Boards, lights and ice: the backyard rink that produced Michigan captain Jack Becker
Russell Becker trudged out to the backyard, dragging the hose with him. A kid waddled through the snow, curtly behind him.
Russell ran down a mental list of things he had to prepare. Luckily for him, the kids were too young to need the nets. It was that time of year again — winter — an eagerly anticipated time for the Becker kids. As November approaches, so does Minnesota’s cold, harsh winter. But alongside the bitter winds that nip at their noses comes the chilling temperatures that let them host their own personal ice rink at their home.
Jack Becker followed his dad, helping him carry the hose through the basement doors leading from the back of their house to the open field where they had laid the rink boards prior.
Jack and his brothers always loved to help their father set the stage, but when it came to most of the heavy work, Russell did that by himself, at least until Jack reached the age where he could also do heavy lifting.
Jack loved the backyard rink. When his brothers could come out to skate with him, they would play games, pretending to be different NHL players. It was the spot he went to when he needed to practice. It was the spot he went to when his friends came over to play. It was the spot that he never wanted to leave, even when the ice became rough and cut up.
He took to it as often as he could.
Play stopped and all heads turned to Jack Becker, as the then-11 year old was sprawled on the ice, breath heavy.
It was hard to see his face through his breath’s fog that condensed against the cold, hard, winter air of Duluth, Minn. But if you looked closely enough, past the mist and the clenched hand held up to his nose, you could see blood dripping down Jack’s face.
He was in his backyard, in the homemade ice rink his family put together — his personal kingdom, his own sanctuary. And yet, out there on his rink, he had taken a hard hit and was trying to contain his bloody nose.
It was around Christmas time and his extended family had gathered at their house to celebrate the holidays. Aunts, uncles, cousins: All came in to join the Beckers and, naturally, most of them took to the ice in the backyard. Hockey runs deep within their family’s roots.
His cousins played at Division I schools. His uncles had grown up playing all their lives. And his father, Russell Becker, played four years at Michigan Tech and helped coach Jack every step of his playing career.
When Jack was old enough to walk, Russell nudged him towards the ice. When he was old enough to play, Russell joined the bench as a coach to most of his teams.
And that day, Russell wanted to teach his son another lesson.
Russell was always a hard-nose, physically imposing player. When he played under then-Huskies coach Mel Pearson, he had to earn his stripes playing with hustle, effort and passion. And even after he stopped playing, he carried that mentality everywhere he went — including a festive backyard hockey game among the family.
That day, son and father split onto opposing teams. Neither side wanted to lose.
The rink — one that Jack and his dad had built together — was smaller than an average rink, but only by a bit. The tighter enclosure, however, meant that it would be more jam packed with action. And it was.
Jack saw it first hand when he went for the puck, blindsided by a check from his dad. It came to the surprise of none. Everyone there knew Russell liked to play hard. And that day, he made sure Jack knew.
Play stopped as Jack laid on the ground. Before anyone could go over to help him, or before Jack could patch up his wound, his dad came to him and told him exactly what he should do next: ‘Get up.’
Added Jack: “So I got up and just continued playing.”
For Russell, it was routine. Get hit, get up, hustle.
“(Russell) was obviously a big stay-at-home, hard-nosed defenseman,” Pearson said about his former player. “He was a strong kid, tough kid, was just a simple, just a simple player. You can see a lot of similarities with Jack. The dad was a solid no-nonsense, hardworking, very polite, humble type person, and that’s what you have in Jack.”
As soon as Jack picked up the sticks and put on the skates when he was three, Russell ran with it. From mini mites to as far as he could, Russell helped coach Jack, sitting behind his bench mostly as a defensive coach for the teams. But being able to coach Jack was enough.
“I look to my parents a lot for a lot of things in my life,” Jack said. “I think when on the ice he’s my coach, and you know, you gotta respect him, but he’s still your dad.”
In terms of playstyle, there’s not much to pass down. Russell specialized in hustle defense, Jack wanted to be a forward. Jack quickly became a better skater, as noted by Pearson, but Russell passed on his effort and work ethic and some defensive techniques.
“Sometimes, dads can be harder on their own son than they might be another player,” Pearson said. “Just they don’t want to show any favoritism. And I think you demand more out of your son than somebody else. You know, it’s always easier to get after your own kid than maybe to try to get after somebody else’s.”
