Bemidji State's Eric Pohlkamp took an unlikely path to gold with the help of his family

Jan. 19—On a brisk afternoon New Year's Day walk in Gothenburg, Sweden, three decades of parenthood came full circle for Joe and Mary Pohlkamp.

The two were out on the town with their six kids. In the front of the pack were their three daughters — Sarah, Abby and Molly — and their daughter-in-law, Maddi.

Trailing several feet behind were their sons — Eric, Chris and Matt.

Behind them, Joe and Mary didn't say much. They just quietly walked and took it all in.

"It was the first time we were together as a family in two and a half years since Matt and Maddi got married," Joe said softly.

The Pohlkamp family is spread out across the country. Molly lives with Joe and Mary and is a senior at Brainerd High School, while Abby is a fifth-year women's hockey player at St. Scholastica. Sarah's job took her to San Jose, Calif. Matt and Maddi work in a Stevens Point, Wis., school district, while Chris and his wife live just outside of Cleveland.

It took a grand circumstance for the Pohlkamps to reunite for the first time since 2021, and they took the road less traveled to get there.

Eric became the first Bemidji State men's hockey player to represent Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship — the world's most prestigious annual international hockey tournament. The freshman defenseman was selected to play in the tournament for players under 20 years old. It's a competition that showcases hockey's best prospects.

When the news broke of his selection, the Pohlkamp family booked their tickets.

"When you learn your brother is going to put on a USA jersey and play World Juniors, you go," Chris said. "The best players in the world at that age play in that tournament. There's a sense of pride and surrealness when you have somebody that close to you put on that jersey, and I had to see it."

Eric wasn't just the first Beaver to play for Team USA. He and his Norwegian teammate, Kasper Magnussen, became the first active BSU skaters to play in the WJC. And on Jan. 5, Eric became the first Bemidji State men's hockey player to medal when the Americans beat Sweden 6-2 in the championship game.

Sitting in a corner section of the Scandinavium was a slew of Pohlkamps decked out in USA apparel with hoarse voices and ear-to-ear, teeth-showing grins.

"When you're walking into the rink about to watch a gold medal game, you think to yourself 'This is one of the coolest sporting experiences you'll ever witness,'" Chris said. "Add the fact that your brother is playing in it, and for your country, you can't describe what that feels like."

That indescribable sensation Chris felt watching a gold medal placed around Eric's neck was fitting, considering his unique journey to one of hockey's biggest stages.

On any given winter evening, one could find Joe shoveling off a patch of ice on White Sand Lake in the backyard. He mounted long wooden boards behind two battered hockey nets on each end of a shortened playing surface as if they had any chance of corralling the thousands of errant pucks that often flew into the neighboring yards.

Joe didn't grow up playing hockey, but he carved out a small slice of outdoor hockey paradise for his kids and their friends for years. Though, the pick-up games came with more intensity than he bargained for.

"Chris was more relaxed, but Matt and I were so competitive," Eric said. "Matt would cheat the rules to win, then I'd cheat to try and beat him. I couldn't talk back to Matt either because he'd beat the piss out of me. ... Those hockey games with us got chippy. One time, I high-sticked Chris right in the face. I thought he was going to kill me."

Brainerd isn't a revered hockey community, but Matt and Chris found their path to the college level through the high school and junior ranks. Matt graduated from BHS in 2012 after committing to play Division I at Bowling Green. Chris followed Matt to Ohio two years later to play for the Falcons.

Eric watched his brothers have successful collegiate and professional hockey careers. After graduating college in 2017, Matt played two seasons in the ECHL before moving to England to play for the Coventry Blaze in 2019. Chris also played in Coventry after graduating from BGSU in 2019.

Like his siblings, Eric skipped his last year of bantam hockey to play at the varsity level as a freshman. Unlike his brothers, he gave up his senior year of high school hockey to start his stint for the USHL's Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in 2021.

Despite his sky-high aspirations, the early going of his junior hockey career wasn't lucrative. Through the midway point of his first season, Eric had two assists in 28 games. However, he still had an offer to play for the Beavers. He also had an offer from Bowling Green.

"It was either Bemidji or Bowling Green, and there was no chance I was going to Bowling Green," Eric said. "I'd seen it all out there. It was a very tough phone call to tell them I was coming here instead. I get to play in front of my parents against some big-time teams. It was a pretty easy decision."

Once his commitment to BSU was made public on Jan. 18, 2022, Eric's point total skyrocketed. He collected 23 goals and 43 assists in 99 games, garnering USHL Defenseman of the Year following his second season in 2022-23.

Eric also earned a nod to play for Team USA in the World Junior A Challenge, a similarly structured international competition to the WJC held in Canada annually. Eric played on the American team with other top USHL players, culminating in a 5-2 win over Canada East in the championship game at the Cornwall Civic Complex in Cornwall, Ontario.

