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Dillon Eichstadt, the recently graduated captain of Bemidji State, has pulled into Bemidji’s Corner Bar to have lunch with an out-of-town guest.
It’s a dive bar that’s as comfortable as an old shoe. The booths are adorned with hockey jerseys that are touchstones of local lore. There is a Saint Cloud State sweater that belonged to Dylan’s cousin Scott, a testament to another member of this hometown clan who enjoyed a Division I career. Next to it is a tribute to a tragic figure, the jersey of George Pelawa. A teenage phenom who won the prestigious Mr. Hockey award, Pelawa perished in a car crash shortly after being drafted in the NHL’s first round. Whether heartache or heroism, hockey is the dominant fabric of Bemidji’s social tapestry.
Dillon’s jersey will end up on the walls of the Corner Bar; his overtime goal that ended the 2019 “Hockey Day in Minnesota,” a hockey carnival hosted by Bemidji. The main event was Bemidji’s game against Michigan Tech, one credited as the coldest outdoor hockey game on record. The event brought the most attention to the Bemidji State program since the Beavers’ Cinderella run to the 2009 Frozen Four.
Dan Rickert, an off-ice official from that infamous Ice Bowl, made a point of visiting with Dillon when they ran into each other at the Corner Bar. He immediately began reminiscing about “Hockey Day in Minnesota.” Rickert will never forget how Dillon ended his own ordeal, one in which the propane ran out before overtime. “Not only was it you who scored it, but I could go get my hands warm again!”
✍🏻 🇺🇸 🥶 🏒 🚨 pic.twitter.com/HC8eawXLq6— Coventry Blaze 🐲🏒 (@covblazehockey) May 8, 2019
After the backslapping, Dillon stepped out into the warmth of Bemidji’s fleeting summer, a chance to reflect on his sub-zero moment in the sun. “I remember sitting on the bench, in the intermission right after the third period, looking up at the sky and the water tower, and just thinking—It would be a good time for one right now.”
Three minutes into overtime, the scene played out like a Minnesota fairy tale, with the hometown kid corralling the puck at the blue line, waiting for the shooting lane to open, and then sweeping a low dart into the far corner. A celebration for the ages brought goose bumps even to the visiting announcers, hockey lifers who knew they had witnessed a moment of frozen glory.
“The Bemidji kid, the senior captain, scores the game winner, could you script it any better?” was the live call from Dirk Hembroff’s frigid booth.
“The stars really aligned in a way,” said Dillon matter-of-factly. “Small town gets “Hockey Day in Minnesota,” the small-town kid gets to score the OT winner. It will be something that realistically, I’ll always be remembered for. I mean that humbly, obviously.”
Playing outdoors on the frozen tundra is nothing new to Eichstadt, who cut his teeth at Nymore Park, a modest outdoor facility a mile from where he potted his OT thriller. He was asked if he had ever played in temps approaching 20 below while growing up. “Oh, absolutely, yeah,” said Eichstadt. “We would come out and you knew when it was cold because no one else would be here. You’d be by yourself or convince another buddy to come.”
Eichstadt pointed to the house of childhood best bud Jordan Heller, half a block from the Nymore warming hut. “We played together growing up,” said Eichstadt of Heller, who captained Bemidji State a year prior to Dillon. “If the warming house wasn’t open, maybe we could go over there and warm up. A lot of great memories, and a lot of hours spent on the outdoor rink, for sure.”
Unlike so many small-town heroes, Dillon will not spend the rest of his life at the local pub reflecting on the glory days of his youth. He is taking his gear across the pond, embarking on a professional career in England for the Coventry Blaze. The 25-year-old Eichstadt has grander goals than to merely extend his playing career. He is bringing his fiancé Logan to share his opportunity to see the world.
“I always thought it would be a great way to get some life experience, while continuing to play the game,” said Dillon. “My fiancé is coming with, we’ve always talked about how cool it would be to travel together. So when not playing hockey, maybe check out London, or Paris, or whatever it may be.”
While Eichstadt begins the next chapter in his life overseas, another Bemidji local will fight for playing time on the Beavers blue line. Freshman Nick Leitner will continue the succession of varsity players representing this outpost of 15,000 hockey lifers. If he continues to follow in Eichstadt’s footsteps, he might earn a spot for his own jersey at the Corner Bar.