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Hockey in Every Corner: La Crescent Rising to the Occasion

By Steve Mann, 02/06/24, 10:00AM CST


The town of La Crescent, Minnesota, celebrates its rich history and industrial prowess with an annual celebration known as Applefest. Fittingly, its boys high school hockey team is among the leaders in the state for producing “apples” (hockey slang for assists), as the Lancers have exploded out of the gate this season, scoring at unprecedented rates for the budding program.

At the time this story was written, La Crescent-Hokah boys hockey stood at 20-1, paced by star senior forward Wyatt Farrell, who led the state with 78 points and counting. It’s a remarkable story for a program and an area (population: 5,000) that doesn’t get much attention.

Head coach Eriah Hayes’ group has put the State of Hockey on notice: La Crescent hockey is for real, and the best may be yet to come.

“I feel like we’re the hidden gem of the region,” said Hayes, who grew up in La Crescent and played for the high school squad, captained Minnesota State, and made it to the NHL. “We want to create a mini-Warroad down here and would like for people, when they think of La Crescent, to think of hockey. We’re trying to have a hockey hotbed down here in the corner of the state.”

Community-Based Hockey in Action

La Crescent’s rise is yet another example of how Minnesota’s community-based approach to the sport works. The area features an association made up entirely of volunteers dedicated to providing youth hockey opportunities to La Crescent and surrounding communities and a bustling, local rink (La Crescent Community Arena) that has become a home away from home for area skaters of all ages.

“When I started playing my youth hockey here, we had an outdoor rink and a tractor for a Zamboni, and I remember getting dressed in these little outhouses,” said Hayes, who now has three children of his own that he gets to watch skate on a regular basis, plus a newborn. “Ever since we built the arena here, there’s been a lot of excitement around the game, and it’s grown massively.”

“On game nights, the arena is like a centerpiece for the whole community, and the rink is packed full of kids,” Hayes added. “We bring kids into the locker room and have our players talk to them a bit. It gives the kids someone to look up to. It’s really what hockey in Minnesota is all about.”

La Crescent has also provided ample evidence that high-end talent can come from everywhere, not just the perceived hockey factories around large metro areas. Farrell and teammate Noah Gillette have been standouts this year, proving doubters wrong and setting an example for young players around the La Crescent area and in smaller towns throughout Minnesota.

“What makes Wyatt so special is how much he loves the game of hockey,” Hayes said of Farrell. “The kid is absolutely obsessed with the game and is always working on getting better. He’s always at the rink. He’s on the ice right now, buzzing around.”

Getting Back to Basics

A big reason for the high school team’s recent success has been the steady growth and attention to detail from the local youth association.

“I got involved after I was done playing about four years ago, and things started to click,” said Hayes. “We wanted to start by building from the bottom up. Every year, our numbers have been growing, and our high school team has gotten better. There’s been a lot of excitement about our program and our Mite program as well. I think we have about 50-60 kids, which are record numbers for us.”

Getting back to the basics has been critical for Hayes’ program.

“One thing we really stress at the youth and high school levels is being able to skate,” he said. “If you can’t skate, you’re going to have a tough time with the game. So, we work on breaking down a proper stride with the kids. If you can skate, you can play with anyone. And, with a good work ethic, the more work you put in, the better you’ll be.”

What’s Next for La Crescent?

“There’s a lot of buzz about hockey in La Crescent,” said Hayes. “I think we won four games my first couple of years here and now doing what we’re doing and producing a kid like Wyatt Farrell. There’s a lot of excitement about the present and the future. A lot of ex-players are buying into the program, and the numbers are growing.”

Could a State Tournament be in the Lancers’ future?

“I think that’s the ultimate goal for every little town,” Hayes replied. “A lot of people are taking notice and wanting to be a part of what we’re doing. We all hope at some point that we’ll be part of something truly special, because there’s nothing like the State Tournament.”