The sun came out on St. Paul this year, an early arrival of Minnesota spring. It’s Tourney Time, it seemed to say; time to roll through all the normal routines for that first full week of March. Danny’s dinner party Tuesday, Cossetta’s on Wednesday, St. Paul Grille on Thursday, Friday at New Bohemia, Grand Seven between sessions on Saturday. The rotation of familiar faces here and there, the friends I may see just once a year but feel like I’ve known since birth now. It’s all automatic, a vital corrective to a season from hell for a Greyhound, a reminder that there is still order in a chaotic world. I may have the schedule down to clockwork, but no one can ever script the pieces that come in between.
In a year where three powerhouses headlined Class A, a west wind blew in form the east side to steal the show. Mahtomedi, so long the second fiddle program, stormed back from a late deficit against Delano in the quarterfinals and had full belief from there. They snuffed out the glow of Warroad’s return to the Tourney and played the perfect game for 50-plus minutes against Hermantown, only to see a lead slip away. But in a season in which no team could dominate from start to end, the resilient took the spoils. The Zephyrs went back to work in overtime and wrote themselves a Hollywood finish: Colin Hagstrom, broken leg and all, fought his way back to carry his Zephyrs to their first ever crown. He accepted his Herb Brooks Award from his old teammates the Paradise boys, whose agony was among my defining memories from a season ago.
AA’s wide-open field lived up to its billing, from a seesawing thriller between Blake and Maple Grove to an eye-popping upset from a St. Thomas Academy team that bore little resemblance to their star-studded title contenders of the past. Semifinal Friday, ever my favorite night of the Tourney, provided two thoroughly fun affairs, as Eden Prairie did enough to hold down high-flying Blake and Hill-Murray rallied past plucky St. Thomas in overtime. Like their Metro East conference brethren, the Pioneers only doubled down when they coughed up a lead. That set the stage for Hill’s triumph on Saturday, a complete team effort that left no doubt they had earned their crown. The big-game black jerseys came through again for Bill Lechner and his Pioneers, the team that peaked above the parity at the right time.
As always, a few kids played their way into my memory. Warroad’s duo of Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay redefined aesthetic beauty in a quarterfinal against Hutchinson, and Joey Pierce was often an unstoppable force for Hermantown. Ben Steeves of Eden Prairie, new to Minnesota, marveled that the Tourney had lived up to the hype and more. Some years back, when I lived near Lowry Hill, I’d often see a kid up the block in his backyard rink; that kid, it turns out, grew up to be Joe Miller, who gave Blake its first brush with Tourney success. But the headliners in 2020 were the showstopping goaltenders, first Tommy Aitken and then Remington Keopple, but most dramatically in the diminutive form of Ben Dardis, another Zephyr whose tears from a season ago turned to ecstasy on Saturday afternoon.
This Tourney was a homecoming of sorts for me: after three years in exile, I made my way back to the press box, a convenience that spared me the tedium of lines and tickets and fueled me with an endless supply of cookies and popcorn. I’d made peace with watching the Tourney among the fans—how can’t I love the opportunity to climb on bandwagons and brush up with other grassroots lovers of the game?—but I felt a certain vindication in watching from on high once again. For once, they Youth Hockey Hub contributors were all in a row; despite weekly podcasts and calls, Tony Zosel and I had never sat together and watched games together before. I also got to brush shoulders with the grandees of the press box: Harry, who saunters down the row to take names for the press conferences and share his little glimmers of optimism, as he has since probably the very first Tourney in 1945; Fran, the reliable pilot of the elevator; and Julie, our guardian who broke out her pep band bingo card on Friday night. They are the quiet heroes of the Tourney who work behind the scenes to keep it humming along, the necessary antidote to the bureaucracy and painfully repetitive ads that otherwise afflict this event.
Trent Eigner of St. Thomas took time to thank the media in a press conference: high school hockey wouldn’t be what it is without the hype machine, he told us, and needs us to tell its story. If that’s my contribution here, I’ll embrace it, and I find myself in plenty of good company. This writer was delighted to meander through a series of book tours: I attended a signing with Tony at Zamboni’s for his Jersey Project and stopped by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson’s prime location in the hall to the Expo, where they hawked Tourney Time; in the concourse, I met Matt Jasper of Home Ice fame. We live in a golden age of high school hockey coverage, and perhaps, someday, I can throw a cover in front of a collection of my own sprawling work that now spans a decade.
As always, there were some moments of poignance to pierce through the chaos, the flashes that make this essay easy to write. I brought a longtime friend along on Saturday, a Tourney Virgin who ate it all up and let me see it with fresh eyes again. Late on Friday night, Josh from Warroad nursed his sorrows at the Liffey and reminded me how much this game means in those small towns up north. After they won it all, Bill Lechner and his Hill boys lifted their wheelchair-bound assistant, Pat Schafhauser, to the dais so he could share his deserved piece of the glory. And as I packed my bag late Thursday night, I looked down to see Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges, alone, slumped into the boards. He gazed up and around the arena after the rest of the Spuds had made their way up the tunnel in defeat, searing that scene in his memory forever. On the opposite side, a few Moorhead moms took note, waited him out, and offered a loving applause when he finally left the ice.
One man who is no stranger to such reflection is Lechner, the dean of Minnesota high school hockey, now twice a champion in convincing form. Lex has sky-high expectations for his team, yes, but that demand is just as sincere off the ice, and he conveys it with patience and a graceful humor, a pithy wisdom I can only aspire to. If I am ever to be a coach, let me be a Bill Lechner, the steward of a Pioneer tradition that long predates even his lengthy tenure. And for this Hill team, victory truly was an affair that spans generations: Charlie Strobel and Dylan Godbout’s fathers were on the 1991 title-winning team. This is the Tourney’s gift, fathers down to sons, whether on the ice or in the stands, an offering we can make even as we move further and further away from those glory days.
Age may or may not bring wisdom, but it does at least bestow knowledge of a somewhat pickier body. I packed my bag with healthy snacks and at one point took a moment to wander off down Seventh Street alone to clear my mind, keep my focus. Over four fifteen-hour days, I need it. I’ve just turned 30, but this week is always a draining swing back through stages of boyhood, from eight-year-olds at the Expo to sixteen-year-olds in the 200 level, my brush with a rash of fantasy drafts and off-color chants. On Friday night I made my annual circuit of the upper deck to fully absorb the inanity and insanity; later, I made my circuit through Eagle Street and McGovern’s to find my people toward the end of each night, a reminder that things don’t really change all that much from one stage of life to the next. The boys are all here for the party, in whatever form it may take, and next year we’ll live once again for those four days in March.