Laker Hall of Honor: Mike Neitzke - Learning young
What began as playing outside on the frozen outdoor rinks during carefree pickup hockey games with his friends, turned out to be one of the best prep and college careers in DLHS history for the newest member of the Laker Hall of Honor, Mike Neitzke.
But it was those long Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the rink near the DLHS, which helped create Neitzke's niche as one of the best Lakers to lace up the skates.
"The part I remember the most are those days playing outdoor hockey," said Neitzke, who was a 1975 graduate of DLHS. "My parents (Joseph and Norma) would drop off my brothers (Greg and Steve) and I at 10 a.m. and wouldn't pick us up until it was dark.
"Those days were pretty special and I had the opportunity to play against the bigger and older kids."
Neitzke would carry that experience into his Laker playing days, where he was brought up to the varsity by DL head coach John Jacobson as an eighth grader.
Much like during the pickup games outside, where Neitzke was usually the youngest and smallest, his start in a Laker uniform was much the same.
"Playing versus the bigger guys, you needed to be faster and talented to make it around them," Neitzke said. "They would be knocking you around the ice and I was forced to find different routes through them. That alone really helped me down the road."
Jacobson brought up both Neitzke and Jeff Norby to varsity during the second half of the season in their eighth grade years.
Each held their own on the varsity level, as Neitzke started blossoming as a defenseman his first three years, then made the switch over to center his junior and senior seasons.
"The opportunity to compete on the varsity level as an eighth grader was real special," Neitzke said. "I just thank Coach John Jacobson for having faith in me to be able to play for him at that age."
Neitzke was also able to play with another future Laker Hall of Honor inductee, Tom Evans, who graduated in 1973.
It was that experience of learning and watching Evans play, which spurred Neitzke onto the elite level -- and further.
"Tom was a tremendous influence, along with the other great teammates such as Mark Olson and Billy Halbakken I played with," Neitzke said. "Tom taught me a lot, though, I watched him closely during the chance I was able to play with him."
Ironically, it was Evans' all-time scoring record of 183 points which Neitzke eventually broke, as he finished with 100 goals and 104 assists in his DL career.
Neitzke registered one goal his first year on varsity, then proceeded to score 11, 31, 20 and 37 the next four seasons.
Those assists Neitzke made were also a way for him to create more space for himself, since he was a marked player during his junior and senior years from his center position.
Neitzke had to learn how to deal with theh constant defensive pressure he would see on the ice for every game, but with that extra attention he received, his teammates benefited.
"It was frustrating for me, because I had not experienced that before playing defense," Neitzke said. "Early on, it was difficult to deal with all the pressure, but my coaches, Jeff Mohr and Jacobson, worked on different schemes to help free me up.
"It was definitely a great learning experience."
Also, with Neitzke being a strong passer on the ice and with his teammates' abilities to put the puck in the net, eventually, defenses couldn't just concentrate on the all-star Laker center.
"That helped neutralize the shadowing," Neitzke said.
The attention Evans received from colleges also helped spread Neitzke's name, as well. He started receiving attention from colleges, which branched out from scouts at games there to see Evans.
"I was at the right place at the right time," Neitzke added.
But his play certainly solidified his deserving of the attention, as the Lakers and Neitzke put up solid numbers against some heavy competition.
Back in the mid-1970's, the Lakers' schedule included such Minnesota stalwarts as Moorhead, Warroad, Thief River Falls, East Grand Forks, Bemidji and Roseau.
The competition was fierce each night, but Neitzke and his teammates thrived on it.
"My sophomore year, we knocked off a very good Bemidji team and it was teams with that rich hockey tradition we all got up for playing against," Neitzke said. "It was very disciplined hockey and we always tried our best against them."
By the time his senior year ended, Neitzke was a marked man in a different fashion -- as in being in the sights of college recruiters.
He eventually chose to play for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux men's hockey team, which was the same college Evans chose two years prior.
Neitzke made some big memories at UND, as well, as the Sioux won the 1980 NCAA Division I National Championship.
"I always dreamed of being a Fighting Sioux, just as much as I grew up dreaming of playing for the Lakers," Neitzke said. "I was proud of being both."
Neitzke credited his Laker playing days and the adversity of playing as an eighth grader to helping make the transition of playing on the D-I level.
But hockey wasn't the only sport in which Neitzke excelled as a Laker.
He was the leading rusher his senior season, running for 516 yards on 113 carries for a 4.57 yards per carry average on the gridiron.
Neitzke also played baseball and took part in track through his junior season. He lettered 12 times in the four different sports and also played Legion baseball, where he helped Post 15 finish as District 9 runner-up.
"I just loved playing football," Neitzke said. "It was a very close second to playing hockey. I loved the contact in both sports."
Overall, just playing sports outside with his brothers and friends what it was all about.
"It was awesome playing all four sports and it was near and dear to my heart," Neitzke said. "We all just wanted to get outside and throw the ball around."
With Neitzke joining Evans as a Laker Hall of Honor inductee along with the rest of the great DLHS athletes, it's another step which evolved from his outdoor ice-rink playing days as a youth.
Neitzke now resides in California where he is involved with a fitness center.
"Growing up, you don't know what's coming up in your life," Neitzke said. "I knew I wanted to be a Laker after watching the older guys. Going out there and playing on the same rink or field as those Lakers before me, was a really special honor.
"I'm extremely humbled and couldn't be more appreciative (of being inducted in the Hall of Honor)."