Nothing in high school hockey, and perhaps nothing in prep sports anywhere, can match a 7AA final at Amsoil Arena. A bold statement, perhaps; we 7AA fans are famously territorial, especially when the Northern pride factor is added in. But this section never fails. It simply delivers some of the best hockey you’ll ever see, year after year, each time finding a way to leave us with new levels of awe.
In the last seven 7AA finals, there has only been one snoozer, Duluth East’s 4-1 win over Andover in 2012. The other six have been one exhilarating peak after another, and it’s nearly impossible to separate them or rank them against one another. From a gameplay perspective, the craziest was the 2015 effort, when East overcame a 3-0 deficit to win in double overtime. Then there were East’s two late stunners, with game-tying goals in the last two minutes of regulation and quick wins in overtime, as they edged Grand Rapids in 2011 and Elk River in 2014. The 2013 final, in which East beat Rapids 4-3, didn’t have quite the same level of crazy but stayed tight and exciting throughout, with that unmatched East-Rapids atmosphere and a late push by the Thunderhawks that fell just short.
And now we have these past two seasons, thrilling wins by Grand Rapids over East in the most dramatic of fashions. The 2016 thriller ended the Hounds’ dynasty over 7AA, and this year’s repeat performance, while perhaps not as momentous in the history of the section, drew out the drama—and, in those rare moments when I managed to stop and breathe, the awesomeness—for an additional twenty minutes. So many of these games have been of the sort that neither deserves to lose. The fan bases get it, and tonight’s attendance record, in excess of 7,000 at Amsoil Arena, shows exactly how this section final has become the apex of amateur hockey anywhere in the world. When the clock winds down late in regulation in one of these finals, the Oil Can rocks like no other arena in the state.
It was hard to fault much of anyone for their performance this season’s double overtime marathon. The goaltenders, Zach Stejskal and Kirk Meierhoff, were on top of their games. The top lines, consistently matched against one another, went at it all night. Grand Rapids’ depth, a concern earlier in the year, did just enough to hold its own against East’s lower lines. Two brilliant coaches went toe to toe, and got their teams to play their best when they needed to be at their best. In the end, top-end talent made the difference, and Micah Miller, Rapids’ true leader, brought the Halloween Machine back to the Promised Land.
The cardiac kids from Rapids don’t make things easy, which is part of their appeal. They can be streaky, and have had some discipline issues on and off the ice. But when the top line flips the switch, there’s not much that can stop them, and their chemistry together is as good as it gets. Even if they’re saddled with a tough first round matchup, Trent Klatt’s crew is as dangerous as any entrant in the State Tournament, and they have that flair for the dramatic that could take them deep into the weekend.
As for my annual requiem for East, it’s bittersweet as always, but the effort in the end can’t culminate in anything but pride from this alumnus. I had my doubts after the way they finished the regular season, and with some steady but unremarkable wins in the first two rounds of sections. But once again, they gave it their all in the final, and there aren’t really any lingering what-ifs. We bid farewell to the seniors: Kirk Meierhoff, a star in goal this season; Reid Hill, a rock on defense; Alex Robb, who put in excellent work when pressed into duty over the course of the year; Sam Kucera, a defenseman who stepped it up when necessary; and the less used forwards who stuck with it in Andy Ness, Ben Bunten, and Braydin Larson. They now take their place in a proud legacy in red and grey. With a lot of returning talent, next year has a chance to be a very, very good one, so long as they boys keep working at it. The Hounds’ restoration can’t be too far off.
The lights go down on Amsoil now, and we turn our attention south for week of thrills in St. Paul. The two orange-clad northern powers, Grand Rapids and Moorhead, have a chance to represent good old 218 well. The Tourney will boast plenty of front-line star power and a few new faces, and I’ll have plenty more to say in the coming days about the coming action. For now, though, I’ll tip my cap again to Amsoil, and to the two teams who once again gave us hockey as it was meant to be. It doesn’t get any better than this.