From the Sambergs and the Pionks to Hermantown with love


HERMANTOWN, Minn. — When Neal Pionk’s little brother Joe was 9, he walked into the Hermantown Arena warming shack and picked up the old, tan-coloured receiver off the free-for-use phone on the wall. For the elementary-school-aged Joe, this was an emergency. He needed to call his mom.

“Mom! Are you almost here?” he asked when she picked up at the other end of the line.

“I’m still at work,” she said. “Why?”

“Mom,” came the exasperated reply. “I’m starving.”

“Look around the rink,” she said. “Are there any moms there that I know?”

Joe bolted from the warming shack, leaving his mom with the familiar sound of the phone clanking off the wall as it dangled from its cord. He sprinted past groups of kids playing on Hermantown’s multiple outdoor ice sheets and into the main building in search of a friendly face. His mom, Karen, waited patiently as Joe navigated the sea of faces on the concourse until he found one he knew.

When he returned to the phone, nearly out of breath from his trip, it was to share the good news.

“Patty Samberg is here!”

“OK,” said Karen. “Borrow money from her and tell her I’m on my way.”

With that kind, trusting act, Joe Pionk could buy something to eat and play shinny a little longer.

The exchange was not an uncommon scene. For this city of 10,000 people, some two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the arena became a de facto daycare. Hermantown Arena is only an eight-minute walk from the elementary school. Hermantown High School is even closer: you can make it down the hill and across Hawk Circle Drive in five minutes, less if you hurry. And both trips are even faster if you dropped your equipment off at the rink before school, as the Pionks and Sambergs always did.

“It takes a village,” says Patty Samberg, before laughing off the idea that giving lunch money to someone else’s kid was a particularly big deal. It’s just what parents in Hermantown did. Her son Dylan would spend sun-up to sundown on the outdoor rinks as often as he could — just like the Pionk boys did — so she too understood the importance of a well-timed meal.

And it worked both ways. Knowing how much time the boys spent on a Saturday at the rink, Karen made it a habit of dropping in with a hot lunch.

“I’d walk in with a 9-by-13-inch hot dish, just a casserole or something, and I’d put it in the corner and say there you go,” she says.

Today, this well-fed, northeastern Minnesota city is known for its championships. The Hermantown Hawks won the boys’ state championships in 2007, 2016, 2017 and 2022. They’ve been runners-up six times since 2010. The Proctor/Hermantown combined girls’ team won it all in 2021 and were runners-up in 2022.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth, located less than 10 miles away, is always stocked with players from Hermantown, as are ECHL and AHL teams; 2013 Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc played two NHL games before continuing his career in Germany; Cole Koepke, a regular visitor to the Pionk house, plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning; zoom out even 10 miles and you can add Dominic Toninato, Derek Forbort and Karson Kuhlman to the current list of NHL talent.

Joe’s brother Neal plays hockey in Winnipeg, some 600 kilometres north of here. Patty’s son Dylan Samberg plays there, too. And when Neal got traded to the Jets from the New York Rangers in 2019, it was Patty and Mike Samberg who filled Karen and Scott Pionk in on the organization.

There is clearly something special about Hermantown. It doesn’t take an expert to see that. But how did it become such a hockey hotbed? What is the community doing so well to prepare so many kids for life on some of the game’s biggest stages?

It’s enough to make a writer want to visit Hermantown and find out.

The State of Hockey

Realistically, a place like Hermantown could only exist in Minnesota.

No state has more registered hockey players, coaches and officials than Minnesota. No state has more arenas per capita or boasts more top-tier college players. Minnesota hosts the American Hockey Hall of Fame and produces more NHL talent than any other state; 45 Minnesotans, including Pionk and Samberg, have played in the NHL this season. When the U.S. pulled off its famed Miracle on Ice, beating the Soviet Union on its way to Olympic gold at Lake Placid, 12 American players — more than half the team — were from Minnesota.

“And everyone was from northern Minnesota,” says Dylan’s dad, Mike Samberg. “It was unbelievable.”

