By: Danny Mooers; Dordt College Sports Information Assistant
Northwest Iowa: a haven for elite football, basketball and volleyball players. Fall Friday nights are reserved for football games with rivalries stretching back decades. Other evenings showcase volleyball matches between teams who produce stand out college players every year. High school basketball dominates the freezing winter months. Parents and athletes barely have time to breathe between seasons.
The amount of history in Northwest Iowa involving these three sports is astonishing. The proof is in a quick glance back at Iowa state high school record books. Western Christian and Unity Christian are both in the top ten for the most state championships in boys basketball. Western and Unity are also in the top ten for the most volleyball state championships.
Now, what about hockey? The sport that many in the area attribute to Canada and other northern states. Canadians are no strangers to Northwest Iowa. The 1885 Iowa Census showed that Plymouth County was home to the highest percentage of Canadians in all Iowa counties.
Travel back three years to 1882 and John T. Adams, his wife and nine children could be found journeying from their home in Bayfield, Ontario to what is now LeMars, Iowa. With the harsh Iowa winters forcing everyone to stay inside, Adams retaliated by building a covered ice rink. It officially opened in 1883. It became home to skating contests and numerous other ice activities. One year later, on Jan. 12, 1884, a team from LeMars faced off against a team from the neighboring village of Seney. Spectators paid ten cents to attend the game and the players paid 15 cents to participate. While Vermont holds the official record for the first organized non-amateur hockey game in North America, Northwest Iowa was pivotal in its development in the United States.
Fast forward 83 years to a cold fall morning in Sioux Center. George Fernhout and several friends were walking from their off campus apartment through Central Park on their way to class. A pond in the middle of the park was beginning to freeze and sparked an idea in the Canadian’s minds. Christmas break came and went and the boys made the 24 hour drive from Edmonton to Sioux Center with their hockey equipment.
The first few months of the spring semester of 1968 were spent on that Central Park pond playing “shinny”, the term used for pick-up hockey. The rest of their free time was spent plotting the best way to start a team at Dordt the following year.
The fall of 1968 arrived and the Sioux Center community groundskeepers offered to flood the pond for Fernhout and the rest of his mates.
“I spent evenings with the groundskeeper teaching him on how to properly flood the rink,” Fernhout said. “No, he should not spray the water up in the air and let it fall like rain.”
Before Christmas break, Fernhout met with Douglass Ribbens to discuss the potential of starting a hockey team at Dordt. Ribbens and the rest of administration quickly shot down the idea due to the high amount of physical contact involved in the sport.
“At this time, I remain convinced that administration was unable to distinguish the actual difference between a clean hockey check and physical assault,” Fernhout said.
Eventually, Fernhout was told he could start a hockey club. While it wouldn’t be officially affiliated with the Dordt athletic department, it was better than nothing. Fernhout and friends reached out to local businesses and raised $500 to form the club.
A few Canadians were sent to Winnipeg with money to buy goalie equipment and fifteen black sweaters.
Fernhout created a poster to advertise a contest to name the team. Peter Greidanus won the contest with the name “Blades.” His prize: free pizza at The Catacombs, a coffee/pizza shop in the Central Park shelter.
With the team formed, equipment purchased and the Blades name in tact, the next step was finding a place to play. The closest official rink was in Sioux City in an old section of the Tyson Event Center. After reserving the ice and hiring officials, the first Dordt Blades game was set to take place on December 6, 1968.
“If I remember correctly, our referees for the first game had figure skating skates on,” Fernhout said.
Larry Van Wieren attended the game and covered it for the December 20, 1968 issue of the Dordt Diamond. The Blades defeated Sioux Falls 5-2.
“From what I saw, it was a team victory,” Van Wieren wrote. “With each man on the team taking his turn on the ice to preserve the victory. They outplayed, out-skated, and out-fought the Sioux Falls team gaining their victory.”
Herm Van Niehenjuis scored three goals, Peter Greidanus and Tony Jansen each scored one in for the win.
This would be the one and only game of 1968. Fernhout took the black sweaters home over Christmas break and had his mother sew numbers on them.
Games resumed in February 1969. The Blades faced Iowa State and lost 11-3, but bounced back with a 13-8 victory over Sioux Falls in their next matchup.
