The city of Dubuque, Iowa has become the perfect place for young hockey players to come and grow their talents. Specifically, warm weather ice warriors, those young hockey players who come from the warmer places in the United States where hockey isn't as popular or appreciated as other sports. Dubuque and the Fighting Saints provide these players with a chance to play hockey for a first-class, winning organization in a community that will appreciate them, their talents and all their hard work.
The Dubuque Fighting Saints have a roster with young skaters from Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, and California. All states where you’d struggle to find the outdoor ice rinks or a large number of skating rinks that would be almost impossible to miss in places like Minnesota, Michigan or Colorado. It would also be hard to miss all the varsity hockey offered in these states because of the sheer abundance of teams and copious amounts of fans who show up to the games. According to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), the 2016 state semi-final had over 22,000 fans in attendance. This is something a high school-aged hockey player from one of the warmer states would never experience. This is because in Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, and most other states -where temperatures rarely dip below freezing- high school hockey isn’t even officially recognized by their state’s interscholastic sports governing body. Without that recognition, hockey is officially a club sport. This means that young players may be forced to do things like pay to play, buy their own equipment, join teams comprised of multiple high schools and deal with the uncertainty of entire conferences and leagues being shut down. Playing hockey in one of these places takes a true love of the game to overcome not just the logistical challenges, but the social pressures that these players face as the majority of their peers play different sports, and the community around them celebrate those sports far more than hockey.
It’s for these reasons that players like Luke Robinson, a Fighting Saints defender from Brentwood, Tennessee, said of the team, “I think that Dubuque is the best run [team] and the best place to be, the best organization for sure.” Robinson wasn’t just speaking glowingly of Fighting Saints because he doesn’t know anything else. Robinson wasn’t drafted by the Fighting Saints but played in the North American Hockey League before being traded to the Fighting Saints. Robinson doesn’t just love the team; he has an appreciation for the city he represents every time he steps on the ice. During our conversation, he went on to call his connection to the Dubuque community “incredible” and say he appreciates the fans so much because “the junior-hockey experience isn't the same without the support from the fans and the community.” Robinson has an appreciation for the love that the city of Dubuque has for the Fighting Saints and its players.
Growing up in an area where hockey is growing especially at the youth level, according to Robinson hockey has yet to catch on in terms of widespread popularity even with the NHL’s Nashville Predators doing everything they can to increase involvement in youth hockey. This meant that there wasn’t ever much widespread appreciation for Robinson’s talents on the ice in Nashville. That was until he arrived in Dubuque, Iowa.
This love for playing hockey in Dubuque, Iowa isn't unique to Luke Robinson. Robinson’s sentiments about the city were echoed by another Fighting Saints warm weather ice warrior, defenseman Kaelan Taylor from Oceanside, California who played a season in the North American Hockey League for the Corpus Christi Ice Rays before being drafted by the Fighting Saints. Taylor, who is currently in his second year with the team, echoed Robinson’s appreciation for the city of Dubuque and the Fighting Saints. This is because Taylor, being from California, understands that people from outside the state wouldn’t expect California to be a place to find a large hockey fan base. Taylor admitted to me that in California "people don't think about [hockey] a lot.” Taylor did point out that interest in the sport is growing in California, saying that up to three ice rinks were built near his home and that “there’s plenty of youth hockey all around the state.” But Taylor also admitted that hockey in California “isn’t at the level of Michigan or Minnesota”. Taylor also pointed out that while there might be some hockey in California, that it still isn’t even close to being considered a popular sport in the state, a sentiment that is especially true at the youth level. Taylor even said that there’s more of a respect for hockey in Dubuque than in California, Taylor also said that “everyone around town treats the players with a bunch of respect” before going on to say, “I love being here.” A sentiment that’s easy to understand as Taylor’s talent is finally being appreciated on a scale he hadn’t experienced before in a place where the hockey fandom rivals that of any other sport.
Kaelan Taylor and Luke Robinson aren’t the only players on the Fighting Saints roster that can be considered warm weather ice warriors, but they’re the ones who’ve been with the Fighting Saints longest. Both players have experienced what the Fighting Saints and the city of Dubuque have to offer with the only negative about the city that either player could come up with being the frigid temperatures. Both player's talents went from being under-appreciated, to being widely appreciated in a community that they are proud to represent and that has given both players a level of reverence that’s foreign to warm weather ice warriors- a level of reverence that I’m sure none of the warm weather ice warriors on the Fighting Saints roster has ever experienced playing hockey where they’re originally from. These players have found in Dubuque everything they couldn’t get playing hockey in their respective homes. They’ve found a hockey haven.