For that generation, the Minnesota-led “Miracle” poured rocket fuel onto an already growing passion.

“It made us realize that kids from our area could be more than regional players,” says Scott Pionk. “There were five kids on that team from northeastern Minnesota and we saw that our guys might play beyond the local university. These guys took on the world.”

Scott Pionk, Mike Samberg, Jim Toninato and Keith Forbort were all northeastern Minnesotans who came into their own in 1980. All were within a year of each other in age, either finishing high school or in college, and all of them grew up playing at least some level of hockey. For them to see their peers win Olympic gold was life-changing — and it was only the beginning.

The Minnesota North Stars followed Team USA’s accomplishment by making their first Stanley Cup Final in 1981. Toninato’s team, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs qualified for the NCAA final tournament in three straight years from 1983 to 1985, making it to the Frozen Four in 1984 and 1985. Neal Broten, from Roseau, Minn., and a member of the Miracle on Ice team, became a regular fixture toward the top of the NHL scoring table, finishing as high as 10th place in a 105-point tie with Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk in 1985-86.

In just a few years, Pionk could see the change. When he grew up playing hockey five miles away from Hermantown in Proctor, Minn., a lot of his coaches still wore boots. Not everyone had grown up playing. When he started coaching in 1982, he and his peers all across the region became the teachers their generation didn’t always have.

“That ‘80 Olympic thing mattered. That’s when hockey really took off,” he says. “So then, when our era had kids, it was like ‘No. Don’t ever put limitations on them. There were kids from right here who won the gold medal.’ It raised our sights.”

Those sights were raised so high that when Neal Pionk was born, he got his spelling from Broten, the Minnesotan-born Olympic, NCAA and Stanley Cup champion — and not from Neil Young, whose records still feature prominently in his parents’ living room.

A community full of leaders

The Pionk family moved to Hermantown in 2000, a year after Scott was let go as the head coach of the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks.

In some ways, it was a difficult decision. When Scott played high school football in nearby Proctor, his coach issued a list of 10 goals the team had to accomplish. There were the usual bits about commitment, dedication and teamwork. At No. 10, in large capital letters: “DRILL HERMANTOWN.”

But Hermantown’s hockey community was gaining all kinds of momentum. Youth registration was exploding. The arena beside the school had been built in 1988, with youth programs making slow and steady progress. And by 2000, a lot of people who fell in love with hockey in the ‘80s had kids registered in youth sports. Hermantown’s schools had a good reputation and soon it became clear that the quality of coaching was outstanding, too. Former collegiate players from the area were returning in droves, ensuring that nobody teaching the sport was doing so while wearing boots anymore.

“It was a great, budding hockey community,” Scott says. “We could see it.”

As the region’s collegiate alumni returned home to coach and minor hockey registration soared, the “Miracle On Ice” generation of parents became aware of another important trend: the concept of steel sharpening steel. The community programs were so good — and so were the neighbouring Minnesotan teams they got to play against — that players developed to their full potential. Karen remembers being astounded when Neal started his NCAA career with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in 2015 and she found a photo of him with four other defencemen as 9-year-olds. All five of them had gone on to college hockey.

Hermantown built the same kind of momentum off the ice.

Whereas it was and still is the kind of agriculturally oriented community — John Deere versus Case IH debates loom large and it’s as common to live on an acreage as in town — the number of professionals and business owners has grown tremendously from the ‘90s to now.

Where Hermantown truly comes together and bonds, though, is at the rink.

“When you’re in a community that’s not faring well, it’s because there are no leaders,” Scott explains. “Hermantown is a town of professionals and small business owners. They’re all leaders. And I always said, even when I was coaching youth hockey here: don’t wreck it. There’s good coaches everywhere. We have former Bulldogs, former professionals coaching the kids. When you look at that from the outside, you want to get in.”

He says the local hockey association has all of the same arguments that every association has. Parents disagree about how big the teams should be, who should coach them, which tournaments they should attend and engage in all of the age-old debates.

