We’ve finished our annual four-day whirlwind through St. Paul, an exhausting marathon that goes by in the blink of an eye. From a neutral’s view, this 2017 Tourney rises above any in recent memory: this was hockey at its most thrilling, and rarely did it allow me to turn my eyes away from the ice. When I did, it was mostly to marvel: at the size of the crowd, the ushers in futile pursuit of beach balls, Section 207 coming together again. Even the warmups have become required viewing, the hair sometimes making me wonder if I’d stumbled into a fashion show with some hockey games on the side. But that was all still only a part of the Tourney experience: it was a weekend of countless connections, as I put faces to a lot of message board acquaintances and darted about the arena to film little spots and frequent a few favorite establishments around the X. Sleep is a scarce commodity this weekend, but why would I want to waste any of it?
The defining AA moment, as it so often does, came on Friday night. It was North against Metro, power against power, and the Halloween Machine went blow for blow with Mr. Hockey. Zach Stejskal stoned Eden Prairie time and again, a surprise hero emerged in Connor Stefan, and the lone goal off the stick of Casey Mittelstadt went into his own net. Mighty Casey, thrice denied the state championship that would have given him the highest station in Eagle lore, stumbled to the boards and slumped in tears. His agony was a sight I’ve now seen many times from some of the state’s greatest, but it never grows any less raw.
Sorry, Mr. Mittelstadt: this Tournament belonged to the North. Roll your eyes if you like, Metro friends, but we Northerners are stewards of a hockey legacy that dates back to its birth in this state, and when we bust through to claim the crown again, it renews the deepest of traditions. Victories for 218 keep a great rivalry alive, even as populations shift and the game changes. Greater Minnesota had its best Tournament in recent memory, its success showing that hockey is alive and well in all corners of the state, not just the few west Metro enclaves that have frequented Saturday night in recent years. That should be cause for pleasure, no matter one’s tribal loyalties.
Moorhead’s sniping Spuds had the easiest trek through the early rounds, though they succumbed to their usual title game fate. The future, however, is free from warts, and Tatertown will yet become Titletown, someday. Lakeville South repeated its 2012 feat and pulled a first-round upset, albeit on a less grander scale; they quietly put together a very tough Tourney, and the impeccably dressed A.J. Bucchino will likely guide his Cougars back to State before long. Eden Prairie, pushed hard in every single playoff game, found a way against Wayzata and rebounded with enough grace to pull out third place. The defending champs showed us how little records matter when a team buys in to a scheme, while 5AA carried on as 5AA.
The inevitable may have happened in Class A, but not without spectacular theater. The small-school tournament stunned with its remarkable slate of quality games, not a snoozer in the bunch. None impressed more than the MAML Moose, whose day one upset and second-to-last-second stunner over Northfield made them this season’s darlings. Somehow they managed to top it all in the finale: a 2-0 lead over an unstoppable force that rocked Class A like it never has before, a pair of overtimes, and a charmed goal reversal. It wasn’t to be, their two lines’ legs reduced those of moose plodding through mud by the end, but the echo of that bass drum through the X will linger long. This was the Tournament that turned a lukewarm fan into a true believer in Class A, and one that showed that even a MAML or a Luverne can give a giant everything it can handle with enough strategy and pluck.
The paradox of the Tournament: it’s a tradition-rich homage to youth, and in the span of twelve hours on Friday, I felt both ends of the spectrum, both young and old. The ticket lady ignored my request for an adult ticket and gave me a student one, while an adventure to the 200 level made me feel like an obsolete dinosaur lost in a cloud of hormones. Enough people picked me out at bars or in the concourse that I felt like I must have been around forever, while sitting in the stands instead of the staid press box freed me to be a silly kid brandishing a potato and joining in the Moose chant in the Class A final. It was a delight to rejoin the fans who give this event its atmosphere, and to have a front-row seat to the elation in Grand Rapids, so infectious that even an East grad mustered a few Olés. Rapids was a roller coaster team; one that, since it last took the stage at the X a year ago, learned some important lessons off the ice and came together as a unit on it. Their top line will go down in the annals as one of the best, but a much-maligned defense rose to the occasion, and when Eden Prairie kept the Orange Trinity in check, the second-liners picked up the mantel.
Trent Klatt gave his Thunderhawks faith, and they knew what they had to do: as with the solemn Northern pact around the Tourney, one must carry the burden for the group when another falters. For all the top-end talent on the ice this year, the most memorable moments came from the scrappers, the Stefans, the muckers, the Moose. All those old clichés ring true, and even when I’ve said everything I think I can say about the joy of these games, it all comes pouring out again. The summer will be long and we all need our rest, but is there any question where we’ll be again next March?