John Doberstein of Duluth says the state High School Hockey Tournament is a “Minnesota jewel.” Nothing beats the passion, earnestness, and quality of the players, who give it their all before they put away their skates and move into adulthood.
But there is one thing he hates about the tournament: the ads. For the past five years, it seems that everywhere you look in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, you see PolyMet. There’s a gigantic booth covered in its logos. There are “soothing” ads featuring Minnesota lakes and families. There are scholarships distributed to worthy players, funded by the “Canadian shell of a Swiss extraction giant,” as Doberstein calls the company.
He’s a member of Duluth for Clean Water, an environmental group opposed to PolyMet’s plans to run a copper-nickel mine in the watershed of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Doberstein sees those waters like he sees hockey. They’re Minnesota gems. And he’s worried that if PolyMet gets final federal approval for the mine, it’ll leech carcinogens, neurotoxins, and heavy metals into those holy waters.
Having the company so present at the equally sacred tourney has been rubbing Doberstein the wrong way for a long time. “Not everyone wants to see a foreign mining company’s propaganda at a high school hockey tournament,” he says.
For the past few years, Doberstein and his friends have been making that as clear as they can. Three years ago, they turned up at the tournament with signs that said “#Bench PolyMet,” standing near the Polymet booth and getting the occasional word of encouragement from passerby.
The next year, they brought signs and a banner. Arena management confiscated the signs, but let them keep the banner. Curious about how far this could go, this year they scoured the arena's policies, left their signs at home, and came wearing bright yellow T-shirts that announced, "#STOP POLYMET."
The policy "doesn’t say anything about not wearing T-shirts,” he says.
But as they approached PolyMet’s booth, they were confronted almost immediately by “a woman identifying herself as the facility manager.” Soon, two St. Paul cops also arrived. It was clear that staff were prepared, says Doberstein.
The facility manager told them to either cover up the shirts or get escorted off the premises. Doberstein wasn’t quick to oblige. After all, he’d seen no rule against it. He asked if this was an arena issue, a police issue, or a tournament issue. And would they still be allowed to wear their shirts if they scrambled up the letters or made it say “#GOPOLYMET?”
The manager wouldn’t give them a straight answer, he says. Eventually, after an unproductive back and forth, she put her foot down. “She said, ‘That’s it, we’re kicking you out.’”
But the St. Paul cops showed mercy and convinced the manager to let them stay as long as they promised to cover up – which they did. The officers saw that they weren’t there to cause trouble, Doberstein says. They were there to watch hockey.
“I definitely expected to be confronted. I did not expect to be told right off the bat to cover up or get out.” The Xcel Energy Center didn’t respond to interview requests.
Doberstein and his colleague in Duluth for Clean Water, Jaci Christenson, recounted the whole misadventure in a column that appeared in MinnPost this week. “This is our tournament,” they wrote, “And we deserve better.”
Doberstein is not yet thinking ahead to next year’s tournament. But he still believes that PolyMet is “catastrophically dangerous” for the environment, he’s determined to stop it, and he has the T-shirt to prove it.