After living in Minnesota off and on for a little more than nine years, I decided it was about time to attend and cover my first state tourney. To be fair, heading into the tournament for the first time, I knew it was a big deal because it regularly packs Xcel Energy Center, but I had no idea it was that big of a deal.
Growing up in Alaska, playing for your high school program is secondary to your “comp” or traveling team. Not to say that the competition is weak or that there isn’t a healthy amount of rivalries between Anchorage high school teams, but certainly no one grows up dreaming of playing for their high school—the way that kids do in the State of Hockey.
My first clue, as to how big the Minnesota tourney is, should’ve been from my time playing at St. Cloud State University. During the weekend tourney, guys would regularly gather in our lounge and watch the games—bragging about their alma mater and rehashing stories of their appearances in the tourney.
My second inkling to the enormity should’ve came when it was announced that Gary Thorne would be calling play-by-play for the 2014 tournament. Thorne was the National Hockey League’s voice for my generation, calling Stanley Cup Finals, the Olympics and is the announcer on multiple incarnations of EA SPORTS NHL video game series.
However, it wasn’t until I picked up my press credential at the Xcel Energy Center Box Office about an hour before Thursday’s Class 1A semifinal between Hermantown and New Prague that I finally started to realize the importance of the event for Minnesotans. The line at Gate 1 was already starting to materialize and I had to snake my way through the crowd of high schoolers and fans to pick up the pass. When I strolled to the game closer to puck drop, the line was four-deep and backed up to Headwaters Café in the RiverCenter. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of excitement from the buzz radiating out of the awaiting spectators, at 11 a.m., mind you.
The enthusiasm exhibited from the crowds at the state tourney rivals any sporting event I’ve attended. Even the Class 1A games, which filled Xcel Energy Center’s lower bowl, were loud and fun to be a part of.
Before the first semifinal, the New Prague band played the National Anthem while the Hermantown student section sang, slightly ahead of time, giving it a certain amateur charm that polished performers often lack.
The Hermantown students were conspicuously dressed in black, but when their team scored, they’d rip off their shirts and wave them above their heads, revealing neon Day-Glo colored clothing.
In the Class 1A final, the Hermantown schoolchildren made another kind of statement. The East Grand Forks students started The (Green) Wave, but when it got to the Hermantown section, the youngsters sat in protest, arms folded, the wave flattening out.
During whistles and stoppages, the arena didn’t play music or run prerecorded pump-up clips on the video board you so often see during professional sporting events. So, the student sections had to entertain themselves. Edina often participated in a call-and-response between their respective sections, one yelling “Marco” with the other shouting “Polo.”
With two sets of fan bases in the stands, things often became playful with catcalls to each other. Opposing sections would go back and forth with barbs aimed at the rival school.
In the Class 1A final, eventual champion, East Grand Forks took a commanding 5-2 lead in the third period. The Hermantown student section draped their arms around each other, swaying to and fro like a sozzled group of karaoke singers, and belted out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
The stands weren’t the only place it was tough to find a seat. The Al Shaver Press Box, high above the ice at Xcel Energy Center, had reporters and broadcasters jammed tighter than packing peanuts. Sports writers and radio stations from local media outlets around the state were covering the game, and I was relegated to the second row of the press box.
Alongside Thorne on the state television broadcast was a staple of the Minnesota hockey scene, the legendary Lou Nanne. A lesson in longevity and love for the game, the former NHLer and Minnesota North Stars general manager called his 50th state tournament.
The television broadcast on KSTP 45 also tapped a couple of former NHLers and Bloomington Jefferson High School state champs in Ben Clymer and Mark Parish.
The Teams and Players
The teams and the players make the tournament special. It is an amateur contest, with players who grew up playing together as Mites and Squirts, often lifetime friends. There is innocence in the high school game. The players aren’t skating for contracts or endorsement deals, they playing for nothing more than themselves, their teammates, their coaches and for the love of hockey.
There is a rampant enthusiasm in the high school game. After a goal in the tournament, players celebrate without restraint: popping their school crest, sliding on one knee and fist pumping like they are trying to start an old lawnmower or unconsciously leaping into the glass while their teammates pile on. But it doesn’t seem excessive and there is a certain veracity in their rejoice that isn’t forced or for show; the same unbridled joy as someone hearing the final number on their winning lottery ticket.
While the pinnacle of the tournament is winning a championship, only two teams feel the highs that come from lifting the championship plaque. This year, it was East Grand Forks first-ever title in Class 1A, while Edina took home its second-straight Class 2A championship.
On the opposite side of the ice, it’s crushing to watch a team go home empty handed. Hermantown was a bridesmaid for the fifth-straight year, while Lakeville North wasn’t able to match Edina’s team speed in the championship game.
While both championship games were somewhat anti-climatic, we saw the painful dichotomy of winning and losing on Friday night. Lakeville North punched its ticket to the final with a thrilling double-overtime game against Eden Prairie. After Nick Poehling hammered home the game winner, Lakeville North celebrated by throwing their hands and equipment high in the air, the Eden Prairie skaters were left laying on the ice half in exhaustion and half in disappointment. The reactions from both sides and the looks they wore on their faces showed exactly how much the tournament meant to them.
Perhaps former NHL defenseman and Edina Head Coach Curt Giles summed up the experience of the state tourney best in the post-championship press conference.
“Nothing compares to this,” Giles said. “We’ve got a coach who won four Stanley Cups. I’ll tell you what, he’s as excited about this as he was for the four Stanley Cups. And that’s just what this tournament represents.
“High school hockey in the state of Minnesota is a big deal. These kids know it and to get to this stage and to do the things these kids have done at this period of time is pretty outstanding.”