As I round out my hockey coverage this winter, I offer one last piece that I promised my Twitter followers: a recap of the 2008 State Tournament. While I’d been to it as a Greyhound fan before and watched most of the games the previous few years, this was the first time I locked in to all the games, and I dragged my dad down for the AA final. (I haven’t missed a AA Tourney game since.) It’s the first year for which I have a Tourney program, and one of my favorite features of that program, as an 18-year-old Greyhound, was the 10-year look back on the 1998 state champs from my high school. But even before the MSHSL lobotomized the programs two years ago and removed that feature, a blog post along these lines was brewing in my mind, and now that we are ten years out it seems ideal to look. (MSHSL, if you’re out there reading, I’d gladly pay much more than $5 to get the old version back!) All but the most exceptional players who participated in that Tourney have now seen their playing days to come to an end, and I’ve done some mining of HockeyDB to track where all the players listed in the program went on to play.
2008 was a memorable Tourney in large part for its big four: the top four seeds were four of the top five teams in the state heading in, and they all advanced to the semifinals to set up a Friday night session that set an attendance record that stood for several years. Top-seeded Roseau, the defending State Champs, were the darlings of the Tourney, as they came in with an undefeated record, presumptive Mr. Hockey winner Aaron Ness, and the top goaltender in the state, Mike Lee. With Jason Fabian, Tyler Landman, and head coach Scott Oliver’s son Nick leading the offense, the Rams had the balance to repeat.
The dream final was to feature the Rams and second-seeded Edina, a matchup that would have brought together the state’s two most decorated programs. The one-loss Hornets had lost in the quarterfinals to Grand Rapids as the top seed in 2007, and their Fab Four junior core of Zach Budish, Marshall Everson, Connor Gaarder, and Brendan Baker had added one Anders Lee, a transfer from St. Thomas Academy who is now in the NHL. Senior Mr. Hockey finalist Joe Gleason led the defense, and a couple of the depth players gave them a full eight future D-I players. The Hornets looked primed to atone for the previous year’s miss.
The third seed was private school Benilde-St. Margaret’s of St. Louis Park. After some success at Minnetonka, Red Knights head coach Ken Pauly was back with the program with which he’d won two Class A titles, and this time around, they had a fighting shot at the big crown. They’d vanquished the only top five team missing from the Tourney, Minnetonka, in the 6AA final, and while they didn’t have the front-end talent of the two favorites, they were deep with a group attuned to Pauly’s up-tempo style. Six Red Knights would go on to Division-I hockey, including Chris Student, Matt Berglund, Tom McCarthy, and Patrick Borer.
And then there was the fourth seed in the field, Hill-Murray. Like Edina, the Pioneers were looking to atone for recent upset losses at State; they’d lost to unseeded Rochester Century in the quarterfinals in 2007, and in 2006, a one-loss team had fallen to Grand Rapids in the semifinals. This team was led by its defense, including Bo Dolan and Dan Sova, who brought the hits all weekend, and its goaltender, Joe Phillippi. Seniors Dan Cecka and Ryan Furne were their leading scorers, and a deep junior class including Isaac Kohls, Nick Widing, and Tyler Zepeda gave them scoring depth. Like Benilde, they didn’t have the draft picks of Roseau and Edina, and came in somewhat unheralded, but in retrospect, this group looks as formidable as any in the field, with six D-I players and excellent depth.
The rest of the field wasn’t devoid of talent, either. Woodbury, appearing in its second consecutive Tourney, had a couple of front-line forwards in David Eddy and future 3rd round pick Max Gaede. Blaine, making its third consecutive Tourney appearance after an upset of Centennial in the 5AA final, had a freshman named Nick Bjugstad on its roster. The surprise entrant was Cloquet-Esko-Carlton out of 7AA; a year after bowing out in sections with a much stronger team on paper, the Lumberjacks advanced to the Tourney on the backs of two D-I players, the giant Justin Jokinen and defenseman David Brown, whose scoring binge in sections stunned favored Duluth East and also eclipsed Anoka. Rounding out the field was a .500 Lakeville South team backstopped by the wonderfully named Hakan Yumusaklar.
Quarterfinal Thursday went according to form. Edina rolled past Cloquet 5-0 in the early game, and while gameplay wasn’t overly lopsided, the Lumberjacks had no answer for the Hornets’ front end talent. Benilde beat Woodbury 4-1 in the second game, and while they outshot the Royals 41-26, Woodbury did stick around the whole time, and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the middle of the 3rd before an empty-netter and a last second goal padded the scoreline for the Red Knights. Roseau put on a show with an 8-2 blitz of Blaine in primetime, with Tyler Landman locking up a hat trick less than a minute into the 2nd and Aaron Ness scoring two of his own. Hill wrapped up a strong day for the top seeds by slipping three past Yumusaklar in a workmanlike 3-0 win.
Semifinal Friday delivered on its promised drama. Edina and Benilde, which had its share of Edina youth players, put together one of the most entertaining games of the decade in the opener. Edina built 3-1 and 4-2 leads, but goals early in the 3rd from Student and Berglund tied the game, and a frantic third period produced no more goals. Everson, Edina’s great sniper, won it in overtime for the Hornets. The nightcap would be hard-pressed to match that drama, but it quickly turned into a shocker. Hill’s heavy hitting set the tone early, and the Pioneers then erupted for three goals late in the first and early in the second. Roseau clawed one back early in the third, but came no closer, and both the perfect season and the dream final ended in a couple of Pioneer empty-netters.
