Adjusting to the state of hockey

Local hockey standout earns spot at Junior Fest, Premier Prep League

North Branch 2013-14 senior Erynn Downey lifts weights at North Branch Area High School as  part of a summer program put on by Viking football coach Nick Nitti. Downey recently played in the Minnensota Girls Hockey Coaches Association Junior Festival, a showcase of Minnesota's top athletes returning to the ice as seniors in the 2013-14 school year.

North Branch 2013-14 senior Erynn Downey lifts weights at North Branch Area High School as part of a summer program put on by Viking football coach Nick Nitti. Downey recently played in the Minnensota Girls Hockey Coaches Association Junior Festival, a showcase of Minnesota’s top athletes returning to the ice as seniors in the 2013-14 school year.

Dancing didn’t suit her, figure skating was too slow, and she wasn’t flexible enough for gymnastics. At 13 years old, Erynn Downey wanted to find a sport she loved.

Downey liked being on ice and knew she wanted to go fast. So her dad, Robert, signed her up for a peewee hockey league near Tacoma, Wash., where she was born and raised.

“I started skipping figure skating practice to go to my brother’s hockey games,” Downey said. “I didn’t like the swirls and twirls in figure skating, but I liked going fast.”

A year later, Downey played with a different team: an all-boys team.

“That’s where I got my speed — from keeping up with the boys,” Downey said. “They didn’t treat me any differently; if anything, they aimed for me. But it was like having a big, older group of brothers because they had my back if anyone from the other teams had it out for me.”

The summer before Downey started high school as a freshman, her family moved to Minnesota to be closer to family in Missouri and so Downey and her then-10-year-old brother, Kaeyl, could play hockey year-round.

After three years in North Branch playing for the St. Francis/North Branch girls hockey team, Downey said the move was worth it.

The center/wing made the cut for the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association Junior Festival, reserved for the top high school juniors and upcoming seniors in the state. The hockey association holds tryouts across Minnesota in late winter, then chooses the top 112 players to form eight teams of 14.

Erynn Downey on the ice during a game this year.  File photo

Erynn Downey on the ice during a game this year.
File photo

Downey and the other Junior Fest girls waited a long time to find out if they made the team — about four months.

“I wasn’t as confident about the tryout, because I was supposed to pick out my prom dress that day, too, so my focus wasn’t 100 percent,” Downey said. “By the time we heard back, I had almost forgotten about trying out — then when my mom said I made it, I wanted to cry.”

Downey made Team White, while another Fighting Saints skater, Maddi Kahluer, made Team Navy Blue.

Although Downey’s team finished in the lower half of the tournament bracket, she said the experience was unlike any other. Plus, by making a Junior Fest team, Downey automatically earned a spot in the elite Premier Prep League at Schwan’s Super Rink in Blaine this fall.

“I’m so happy I got to play — it’s cool to see girls from all over that you don’t get to play against during the season because they live far away,” Downey said. “I think we’re kind of all the same, it’s just about getting better and making yourself better.”

Downey’s drive may help the St. Francis/North Branch hockey team come back from a 6-18-1 season this winter, where Downey played in all 25 games.

When she isn’t working part time at the Gap Outlet in North Branch, Downey is driving 40 miles two days per week to practice with the St. Francis/North Branch team after a weight lifting program that has her in the North Branch gym with most of the Viking football team from 9-11 a.m. weekdays.

Despite the Fighting Saints’ not recording a winning season, Downey said she is thankful her dad and mom, Jennifer, chose to move to North Branch.

“Why wouldn’t we move to the state of hockey?” Downey said. “We could have gone anywhere. But North Branch welcomed us with smiles and really reached out to me — I had friends the first day of school. It has made high school a great experience.”

Downey is entering her senior year at North Branch and hopes to play college hockey while studying to be a pediatric or orthopedic nurse.

 

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