One last piece to wrap up my hockey coverage this season: after a successful test run a season ago, here’s a second post that looks back on the State Tournament from ten years prior. 2009 was a memorable one: it featured one of the great upsets I’ve seen, a first-time AA champion, and a couple of other games that were just flat-out entertaining. The field was loaded with top-end talent, including three first-round picks and ten future NHLers. A team that featured three of those players would lift a trophy in AA, while a deeper, less heralded squad would edge out the stars for the Class A title.
The 2008-2009 season opened with Hill-Murray looking to follow up on its powerful run to a title the previous season. For half the season that appeared likely, but after coach Bill Lechner dismissed four veteran players for rules violations, the Pioneers floundered down the stretch before recovering to reclaim a Tournament berth. Edina, stung by its title game loss the season before, saw its Fab Five golden generation return for their senior seasons, though the five became four when Zach Budish lost his season to a football injury. The Hornets appeared to have a stiff challenger in 2AA in Bloomington Jefferson, but the Jags’ schedule was misleading, and the Hornets put the state on notice with a 5-0 demolition in the section final. They would be the top seed entering the Tournament.
The only other team to beat Jefferson that season was Eden Prairie, which lurked at #3 heading into sections. The Eagles had future first round pick Nick Leddy and the state’s next great single class, a group of sophomores headlined by Kyle Rau and Nick Seeler. Right behind them were a Blaine team with some quality senior talent and its own great sophomore class headlined by Nick Bjugstad and Jonny Brodzinski. Up north, a Duluth East team led by Mr. Hockey finalist Max Tardy and four D-I defensemen, including future NHLers Derek Forbort and Andy Welinski, overcame some recent playoff demons in 7AA. Those three teams all advanced to the Tournament, setting up an entertaining top four.
The final four entrants were a mixed bag. There was Hill-Murray, the wounded powerhouse looking to prove it could still win with a much younger core. Out of 1AA, Rochester Century was a 4-seed with little in the way of front-line talent. Moorhead’s 2009 edition, while deep and steady, likewise had zero D-I skaters, and was a far cry from its dominant teams of the mid-00s. Cretin-Derham Hall, state champs with a very different group three years earlier, also made its way across St. Paul to the Xcel Center.
In the morning session, things went according to plan, but not without some trepidation for second-seeded Eden Prairie. The Eagles drew the short straw and got Hill-Murray in the quarterfinals, and while they staked themselves to an early 2-0 lead, two goals by Hill’s young guns in less than a minute early in the second knotted the game at two. The game was tight through the remainder of regulation, but when the game moved into overtime, the Eagles finally began to carry the play. Mike Erickson pumped in the game-winner in the third minute of the extra frame, though it took an interminable replay review to confirm Eden Prairie’s place in the semifinals. There was no such drama in the second quarterfinal, as Blaine blasted its way past Rochester Century 5-0 on the strength of two Nick Bjugstad goals.
The enduring memory of the 2009 Tourney, however, came in the Thursday night session. On paper, the top-ranked Hornets had little to fear from Moorhead. As the game unfolded, though, it quickly became clear that everything was amiss. Unlike some upsets in which the lower-seeded team clings to life and gets 40 saves out of its goalie, the Spuds took the game to the surprisingly listless Hornets. Moorhead came out of the first period with a 2-1 lead, and while Edina pressed in as the game went along, they only mustered a pair of Brendan Baker power play goals, while Trent Johnson and Tyler Larson both collected two goals for the Spuds. Two scores midway through the third sealed a 5-2 Moorhead win. The much-hyped Hornets were headed to Mariucci, dispatched by a team whose lone D-I player was a freshman backup goalie.
That upset was a difficult act to follow, but Cretin-Derham Hall gave it a good run in the nightcap against Duluth East. Despite being outshot 15-4 in the first period, Cretin sprung a couple of odd-man rushes to go up 2-0 after one and then 3-0 early in the second, and just when it seemed like East had found its groove and stormed back to within 3-2, another breakaway goal took the life out of the Hounds. Unheralded Cretin would go on to win 5-2 despite being outshot 39-15, a result that ranks behind only the 1997 championship game loss to Edina and a 2012 upset at the hands of Lakeville South on the list of Mike Randolph era Tourney tragedies at East. Just as Edina’s bevy of front-line talent couldn’t muster anything 5-on-5 against Moorhead, East’s vaunted defense got carved up by the opportunistic Raiders.
