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Mystery Alaska in Wisconsin Rapids

02/22/2021, 8:15pm CST
By Michael Trzinski, special to WiPH

State tournament in central Wisconsin? In February? What?

Every season, Wisconsin high school hockey fans look forward to taking a trip to the state tournament in Madison, usually the first week of March.

This year, due to the pandemic, high school sports were turned upside down. Last March, the state hockey tournament was the last WIAA state event that played out before all hell broke loose in the country, and the world.

The 2020-21 high school hockey season was one that had never been seen before, and hopefully, will never be seen again. Teams started late, playing in WAHA or WIAA, and some teams only played half the normal number of games they would in a season. Dane County didn't allow hockey to be played in rinks around Madison for most of the year.

Rare was the team that played over 25 games.

Gradually, as schools, coaches, players, and fans got normalized in the way of living in the Covid world of 2020-21, it looked like a state tournament might actually become a reality.

But the Alliant Energy Center—the rink that has hosted the Wisconsin high school hockey state tournament for 44 of the last 45 years—was out, due to Dane County's restrictions.

In November, the WIAA was notified that the tournament would not be able to be played at the AEC, so they began to look elsewhere.

"We began with the Resch Center," said WIAA State Finals director Tom Shafranski. "However, another event was scheduled (there) and planned to take place."

Thus rebuffed, the WIAA began checking for other venues in central Wisconsin that might be willing to host the state tourney. Another school/community turned down the WIAA, so they had to look elsewhere.

"We were interested in locating a venue that would allow as many family members, students, and friends as possible in for the Championships," noted Shafranski.

Enter Lincoln High School and the South Wood County Rec Center in Wisconsin Rapids.

LHS athletic director Chris Feidt and rink manager Jim Arnold were willing to accept the WIAA and make the state tournament a reality in the crazy Covid world.

Everyone involved, from the school to the rink to the Wisconsin Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau embraced the tournament, stepping forward to assist and welcome the WIAA and the television production crew in every way.

"They all demonstrated their true dedication and passion for hockey and sincerely made an all-out effort to allow these enthusiastic student-athletes an opportunity at a State Championship," said Shafranski. "We all recognize this is an accomplishment that is not being afforded to all the other hockey states during this pandemic."

There were many volunteers involved, but perhaps most importantly, Jim Arnold and his family. 

Arnold has been the facilities manager since 2001. He does everything at the SWCRC and is the go-to guy. Without him, this tournament doesn't take place.

"It truly was a family affair," said Arnold. "But lots of other people helped too."

Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools employee Dave Klingforth headed the maintenance group, in place in case of emergencies. Fellow WRPS worker Eric Vroman drove the Zamboni when Arnold was working on other chores during the weekend.

LHS coaches Pat McDonald, Jeff Gunderson, and Mike Schindler were team hosts, keeping the tournament teams informed of the minutiae during the day, from where the locker rooms were to what time they needed to take the ice.

Chris Feidt was the on-site coordinator, ably assisted by Betsy Borski, making sure all aspects of Championship Saturday went smoothly.

Tony Grapsas, Candy Blakeslee, and Jay Capelle worked at the scorer's table: announcing, playing music, keeping stats, and running the clock.

Meredith Kleker of the WRACVB was front and center bright and early Saturday morning, welcoming the teams and fans to the SWC Rec Center.

Also pitching in were members of the South Wood County Youth Hockey Association, along with parents and players on the Wisconsin Valley Union Junior Eagles girls youth teams, who moved nets, picked up pucks after warmups, and kept the building neat and clean.

Tracy Arnold and daughter Izzy (10) and son Cooper (8) played huge roles. Tracy spent many hours cleaning, including getting the glass cleaned up, which every hockey parent knows, is a very fun job. On Saturday, she worked with the ticket takers and staff, making sure the front lobby area was running smoothly.

Cooper is Jim's shadow. The Squirt-age player, who has wonderful 'hockey flow,' helped with the nets and pegs, and could drive the Zamboni if he was tall enough. He knows every aspect of the rink and proclaims himself 'assistant manager.'

"He says he is the GM of our home rink," says Jim Arnold with a laugh. Jim and his family spent untold hours building a rink at their Rudolph home, and young Cooper is 'in charge.'

Also playing a key role was Brandon Abbott. He took two days off work (Friday and Saturday) to help set up the rink, and also coordinated the auxiliary police officers, Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department, and provided staging from his tap house for the camera stands.

Championship games for boys D1, boys D2, and girls were played at the SWCRC. The state semifinal games were played at sites hosted by the higher seed team around the state on Wednesday and Thursday.

But three games, with fans from all over the state, regional media, television crews, and broadcasters made this a really big deal for the rink in central Wisconsin. 

"The WIAA, on behalf of all our hockey players, coaches, school administrators, and high school hockey fans, salute Jim and his leadership in this effort," stated Shafranski. "I know it was a complete family effort by all the Arnolds to make the State Championship happen!"

Said Jim Arnold: "You know in the movie Mystery Alaska, the New York Rangers come to Mystery to take on the players from the 'Saturday game?'

"Well to me, it felt like that, with the WIAA bringing the State Tournament to our little rink. This was our Mystery Alaska."

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