The first year of Blades hockey yielded a successful season. The team had over 100 fans attend their first game with numbers fluctuating for every home matchup. A November 1970 issue of the Diamond reported over 600 fans attending a game against Drake. Getting American students to support the team proved to be a challenge. Since basketball was so popular, they drew the majority of the fans. Also, travelling to Sioux City for games wasn’t always easy due to the poor road conditions.
As the team consisted of mostly Canadians, finding someone to schedule games against was difficult. The Blades played whoever they could find. St. Paul Bible College and Bethel University were common opponents from the Twin Cities. Drake, Iowa State and Sioux Falls were other popular opponents.
The Blades became more organized as the years passed. They held fundraisers to raise money for their travels and other expenses. Since they weren’t an official Dordt sport, they didn’t have a coach. Fernhout acted as a coach and player until he graduated in 1969. Occasionally, a Dordt employee would tag along to ensure everything ran smoothly.
Wayne Dykstra (1987-1991), the current Principal at Unity Christian in Orange City, was on the last Blades team to play that wasn’t a part of an official conference. The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) was formed in 1991 and Dordt was invited to be a member. Dykstra’s four years saw an uptick in popularity for the Blades. There were nearly 200 Canadians enrolled in Dordt during those years, many of whom were hockey fans. Only two Americans played on the Blades during Dykstra’s tenure, the rest were Canadians.
“We were a sub-culture on campus,” Dykstra said. “The Canadians understood hockey more than basketball, so they always travelled to watch us play.”
The teams in the late 80’s still played in the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City. They would drive to the arena every Wednesday night for practice and play games on the weekends.
The Blades went on a Christmas tour every year, a tradition that was started early on in the program. During Dykstra’s tenure, the teams hit four different Canadian Provinces.
Whoever was in charge of planning would line up games against any Canadian teams they could find. They would play men’s league or other varsity teams. Dordt families would open up their houses for the team to stay and feed them meals as well.
“Dordt was always good to us during those Christmas tours,” Dykstra said. “They would give us vans and station wagons. They’d also send along a Dordt professor to make sure everything stayed under control.”
The Blades were fairly successful for a club team. They would finish around .500 every year. The main turning point for the program was when the Vernon Ice Arena was opened in Sioux Center in 2003.
Current Blades coach Nate Van Niejenhuis played for the Blades from 1997-2001 and was around when the arena opened. The Vernon Ice Arena helped create a hockey culture that was missing in the area.
The Sioux Center youth hockey program began in 2003. Families saw an opportunity for their kids to play something other than basketball during the winter. The excitement has spread and caught on in local high schools. Luverne, once a powerhouse basketball school, has seen major growth in its hockey program since the Sioux Center rink was opened.
Van Niejenhuis took over the Blades for Herm Van Niejenhuis in 2005. In the 2006 season, a player approached Van Niejenhuis and requested that Blades players coach the youth teams.
“The Blades players becoming youth hockey coaches was the best thing the team could ask for,” Van Niejenhuis said. “Those early years we had 900 plus people attend our games. The kids wanted to see their coaches play and would bring their families along.”
The Blades have continued to remain a club sport but are now funded by the athletic program. This transition took place before the 2007-08 season. The Blades started playing seasons with 25-30 games instead of 13 or 14.
Van Niejenhuis continues to search for ways to keep the program growing. The first hurdle to overcome is drawing more people to games. In the past, the team would sell t-shirts for $20 at the beginning of the year. The t-shirts would act as a ticket for fans to get into the games. If someone didn’t have a t-shirt, they’d have to pay to get into every game. This year Van Niejenhuis decided to let students in for free.
“We’re tired of playing to half an arena,” Van Niejenhuis said. “It’s important that my boys play in front of a full house.”
Attracting greater numbers of talented players to attend Dordt poses the next challenge.
“I think there are more and more hockey players who would be surprised they could play on a campus with a beautiful ice arena,” Dykstra said. “Dordt should be able to draw some fantastic players to their teams.”
With all the ideas and efforts to grow, Dykstra remains optimistic about the program’s future.
“I don’t know if anyone expected the Blades program to be where it is today,” he said. “Our teams did our best to be competitive, but we were limited in what we could do. Now, we have a great rink, coaching staff and tons of room to grow.”