One word: deafening.
Five minutes, 35 seconds into the Class AA Boys' State Hockey Tournament championship game Saturday, Eden Prairie's Drew Holt found the back of the net and brought the roaring crowd to its feet. It was a sound that felt like it shook the Xcel Energy Center, the kind that gives you goosebumps. It was the sound of the underdog finding the scoresheet on the power play and showing Edina the Eagles had come to play.
There's something about the Minnesota High School Boys' State Tournament that hooks you in and doesn't let go -- whether it's the passion, the crowd chants, the rivalries, the incredible journey of each team, or the game itself. If there is one thing I have learned about Minnesota, it's that hockey here is way more than a game.
It's a way of life.
As a former University of Texas-El Paso athletics graduate assistant, I'm no stranger to sold-out arenas, but the energy that came from the Wild's home arena on Saturday was electrifying, a kind of experience that must be seen firsthand to understand. Hailing from West Texas, a state known for its love of Friday night football, hockey at this capacity was new to me. Of all the thousands of hours I've spent in a football stadium or basketball arena -- even in Texas, where prep sports hold a similar place of honor to Minnesota -- very few can be compared to the boys' state hockey tournament.
From puck drop to the final buzzer, the crowds never rested. "You can't do that," rang through the arena after every penalty as the student sections were relentless, never missing a beat while continuously encouraging their team to the very last second.
The rambunctious pep bands left no moment quiet with tunes from classic stadium beats to chart-topping pop songs, welcoming their respective team to the ice each time with the school fight song. It created a captivating atmosphere that drew me in shift after shift each period.
Saturday got underway with the Class A Championship, a matchup between the unseeded Greenway Raiders and the St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders. More than 8,000 fans crowded into an energetic arena. Two minutes and 20 seconds after the first puck drop, Donte Lawson found the net, and the place erupted with cheers. The Raiders had already stamped their name in history upsets over powerhouse Hermantown in the section finals and Mahtomedi in the state semis.
Back on Hockey Day Minnesota in January, Greenway braved frigid temperatures on the shores of Lake Bemidji but ultimately fell 3-0 to the home team, Bemidji High School.
That was the Raiders' last loss until Saturday.
This team was different, playing with confidence and determination and ready to claim its first state title since 1968. Even in defeat, I saw a team lifted up by a proud Iron Range community who appreciated the fight Greenway put up.
St. Cloud Cathedral for their tremendous effort ensured Greenway's remarkable run came up one setback short. An effort that led to the school's first state hockey championship in nine appearances.
A pro-Raiders crowd appeared to favor the underdog, and I think that gave Cathedral a bit more reason to push itself given its motto "unfinished business" after a painful double-overtime section loss last season.
The emotions of both celebration and heartbreak illustrated the bond sports can provide for a community. Growing up in a state as large as Texas, a trip to a title game such as this wasn't something I had the pleasure of experiencing many times in person or as a city. But there are few greater accomplishments than winning a title in the mecca of high school football. The pride that each of these two Class A teams had, gave me another reason to be in awe of the State of Hockey.
So did the fierce rivalry between Edina and Eden Prairie.
The history between the two neighboring nemeses could be felt throughout the stands -- and social media -- Saturday night.
All night long, the Eagles kept the Hornets away from the net, pushing them back further with every rush. Then, suddenly, Edina scored a pair goals 22 seconds apart, and the tide turned, only for Eden Prairie to tie the game on a gritty Clayton Schultz goal. Each swing of the pendulum served as another example of how unforgiving, and yet rewarding, this game can be.
As the puck went off the stick of Edina senior Peter Colby's stick in overtime and into the net, you could feel the shock and disappointment in the air even among the cheers of the Edina crowd. You could see it on the look of the Eagles faces as they waited to shake hands. I watched a team rally together and believe in themselves that despite the situation they could still overcome. Across the ice, I witnessed another team that fought hard but still fell short.
For the second time on Saturday, the story of the game was, never give up. Just look at Edina senior Kevin Delaney, who never played varsity hockey before this season but scored a third-period goal and added an assist Saturday.
I saw four teams battle it out under the same lights and same ice as the Minnesota Wild. A stage that very few will get the chance to play on in their lifetime. El Paso, Texas could not be more different than the Twin Cities, but if there's one thing I can use to draw a comparison between these high school athletics hotbeds, it's passion. Passion to support their teams, enthusiasm for the sport itself as a cultural staple.
A love that makes you feel at home.