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RYAN ZUHLSDORF, ADAM CARLSON SKATE AMONG HOCKEY'S BEST IN DA BEAUTY LEAGUE

Friday, August 12th
RYAN ZUHLSDORF, ADAM CARLSON SKATE AMONG HOCKEY'S BEST IN DA BEAUTY LEAGUE

For some ECHL hockey players, a good skate in the summer involves a bit of searching. They look for other players who can match the pace of the professional game while also keeping the play casual yet competitive.

Defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf and goaltender Adam Carlson of the Rapid City Rush do not have that problem. They play in Da Beauty League.

Da Beauty League was founded in 2015, and all the games take place in Edina, Minnesota at Braemar Arena, home of Edina High School’s boys and girls hockey teams.  The rosters are stacked full of professionals, spanning from the ECHL to the NHL. In 2022, DBL rosters include NHL names like Jake Guentzel, Nate Schmidt, Brock Nelson, Zach Parise, Derek Stepan, K’Andre Miller, and many more.

“It’s a bunch of Minnesota guys. We’ve got players all the way up from the NHL, AHL, ECHL, college level,” said Zuhlsdorf, who along with Carlson is an Edina native.

The games are twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, and attract a total of nearly 3,000 fans per week. Tickets are $15 per game or $59 for a full-season package, and the majority of the proceeds go to charity.

Zuhlsdorf got connected with the league through his agent; he is represented by Octagon Hockey. A large portion of the league’s roster is made up of players from Octagon Hockey, whose founder, Ben Hankinson, originally organized DBL.

Games consist of two 25-minute periods. The teams play four-on-four, and the players respect the offseason atmosphere and leave the physical play for their regular seasons. That, however, does not mean the games aren’t competitive.

“It’s a lot of work,” Zuhlsdorf said with a smile. “You talk about hockey shape and trying to stay in shape all summer long. When you show up at Da Beauty League, it’s a red light in the back of your head. When you get off the ice every time, you’re pretty gassed. It’s up-and-down. It’s a lot of skills and odd-man rushes. Guys are working on those plays that make you go ‘wow’ during the regular season.”

Da Beauty League can attract big-name spectators. San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle arrived with Nick Bjugstad of the Arizona Coyotes to watch one of Zuhlsdorf’s recent games. Interest has grown beyond the fans in the stands as well. The league’s social media accounts have over 76,000 combined followers between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Its games are streamed on FloHockey, the official streaming partner of the ECHL, who mic’d Carlson up for a game early in the season.

But according to Carlson, the best part is the interaction with young, local fans.

“It’s a really cool opportunity for kids to see the NHLers or minor league guys,” Carlson said. “They get to be face-to-face with all of us. When we walk into the rink, there’s a line of about 100 kids asking of autographs. It’s a really cool, personable event that puts the kids first, and that’s what it’s all about.”

A major advantage for the ECHL players involved is the opportunity to play in competitive games with those NHL players the fans are so excited to see. And for Zuhlsdorf, it’s an obvious learning opportunity.

“I get to play around a bunch of NHL guys that I look up to,” Zuhlsdorf said. “Playing with them and picking up on things that they do is something that I like to do and try and incorporate into my game.”

Zuhlsdorf cited defenseman Justin Holl of the Toronto Maple Leafs as an NHL player he has learned something from watching. Holl, who played 66 games in the ECHL for the Indy Fuel at the beginning of his career, is on Zuhlsdorf’s team in Da Beauty League. He noted the efficiency with which Holl head-mans the puck up the ice as something he would like to incorporate in his own game.

Zuhlsdorf regularly trains with some of the Minnesota-based NHL players who play in Da Beauty League, so he doesn’t have what he refers to as “the wow factor” when he shares the ice with them at Braemar Arena. One of the men he works out with, Miller, who plays for the New York Rangers, has stood out for what he does in the weight room.

“Just seeing him in the gym and turning it to the ice, you can see how he gets all of his power on the ice,” Zuhlsdorf said. “He’s a beast in the weight room.”

Minnesota is sometimes referred to as the State of Hockey. South Dakota’s neighbor to the east is loaded with NCAA Division I college hockey programs, has produced 288 NHL players and countless more professionals. It’s fair to say that it’s a haven for hockey players.

“In the twin cities area, there are a ton of these skates. It’s just that most of them don’t have any fans,” Carlson said. “Four-on-four is only so competitive when there is nobody in the stands. But having people in the stands ooing and aahing after big saves really makes it feel like you’re playing in a game.”

For Carlson, the action is even more beneficial after he spent the entirety of the 2021-22 season on injured reserve.

“I was joking with the guys in the locker room after my first Beauty League game this year, saying, ‘Boys, that was my first game in a year,’” Carlson said. “It’s been great to be able to get that experience because my first game in a Rush uniform this year realistically won’t be my first game since the last time I put a Rush uniform on.”

The regular season runs through Aug. 17, and the two-round postseason wraps up by Aug. 24, so the organized version of summer hockey will soon be over for Zuhlsdorf and Carlson. But for now, they’re enjoying the crowds, rounding into form, and looking forward to October and their arrival back in the Black Hills.

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