Growing up on the outdoor rink in Twig, Minnesota, hockey was a way of life for Nolan and Lane Krenzen.
A town of around 60 people near the North Shore of Minnesota, Twig sits roughly 20 miles northwest of Duluth. It’s also situated right in the heart of Bulldog country. Both Krenzen boys grew up going to games at the old DECC (Duluth Entertainment Convention Center), and one year, they even dawned UMD jerseys in their Christmas card.
“Hockey is a way of life up in northern Minnesota,” Lane said. “When you grow up watching high school hockey there, it’s on a whole new level. It’s more than just a game and when we were kids, we looked at high school hockey like it was the NHL.
“Also with having a rink less than two minutes away from our house in Twig, it was so accessible and kind of its own little world. Just the combination of the exposure to good hockey at a young age, and how close we lived to the rink, it was something both of us fell in love with right away.”
Both of their parents, Kelly and Scott Krenzen, joked they used to be able to drop them off with five bucks and leave them at the rink all day. Scott grew up playing and still refs today, but neither parent had to push the sport on the kids. With so much ice available, it was hard to keep them away.
Fast forward to 2021, and the parents find themselves sitting at home watching their sons play at college hockey’s highest level.
“It’s just surreal,” Scott said. “We watched Lane play against North Dakota two weeks ago, and we’re sitting there watching Nolan play against them last week. I looked over at Kelly at one pint and said, did you ever think our boys would be playing against North Dakota on TV?”
However, it’s come full-circle for the Krenzen family. Watching their sons play in general would be one thing, but now, there’s a chance to potentially see them compete against each other. Nolan, a freshman defenseman at Omaha, has started to solidify a role for himself in the Mavericks lineup. Lane, a sophomore at Denver, has had to battle for playing time so far. He’s appeared in three games this season.
The two didn’t get the chance to play against each other last month at Baxter Arena or in game one of this series. Whether it happens this weekend or not, it hasn’t stopped the thought of what could happen in the future. Only one other set of brothers have gone head-to-head since the NCHC’s inception, that being John (Omaha) and Jimmy (SCSU) Schuldt.
“The chances of two kids from small-town northern Minnesota getting to this point are small enough, let alone two brothers and playing in the same conference,” Nolan said. “It’s just going to be so special when we get to play against each other.”
There’s no doubt the Omaha vs. Denver matchups will be special for the next few seasons, but neither one of them take any game for granted. Especially at the Division I level.
“Growing up going to UMD games, you watch North Dakota and the Minnesota schools and see all of the good players that go through there,” Lane said. “It’s one thing that you don’t really realize how special it is until you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s still crazy to think about, but now you realize that you’re in it.”
Born in 1998, Lane was three years ahead of his younger brother for most of their youth hockey years. Besides one high school summer game, which Lane ended up being ejected from for jumping off the bench and joining a fight, the two never got the chance to play on the same team with each other.
That didn’t stop them from sharing the ice throughout their childhood years though. As mentioned, the two practically grew up on the outdoor rinks and formed countless memories there. They might not have realized it at the time, but looking back, it’s something they both cherish to this day.
“Not everyone gets to experience hockey with their brother, so it was awesome,” Nolan said. “I was probably in eighth grade, maybe even a little younger, and my brother would go to skate with a bunch of older guys, some that played in college or even professionally. I was nervous about it, but he was the one that would push me to go.
“My mom always used to tell him to lay off a little bit and let me stay home, but Lane always used to tell her, ‘mom he’s really good, he’s probably better than most of the people there.’ Stuff like that is awesome and honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it with anybody else.”
However, it wasn’t always as joyous of a time as those days out on the pond. Both had success as youth players growing up, but once it came time to make the eventual jump into college, the two went down very separate paths.
As the older brother, Lane came out of Duluth Marshall and went on to play three seasons with the NAHL’s Austin Bruins. There was some interest from schools along the way, but nothing seemed to ever come from it. He still didn’t have anything lined up while playing in a playoff series during his third year in Austin, which they trailed 0-2.
Stressed and unsure of what was next, he sent a text to the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a Division III program, and told them he was coming. As fate would have it, he received a call from Denver assistant coach Travis MacMillan while he was in the process of filling out the application to apply for Eau Claire. Denver was his only Division I offer and committing to the Pioneers was a no brainer.
“I grew up as more of the rough and tumble guy, so I never found myself playing in the USHL,” Lane said. “It didn’t take me long to realize the North American league isn’t the league to go Division I out of. We both had some success growing up, but I think it was much more apparent for Nolan.
“He was always one of the better players on his teams growing up, but once he went into Duluth Marshall, that’s when you could tell he was going to be special. He was an extremely relevant and valuable player on a pretty good team and he looked better than most seniors did as a 14-year-old freshman.”
