The Ted O’Johnson Ice Arena and the outdoor rink next to the building in Park Rapids are special places for the Lehrke brothers.
Derek, Tyler and Zach grew up at those rinks playing pickup hockey and high school games before going on play in college.
The memories that stand out the most are the Christmas skates together when the arena was closed.
“We never played on a team with each other,” said Zach, a sophomore at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Open hockey and skating outside on Christmas Day – it was a lot of fun to be on the ice with them.”
Zach and the Mavericks come to Bemidji Friday and Saturday to face Bemidji State at the Sanford Center. The Park Rapids all-time scoring leader is in the middle of a breakout season with nine goals and eight assists for 17 points.
Zach said confidence is the primary factor in his success this season, much like it was his senior year at Park Rapids when he scored 54 goals in a 99-point season and became a 2008 Mr. Hockey finalist.
“Me and my brothers talked about setting a realistic goal and my goal was 100 points, which I didn’t get,” Zach said. “I had a really good year and it helped a lot with confidence and going into juniors knowing I could play at high level.”
Zach was approached by Des Moines of the United States Hockey League (USHL) after his junior year, but chose to stay in Park Rapids for his senior year in part because he wanted to play baseball in the spring. He played at Cedar Rapids from 2008-10 and joined the Mavericks last season.
Zach said he has fulfilled his ‘dream’ of playing college hockey and is the last Lehrke brother to play at the collegiate level. Derek played Division III at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. from 2002-06 and Tyler played at Bemidji State from 2006-2010.
Derek was nine years old when he first started skating at the lake behind the Lehrke home. Tyler and Zach followed.
“They were nuts about it when they got going and there wasn’t prodding or anything like that,” father David Lehrke said. “We didn’t have any problems with them and I attribute that to one of the reasons why. They were always at the rink.”
Derek recalled the times when high school and youth players would meet at O’Johnson Arena to play pickup games during free open ice sessions.
“We would skate together all the time on weekends,” he said. “It was never bantams or squirts. You weren’t segregated by which team you were on and that was always fun.”
Tyler and Zach along with the rest of the younger players would face-off against Derek and the older players. That included high school players like Chris Knapp and Chris Wothe, who went on to play USHL and Division III hockey.
“There were some pretty good players and it would just push Ty and Zach,” Derek said. “They had to be a little quicker and handle the puck a little better to keep up.”
Derek played 100 games as a defenseman at Northland, was a three-time Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association all-academic winner.
He stayed in contact with Zach and Tyler while in Ashland to help them grow as hockey players.
“I tried to do everything and anything I could to help those guys,” Derek said. “I was pushing Zach the most and even Tyler started to see it (skill) after he went to Green Bay. To be an offensive guy after you leave a little town like Park Rapids is not an easy feat.”
Tyler played two years with Green Bay in the USHL before coming to Bemidji State.
“When I got to juniors and couldn’t be around Zach because I was gone all year long, I would ask Derek how he was playing,” Tyler said. “I’d give him tips and advice just like any older player playing at a different level would help a younger guy.”
Tyler had 28 points in 123 games as a forward in his Bemidji State career, was a three-time College Hockey America all-academic winner, and played in the 2009 Frozen Four and 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Tyler played professionally last year in Texas with Rio Grande Valley of the CHL. He retired from hockey and currently works as a carpenter in Park Rapids building houses with Jeff Tolle of JT Builders.
“I don’t regret it and I definitely miss it,” Tyler said. “I had some options, but it didn’t look like I was going to be moving up anytime soon so I just decided to hang ‘em up and keep working.”
Derek is also back in Park Rapids. He returned after graduating, teaches at Menahga Elementary and is an assistant hockey coach at Park Rapids High School.
Christmas 2009 was the last time all three brothers skated together and it was the first time inside O’Johnson Arena.
“I had the keys to the rink for a couple of years after I started coaching, so we’d sneak out there Christmas day when we weren’t supposed to,” Derek said. “We’d cruise around the ice, they’d work on what they wanted to and it was fun.”
They all will be together again at the Sanford Center this weekend, Derek and Tyler with the rest of the family in the stands and Zach skating on the ice against Bemidji State.
It is a series Zach has been looking forward to.
“A lot of my Park Rapids buddies go to school in Bemidji,” Zach said. “I’m sure they’re all going to be there and it’s going to be fun.”