of the founding fathers of USA Bandy, Chris Middlebrook, center, won 14 USA Championships as a player.
Bandy is a European sport that is especially popular in Russia and Scandinavia. It’s best described with the oxymoron “field hockey on ice” because it is played with similar equipment and rules to field hockey but on a soccer field-sized ice rink. Within 15 years of its American debut, three full-sized outdoor bandy rinks were built in the Twin Cities, and there were more than 25 U.S. Bandy League teams and two national teams in the state.
Today the Guidant John Rose Minnesota Oval in Roseville is the only rink left, and the U.S. Bandy League is down to 15 teams.
Before Middlebrook took over as president of the ABA, he was a hockey player at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, facing the reality that his playing days were numbered. On a December night in 1980 he and several other former hockey players were invited to Lewis Park in Edina to play the first game of American bandy and form the U.S. Bandy League.
“It was a lot of fun, most of the guys had played college hockey and just got done,” Middlebrook said. “Playing with stick and ball in a hockey rink isn’t a big deal, but the big ice – a soccer sized field – that was new. Right away you could tell people were getting into it, it was just unique and new.”
Bandy started in England near the end of the nineteenth century and gradually spread across northern Europe and into Russia. The sport was relatively unheard of in the United States until 1972, when both the International Bandy Federation and American Softball Association were making a push to get their sports into the Olympics. Bob Kojetin, former Director of Edina Parks and Recreation, knew his home state was the perfect host for American bandy and placed himself in the middle of the exchange.
“We built a rink in 1979 and had a team over here from Sweden,” Kojetin said. “I had a couple of their players play in Braemar Arena doing demonstrations, and we went all over the state and played bandy with the locals. At that time we were building (Lewis) park, and I put in a big bandy rink.”
A league formed, and, by 1982, the U.S. Bandy League had seven teams. That same year, the ABA sent its first national team to Sweden for international competition. Middlebrook went on the first international trip – the first of 41 he has taken in his 36-year career. In the early years, the U.S Bandy Team was sorely outmatched, but it continued to travel overseas and found unlikely popularity in the Soviet Union during the latter stages of the Cold War.
In the 1985 World Championship game, the USSR bandy team won, but nobody wanted to celebrate with them – except us,” Middlebrook said. “They won with class – no arrogance – which was a nice lesson for our guys when we won a few games here and there.”
Andrew Knutson, the Vice President of the ABA, has been on several trips to Russia in his six years on the national team. While the U.S. might lose 12-2 (on a good day), the experience overseas seems to one-up itself each year.
“We’ve played in front of 16,000 people, and after the game the fans come down and take pictures with us."
- Andrew Knutson, Vice President of the American Bandy Association
“Russia has multi-million dollar facilities that the government puts up money for,” Knutson said. “We’ve played in front of 16,000 people, and after the game the fans come down and take pictures with us. We don’t always win the tournament on the ice, but we seem to win off the ice. People seem to love us and gravitate our way. We’re the Americans, we’re loud with bright colors.”
While American bandy gained popularity, Kojetin was having trouble transplanting softball overseas. As part of the exchange, Kojetin was sent to the USSR, Sweden, Finland and Norway in the late 1970’s to host fast-pitch softball clinics and provide equipment. He found varying success in Scandinavian countries, but the sport never got off the ground in the Soviet Union.
“They just didn’t know anything about softball,” he said. “I went to all their national clubs and stuff. They had the hand-eye coordination, but they just didn’t get softball. In their language they don’t have a word to steal (a base). I had to explain everything down to a T for them, all the basics, and it just never took.”
While softball struggled overseas, American bandy continued to grow in popularity into the 1990’s. Youth, women’s and rink (bandy played on hockey rinks) leagues formed across the Twin Cities, and Minnesota teams competed internationally. The construction of the Oval in Roseville in 1993 marked a major milestone in the sport’s development.
The 110,000-square foot refrigerated outdoor rink is the largest of its kind in North America. Although it hardly compared to the facilities in Russia and Sweden, which seat up to 30,000, it allowed the United States to host international bandy events, including the 1995 World Bandy Championships, and exhibit the sport internally. However, as the Oval became the primary bandy rink for the ABA, it ultimately handcuffed the sport’s ability to expand.
When the Oval was constructed, the bandy players, figure skaters and speedskaters who once frequented the natural ice rinks in Edina and Bloomington opted for the artificial ice in Roseville. In the late 1990’s, the cost of maintenance no longer met the demand for the oversized rinks, and they were shut down.
Middlebrook said most bandy players, like himself, are former hockey players looking for a way to continue competing. Given Minnesota’s marriage to hockey, the demand for bandy has steadily increased since its arrival in 1980, but between the ABA’s elite, first division, rec and two youth leagues, the available ice is saturated.
For six nights a week between November and March, at least an hour of ice time at the Oval is dedicated to bandy. The various leagues can squeeze in just over 10 games per week. Middlebrook said the addition of another rink in the metro would lead to an immediate increase in teams, events and, ultimately, bandy players.
The silver linings to Middlebrook’s dilemma is the increased quality across the ABA’s leagues and the comradery between bandy folk apparent during 2015 Girls U17 World Championships held in Roseville.
“An organization like ours, nobody gets paid,” Middlebrook said. “We barely hold it together sometimes, but we were able to put on a world championship with volunteers – and half of our organization committee was on the team, too. It just goes back to the sport – people just love it and are willing to work their butts off for it.”
Middlebrook said the construction of future bandy rinks depends largely on the economy. Finding a city wealthy and willing enough to build a multi-purpose rink like the Oval is one option, but Middlebrook’s guess is a private donation from a bandy player is just as likely. Neither option is showing promise at the moment, but Middlebrook believes that once a bandy player becomes financially successful, the sport with benefit from it.
“Guys who start playing or getting into it, for whatever reason it’s like the old phrase ‘It’s a gentleman’s sport,’ ” Middlebrook said. “And it’s true, they are all really solid people. You’re competing against each other, but you’re working together, too. They don’t think only of themselves, whatever you’ve got going for yourself in the sport, you give back to the sport.”
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