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Minnesota amateur sports pioneer Erickson retires

ST. PAUL – Paul Erickson was groomed to build things.

Born into a family of carpenters on St. Paul’s East Side, he grew up wielding hammers around construction sites as his father and grandfather tackled remodeling projects across the Twin Cities.

Decades later, he would go on to build a house and a barn near Taylors Falls, Minn.

That experience – seeing projects evolve from inception to completion – helped the

62-year-old Erickson develop a statewide reputation for sports event planning and organization.

As the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission’s first and only executive director, he is credited as a driving force behind the creation of the National Sports Center in Blaine, the largest amateur sports center in the world.

He also led the development of the Schwan’s USA Cup, the world’s biggest international soccer tournament, as well as the Schwan Super Rink, its largest ice arena. Both are based at the sprawling 600-acre sports campus in Blaine.

After 27 years in the role, Erickson announced his retirement from the commission Wednesday.

The commission is the state agency tasked with governing the sports center – a nonprofit – as well as promoting amateur sports across Minnesota.

Building will be the hardest part of the job to leave behind, Erickson said.

“Literally, whether it was the National Sports Center … or the USA Cup, I had this unique opportunity to be there when it was nothing and then to build it into something. … That’s what I’m really going to miss,” Erickson said. “I’ve had a great run, though. … It’s the right time to step aside.”

He leaves the National Sports Center in good working order, said Barclay Kruse, spokesman for the sports center.

During his tenure since 1987, Erickson helped secure some $33 million in state money to fund projects at the sports center, as well as attract about $40 million in private funding.

The center, which pays for its own day-to-day operations, creates about a $47 million annual economic impact for the state, Kruse said.

About half of that is generated by the USA Cup alone, which wrapped up last week after attracting its biggest attendance numbers to date. The USA Cup was started in 1985 by the Sons of Norway, the Minneapolis-based fraternal organization where Erickson worked at the time, and was originally modeled after the Norway Cup.

“That tournament has Paul’s fingerprints all over it,” Kruse said. “Paul is a big-picture guy. He always wanted this to be a big facility with a lot of soccer fields and a lot of sheets of ice. … He was very good at articulating that success in this field comes with economies of scale.”

“Biggest” and “best” are the American way, Erickson said as he explained what largely became his modus operandi during his tenure.

“Americans love to be Number 1,” Erickson said. “We knew if we could take a sport and make our (program) the biggest and best in the nation, we would be successful.”

Success, according to Erickson, meant two things: creating quality opportunities for kids and families and meaningful economic impact for the state.

He did both exceptionally well, said Alex Rowell, chair of the sports commission.

Rowell added that Erickson is also known for his work on the Mighty Ducks ice arena grant program, which built ice sheets across the state and launched girls and women’s ice sports.

“He’s done a tremendous job. … He’s truly been an international ambassador for Minnesota,” Rothwell said. “When you have someone who has been that effective for that long, it’s hard to envision things happening without him.”

Things will be though. After securing $3.2 million in state money during the last legislative session, the sports center has plans to build another 20 multipurpose fields on an additional 77 acres of land it already owns in Blaine.

A portion will likely be designated to rugby and lacrosse play, Erickson said, helping the sports center secure a name for itself in those sports.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.