Tag Archives: tourney reflections

Tourney Reflection 2018

14 Mar

I’ve been to every AA Tourney game for ten years running, but this one drained me more than any of them. From emotional investment in my alma mater to the rigors of running commentary for Youth Hockey Hub to a simple desire to delight in every possible moment of Tournament finery, this one took its toll. It was worth every second. Even my knees are bruised from wedging into Xcel seats, the battle wounds of a Tourney well-lived.

2018 ended with a Lake Minnetonka boat party in both classes, as two first-timers ascended to their thrones. The Class A quarters did enough to tease us with upsets, though none delivered; the first day of AA saw three methodical wins from the top seeds and the start of a fourth before the Centennial Cougars roared to life, stunned St. Thomas Academy, and broke their section’s decade of despair in St. Paul. After that, it was all nervous tension, with intrigue in every single late-round game.

This Tourney came to its zenith on Semifinal Friday, always my favorite day of the Tourney: the quarterfinals always have something of a carnival atmosphere, with teams just happy to be there and hair on display, and the Championship Saturday has its own mystique that brings in the winner and the loser. Friday, however, is all business, where dreams are either dashed or passed along to primetime. Class A delivered the goods yet again in the afternoon, as Orono burst out to a 4-goal lead before Mahtomedi blew all the way back, only to see the Spartans finish them off in overtime. Next to me in the stands, Chase from Mahtomedi rode the waves of emotion down and up and then into a crash, but bounced back to chat up the Mora girls in front of us for the nightcap. Helping the rebound was the stunner in game two: down went Hermantown. For the first time this decade, the Hawks would miss the Class A final, their streak undone by a hard-hitting core of Cardinals from Alexandria. While the Cards’ parade to the box on Saturday kept them from being able to interrupt Orono’s steady push, they certainly sent the state their message.

The evening session began with a match-up that has become synonymous with the Tourney, the very phrase saying it all: Duluth East-Edina on a Friday Night. East answered the first Edina punch and refused to crumble as the Hornets piled on, and the giants of the north continued their great run against the state’s foremost hockey power. Scrappy Centennial again threatened to upend the Tourney in the second game, but Minnetonka kept churning away, and once they got one, it was no surprise when four more followed. Those Skippers kept the momentum rolling into Saturday. The stars came to play in this Tourney, with Bobby Brink slicing, Sammy Walker dicing, and Garrett Worth sniping. But for my money the difference-maker was the Minnetonka top defensive pair of Josh Luedtke and Grant Docter. They were the fulcrum for the Skippers’ seamless motion machine, their fluid breakouts doing just enough to break through the Duluth East barricades that had turned back the Hornets the night before.

A deep run by one’s alma mater only adds to the drama, and I did my part for the cause when I defended Duluth East pride with a bubble hockey win over some Minnetonka kids before the championship. We’ve been here before in my time as an East fan, but this one had the infectious spirit of a deep run where we loyal Hounds knew we had a very good chance. Out came the former players, the familiar faces among parents, and some alumni I hadn’t seen in years. I met some Red Wing guys with no direct tie to Duluth East who nonetheless proudly sported their Greyhound gear, and shared a couple drinks with the legendary Blackout Todd. I even had brushes with some Hounds in the student section like Tommy and Superfan Sam, who now get to learn how deeply the Hound hockey legacy can linger.

The Tourney mixes and matches us with people from beyond our own little tibes. I spent the Thursday night upset next to a diehard Cadet and directly in front of a box of Centennial moms, their reactions to events a perfect yin and yang. The next night, the box was home to some vicious Edina squirts, while in front of us, a dignified Hornet couple who appeared to have mistaken a hockey game for a night at the opera sniffed at our primal reactions to Greyhound goals. But even the Cake can join the fun: an Edina dad at McGoverns passed along a gift, and I consoled a Hornet alumnus friend who came down to visit for the second AA game on Friday. Toss in a couple of Tourney Virgin friends who fed our motley collection toward the back of Section 108 that night, and we had our own little party under way. “Why so sleepy?” we chanted at the Fairview Health ad when it appeared on the screen for the umpteenth time. Why? Because we’ve given it all in our nonstop hockey carnival, and it’s time for a good, long rest.

