A homegrown hockey hotbed: Marlins mark 30th anniversary in Mitchell

Jan. 23—MITCHELL — Throughout most of their lives, Nate McCormick and Resse Amick have spent their winters strapped to a pair of skates and playing Mitchell Marlins ice hockey.

They're not the only ones who've been around the team for a while.

As the Marlins celebrate their 30th anniversary of organized hockey, members of Mitchell's hockey community, both past and present, have reminisced about the team's history and how the program continues to grow. It's also been a celebration of the close friendships everyone has formed.

"I feel there's a lot of other sports where people come and go," McCormick said. "Hockey is one of those where you are with the same group of guys your entire upbringing of playing this sport. I cherish being around these guys and creating a bond, a connection that we'll always have."

McCormick, a senior captain on the boys squad, was drawn to the speed of the game and the allure of danger that comes from playing ice hockey. The Marlins are also an example of hockey being a family sport, which is how Amick, a sophomore on the girls team, joined back in her first-grade year.

"I had an older cousin and an older sister who played hockey," she said. "That just kind of got me started playing hockey and I started skating when I was really, really young, and then I started playing hockey as soon as I could because I really wanted to do it."

Both have showcased their commitment to the Marlins, two out of the countless examples in the history of the organization. Each member of Mitchell's ice hockey community has formed their own definition and identity of what it means to be a Marlin.

For McCormick, being a Mitchell Marlin is where you have to push boundaries, a symbolic undertone to the evolution of the organization from where it was to where the Marlins are now.

"The biggest thing that it means to be a Mitchell Marlin is pushing yourself past boundaries," he said. "There's always been a ton of conflict, there's always been problems, and there's always been hardships. But we always push through, we always prosper and get through those hard times."

The Marlins began play as an exhibition team during the 1992-1993 season following a two-year forming period led by Mike Jenks. Several members involved in the formation of the team were born in Minnesota, seeking out the opportunity to play or have their kids play in Mitchell instead of going north to practice and play games in Huron.

"My oldest son Sam played hockey and when we came out here, there was no hockey," recalled Dave Tronnes, who served as the first vice president of the Mitchell Skating and Hockey Association. "Three nights a week, we drove to Huron for practice. A home game was 100 miles roundtrip."

For the first few years, the Marlins' home ice rink was outdoors at Monroe Park, as talks were ongoing with the city of Mitchell about building an indoor ice arena for year-round practice. Both current Marlins head coaches Nick Lemke and Chris Tronnes remember practicing outdoors in very cold temperatures when they played, but it also showcased the passion of the team back then.

"If you wanted to play (back then), then you're committing to a little bit of suffering being outside," Chris Tronnes said. "But it's what we love to do, so that's why we did it."

"I would've stayed out there until my fingers fell off, as I was like, 'Five more minutes, five more minutes,'" Lemke said. "(Hockey) has always been a game I've had passion for."

Although there were times when doubts began to set in with the Marlins community whether an indoor ice rink was going to be built, the Mitchell Activities Center opened on Jan. 12, 1996. The first full boys varsity season was played in 1997, with girls varsity beginning play not long after, and in 2006, the Mitchell boys hockey team won its first state championship.

Looking back at the first state title, which saw the Marlins defeat Brookings in Watertown, brought joy and satisfaction to all who were involved since the first day team dads flooded the Monroe Park ice rink. It was also a celebration of everything accomplished then, and what can be accomplished down the line.

"It was insane," said Chris Tronnes, who served as an assistant coach on the team. "I think everybody was going for Mitchell in the entire arena. Everyone cheered when Mitchell scored and went insane at the end of the game because we won."

"It was unbelievable," Dave Tronnes said about winning the title. "Everybody in the stands went crazy. We got back to Mitchell, there was a car parade on Main Street. We lived in that moment for an entire week... it shows how the hockey community has grown and is now accepted."

The title reinforced the dedication of the players on the ice to the Marlins, and the support between players of all ages continues to this day. It's also how Amick defines what it means to be a Marlin.

"You're a person who's dedicated," she said. "You're compassionate, have a love for the game, and supportive of your younger teammates no matter what. You're never gonna be down on someone, you'll always be super supportive, be happy to be there, and work hard.

To commemorate 30 years of ice hockey in Mitchell, Marlins players have worn a 30th anniversary patch on their jersey sleeve with the original logo of the team inside the zero. There will also be a "Blackout" night on Friday, Feb. 2, where the Marlins boys will take to the ice against Aberdeen in jerseys with the original black/grey color scheme.

"It's been all about being passionate and playing well this year," Lemke said about the upcoming event, "and just continuing to grow. We want to have some of the original people help create this building and be a part of a ceremonial puck drop to start the game... The way the culture has grown, it's nice to hear compliments from community members."

The players have also been learning about the history of the team, whether through past players, other community members, and through promotions highlighting the milestone this season. It has also allowed them to develop a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made from the beginning of the team.

"We've learned a lot more about when hockey started and where it started," Amick said. "It's awesome that we get to go out, get to play hard, get to have fun, and we get to look back and see how much girls hockey has changed and our association in general."

For most of the current players on both the boys and girls' varsity teams, they've been playing ice hockey for more than a decade with the same group of kids as their teammates. Seeing how the Marlins have changed and continue to change has been an incredible experience, speaking to the tight bonds formed over the years.

"We've been playing hockey as a group of guys the last 13, 14 years," McCormick said. "When you think about that, we've been part of this organization for half its lifetime. Just being able to see how we've been able to change and grow as an association has been really the most special part."

The hope is the Marlins' community continues to grow as ice hockey continues to rise throughout the state. However, community members want to see everyone become involved with the organization, not just limited to cheering their kids on ice.

"Everybody needs to be involved," Dave Tronnes said. "To really continue to make this successful, everyone needs to be involved. Not just the 80-20 rule, where 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. We need 50-50 at least. I always stress that you can never just not be involved."

There's also been improvements to the overall experience, most notably the addition in 2013 of a second sheet of ice. On game days, the arena has added goal lights to both ends of the rink, giving the game visual character. The main goal for all with the Marlins to increase the quality of the experience for everyone in attendance.

"It's just a blanket effort," Lemke said. "I want to see us grow this building. We have aspirations to do a locker room addition for both boys and girls varsity to just cleaning up and improving little things here and there. Just about everything we can do to improve is kind of on our radar."

Finally, the current players want to see more kids become involved in ice hockey to have the sport thrive in the city. Because if there's one takeaway over 30 years of Mitchell Marlins hockey, the sport holds a significant place for everyone involved, past and present.

"Hockey is here to stay in Mitchell," McCormick said. "We've really turned it into something special ... with all the pregame stuff, getting on the ice, the warmups, turn off the lights and all that. Hockey really starts to become something special, and I hope it continues to grow and the following keeps growing in Mitchell."