"I didn't even know what (the Junior A Challenge) was, honestly," Eric added. "It's basically an all-star team, and they invited all of these kids to play in it. I wasn't invited at first.

"My (Cedar Rapids) coach called me, and I thought I was in trouble. ... He told me they wanted me to come out there and play in the Junior A. When I was there, I had the same mentality I always have: Screw it, play with nothing to lose."

By the time he was slated to enter his first collegiate season at Bemidji State, Eric already surpassed his brothers regarding prospect prowess. That was confirmed on June 29 when he became the fourth Bemidji State player to get picked in the NHL Entry Draft. He was selected in the fifth round with the 132nd pick by the San Jose Sharks.

It's no stretch to say that Eric is the most accomplished Bemidji State Athletics recruit ever.

"He's so driven to make it to the NHL," Joe said. "A lot of things have to go your way to get there. You have to stay healthy. You have to get opportunities. But his drive to make that possible impresses me every day, and he's going to keep going. He's relentless."

Eric received his first collegiate accolade before he donned a Bemidji State jersey. He was named CCHA Preseason Freshman of the Year by the coaches and the media. He also earned an invite to the U.S. World Junior Showcase in June, which serves as a tryout period for Team USA's WJC team.

Receiving a spot at the showcase is harder for kids who took Pohlkamp's route to get considered. Many of the players selected come from the National Team Development Program — a USA Hockey program aimed to identify elite players and centralize their training. NTDP players don't play junior hockey and leave high school early for the two-year program in Plymouth, Mich.

"There was a moment where Matt and I were talking about how when we were his age, we were miles away from (playing in the WJC)," Chris said. "The fact that he was even in the conversation, I was just fired up he even made the showcase. We never doubted him, but there's always doubt in his chances or the situation he's in."

Simply put, it's often more challenging for a player to make the final American WJC roster without going through the development program.

"When you're watching the draft, you start preparing for him to not get drafted," Chris continued. "When World Juniors come around, you prepare for him not to get picked. He's not a kid who had expectations, only the ones he set for himself."

Twelve games into his BSU career, Eric was selected to the WJC preliminary roster, which included a final tryout in Plymouth in mid-December. The right-handed blueliner was on the bubble to make the team but made the final cut and punched his ticket to Sweden.

Simultaneously, he punched nine other tickets to go with him.

"It hit us when we talked to Matt about Eric making the team," Joe said. "Matt said, 'This is as big of a tournament as the Stanley Cup.' Once that hit us, we just realized we had to go. It's our kid playing this, and we had to be there."

He recalled what a surreal experience it was for their family.

"You watch all of these players in the past who played for this team, and then you realize your kid is getting the same opportunity; it kind of sends a tingle down your spine," Joe added. "It's just surreal. You have to pinch yourself."

Eric relished the feeling of being the villain by winning the gold medal against the host country.

"Just being out there, you could hear a pin drop in that arena after we won it," Eric said. "When you're in the pile, you're just trying to find the next guy to hug. I don't think I'll ever forget looking across the ice for the first time and seeing Sweden with their heads buried. That was so nice to see."

After he got his medal, Eric rushed to his family, who were waiting for him behind the Team USA bench. The conversation was short, but the faces in the rare family photo told the whole story.

"The second I saw him on the ice, when I saw him out here on his first shift, it was worth it," Chris said. "The traveling, missing work and all of the craziness that comes with that was worth it. My freaking brother won a gold medal. Can you believe it?"

The Team USA players and families commenced a brief celebratory party before they took red-eye flights back to the States. While most returned to their top-ranked schools in big cities, Eric's path took him to the place that makes him feel at home.

He chose Bemidji because he wanted to etch a different path for himself than his brothers' but he also wanted to give his parents an opportunity to watch him play.

The confident, boisterous and admitted, loud-spoken freshman felt his voice get a little softer when asked how much it means to him to play in front of his family.

"There has to be something wrong with hockey parents," Eric quipped. "I mean, you really have to love it and love it for your kids to do everything they do. For my parents, it wouldn't matter if I played soccer, football or whatever; they'd support me in every way they can."

Joe said: "As tough as that kid can be with us sometimes, he's a big teddy bear. You know he cares. He's so much like his mother, and they just care for each other so much. He once heard Mary say that her only regret was not watching (Matt and Chris) play more. ... I think that stuck with Eric; he cares about us being there to watch him play."

Not every draft pick makes it to the NHL, but Eric is fueled to do right by the people who took a chance on him. He reminds himself of the more revered prospects he had to beat out to get his opportunity to win a gold medal.

But with every new milestone he garners, Eric keeps himself grounded. Deep down, he's still the little brother who grew up on the pond in the backyard, wanting to play with the big boys. He's still the wide-eyed kid who fell in love with the game of hockey through his family.