As usual, I’ll wrap up my annual hockey coverage with a look back to the Tourney from a decade ago, complete with a snapshot on the careers of participants after high school, with breakdowns on both Division-I players and those who played after high school in any venue.
The 2012 Tourney might just be the most memorable one I’ve ever seen. Upset Thursday was one of the most dramatic days of quarterfinals ever, St. Thomas Academy cemented its status as the foremost power in Class A, and Grant Besse’s heroics put an exclamation point on a storybook run for Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the aftermath of Jack Jablonski’s paralyzing midseason injury. It was a Tourney that padded the event’s mystique, and the amount of front-end talent on display that weekend was particularly memorable.
The 2012 Tourney is most memorable for the defeat of all four seeded teams in the quarterfinals. In some respects, it wasn’t a total shock: this was a loaded Tourney field. All eight entrants were ranked in the top 11 in the state heading into sections, and seven of the eight were the top seed in their respective sections, the lone exception being a powerful Benilde-St. Margaret’s team that came out of a loaded section 6AA and decisively knocked off second-ranked Minnetonka to make the Tourney.
Against that backdrop, the first of the upsets is one that, in retrospect, seems less shocking than it was at the time. Maple Grove had been a force all season and obliterated Blaine 15-1 in the 5AA final, but their talent level was not otherworldly. Wily Hill-Murray, in reload mode after a senior-heavy team fell short the previous season, had more than enough skill to match them. And sure enough, after conceding an early goal, the Pioneers went to work and scored five times in a row, with Zach LaValle having a hand in four of the tallies. The Pios finished off Maple Grove 5-2 and advanced to the semis.
If the first upset was an impressive showing by an underrated team, the second one was a good, old-fashioned theft of a game by a star goaltender. Moorhead senior Michael Bitzer would win the Frank Brimsek Award in 2012, and his quarterfinal performance helped cement his reputation as one of the greatest high school goal tenders of his era. Powerful, grinding Eagan was title favorite, but they lacked the finishing touch to get by Bitzer, and in short order they too were on their way to Mariucci. The loss set back what was, on paper, Eagan’s best team ever.
Matching a new State entrant with a skilled blueblood often ends in an upset; great goalie performances happen. But the upset in the third quarterfinal looks just as jarring ten years later. Duluth East had been ranked number one most of the season, its core almost entirely intact from the AA runner-up edition from the season before. The Hounds’ sole regular season blemish was an ugly Hockey Day loss to Minnetonka, and while there were some warning signs down the stretch that they were perhaps doubling down too much on an elite top line instead of relying on the whole team approach that won them the Schwan Cup Gold, they were the clear top seed in the field. Their opponent, Lakeville South, boasted eventual Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos but otherwise attracted little attention despite a top-10 caliber season. The Cougars’ speed gave the Hounds fits, and the top-ranked team had no answers as the pressure mounted. Down went arguably the best East team of the new millennium, and South, improbably, advanced to the semifinals.
The final game of the day would be hard-pressed to top the three before, but this matchup, which looked good on paper, lived up to its billing as well. For long stretches it looked as if a very young, reloading Edina team would pull it out and suddenly become the favorite for an unexpected title. But Benilde had the air of a team of destiny, and despite the Hornets’ 19-6 shot edge in the final frame, Christian Horn’s goal in the final minute of regulation sealed a Red Knight win.
Moorhead failed to generate much offense in the semifinal with Hill-Murray, but an early Cody Rahman goal seemed, for a spell, like it might be all Bitzer needed. He held up under the Pioneer attack into the third, but Conrad Sampair had other ideas, scoring first to tie the game, and then to win it just 1:51 into overtime. Meanwhile, in the second semifinal, Lakeville South’s luck ran out: Benilde, now the prohibitive favorites, put up five goals in the first period and proceeded with a 10-1 obliteration. South would slip out with third place honors the next night, while Duluth East marched through the consolation bracket.
Saturday night, meanwhile, belonged to one Grant Besse. He scored his first goal just over eight minutes in, and a second less than two later. Guentzel, Hill’s star, at first looked like he might be able to carry his Pioneers through a blow-for-blow fight, but the Hill power play, with Guentzel alone atop an umbrella, may well have been his team’s undoing. Defensively, the Pios had no answer for Besse’s speed the other direction: the first shorty gave him his natural hat trick late in the second, and after Hill clawed a goal back, he promptly got a second. The exclamation point came with just under three minutes left, when Besse lasered home his third shorthanded goal and fifth total goal of the game. The finish was a coronation for Besse, whose performance in the modern State Tournament has few modern era rivals not named Dave Spehar. The crown was Benilde’s, the storybook season marred only by a strange kerfuffle over Jablonsky’s allowance on the ice for the celebration.
In Class A, 2012 brought the second of three championship showdowns between Hermantown and St. Thomas Academy. This time around, the undefeated Hawks earned the top seed, while St. Thomas slotted in second, Breck third, and Thief River Falls fourth. None of the lower seeds really had a chance. Little Falls and Duluth Marshall, both back in the Tourney after brief absences, did not have the talent of their entertaining counterparts from a few seasons earlier, and lost by twin 7-0 scores to St. Thomas and Breck, respectively. In the evening quarterfinal session, Hermantown dispatched of Rochester Lourdes, while Thief River Falls marched past new Ulm.
Things got better in the semis. St. Thomas and Breck, winners of the past four Class A tournaments, went back and forth in a nervy affair. David Zevnik made Peter Krieger’s second period goal stand up, and the Cadets advanced to the final by a 1-0 score. In the second game, Hermantown staked itself to an early lead and similarly seemed to be holding on in a tight one before the game erupted four minutes into the third. Two quick goals put Thief River on top, but Hermantown answered right back just a minute after the Prowlers’ second score, and Jared Thomas hit paydirt with 5:15 left to lift the Hawks to a third consecutive state title game.
This one did not go well for Hermantown. After giving the Cadets all they could handle the previous season, the undefeated Hawks got pummeled this time around. St. Thomas scored twice in the first and three times in the first ten minutes of the second, and the rest was academic. It wound up as a 5-1 final, and the Cadets claimed their second championship in a row and their fourth in Class A. The chorus of cries for their graduation to Class AA grew louder, most notably in some biting remarks from Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, but the Cadets’ status was clear: far and away the best team in Class A in 2012. In retrospect, the talent gap appears glaring, and the Cadets may have been the best team in either class.
That dominance would continue as the state looked ahead to the following season: in Class A, the two finalists were on a collision course for a third straight year. The AA powers’ positions weren’t getting any weaker, either, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Duluth East would all return in search of redemption in 2013. But not everything was preordained: the Benilde dynasty this Tourney seemed to herald did not come to pass, as the senior-loaded Red Knights would lose in sections the following season, and (as of this writing) have not been back to State since. Lakeville South’s quarterfinal win also heralded the rise of the Lakeville schools, long State Tourney doormats, as serious contenders over the next decade, while the full arrival of Maple Grove would take a bit longer. But in 2012, the show belonged to Besse, to Jablonski, to the Red Knights, and to the St. Thomas machine.