Greetings from Minneapolis, where I’m settled in with some old friends on the eve of the 2014 Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament.
For the third straight year I’ll have a press pass to the Tourney, which means I can add some insights that the general public might not see. When I get to the Xcel Center tomorrow, I’ll set up a thread on the forum where I’ll post updates, with quotes from press conferences and random observations (some enlightening, some less so). For the 140-character versions of these things, plus observations on the number of free cookies I’m eating, check out my Twitter feed here.
From a big picture perspective, here are six of the more compelling storylines this year:
Cinderella Stories In each class, there was a monumental upset of a private school power by an unheralded school in sections, as Orono took down Breck, and Stillwater edged past Hill-Murray. For their trouble, those two teams have drawn the top seed in each class. Orono will need another great performance by goalie Jonathan Flakne and hope for a few breaks against East Grand Forks’s smothering defense. Stillwater, on the other hand, took it to White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray for long stretches of their upset wins, and while a game against Edina in primetime is a tall order for a school making its first Tourney appearance, they’ll have a shot if they play the same way.
Publick Skoolz Rool For only the second time in the past 15 years, there are no private schools in AA. Class A, too, is down to only two privates this year, which ties the lowest total in the past ten Tourneys. Those two schools—St. Cloud Cathedral and Totino-Grace—meet in the first round, and they aren’t exactly traditional powerhouses, either. This leaves the heckling students in the upper deck with a bit of a dilemma, but Edina is always easy to tag as the villain, and it will be interesting to see if Hermantown starts wearing out their welcome in Class A.
Northern power in Class A? Northern teams are usually among the contenders in Class A, but with the dominance of St. Thomas and Breck over the past few years, none have won a title since Hermantown in 2007. The Hawks and East Grand Forks are odds-on favorites in Class A this year, meaning the trophy could be heading back up into the hinterland.
A Repeat in AA? AA hasn’t had a repeat champion since Bloomington Jefferson won three straight from 1992-1994, but Edina is the best-positioned team to do so in a while. The Hornets have everything you could ask for, and the downside to 3 top-5 teams going down in section playoff thrillers is a Tournament field with—on paper, at least—an easier path for the favorites who do make it through. For all their success, the Hornets have been an underdog in their three title runs during the two-class era, but have yet to close the deal in the years in which they’ve been favored.
The South Rises It was a good year for southern teams. In Lakeville North, 1AA has its first seeded team ever, and if the young Panthers can handle the bright lights, they have good odds of making the AA final. In Class A, New Prague grabbed the 3-seed and a fairly easy first round draw in Chisago Lakes, meaning a southern team has a good shot at a small-school semifinal for the first time since 2003. And then there’s undefeated Luverne, which has been saddled with Hermantown in the first round. Even if they get blown out, their season has been great for the traditionally hockey-poor southwest corner of the state, and should help boost interest in that area.
Gary Thorne I may be in the press box, but part of me envies those of you watching from home this year, as you’ll enjoy one of hockey’s greatest voices calling the action in the AA Tourney. Thorne’s play-by-play is synonymous with many of the greatest moments in hockey history over the past 25 years, and now he’ll set his voice to the memorable moments of the 2014 Tourney. Of course, he’ll be paired with the timeless Lou Nanne, now in his fiftieth year of providing Tournament commentary.
I hope you’ll join me for part of my week in the press box—though, of course, I’ll be abandoning my cushy perch and heading down to the stands for the 8:00 game on Thursday, when Duluth East takes on Eagan in its quarterfinal. It’s a great match-up between two very similar teams that play very tough hockey, and renews the classic north-versus-metro rivalry that helped build the Tourney. There’s something about that late-night game that lends itself to drama and intrigue—it’s gone to overtime the past two years—and it’s also a great time slot for the Twin Cities-based members of Greyhounds Nation, who should be free to join me in the stands for an impromptu reunion. No matter what the Hounds do, it’ll be a memorable four days, and it’ll be over all too soon. At that point I’ll be writing my annual reflection essay, and then it’ll be a long, hopefully warm, summer before we start the cycle again.