But they recognize how badly they need each other.

“Hermantown agreed to disagree better than anywhere I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I always said the reason was everyone was a potential customer. This guy owned the plumbing company. He had the electric company. I had the landscaping company. Everyone was a potential customer — you weren’t going to make anybody mad.”

Patty Samberg says her favourite parts of the community collaboration are twofold. First, she loves the idea that children on the outdoor rinks learned to look out for each other. Well-practiced teenagers would find ways to include kids who had just graduated from pushing a chair around the ice. Every kid on the outdoor rink seemed to look up to somebody and every kid seemed to look out for somebody, too.

Mike says the access to outdoor ice is a big part of even the elite kids’ development.

“Outdoor rinks are a huge part of this whole area. They’re free. You go to (an indoor) rink now and it’s $200 an hour so you go on the ice and what happens? You work. There’s not a lot of play time where you get to do what you want, be creative and have fun. Our kids got to do stuff outside that they could never get to do at practice.”

“I don’t know about other hockey associations but I always loved how much fundraising we did,” Patty says. “It wasn’t just corporate donations. It was like a call for arms. Or the volunteerism. Everyone pitches in to feed children or flood the rink so it doesn’t cost as much. It’s done by volunteers.”

“And the donations of time, too,” Mike says. “Electricians and carpenters and the whole thing.”

“It sounds like a fairytale, almost,” adds Scott Pionk. “But it was a special place.”

Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg

Hockey fans in Winnipeg have become familiar with Hermantown through two players in particular: Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg.

The two knew each other well before both ended up as professional hockey players in the same Canadian city.

Pionk’s competitiveness was evident to his parents from the day he laced up his skates. When he was a toddler in Waterloo, where his dad coached in the USHL, Neal was a full participant in the dressing room and on the bus. The older boys were his heroes.

Karen remembers a meeting she had with Neal’s preschool teacher. The teacher told Karen that Neal was a great kid but that he didn’t count like the other kids did. Karen asked what that meant.

“Other kids count: 1, 2, 3, 4,” said the teacher. “Neal counts 1, 4, 7, 15.”

Karen understood immediately: Neal was counting through Waterloo jersey numbers. She pulled up a roster: the numbers Neal skipped weren’t on the roster.

In that same preschool coat room, kids were given hooks for their backpacks — each of which corresponded to a number from 1 to 10. Then there was Neal’s No. 17: he’d convinced his teacher to make him a custom number so he could match the jersey number of Waterloo forward Ryan Hale. One season, at a Waterloo home game, a 4-year-old Neal was brought onto the ice during warmups. He stayed on the ice for the national anthem, as instructed, and dutifully tucked his helmet under his arm for the Star Spangled Banner just like the players did. When the anthem was done, Pionk was just as committed to his role: instead of leaving the ice, he skated straight to the faceoff dot.

“I was watching from the bench,” Scott says. “He put his helmet back on and I was saying, ‘What is he doing?’”

“He wanted to play,” Karen says. “He was buckling his helmet up for the faceoff.”

“He knew what he was doing on the ice from the get-go,” Scott adds. “You never know how high they’re going to go in the hockey world but as far as competitiveness and hockey IQ, he was really fun to watch.”

Neal’s parents characterize his youth hockey as fearless. He’s not a big player by NHL standards but he was even smaller as a kid. When he got cut from the first round of tryouts to make the U.S. national camp at 16, size had a lot to do with it. But all Neal did was get angry, work hard, and impress enough scouts the following year to earn his college opportunity. He also picked up an idea from one of his Sioux City USHL teammates, slapping “PPW” stickers everywhere from his bedroom to the back bumper of his Chevrolet Impala.

PPW’s meaning? Prove People Wrong.

No matter who doubted him at any level — remember that Pionk went undrafted in the NHL — he never let go of his belief in himself. He excelled for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and earned himself an NHL contract with the Rangers.

