This is an exciting time for Janet and Rick Haeg of Lake Shore.

They will soon become grandparents as their daughter, Laura, is expecting their first grandchild in the coming month.

To top off that proud moment, the Haegs' son, Joe, will be playing in his first Super Bowl as an offensive lineman for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Feb. 7.

“This is all pretty exciting,” Janet recently explained before heading to Tampa Bay to watch the Buccaneers face Kansas City for the NFL title. “Because of COVID, this will be the first time we’ve seen Joe play a game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay. We’re excited to go, but Laura won’t be able to travel to watch her brother since she will be 38 weeks pregnant.”

Laura will join the almost 100 million people expected to watch the 55th annual Super Bowl on television. Many others won’t be able to attend the game because of COVID-19. The Buccaneers, who are the first NFL team to host a Super Bowl in their home stadium, will only be allowed 22,000 fans, or 33% of stadium capacity.

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But Janet and Rick, along with Haeg's girlfriend, Nichole Gervanek, will be among the crowd to watch Haeg, a 27-year-old tackle who joined Tampa Bay this season after playing four years with the Indianapolis Colts.

“We’ve been to quite a few of Joe’s games when he played with Indianapolis,” Janet said. “We saw Joe play against Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City’s quarterback). He’s amazing to watch. The Chiefs will be a tough opponent in the Super Bowl.”

The Buccaneers defeated another “tough” opponent in the NFC championship game as they edged the Packers 31-26 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Jan. 24.

“That was the first (Tampa Bay) game we saw in person this year because of COVID,” Janet said. “It was such a strange feeling to see Joe on the field with (Tampa Bay quarterback) Tom Brady and (Green Bay quarterback) Aaron Rodgers.”

Haeg, a 2011 Brainerd High School graduate who earned All-American football honors at North Dakota State University in Fargo, was drafted by Indianapolis in 2016. He signed with Tampa Bay before this season, and has been part of a rotation on the offensive line. He’s often used in running situations and for blocking on field goals and extra points.

“Joe normally lines up at tackle and is an eligible receiver,” Janet said. “So it was neat to hear his name announced as an eligible receiver in Lambeau Field when he came into the game.”

The tension of the close battle reminded Janet of the NCAA FCS national championship games her son played in for the Bison from 2011-2015.

“It was such a close game,” she said. “When (the Buccaneers) picked up the first down with 41 seconds left, I started to believe that Joe was really going to the Super Bowl. We couldn’t see Joe after the game (because of COVID-19), but he called me the next day.

“This is all hard to put into words - thinking about Joe playing in a Super Bowl with Tom Brady, who has won six Super Bowls. I still remember Joe playing football in our backyard with his Nisswa Elementary School friends,” Janet said.

Nisswa Elementary School, where Joe once attended and Janet still works as a media specialist, has activities on tap all week as they celebrate Joe Haeg Week before Sunday’s Super Bowl.

“My co-workers and the students are all pretty excited,” Janet said, adding that her son had an “interesting season” because of COVID-19. “He switched teams and left his close friends in Indy during COVID, but he’s found his role with Tampa Bay.”

Area skater makes NHL debut

Tommy Smith, who incidentally was one of Haeg’s football coaches when the lineman was a freshman at Brainerd High School, and his wife, Kris, also have good reason to be proud parents as their son, Cole, made his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators on Jan. 14.

“Obviously, I was ecstatic,” said Tommy, a longtime physical education instructor at Pequot Lakes High School. “It has been a dream come true for a long time.”

Cole, a 2014 Brainerd graduate who played college hockey at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Predators last March and played in five games with their minor league affiliate in Florida. Because of COVID-19, NHL teams are allowed to have taxi squads with emergency players.

“Cole made the taxi squad, and the morning of his first game (a Predators home game against Columbus) he called and said, ‘I’m in.’ I said what do you mean, ‘I’m in’?" Tommy said. “I started pacing the floor and looking for flights. But because of COVID, there was no way to get a flight to Nashville.”

Tommy and his family, along with Cole’s agent, Dean Grillo, watched Cole’s debut on television at Minnesota Hockey Camps in Nisswa.

“We watched the game on two big screen TVs,” Tommy said. “It was pretty surreal. It was a reward for Cole because his road (to the NHL) was not an easy one.”

Tommy knows how hard it is to reach the NHL level. His younger brother, Sandy, was a standout player for the Brainerd Warriors and University of Minnesota-Duluth. He was drafted by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 1986, but didn’t get a chance to play in an NHL game after many years of playing in the minor leagues and overseas.

Pete Mohs may be reached at 218-855-5855 or pete.mohs@brainerddispatch.com.