The State of Hockey
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The late Herb Brooks once said Minnesotans were unlike other Americans when it comes to hockey. "We think of ourselves as Southern Manitobans."
The State tournament
The typical Minnesota boy (and since the early 1990s, girls too) wants to play youth hockey so he can play for his high-school team. The ideal then is to play for the University of Minnesota.
"The neatest experience a high-school player can have is to play in the state tournament," said Clymer, who also played for the Golden Gophers, too. "I was 15 years old and playing in front of crowds like that. Who does that? It was a neat experience, a really cool experience."
"Minnesota is all about community-based hockey. There's a loyalty there," said Bob O'Connor, USA Hockey Coach In Chief, and an Edina resident. "Minnesota goes against the national trend. All the kids in youth hockey want to play in the state high-school tournament. You've got 18,000 people at the games. They have the AA tournament for the big schools and the A tournament for the smaller schools."
Brooks put it in perspective from a Minnesota viewpoint.
"Winning the state championship (1955, St. Paul Johnson) with my friends from the neighborhood topped the Miracle On Ice because we had talked about doing that since we were peewees. When the smoke clears, your buddies from high school are awfully important, probably more important than anything," Brooks told Sports Illustrated. Brooks had two first-period goals to down Minneapolis Southwest, 3-1.
Sen. Norm Coleman was mayor of St. Paul when the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild, was dedicated in 2000.
"I don't think this place would've been built if it weren't for this tournament being here," Coleman said. "The strength of hockey in Minnesota is in high-school hockey."
And the strength of high-school hockey is the players, the coaches, the parents and the youth programs. What players they've developed. NHL pros Tom Chorske, Trent Klatt, Darby Hendrickson and Erik Rasmussen are among those named "Mr. Hockey" since the awards inception in 1985. Neal Broten was the first Hobey Baker Award winner in 1981. Other Hobey Baker Award winners from Minnesota include NHL players Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson and Robb Stauber.
Broten, of course, is remembered as one of the greatest of them all and his high-school reputation was enhanced by playing with his brother, Aaron, who has returned to Roseau to coach the high-school team, and Bryan "Butsy" Erickson, nine-year NHL pro. Their 1977 and 1978 teams went undefeated in the regular season but the 1977 team lost to Edina East in the first round and the 1978 team lost to Edina East in the semifinals.
How big is the state tournament? Families take their vacations in March to attend and tickets are passed down through families.
John Mariucci, a great high-school player for Cliff Thompson at Eveleth, went on to star at the University of Minnesota, then joined Eveleth goalie Sam LoPresti with the Chicago Blackhawks for two seasons before the two went into the military. He returned for three more seasons with Chicago, being named team captain in 1947-48.
Mariucci became head coach at the University of Minnesota in 1952 and produced great teams of nearly all American players, mostly Minnesotans, through his retirement in 1966. His best team was the John Mayasich-led 1954 squad that fell in the NCAA finals to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 5-4 in overtime. Dick Meredith and the late Bob Johnson were teammates.
"We might have 1,500 for a game and the high schools had similar attendance, good crowds but not what they are today," Meredith said. "Interest increased after 1952 when John Mariucci took over. First, there was a strong rivalry with the University, then the rest of the WCHA. John was great with the press and he had such a great reputation. Hockey really bloomed and you couldn't buy a ticket. He really spurred the game on in Minnesota. Then he coached the 1956 Olympic silver-medal team at Cortina, Italy. Everybody started hockey and all the kids wanted to play hockey. Before that, big kids played basketball and smaller kids played hockey.
"After that, there were fewer and fewer basketball players. I really think John Mariucci started the Minnesota hockey boom."
"My parents, Colleen and Richard, and I had tickets to the Gophers since I was 12," Clymer said. "I knew those names by heart. Those were my idols and they were bigger than life. I would beg to stay after for an autograph or a stick."
The Golden Gophers lost three NCAA Finals in 1953, 1954 and 1971 and was third once before Brooks guided them to their first title in 1974, a team led by Grand Rapids' Buzz Schneider, Hill-Murray's Dick Spannbauer and Edina's John Harris, now a pro golfer. The Golden Gophers won again for Brooks in 1976 (Tom Vanelli, Warren Miller, Reed Larson, Tom Gorence and Bill Baker) and 1979 (Neal Broten, Phil Verchota, Eric Strobel, Mike Ramsey, Rob McClanahan, Steve Christoff and Baker).
"When we won NCAA title in 1974, it was the first time in the history of college hockey that a team comprised only of Americans won the national championship and we all were from Minnesota," Micheletti said.
Don Lucia was a member of Grand Rapids' state championship teams in 1975 and 1976. He played college hockey with Dave Poulin at Notre Dame, then coached in Alaska and at Colorado College, which he took to the NCAA championship game in 1996, losing 3-2 in overtime to Michigan. He was named Gophers head coach in 1999 and led the Gophers to NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003.
Minnesotans were proud of the Gophers' recent titles but it wasn't the same for some because not all the players were from Minnesota.
"Herb Brooks said I believe in the Minnesota hockey player," Clymer said. "I feel the same way. I think the U of M should have stuck with all Minnesota kids. I knew everyone in our locker room before I ever got there. I had a good idea my junior year in high school who my teammates might be at Minnesota. That was neat. I thought it was unique thing to be able to do and I didn't think there was a lack-of-talent issue."
One other Minnesota college team has gone to the NCAA Finals, the 1984 University of Minnesota-Duluth team led by future NHLers Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson and Norm Maciver.
"We had Gophers' season tickets and that's where I wanted to go but wasn't recruited very hard," Kurvers said. "I had a good tournament up north and the Duluth coach's brother who was coaching recommended me, as did Scott Carlston, a former Bloomington Jefferson captain. The number of kids getting scholarships wasn't that great, maybe 20-25 a year. When you got one, you didn't wait long to say yes."
Kurvers wasn't one of the top-rated Minnesota defensemen entering college but he bloomed under UMD coach Mike Sertich and won the 1984 Hobey Baker Award. Still, the 5-4 overtime loss to Garry Galley and Dave Ellett's Bowling Green team remains his most painful memory.
"We had some good hockey players and good goaltending with Bob Mason my first couple of years and then Rick Kosti had a good year as a freshman in 1984. Our team just came together. We were ahead 4-2 with five minutes left. In the last minute, Kosti went to the corner to handle a puck and it hit a seam in the boards and bounced into the crease. They just tapped it in to tie. We played 40 minutes of overtime before Gino Cavallini scored. We all had chances and it was an exciting game. The next year, after I left, they lost the semifinal in triple overtime to Adam Oates' RPI team."
St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato also play Division I hockey in the WCHA.