Hockey Parity Run Amok, Plus Gary Thorne!

27 Jan

There are only three weeks left in the Minnesota high school hockey season left, but for all of the games played so far, we are no closer to finding an obvious favorite.

A simple attempt to run through the frontrunners in each class is a mess. Among the big schools in Class AA, perennial favorites Hill-Murray and Edina are near the top of the rankings as always—ranked second and third, respectively—but both have shown more vulnerabilities than usual, and neither is a safe bet to come out of their section: Edina’s loss to Burnsville earlier this month was their first section loss in years, and Hill needed overtime to get past archrival White Bear Lake two weeks ago.

Instead, the new AA top-ranked team is a total surprise out of Lakeville North. The Panthers have are unbeaten in their last sixteen, and are the best team to come out of 1AA—normally the state’s doormat—since a one-loss 1997 Rochester Mayo team, if not ever. They are carried by a top line made up of the three Poehling brothers have no obvious shortcomings, and have a star-in-the-making freshman goalie, but they’re also a very young squad, and we have yet to see how they’ll respond to have a target on their backs.

There are plenty of serious threats beyond those top three teams. #4 Wayzata has allowed the fewest goals of any Class AA team, and are playing the dominant defense we have come to expect out of teams coached by Pat O’Leary. Fifth-ranked Burnsville is very much in the picture, as is an Elk River squad that must confront some sudden adversity after the defection of forward Andrew Zerban to the USHL. Blaine has looked as good as anyone when they’re on their game, but the consistency hasn’t quite been there; likewise, a young St. Thomas Academy squad showed off their superb top-end talent in a win over Hill this past week, but has been on the short end of a number of close games against top teams. Add in some decent Duluth East and Eden Prairie teams to round out the top ten, and the AA field is as wide open as possible. Even Section 8AA, which had appeared to be the weak link in the class, picked up a quality win when Roseau knocked off Holy Family 3-0 on Friday night.

Class A isn’t much different. This class has been owned by three teams in recent years—St. Thomas, Hermantown, and Breck—but with St. Thomas moving up to AA and relative down years from the other two, the field is wide open. Section 8A has as good a race as any going, along with a superb contrast in styles; East Grand Forks is the best defensive team in Class A, while Warroad relies on the firepower of one of the state’s most explosive lines. The Warriors slipped by another top five team, Duluth Marshall, on Friday night; while they were outshot in the game, their disciplined defense and timely scoring made all the difference.

Marshall may be the deepest team in Class A, but their road to State goes through Hermantown. The Hawks have dropped three games against quality AA teams, but they remain undefeated against Class A opposition, and they’re still scoring in bunches despite their relative youth. But Class A goes beyond those top few this year; New Prague and Mankato West are neck-and-neck in a race for Section 1A, and while they haven’t played any of the top teams, scores against common opponents suggest they’ll be able to compete. Breck recently lost to Totino-Grace, one of two 4A frontrunners along with Mahtomedi; and even 3A, normally a sure quarterfinal win for their opponent, has an intriguing team in undefeated Luverne. The Cardinals are untested against the state’s elite, but unlike most of the teams to come out of their section in recent memory, they do have a few legitimate top-end players, and will be worth a second look down the stretch.

The end result is relative parity. We don’t have any runaway favorites this season that will be remembered among the state’s all-time greats, but that isn’t any great loss: instead, we two wide-open fields where no one is safe. This should make for a thrilling run over the next few weeks.

Minnesota hockey fans were given a real treat on Sunday as well, when the news came out that longtime ESPN and ABC front man Gary Thorne will call play-by-play at this year’s AA Tourney. Thorne is widely regarded as one of the two elite hockey commentators of the past twenty years (along with the delightful Doc Emrick), and called some of the NHL’s greatest moments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since NBC took over rights to the NHL playoffs about a decade ago, Thorne’s hockey duties have been limited to the NCAA Frozen Four and a bunch of video games. (While living in DC, I also got to enjoy his regular calls of Baltimore Orioles games on the Maryland Area Sports Network; he is among the easiest commentators to listen to for any sport.) Thorne couples his famous calls with a warm, lighthearted personality that would seem a good fit for a high school tournament.

Thorne’s arrival is a coup for the Tourney. It’s had its share of memorable voices over the years, from icons like Howard Cosell to Minnesota favorite son Wally Shaver in the 1990s. The lead men in recent years have been capable, but none of them quite had the flair for the dramatic of the greatest commentators, nor could they match the gravitas of their color partner, the timeless Lou Nanne. The prospect of a Thorne-Nanne combination is almost enough to make me want to stay home and watch, though I’m sure that urge will go away when it’s time to head down to St. Paul. I’ll have to settle for a recording, and perhaps a few words in the press elevator. His presence is one of those many little things that add up to make the Tourney into the cultural keystone that it is.

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