Samberg grew up a few miles outside of Hermantown. His mom Patty jokes she married his dad Mike and moved north from Mankato because he was “a real northern man.”

Samberg won back-to-back state championships in high school (after toughing out a hunting trip, a story we’ve shared before). When Samberg went on to play defence for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, he wore the No. 4 like Pionk did.

Drafted by the Jets in 2017, Samberg’s parents were the first to call the Pionks when Neal got traded to Winnipeg two years later.

When Samberg signed his first contract and moved to Winnipeg to play for the Moose, he even moved in with Pionk and his girlfriend, Kiera — for a couple of weeks that is.

“He tried to stay longer but Neal kicked him out,” Mike laughs. “He thought he was going to live there forever, ‘Oh man, Neal’s so nice, he’s letting me stay with him.’”

“And his girlfriend,” Patty adds. “And Dylan was so proud. ‘I’m doing his dishes, I’m vacuuming …’

“After about the third week, Neal goes up to Dylan and says ‘Hey, I think it’s about time you found your own place. You know, they have people in the organization that will help you.’”

Somewhere in the ensuing laughter, Mike points out that Neal has been a tremendous mentor for Dylan. He also shares that he saw Kevin Cheveldayoff at a UMD Bulldogs game soon after Neal was acquired by Winnipeg. He told the Jets GM that he’d made a great trade and was absolutely going to love Pionk.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as competitive as he is. I mean those boys have been beating on each other in the Pionk backyard for years.”

Hermantown gets big

Driving around Hermantown, it’s easy to see the impacts of the city’s growth. You don’t have to drive too far from the 100-plus-year-old, federally subsidized homes meant to incentivize settling in the area to find brand new, ambitiously built developments. These new houses look comfortable yet quickly built; to look at them through the window of a moving car gives one the feeling that every one of them blurs into the next. I wonder who can afford them.

“This is exactly why I printed your story about Neal sponsoring the kid in Buffalo and gave it to all of the high school coaches,” Karen says. “This is what Hermantown is now. It’s a whole different financial level than what it was when we started.”

She recounts a story from 2020-21 that highlights the difference.

“It’s a year in the middle of a pandemic and people are losing their jobs and don’t know where their next paycheque is coming from, yet the high school team elects to have three jerseys. We weren’t even going to have a full season. They had warmups and sweats and shirts and all of that stuff to the tune of $500 for apparel. For off-ice apparel. Workout clothes. You’re just taking that gap and making it so big. If I’m a single mom and I have to fork over $500 … What if I have more than one player?”

She had gotten used to passing hockey equipment from one son to the next until there were too many holes in it to wear. The idea that any kid has to have the “right” stick or the “right” skates or the “right” apparel didn’t seem, well, right.

Not everybody agrees with Karen’s perspective on that. She knows that some parents thought it was easy for her to play spoilsport because her sons have all come and gone through the program. She also knows that she can’t stop what the community at large wants; despite her reservations, the team went ahead with its apparel order.

Still, the Pionk family does recognize its own privilege and how it ties into Hermantown’s run of hockey success.

“It’s an affluent community. There are a lot of professionals here,” Scott says.

While they fully understand that not every family in every community can bring casseroles to the rink on weekends or trust that someone else’s mom could buy their kid a meal, it’s that sense of community that the Pionks and Sambergs most want to protect. The idea that if a kid needs a meal, someone is going to make sure they get it. The sense that everyone involved is invested in each other’s success.

And whatever your opinion on team apparel, it’s clear that Hermantown’s run of hockey excellence is ongoing.

When the Pionks moved here, Hermantown Arena had just two state championship or runner-up banners hanging from the ceiling. Now, when you look up at the rafters, the banners fill the ceiling from end to end, and the Hermantown boys’ team won the state championship all over again in 2022. The community may be changing but the winning hasn’t stopped.

Not bad for a small city with no real downtown where roughly 40 kids try out for the high school team every year.

(All photos courtesy Murat Ates / The Athletic)


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