Several people around Nolan say the talent was evident. He scored 10 goals in 25 regular season games as a sophomore at Duluth Marshall before making the jump to the USHL. In his eyes though, it was more so a product of the people around him that made him a better player.
“I wouldn’t say I was some renown hockey player when I was young, but I was just pushed a lot by my brother and had a ton of support from him and my parents,” Nolan said. “I would say the summer after my sophomore year though, I wasn’t drafted by any junior team and that fueled me a little bit more.
“I took a chance and went to Sioux City’s main camp, one thing led to another, and I ended up making the team. I’d say once I stuck there was when I started to realize playing college hockey was possible.”
That possibility came true during his first season in Sioux City as a few offers started to flow in. He skated in 61 games for the Musketeers and early that season, he took a visit to Omaha. On Feb. 25, 2019, Nolan announced his commitment.
“I wasn’t surprised and I was extremely happy for him,” Lane said. “I knew it was something that was coming and it was very cool to see as the older brother. Growing up I’d hear all the time that my younger brother was in the USHL as a 16-year-old and a lot of people asked me if I was jealous of him. And the answer is not at all.
“I’ve said it all along, but I’m my brother’s biggest supporter, and I think he knows that. We’ve grown closer as we’ve gotten older, but just for him to work through the stress of leaving home at a young age and not miss a beat, it takes a lot and I’m so proud of him.”
That growing together really took a new meaning this past summer. As the older brother, Lane focused on being somebody Nolan could lean on.
“We talked a lot about what expectations should be going into college,” Lane said. “We had some conversations when he went to Sioux City last year too, but I know that him having somebody that had been through it helped.
“Just to know what to expect in the locker room and from the coaches, I think it was very good for him. The biggest thing I told him this summer was don’t overthink it. Don’t worry about where you stand on a depth chart or if you’re playing, but enjoy the hell out of it while you can. I’m only a sophomore and it is already insane how fast it goes by.”
For Kelly and Scott, the two said they still pinch themselves from time to time and it’s hard to believe two of their sons are playing in the NCHC. The game of hockey has treated the family well over the years, but it still comes down to the work the boys have both put in.
“They’re dedicated and they worked so hard,” Scott said. “A lot of people have said, ‘oh that’s great, your kids are playing junior hockey’ the last few years, but I don’t think most people understand how much of a grind junior hockey really is. There are some times you don’t play or you get hurt, and they battled through it and were persistent.
“Nobody gifted this to them. They weren’t the 12-year-old phenoms, but they kept working and earned their spots, so we’re so proud to see where they are today.”
With Nolan specifically, he’s not sure he’d be at this point had it not been for his brother.
“It’s a big jump for anybody going into their first year of college hockey, so it was super helpful to have Lane there through the process,” he said. “I had my nerves about college life in general and the level of play, and he was always there. We were together a lot this summer and we pushed each other, but the biggest thing he always told me was have confidence in myself.
“I don’t think I appreciated it as much then, but the fact that he almost forced me to go to those skates as a kid made me the player I am today.”
Now back on their respective campuses, both brothers keep tabs and follow each other closely. With school and the busy schedule that comes with hockey, it isn’t always easy, but they still try to talk at least once a week.
During a weekend like this one, most of the focus shifts to what’s going on with their respective teams. Back home in Twig though, some may think it’s also a divided household. That’s not the case.
“They all love it,” Nolan said. “My parents joke about it, but they just say whoever wins they’ll be happy for. My mom says they just don’t want any fighting or anything carrying over and coming home in the summer.”
Kelly and Scott try to watch every Omaha and Denver game on NCHC.tv. They, along with both of Kelly’s parents, also got the chance to come down to Baxter Arena last month for the series between Omaha and Denver.
‘Grandma Lou’ as they call her has hand-crafted four half Omaha, half Denver scarves to wear at the games. Both Nolan and Lane love them and the hope is the scarves can make an appearance with both of them on the ice going forward.
The support like that means everything to both Nolan and Lane. Both can’t help but pause and think about the thought of playing in front of their family, especially because of how much they’ve done for them over the years. When the time comes though, it’ll be a battle on the ice.
“When you’re on the ice it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, you’re trying to try and beat the guy across from you,” Nolan said. “It’s a special moment when the person across from you is your brother and a lot of people don’t get to experience that. When it happens I’m just going to enjoy every second of it.”
That feeling is mutual. However, at the end of the day, there’s still a little bit of brotherly love. Just like they did as kids, it’ll be up to Lane to show he’s the older brother.
“I’ve had a couple teammates start to ask me if Nolan went back for a puck and I was forechecking him and before they even finished the questions, I said I’m running him over,” Lane said. “They laughed and asked if I would even hold up a little bit and I said nope, not at all.
“If I see his numbers, I’ll watch it, but if I’ve got a chance to get him, I’m taking full advantage of it.”