The title game thus matched the favored Hornets and the surging Pioneers in a battle of state powers. (“Cake tastes better on the East Side,” read one sign from the Hill-Murray faithful.) The Pioneers opened the scoring just 2:30 in on a goal from Ryan Furne, but the key came with one second left in the first period, when a seemingly harmless shot from the blue line by Furne bled through Edina goalie Derek Caschetta for a 2-0 Hill lead. From there, Phillippi in goal and the relentless Pioneer defense went to work. Budish rang one along the top of the crossbar on Edina’s best chance, and after Delaney Metcalf put away the third Pioneer goal, the Hill band cranked up “Another One Bites the Dust.” The Pioneers would shut out Edina 3-0 to claim their third state title, and first since 1991.
Elsewhere, Woodbury fought past Cloquet and Benilde for 5th place in a competitive consolation bracket, and Benilde bumped off beleaguered Roseau 5-1 in the third place game on the strength of four third period goals. Aaron Ness took home his Mr. Hockey award, while Budish, the most heralded of the Edina stars at that time, would not play another high school game due to a football injury in the fall of his senior year. Joe Phillippi parlayed his Tourney performance into a cup of coffee at St. Cloud State, and while Hill would return to State in 2009, four members of their vaunted junior class would not be a part of it, as they were removed from the team midseason for disciplinary reasons.
In 2008, though, the Pioneers’ performance at State was one of the most memorable of all time, given the teams they beat and the dominant fashion in which they did it. They allowed just two goals in the Tourney. Their showing ended Roseau’s dream run for back-to-back titles, and while their 2014 team had a fighting shot, as of this writing, this was the 7-time champs’ last great chance. It left a bunch of Edina juniors thinking they had unfinished business, and promising they would come back for another shot a year later. It was a launching point for Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner, who up to that point had not enjoyed a ton of playoff success relative to expectations; that script would flip in the following years. His defensive assistant, Pat Schafhauser, got some much-deserved credit for the force with which the Pioneers bullied the two top-ranked teams in the state out of their way. Hill-Murray was back on top.
The chart below lays out how many players from each grade on each team went on to D-I and post-high school hockey, respectively. While this isn’t a perfect metric of how good they were in 2008—some good players hang up the skates after high school, others peak early or bloom late—it does give some idea of the talent level in this field. A single game is enough to get a mention, and we’re using HockeyDB standards for post-high school careers, so low-level junior leagues like the NA3HL are not included. Anyone who was on the State Tournament roster is counted.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear why the Pioneers won. They had the deepest senior class and were supported by a strong junior class, and while they didn’t have the front-end skill of Edina or Roseau, they were deeper. Edina had a ton of talent, but was perhaps a year away from what should have been their peak; Benilde was senior-heavy but not quite on the same level as Hill, and Roseau’s relative lack of depth comes out here. An observer looking at this table who didn’t know the results might guess all the games correctly based on what’s here.
In Class A, top-seeded St. Thomas Academy was both very young and very skilled, with six future D-I players: sophomores Christian Isackson, Justin Crandall, and Ryan Walters, plus freshmen Zach Schroeder, A.J. Reid, and Matt McNeely, were all on the roster. Factor in some experienced upperclassmen, and the Cadets were clearly the class of the field. Their greatest threat for the crown, such as they were, was Duluth Marshall, a team that lacked much in the way of star power, but had good depth and the hero of the previous season’s win over St. Thomas, defenseman Dano Jacques. The Cadets had beaten the Hilltoppers in the 2006 title game, while the Toppers clipped St. Thomas in overtime in the semis in 2007, and the top two seeds seemed destined for a title game rubber match. The three next-best teams in Class A all featured an underclassman future NHLer: Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt, and Little Falls with Ben Hanowski. Warroad, the deepest of the bunch, claimed the 3-seed, while Cathedral took the four and Little Falls drew the short straw and was saddled with a first round date with St. Thomas.
In the quarterfinals, Duluth Marshall got something of a fight from Corey Leivermann-led Mankato West, while Warroad brushed aside Litchfield, and Cathedral handled Blake. The highlight of the day was St. Thomas’s win over Little Falls, in which the Flyers twice came from behind to tie the game on Hanowski goals, one of which inspired Hanowski’s salute to the Cadet faithful. Hanowski missed a penalty shot in the second period, and late goals from Ryan Walters and James Saintey earned the Cadets the win. After that, things held to form: Marshall fought past Warroad to earn a third straight trip to the title game, but St. Thomas simply rolled, with a 9-2 win over Cathedral and a 5-1 blitz of Marshall for a second title in three years.
The Class A Tourney made one thing clear: the Cadets now set the bar in Class A, and while they would miss the next two tournaments, they were now reeling top-end talent like no other small school program. Marshall fell off somewhat afterwards, and never could quite claim a title, and Warroad, Cathedral, and Little Falls would all be back as the top three seeds the next season.
Looking at this, St. Thomas’s dominance makes all the sense in the world. Marshall, perhaps, overachieved this season, given that they’d run out of Connollys to lead the offense, though this might look different if Jacques had continued playing. The big surprise here is the Blake team that I don’t remember at all, but actually had a pretty good collection of Class A talent (Josh Birkholz is a name I’d completely forgotten.) The Bears went 0-2 and mustered little against Cathedral and Little Falls. Otherwise, this one largely went according to form as well.
Hope you enjoyed this, and I plan to make it a yearly feature.