Big Eriah Hayes isn’t too big for his hometown
It’s a quick four-hour drive up Interstate 90 from Chicago to La Crescent, Minn., where Chicago Wolves right wing Eriah Hayes was born and raised and never intends to leave. Nestled in the southeast corner of the state and known as the “Apple Capital of Minnesota,” Hayes considers his hometown to be paradise.
“We live right on the Mississippi River and we have the beautiful bluffs there, so it’s a really, really nice area,” Hayes said. “I played every sport under the sun and I’m a big hunter and fisherman. Anything to get outdoors.”
As much as Hayes adores La Crescent, which is located across the Mississippi from La Crosse, Wis., the 5,000 people who live there might love him more. Look up La Crescent on Wikipedia and it lists two notable citizens: the 27-year-old Hayes and young YouTube sensation Connor Franta.
When Hayes returned home during the summer of 2014 – months after scoring his first NHL goal for the San Jose Sharks – he agreed to do a meet-and-greet at the local arena as part of the town’s first “Rockin’ the Rink” youth hockey fundraiser. The organizers scheduled the meet-and-greet to last two hours, which seemed overly ambitious for such a small town.
“I was thinking, ‘How many people are actually going to show up? They can see me around town,’ ” Hayes said. “But it was crazy. There was a line as long as you could see, just people waiting to get an autograph and picture. I didn’t expect that.”
A visit to La Crescent High School affirms the community’s pride in their man. In the commons area that doubles as the cafeteria, there’s a giant mural on the wall that depicts Hayes’ first NHL goal. Three students captured the moment when he raised his arms in the air after beating Calgary’s Karri Romo with a one-timer from close range.
“A lot of people showed up for the day when we dedicated the mural to him, including Eriah of course,” said La Crescent hockey coach JP Piché. “All of his jerseys are hanging up in the arena. We’re sure proud of him. He’s so humble and has worked hard for everything he’s achieved. He has always been a great advocate for a small town. He’s a guy that will do anything for you.”
He’s a guy that did virtually everything during his career at La Crescent High School. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hayes was an all-conference baseball player who threw in the mid-to-high 80s before he partially tore the labrum in his right shoulder and moved to center field – and that was the least of his athletic achievements.
For the soccer team, which Piché coached as well, he played goalkeeper and racked up 16 shutouts as a sophomore. That still ranks sixth on Minnesota’s all-time single-season list. He played soccer as a junior, too, but decided prior to his senior year to give football a whirl.
“I don’t know, I just wanted a new challenge,” Hayes said. “There was a new football coach coming in, a new system. I figured I could hop right in because everybody was on the same page, so why not try it out?”
All he did was become an all-conference wide receiver and kicker. In one game, he booted a 37-yard field goal in the final seconds as La Crescent ended a rival’s 47-game winning streak. In La Crescent’s playoff game, he caught 8 passes for 195 yards and 4 touchdowns while kicking 4 extra points and 1 field goal – therefore accounting for all 31 of his team’s points.
The University of Minnesota invited him to walk-on. North Dakota State and other schools offered scholarships. The unexpected attention turned Hayes’ head.
“At the end of my football season, I thought, ‘Oh, football is the way to go. I’m going to pursue this,’ ” Hayes said. “ ’I’m going to call these teams back and find out what this walk-on spot at Minnesota is like, see what they have to offer me.’ ”
But then hockey, his first love, regained the No. 1 spot in his heart. Hayes finished his career ranked among the Top 10 goal scorers in Minnesota history – he scored 135 goals and handed out 99 assists in 105 games – and he got to do it on a strong team that included his younger sister, Brittany, as the goaltender. They played together on varsity for three years.
“She was pretty good,” Eriah said. “I know guys would be frustrated not being able to score on her. The boys on our team really protected her and she held her own, for sure.”
“They were all super-great with me,” Brittany said. “Very protective over me. And it helped that Eriah was on the team, because who was going to mess with his little sister? No one.”
Despite all of his success on the ice, Hayes didn’t receive the same attention from colleges for hockey as for football. While he doesn’t intend it to be a knock against La Crescent, he wondered whether he was being overlooked because he grew up far from the Minnesota-St. Paul axis of excellence.
“I’d always travel to try out for section teams and people wouldn’t know who I was,” Hayes said. “They’d cut me right away. It was like, ‘If I can’t make the section team…’ I don’t know if it (being from La Crescent) was it or if I wasn’t good enough – but I thought I was good enough for sure.
“I had tried out for some USHL teams and gotten cut. I went to Sioux City and didn’t even make the All-Star Game. Again, it was like, ‘Am I kidding myself? Am I not as good as I think I am? I’m feeling good out there and scoring goals, but I feel like they’re looking right over me.’ ”
Then came the break he was waiting for. Minnesota splits itself into eight sections for high school hockey. Every year in late March, the Ted Brill Great 8 brings together the top 20 seniors from each section to compete in a tournament scouted by many junior, college and professional teams. Hayes initially was listed as an alternate on the Section 6 roster, but he found a way into the lineup and wound up posting 2 goals and 2 assists in 3 games to help his team win the title.
That led to an invitation to play for the Topeka RoadRunners in the North American Hockey League, which led to a year with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL, which led to a four-year scholarship to play for Minnesota State University – which just so happened to be Piché’s alma mater.
During his senior year, he led Minnesota State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years and finished second in the nation with 12 power-play goals. Less than one year after finishing college and joining the San Jose Sharks organization, Hayes was playing in the NHL and accepting a nifty backhand pass from the legendary Pat Marleau for the goal that’s immortalized on La Crescent High School’s wall.
Hayes is enjoying a productive season with the Wolves – and he’s appreciating the unprecedented chance to play close to home because he has several great reasons to get back to La Crescent as often as possible.
Last summer, he married his high school sweetheart, Katie Bennett, and they purchased a 120-acre farm that connects to the 600-acre farm where Katie grew up. If you believe in symbols, Eriah and Katie were meant to be together. Before her family moved to the farm when she was 4, she lived at 818 Redwood West. Eriah grew up at 818 Redwood East – one-tenth of a mile away.
Their new land, which features hay fields and apple orchards, includes an old house that they’re gutting and refurbishing whenever they find time. The process wasn’t much fun at the beginning when they were catching endless mice and the occasional milk snake with the traps in their house.
“Nobody had mowed the lawn or trimmed around the house, so there was a lot of stuff living close to the house,” Hayes said. “We cleaned all that out. We haven’t caught a mouse or a critter in a long time. It’s nice to know they’re gone. At first it was like, ‘Oh, it’s infested. I don’t know if we’re ever going to feel comfortable living here.’ ”
Eriah and Katie needed that comfort level in their two-bedroom home because they’ll be in one bedroom – while the other one is being transformed into a nursery because they’re expecting their first child in early June.
“We’re both over the moon,” Katie said. “We’re so happy. When I told Eriah, he was pumping his fists. He was stoked. We are so lucky.”
The word “lucky” is common in the Hayes family’s vocabulary. They’re lucky to be together, lucky to have found a home near both sides of their family, lucky to be able to live in La Crescent.
“I try to stay positive,” Eriah said. “I find being negative brings negative things. Being negative doesn’t help any situation. I try to be a person that people like to be around. Positive thoughts bring positive things. I’m a firm believer in that.
“I look at how good my situation is. A lot of people have been tested much more than I have. They’re sick or maybe they were dealt the wrong hand. I look at how lucky I am every day.”
By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman