Duluth East and Apple Valley Revisited

The Duluth East boys’ hockey team heads to Apple Valley tonight. On paper, it isn’t a thrilling match-up; the Eagles have fallen on hard times in recent years, while the Hounds are among the better teams in the state. East won their meeting 10-1 last season. But even so, this game will always bring back memories of the game many high school hockey fans think was the greatest ever played. I re-watched that game a few months ago, and took some notes as the game went along. Here is a recap of the night of March 8 (and the morning of March 9!), 1996, at the St. Paul Civic Center.

-Duluth East comes into the AA State Tournament semifinal game as the top-ranked team in the state. Twelve players on the Hounds’ 20-man playoff roster will go on to play some D-I hockey, and another six will play hockey after high school in juniors, in Canada, or at a D-III school; both of those figures may be records. The defending state champs are led by 1996 Minnesota Mr. Hockey Dave Spehar, the leading scorer in state history and hero of the previous year’s tournament. They return two full lines and their top two defensive pairs from the previous season. They’d demolished Blaine 7-1 in the quarterfinals.

-Apple Valley, however, is no slouch, and is widely thought to be the one team that can stop East. They’re ranked third in the state (2nd-ranked Hill-Murray, the only team to beat East during the regular season, had been upset by White Bear Lake in sections), and lost only one game against a difficult schedule. They boast six future D-I players of their own, and another likely could have played had he not chosen baseball instead. They may not be quite as deep as the Hounds, but with the likes of Brad DeFauw and Erik Westrum on hand, they can match their top-end talent, and they have a small but talented goalie named Karl Goehring.

-One of those East D-I players, junior forward Matt Mathias, did not play. He’d suffered an injury in the quarterfinal, and had to watch on a TV in the Civic Center hallway. The UPN-9 crew interviews him twice during the game; once early on, and once in the 4th OT.  Senior Matt LaTour is pressed into duty in his stead.

-In the open, Wally Shaver and Lou Nanne talk about the need for AV to have a strong start to the game, as they’d been somewhat slow in their section final and quarterfinal; if they don’t, East might blow them out of the water, as they have with every other team they’ve played in the playoffs to date. The Eagles deliver, checking the smaller East forwards aggressively and outshooting the Hounds in a scoreless first period.

-The Eagles also look good killing off an East penalty, even though the Hounds, according to Wally, had an 85% PP over the second half of the season. Their defensive discipline in the early going, which forced East to expend a lot of effort simply to get out of regulation with a tie, may have been the most important piece of the puzzle.

-Duluth East coach Mike Randolph shakes some things up in the first intermission, and East comes out looking better in the second, with Dave Spehar starting to float and the Hounds looking to stretch the ice.

-Spehar came into the game sitting on four consecutive Tourney hat tricks, but the lone hat trick in this game goes to Apple Valley’s Erik Westrum. The crafty forward gives the East defense fits all night long. He scores his first goal of the night just past the five minute mark of the second, temporarily stemming the East momentum.

-13 seconds later, East’s Pat Gunderson responds with a blast from the point, and the game is tied at 1. The game opens up considerably from that point on, with both teams racing up and down the ice and trading chances.

-After Nick Gretz scores the second AV goal, a fan throws an octopus on the Civic Center ice. The Eagles take a 2-1 lead into the second intermission, despite a strong period by East on the shot counter.

-Spehar has two near-misses on breakaways, but each time, the defenseman gets just enough of him to disrupt him. Andy Wheeler has a couple of near-misses as well, one of which is the save of the game from Karl Goehring.

-Spehar takes an ill-advised penalty a minute into the third period (one of only two in the entire game, one on each team). Not to worry, says his longtime linemate, Chris Locker: he steals the puck and scores a shorthanded goal to tie the game at two.

-Less than two minutes later, Westrum has a response, and puts his team up 3-2. Three minutes later, Spehar finally strikes for the Hounds, circling the AV net in search of a passing lane before firing a low shot through traffic.

-After the first period, commentators Wally Shaver and Lou Nanne are calling it an excellent game; by the middle of the third, they’re calling it a truly great one. Little do they know…

-Both teams go back and forth, trading chances left and right, and with just over six minutes to go, Westrum completes his hat trick.

-East presses forward in desperate search of the tying goal, with Randolph using his timeout and a “goalie change” to get his top line as much rest as he can muster.

-That dedication pays off. The AV defense is drawn to Spehar behind the net, and he feeds Locker out in front to tie the game with 38.8 seconds left on the clock. It’s tough to gauge crowd noise from a DVD, but I’d hazard to guess that was among the loudest moments in Tourney history.

-In the 1st OT, Randolph puts the game in his top line’s hands and sends them out to win it. The result is firewagon hockey that is still exhilarating to watch, even 15+ years later. Both teams fly up and down the ice, trading chances. Apple Valley rolls two lines.

-Over the first two overtimes, AV’s best player is Brad DeFauw; he gets three excellent chances, one of which hits the pipe early in the 2nd OT.

-In the 2nd OT, Randolph decides to try to win a war of attrition and starts rolling three lines, with very short shifts. Larry Hendrickson sticks with two for AV. Randolph continues to float Spehar, daring AV to push forward and create an odd-man situation in the offensive zone; AV never takes the bait, and keeps its defensemen back around their own blue line.

-East has a strong start to the 2nd OT, while AV looks sharper toward the middle of the period; East again starts to take control toward the end, when Dylan Mills tees up a shot.

-LaTour deflects Mills’ shot, and it goes over Goehring’s shoulder and somewhere up in the vicinity of the crossbar. In real time, Wally seems to think it went in, while Lou thinks it hits the crossbar; replays seem to suggest the former, but there’s room for doubt. Most tellingly, there is no sound of puck hitting crossbar. A photo in the next day’s Duluth paper will confirm this: the puck was in the net. But the referees have no replay to rely on, and play goes on as the East fans boo.

-There is a distinct shift in gameplay at the start of the 3rd, as both teams grow cagey. East controls more of the play and has some decent chances, but Chris Sikich of AV does have the best chance of the period.

-At the start of the 4th, it looks as if AV is starting to take control. East gets the momentum back mid-period with a great shift from its top line, with Spehar once again making his presence felt everywhere, and Wheeler just missing.

-Late in the 4th, Goehring breaks the single game saves record in the Tourney. AV answers back to East’s surge and has two good chances near the end of the period that Hounds goalie Kyle Kolquist saves.

-By the 4th OT, it seems clear that the man with the most energy on the ice is AV defenseman Aaron Dwyer; Wally and Lou make a note of this fact.

-Between the 4th and 5th OTs, everyone looks spent; Kolquist is flat on his back with his head resting up against the boards, while Sikich is lolling on his side beneath his bench, modeling his stellar flow. Randolph dumps water over the head of a slumped Spehar. The crowd, which is still tightly packed into the Civic Center as it nears 1:30 AM, does the wave. Many have been standing throughout the OTs.

-East has a good surge toward the start of the 5th OT, but their momentum grinds to a halt when DeFauw flattens Spehar with a huge check. Spehar skates gingerly to the bench, and will not get a chance to return to the ice.

-On the next shift, Dwyer blindly fires a shot on net. Kolquist is screened and reacts too late, and the Eagles are on their way to the state championship game.

-In the aftermath, players from both teams embrace, and after the East coaching staff gets Kolquist to his feet, cameras capture he and Goehring talking to one another.

-East will win the 3rd place game 9-2 a few hours later, with Spehar notching one last Tourney hat trick. Apple Valley wins the state title 3-2 over Edina.

-The game had been just the second ever meeting between the two teams, but immediately thereafter, they began to schedule each other regularly. Ever since, East holds a 13-4 edge in the regular season series.

-Some of the stars of that game are still intimately tied to their programs. Mills and Kolquist are now two of Randolph’s assistants at East, while Sikich was named AV’s head coach at the start of this current season.

-Randolph, reflecting on that game and the 2011 triple-overtime loss to Eden Prairie in the state title game, in an interview this past summer:

It takes time to get over. It’s part of the nature of the beast. But then you reflect back, time heals, and you realize how fortunate you were to be part of that. Those were two of the best games at the State Tournament ever; as I told the kids, there was no loser in that game. To be part of it is special. I get over it about mid-summer. (laughs). But you always think about, ‘what if’?


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