Learning more than the game of hockey

Meet the North Branch C Squirt hockey team. Sitting: Connor Holman, Marcus McCarty, Zack “Butter” Larson, Julian Edoff, Dawson Johnson (goalie, lying), Braden Weyenberg, Zach “Diesel” Steffen and Gunnar Green. Standing: Jarret Bergman, Holden Whiting, Luke Fabini and Donald Ohmann. Not pictured: Brandon Hannah. The coaches are Jeff McCarty, HC Mike Fabini, Erling Opskar and Paul Edoff. Photo submitted by Mike Whiting

By Jon Tatting—

The state of hockey has had its ups and downs this season, yet it’s been a memorable one for the North Branch C Squirt hockey team.

The 9- and 10-year-old boys won first place in the Bryan Opskar Memorial Tournament earlier this month in Princeton. After skating by teams from Wayzata, Mahtomedi and St. Francis, they defeated Lakeville 4-1 in the championship game on Jan. 8.

The tournament honors Sgt. Bryan James Opskar who was killed in action on July 23, 2005, when an improvised explosive device struck his vehicle near Ar Rutbah in Iraq.

Sgt. Opskar’s father, Erling, was present and saluted with the Marine Color Guard at the first two opening games. He also spoke with the Squirts players before their final game.

“They know they were playing for something bigger than themselves,” said North Branch resident Stephanie Edoff, whose 9-year-old son Julian plays for the team. “They wanted to honor that, play hard and show respect.”

The North Branch C Squirts, throughout the weekend-long tournament, also honored injured high school hockey player Jack Jablonski by sporting #13 stickers on the back of their helmets. They boys donned purple jerseys in the final game to honor hockey parent and North Branch Area Hockey Association member/coach Steve Lee, who is battling pancreatic cancer.

The Opskar Memorial Tournament in Princeton honors Sgt. Bryan James Opskar who was killed in action on July 23, 2005, in Iraq. At the first two opening games, the soldier's father, Erling Opskar, joined the Marine Honor Guard in showing their respect with a salute. Photo by Tracy Carlson, PYHA Board of Directors.

In fact, the community is invited to join the Vikings hockey team to “Pack the Arena” on a special youth night in support of the fight against pancreatic cancer. The JV team plays at 5 p.m., followed by the varsity at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26 at the Chisago Ice Arena. Proceeds from the evening will benefit Pancan.org and the Steve Lee family. Everyone is encouraged to wear purple. Youth sporting their hockey jerseys will be admitted free of charge.

The C Squirts’ success can be measured without looking at the win/loss record, as the boys appear to get the bigger picture of life through the game they love to play.

“They’re a great group of kids and winners on and off the ice,” said Edoff of the team. “They’re having a phenomenal season. They’re learning about life — the good and bad parts. As another mom said, ‘We’re not just raising good hockey players but great men.’”

The season began in November and goes through March, and parents such as Edoff give much credit to the coaching staff, players and fellow parents for all their volunteerism and dedication of time.

She added the association, with support from the community, continues to work hard on making the proposed arena near Stacy a reality for the future of North Branch hockey.

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