Finding that balance between dad and coach took some time for Russell. Was he being too hard on Jack because Jack was his son? Was he letting him off the hook with something for the same reason? What would people think looking in from outside?
“You didn’t want other parents to think that you were being biased towards your kid,” Russell said. “All those types of things make it tough to be a dad and be a coach.”
But once he found the healthy median, it became a much simpler task. Jack was an easy kid to coach.
“He’s just such a respectful kid,” Russell said. “From that standpoint … he was an easy kid to coach, he was always the hardest working kid on the team.”
It was an experience for Jack that he remembers fondly. He didn’t think about the intricacies of his father being his coach. He just treasured the moments where he could play while his dad was on the bench, helping him along the way.
“After high school, you know it’s never really going to happen again,” Jack said. “And Dad worked really hard to learn so many things from the ADM or the USA hockey development model there. He worked so hard to help us to have practice plans that were good.
“I just thought it was such a blessing. Really fun having him as my coach.”
Even with all his father’s history in the sport, playing hockey was always a choice, never an obligation for Jack growing up. But being surrounded by hockey from a young age — between his uncles, cousins and, most importantly, his father — his mind had always been made from the get-go.
Jack loved hockey. He never wanted to leave the rink, any rink, whether he was playing or not. And his dad helped make that possible.
For a portion of Jack’s youth, Minnesota was without a professional hockey team after the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993. However, after a small drought of professional hockey, in 1997, St. Paul, Minn. was awarded an expansion team. That team would become the Minnesota Wild, who had their inaugural season in 2000.
The return of an NHL team in the state would domino to Minnesota hosting its first All Star Game in 32 years during the 2003-04 season.
Russell decided it was a can’t miss event for him and his boys.
He wanted them to learn the game, in part, by watching and being around it, sure, but this was an event that only came around so often. He wanted them to just be able to be there and enjoy the moment.
Jack walked into the doors of the Xcel Energy Center side by side with his dad and one of his younger brothers, Joe. The then-six-and-a-half year old could barely hold back his excitement. He had even thrown on the jersey of one of his favorite players, Marian Gaborik, for the occasion.
The trio had come early, hoping to catch the players warming up.
Together, they scaled the steps of the arena until they stopped at their seats, placed directly behind the glass. Russell and Joe began to sit down, but Jack had other plans. He stayed standing, mesmerized by the surroundings and hoping to get a better glimpse at the players as they came in.
His hands pressed against the glass, Jack leaned in, eyes wide in anticipation.
And then came the players, the All Stars.
Bursting in from the tunnel, they skated laps around the rink. In awe, Jack threw his hands over his mouth, a picture-perfect moment for the occasion.
That’s exactly how St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer passing by saw it too. The photographer snapped a picture of the moment and the next day, had it plastered on the front page — showing the world what the Becker family already knew.
“It’s a cool photo,” Russell said. “And it just shows at a very young age him gazing at these players and how much he loved the game.”
Added Jack’s mother, Trisha: “His face is priceless because he is looking out the glass and you can see his reflection in the glass. He is so happy to be there and so consumed by the whole scene that he just looks like that’s exactly where he wants to be, in the rink.”
Back home, when dusk came around, the skating on the ice didn’t stop even as the puck started to blend in with the darkness that surrounded it. Time didn’t deter Jack, all he had to do was flick the switch for the lights, and continue to skate on his outdoor rink.
It was a joy for him to be out there, no matter the hour.
“I always say that Jack has always had a passion, and you can’t really teach a passion,” Trisha said. “He just really loves to be on the ice. He just really has always loved to be out there.”
Early in the morning, late at night, nothing stopped him from being in the rink. The nets came out when he got older to make it easier to catch flying pucks. The lights came on when it got dark.
A bad practice didn’t discourage him. Neither did a bad day in general. When he could, he’d make his way to the ice and shoot. It was a way to outlet his thoughts and, sometimes, his emotions.
“Whether it’s a stress relief or he just enjoys the whole process of being on the ice,it is a good stress reliever for him.” Trisha said. “He’s always pretty focused on it.”
For Jack, it is therapeutic.