Jared Rubado: Looking back at how Northstar added to Alexandria's great hockey scene
The Northstar Christian Academy is constantly setting a new bar for itself, and it's because of their commitment to their culture.
Hockey has been a part of my life since I was born. My dad grew up in Grand Rapids, one of the best hockey communities in Minnesota.
When I was 2-years-old, Santa gave me my first pair of skates for Christmas. Now I'm 24, and hockey is still part of my holiday routine.
On Dec. 26, I made my yearly trip to my friend's house where we played pick-up hockey on his lake. Most of the guys are former teammates of mine from high school, and it's one of the days I look forward to every year. We don't see each other as much anymore, so there's a lot of catching up to do. When my friends asked me about my job, there was always one question that came up: what's the deal with this prep school in Alexandria?
It's a good question because the answer is quite remarkable. In a short time, the Northstar Knights of the Northstar Christian Academy have become not just a team that wins, but one that is setting up many athletes to play at the next level.
Now in their third year, three players, including Alexandria's Joe Westlund, signed tenders to play juniors in the North American Hockey League. Westlund was also a multiple-year varsity player in the Alexandria High School system before moving to Northstar his senior year.
The Knights’ Ben Strinden and Jakob Stender were drafted to the United States Hockey League last spring. To put this in perspective, it's rare for a typical high school hockey program to have more than one player sign a tender in a single season.
Comparing Northstar to the average hockey program in Minnesota is silly because they play in completely different settings. Northstar can recruit kids from around the world to play, while Alexandria is limited to greater Douglas County. They’re not the same. However, it’s worth noting that a starter program has already solidified itself as one of the top teams in the country.
What's puzzled me is how can a team this new be this successful? The 18U Knights rose to the top prep hockey league in North America in under two seasons. Northstar added a 16U team this year, and they immediately started winning. Even with the most talented players, that level of early success is difficult.
On Oct. 25, I went to the Knights doubleheader against CarShield. I've been to the facility a handful of times and have caught several 18U games. This was my first time covering the 16U club. During the third period, Northstar hockey director Rick Randazzo invited me to join the postgame festivities in the locker room.
Randazzo said they started a new winning tradition for home games where the players and their dads would go into the locker room and watch the team hand out postgame awards. The player who won the award from the previous week selects the new winner. The celebration ends with the team huddling and swaying to Macklemore's "Glorious." While it was somewhat cheesy, it was also cool to see the players react to their teammates boosting each other up. It was then when I understood that playing for Northstar is much more than being a hockey player.
I've heard the phrase, "This team is a family," more times than I can count. While I don't doubt that other teams in the area have that connection, it was cool to see it first hand with a bunch of kids that haven't played together for more than a couple of weeks. If you didn't know the backstory of the Knights, you'd think that both teams had grown up playing together for years. Instead, they're kids hungry for an opportunity to be better on and off the ice.
Hockey teams in Alexandria have been very successful for a long time. The boys and girls high school teams routinely find themselves in section championships, along with some state tournament runs. Many local players have gotten the chance to compete at the next level. The Blizzard is not far removed from its first NA3HL playoff series victory. Northstar is looking to add to Alexandria’s tradition of success, and is off to a great start.
(Editor’s note: This column is changed slightly from an online version that ran on Dec. 29 to better reflect how hockey played at a prep academy like Northstar in Alexandria is different from programs that play in the Minnesota State High School League)