BUFFALO, Minn. -- When most kids watch sports, they dream of scoring an overtime goal, sinking a buzzer-beating jump shot or draining a long-range putt. As a kid growing up in small-town Minnesota, Karl Jaeger’s dream was to paint the perfect picture of all of those things.

“I always envisioned being a sports artist,” said Jaeger, now 46. “I had no idea how I was going to get there, but I just always tried to get better as an artist.”

In an example of the late Ralph Engelstad’s mantra that dreams come true only after you wake up and go to work, today Jaeger’s artistry can be seen not in galleries or above the mantel in stately homes, but on the walls of sports venues throughout the region and all across the country.

Jaeger is the primary face behind KJ Branding, which is based in Buffalo, on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, and currently has 10 employees (although he pointed out they are looking to expand not only their workforce but also its 5,000-square-foot building). For the past decade, the company has been working with hockey programs and their arenas to make them a place that feels like home, and honors the history of their program.

Karl Jaeger. Contributed / KJ Branding
Karl Jaeger. Contributed / KJ Branding

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Serving their country

The company is responsible for the new mural one sees when entering the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, which depicts the Huskies’ run to the 2021 NCAA title game. They are the folks who did the skating Goldy Gopher logo, backlit with gold neon lights, that Minnesota Gophers see just outside their locker room in Minneapolis. KJ Branding created the wall-size mural commemorating the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs’ first NCAA title from 2011 that one sees when you enter Amsoil Arena’s hockey offices in Duluth. And most recently, the makeover of one part of the Super Rink in Blaine to feel like home for the players who will skate for Team USA’s women’s hockey entry in the 2022 Winter Olympics, was a bit of a rush job over the summer for Jaeger and his crew.

A large-scale skating Goldy logo, backlit in gold neon, greets Minnesota Gophers outside their team locker room at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Contributed / KJ Branding
A large-scale skating Goldy logo, backlit in gold neon, greets Minnesota Gophers outside their team locker room at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis. Contributed / KJ Branding

“They took priority with us. The Olympic team jumped the line over a lot of different projects and we were able to get a good start for them before the team moved in,” Jaeger said, noting the wall that shows highlights from Team USA’s past successes in Olympic play, and the space they left for an update in six months or so. “Twenty twenty-two is sitting there with a big blank spot, and it will look really good with a gold medal on top of it.”

Jaeger had previously done work for Katie Million, who is USA Hockey’s director of women’s national team programs and is overseeing their residency program in Blaine. When Million was the WCHA women’s hockey commissioner, Jaeger did work on the league offices in Bloomington. Needing to make their part of the Super Rink feel like a true home for Team USA, Jaeger was Million’s first call.

“He’s knocked it out of the park for us with this USA Hockey project,” Million said. “Like a lot of rinks, the room was pretty plain and nondescript. We wanted to give the women a feeling of professionalism and a feeling that this is their home base.”

Early success in Duluth and Bemidji

He was already having some success as a sports artist, but Jaeger’s work with arena projects really hit a higher gear in 2010 when Amsoil Arena in Duluth and the Sanford Center in Bemidji were being built. He worked on both facilities, incorporating team logos, photos of past players and coaches, tributes to players who have gone on to professional and Olympic teams and other designs to make them a true “home ice” for the Bulldogs and Beavers. From there, the word spread quickly that KJ Branding was the place to call for rink design.

Past All American players for the Bemidji State Beavers are remembered on a wall near their locker room inside the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. Contributed / KJ Branding
Past All American players for the Bemidji State Beavers are remembered on a wall near their locker room inside the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. Contributed / KJ Branding

“That’s how it started with us doing the wall graphics,” recalled Jaeger, who noted that they do no marketing or advertising. “We had no idea what would come of it, and then we started getting questions from other teams and coaches. That pretty much took over our business and it’s really all we do now.”

When coaches from other teams started seeing the work that had been done in Duluth and Bemidji, the word of mouth about Jaeger’s work spread faster than a slap shot from the blue line.

The design work at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, including a wall showing the former Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in the NHL, was one of the first large-scale arena projects that KJ Branding completed in 2010. Contributed / KJ Branding
The design work at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, including a wall showing the former Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs in the NHL, was one of the first large-scale arena projects that KJ Branding completed in 2010. Contributed / KJ Branding

“I can’t tell you how many times a coach will tell me, ‘Hey, I was just up visiting this rink. We need something like that,’” Jaeger said. “Or the people from Duluth will call and tell me I’m going to hear from another coach who just visited and wants something like what we have. All of these coaches are friends, but they all compete with each other so they see what someone else has and want to do it just a little bit better.”

Huskies home ice

St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson was an assistant at Minnesota Duluth, his alma mater, when Amsoil opened and worked with Jaeger then. Now running the Huskies program, he said the elements that KJ Branding brings to their rink -- including that new 2021 Frozen Four mural -- are huge parts of what makes the facility and the program attractive.

“You’re painting a picture of your program, from the past to the present. Alumni love it because it brings back memories whenever they come through the locker room, and recruits love it because it helps give them a feel for the program,” Larson said. “There are multiple elements here, but recruits really love the NHL wall, across from the locker room. It’s a nice lit-up display with every NHL team’s logo and the names of guys that were either drafted or played for those NHL teams. Obviously, it’s the goal of most of our guys to get there, so being able to point to our success developing players is nice.”

Just like an athlete, Jaeger said that they are constantly trying to improve their work -- which includes other sports programs like the Minnesota Timberwolves, numerous college basketball teams and golf’s Ryder Cup.

“We’re a small company but we do some big stuff,” he said. “Our team is awesome and we’re all kind of learning as we go. It’s all custom, so there’s no real guidebook, so we’re dialing it in but we’re all getting better constantly.”