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Sixteen teams compete in Paul Bunyan International Hockey Tournament.

U.S. Olympic gold medal hockey player Phil Verchota of Bemidji was guest speaker at the opening ceremony of the annual Paul Bunyan Pee Wee International Hockey Tournament on Friday morning at the Sanford Center. Sixteen teams are competing at various rinks in town through Sunday. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

By Justin Glawe

BEMIDJI – At three rinks across the city Friday, pee wee players and parents competed and cheered in drastically different environments.

But regardless of the location, the song remained the same.

“Head up!”

“Stick on the ice!”

And, simply, “Skate! Skate!”

Parents played equal parts cheerleader, coach and lobbyist.

“High stick!” Daren Pladson yelled toward the ice. His from-the-stands officiating appeared to work as a raised hand and blown whistle from a real referee followed the bellow. “Sometimes you have to remind the officials of the simplest things,” he said.

Pladson’s son Riley minded the net for Fargo as they took on St. Cloud at Bemidji Community Arena. He was one of a few hundred youth in town for the Paul Bunyan International Hockey Tournament.

Chandler Ibach, also of Fargo, was watched by his grandmother Ilene Clemenson – from above the rink, in  a comfortable chair and behind glass that muted the sounds of the game.

Slashing sticks, careening pucks and bouncing boards were all a bit more muffled.

Clemenson’s perch was a far cry from the available seats at Nymore Arena. There, worn wooden benches and a spot on the glass, where defensemen took one last look over their shoulder for a pursuer before chasing the puck into  dangerous  corners, offered some of the best vantage points.

 “The kids like playing this rink because it’s really quick,” Matt Mostad said, just before explaining the frigid disadvantage of the decades-old facility. “When it’s really cold outside, it’s really cold in here.”

At Nymore, the smell of sweat-soaked pads hung in the air and ceiling-suspended insulation showed scars from errant, flying pucks. But where the Bemidji boys started the day – Sanford Center – a puck would have to be shot out of a cannon to reach the rafters.

Mostad was there, and so was his son, Gage. The 10-year-old was on Eagan’s bench at Nymore Friday afternoon as a Bemidji-born escort – as were 15 other Bemidji squirts, on 15 other benches for teams from across Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota and one from Ontario, Canada.

Gage will have to wait for next year to join his pee-wee friends in the tournament, marking the second late start in his young hockey life.

“He went to the middle of the ice and sat down and cried,” Mostad said of his then 4-year-old son’s first skating excursion. “But when he turned six, he said ‘I want to play hockey.’”

Join the club.

Whether it was the 4,700-seat Sanford Center, $1 bag of popcorn Nymore or the fireplace lobby-equipped Bemidji Community Arena, though, on-ice results are what mattered, Pladson said.

“We want to win.”