The two remaining seeds battled in the first semifinal. Blaine jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first period, but the game slowly began to tip Eden Prairie’s way as the clock ticked away. Down 2-1 heading into the third, Kyle Rau performed his first—though hardly his last—Tourney heroics. His unassisted tally at 6:29 of the third period tied the game, and a second goal with just under four minutes left in regulation gave the Eagles the lead. Leddy collected an empty-netter, and the Eagles were on to their first ever title game appearance.
Title game appearances were familiar territory for Moorhead, who used a Jordan Doschadis goal late in the second to slip past Cretin 2-1 in an otherwise plodding second semifinal. The Spuds were 0-6 on Saturday night, and as impressive as their run had been, this was not the group to bust through. Eden Prairie jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, with the second goal coming on a laser of a shot by Leddy. While the Spuds poured 16 shots on Eden Prairie sophomore goalie Andrew Ford in the final frame, the Eagle defense held firm, and a Dan Molenaar tally gave the western suburb its first state title.
The win was a watershed moment for the Eagle program, which to that date had been more defined by playoff losses than wins. It began a tradition of star players sticking around through their senior years, a trend that would net them a second title behind Rau and friends two years later. Elsewhere, Edina, left with only a runner-up trophy and two consolation titles from its Fab Five years, would look to regroup under less of a spotlight the following season. Hill-Murray, too, would be in reload mode, and the amount of young talent that jumped in when their upperclassmen went down went to show the incredible depth of the program at the time. Century’s Tourney trip was, as of this writing, the last by a AA Rochester school. Trent Johnson and the Spuds became the stars of a Sports Illustrated piece that was originally supposed to be about the Hornets, and their run to the title game belongs on a short list with Duluth East’s run in 2015 for sheer improbability in recent memory.
If the AA field featured a bunch of great teams, the A field was much more of a free-for-all. St. Thomas Academy, by far the most talented team in the state, was upset in the 4A final by Mahtomedi. The Zephyrs boasted a high school star in Ben Marshall, and a number of other teams—Little Falls with Ben Hanowski (recently minted as the state’s all-time leading scorer), Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt—featured a single superstar who would go on to an illustrious career. As is so often the case, though, star power would be trumped by depth. Breck, with a deep roster led by a stellar junior class, would emerge as the champion.
There was no drama to speak of in the quarterfinals, where the top seeds won by three goals or more in each game. In retrospect, only Mahtomedi’s struggles are any real surprise; they were heavily outshot by 2-seed Cathedral despite being tied for the most D-I players of anyone in the field, and also lost to lowly Hutchinson in the consolation round. Warroad put Hutchinson in running time, while Virginia drew undefeated Little Falls and suffered a Hanowski five-goal blitz. Breck, meanwhile, methodically took care of Rochester Lourdes.
Class A’s best drama came in the semifinals, where Warroad and St. Cloud Cathedral traded goals back and forth until Warroad put in a pair in the third period to pull away for a 5-3 win. Hanowski’s dream team hit a final roadblock against Breck, which again plugged away in the early periods and built up a 2-0 lead before erupting for three more in the early stages of the third period en route to a 6-1 win. The final between the two deepest teams in Class A featured a frenetic first period that ended at 2-2, but Breck’s strong second period gave the Mustangs a 4-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. While Warroad brought the pressure from there, they wouldn’t score again until after Breck had grabbed another late in the third. Two empty-netters sealed a 7-3 Breck win and a third state title for the Golden Valley private school.
Fourth-seeded Breck’s state title bore some resemblance to Hill-Murray’s win in AA the season before. The Mustangs’ depth and defense held firm over the undefeated, top-seeded darlings of the Tourney and a Warroad team that was deep and offensively gifted, but bled more goals. With a strong junior class leading the way, they’d be back to defend their title, and Warroad would also return in search of revenge. Little Falls closed out its run of five straight Tourneys with its best finish ever and a third place trophy, but a title eluded the Flyers.
The 2009 Tournament was a memorable one for me, too. I was a freshman in college on the East Coast, my spring break conveniently timed for Tourney week, and I started a tradition of staying with friends at the U of M. I attended every AA game, plus the Duluth East-Edina consolation battle at Mariucci, drifting about the arena to wherever stray friends and random tickets purchased from the long lines at the X’s box office took me. As soon as it ended, I knew I’d be back again for the whole thing in 2010. I haven’t missed a AA game since.