by Jim Boyle


The Minnesota Wild and a pair of youth hockey associations pulled off the surprise of a lifetime for two U12 B girls hockey teams.

They managed to schedule and plan a Minnesota Wild Youth Hockey Spotlight Game presented by U.S. Bank on Nov. 15 without them knowing about it. The game was held Wednesday night in the Cornerstone Automotive rink in front of a large crowed at the Furniture and Things Community Event Center in Elk River.

After pre-game meals at Sammy’s Pizza and Buffalo Wild Wings in Elk River, an Elk River girls team and their opponent, a Princeton-Becker-Big Lake team, arrived at the event center to a sea of screaming fans and fellow youth hockey association skaters who raised their sticks to greet them as they entered the arena. That was the just the beginning of the surprises for the girls.

Minnesota Wild TV analyst Wes Walz and his former Wild teammate Stephane Veilleux served as honorary coaches for the game. Veilleux played 12 seasons for the Minnesota Wild. Walz, a former Wild captain, played in 607 NHL games during his career and now works as an analyst for Bally Sports North that broadcasts Wild games.

Other participants brought a litany of sights and sounds from a typical Minnesota Wild game experience at the Xcel Energy Center to create a one-of-kind experience inside the Elk River event center.

Adam Abrams, the Minnesota Wild in-arena announcer, made the crowd roar when he announced penalties and goals with the same gusto he does when Kirill Kaprizov scores or an opposing player gets sent to the penalty box for a tripping call.

Olivia Fredensborg and Mya Brunelle scored goals for the Elks and had the pleasure of hearing their names belted out by Abrams after he issued his signature “scoring for Minnesota” call with the only change to it being the insertion of the words “Elk River” instead of “Minnesota.”

Elk River won the game 2-1, but both teams skated away winners and gathered at center ice for photos with their coaches and Nordy.

Before the game John deCausmeaker, Minnesota Wild national anthem singer, sang for the crowd after a pair of Guardians of the Game were announced.

Representing Princeton-Becker-Big Lake was Keri Rickard, a mother of six kids from ages 5 months to 15 years old. She dreamed of being a soldier since she was a little girl. She served in the Army for 8.5 years and throughout that time was stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sam, Houston, Texas.

She started as an X-ray technician in the U.S. Army and finished her time in the service as a human resource specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves. She was joined by her family, including her daughter, Kaylyn, who plays for the Tigers.

Representing Elk River was Tayler Cunningham, a product of the Anoka youth hockey program and the Elk River High School hockey program where she played under coach Brian Ballenger her sophomore year through her senior season.

Cunningham is in the U.S. Air Force and has been in active duty for 2.5 years. She has been stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and currently is stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. She is getting ready to deploy to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in April. She has won Airmen of the Quarter, an Air Force Achievement Medal, and Senior Airmen Below the Zone all in the past six months.

She now works in geospatial intelligence for the Air Force and said she was honored to be asked to serve as Guardian of the Game for the Spotlight Game.

She was a mentor to Maizie Baade during her junior year while she played for the Elks high school team. She did that through a Little Sisters mentorship program, and on Wednesday she got to see Maizie play for the Elk River U12 B team. She also mentored Maizie’s sister, Sydney, as a senior.

“For them to even think of me and have the chance to give back to them is amazing,” Cunningham said.

Even more amazing to Cunningham is the experience these 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls were getting Wednesday night.

“I wish I had this experience,” she said. “These girls are going to remember this forever. This is going to be one of their ultimate youth hockey memories.”

Those memories will include high-fives after the game from Nordy, the Minnesota Wild mascot and flag bearer. He came to game to stab the Minnesota Wild flag into center ice, rev the crowd up before and during the game as well as help at the end with the Chuck-A-Puck contest.

Elk River’s own Jonna Curtis did the honors of announcing “Let’s play hockey” for the fans in attendance. The Elk River native helped her team make it to state four out of the five years she played for Elk River. She went on to play for the University of New Hampshire.

For the last four years she has been the assistant captain playing professional hockey for the Minnesota Whitecaps in the Premier Hockey Federation.

Audra Martin, of Bally Sports North, interviewed honorary coaches Walz and Veilleux after the first period was over.

Each hockey player was to receive a custom jersey for this game along with a Wild and U.S. Bank branded water bottle, duffel bag, hat and commemorative puck, and all fans in attendance were to receive a Spotlight Rally towel.

Proceeds from the Chuck-A-Puck contest will be split between the Elk River and Princeton youth hockey associations. The grand prize winner got two tickets to a Wild game against the Washington Capitals. Others got signed Minnesota Wild merchandise and memorabilia.

This year marks the fifth season the Minnesota Wild has hosted Youth Hockey Spotlight Games in the State of Hockey. Walz remains undefeated in games he has served as honorary coach.

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