Not yet, though: the cast of characters goes on. There was The Lady, a posse of private school coaches at Grand Seven, and the St. Thomas parents. There were the familiar faces down the row playing the quarters game, and the press corps friends who sought out Danny and I in the lower bowl: Randy from Hibbing, Tim from Moorhead, and Zach from White Bear, the only one to bring us cookies. (Perhaps the Hockey Gods will smile upon the Bears in thanks for your kindness, Zach.) Some of the old hands stopped by, too: Dan from Plymouth,  the Bemidji guy who jokingly sought my autograph on his printout of my game previews, the Saturday session break with the Ryans, and Eric and Kara, who snuck away from their newborn for a little while to maintain a tradition. Finally, I owe a shoutout to my normal Thursday dinner date at the St. Paul Grille, whom I missed this year because he was too busy doing his part with a team on its way to a state title. I’m sure I’ve left off someone who should be on this list, and if you’re not here there’s always room for more.

I also spent more of this Tourney brushing shoulders with kids still in school than I ever have. “The Tourney is kind of our thing,” one of our Eveleth friends told us, as true a statement as there ever was. I made my annual Friday night circuit of the 200 Level, a sure way to make oneself feel like a fossil, and found myself googling cell phone games I’d never heard of. The Tourney is a jarring study in emotion that only teenagers can produce, from schoolboy raunchiness in the upper deck to some antics on the ice, from Joe Paradise’s selfie celly to Edina’s Jake Boltmann setting up Centennial goalie Travis Allen for a one-timer as they mucked around during a stoppage in third place game garbage time. And then, on the other side, sheer raw emotion: the remarkable poise amid tears of joy and pain for Joe Molenaar, Minnetonka’s winner of the Herb Brooks Award who lost his father all too soon.

That weight hit me again in the postgame reception area, where the Hounds players emerged from the locker room to meet their families and dedicated fans. I’ve seen kids’ season-ending tears dozens of times now, written of their moments of realization in Tourney Reflections past, but this was one where I needed to repeat certain phrases over and over again to get myself to believe them. Six years ago, I failed to find the right words for a distraught Jake Randolph in the bowels of the X; this year, I found some of that wisdom that hockey has taught me. It’s all over now, and spring is upon us yet again. But yet it isn’t over, and never does really end for those of us who lived it for four days in March. We are the heirs to something transcendent, and we must never forget it.

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State Tournament Reflection 2016

9 Mar

Here’s my annual reflection essay on the State Tournament, which first appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com.

Sixteen games across four days, gone in a blur and ending in a daze: another Tourney has come and gone, and as always, I’ll put fingers to keys to find what few words have not yet been said. By early March my mind is all too ready for a trip to some exotic locale, but the vacation I really need takes me just a few miles east. We make our yearly pilgrimage to the spectacle in St. Paul, a dip into tradition that somehow offers a compelling new drama, night after night.

For a second straight year, a first-time champion hoisted a trophy. Wayzata proved all those old clichés about depth and defense true, as they locked down in the first two rounds and rediscovered their game with their backs to the wall in the final. The winning goal came from pure grinding hockey, a steady offensive zone cycle that wore down Eden Prairie, forced a turnover, and a set up a shot from the point. Their hard-nosed effort warmed this Northern boy’s heart, and the relentless push was a vindication for coach Pat O’Leary, who has made an art of overpowering hockey and finally brought his crew along, rolling his four lines right down to the final horn.

The lockdown Trojans were never a given, as their midseason stumbles inspired a sea of skeptics. But by the end Alex Schilling pounced on every loose puck while Hank Sorensen hammered all in sight, and they just managed to find a healthy channel for that simmering fire. They stole the headlines from Casey Mittelstadt, the Eden Prairie golden boy who nearly willed a team to a title. Casey’s dazzling show throughout puts him in elite company, his performance comparable to Besse or Rau in recent years. But he saved his most genuine moments for after the game, pulling himself from tears to speak with poise about his loss; even in defeat, he quickly righted any wrongs, and began to learn the burdens of stardom that will likely follow him for years. His Eagles fell short in the title game for the first time, but gave every last ounce for their teammates and their inspiration behind the bench, Steve Ollinger.

Wayzata’s physical play was far from the only throwback in a Tourney field devoid of its usual suspects. The Halloween Machine from Grand Rapids made its way south for the first time since 2007, and the old northern giants flashed some of their nostalgic magic on their way to a third-place berth. They were no match for Middelstadt, but for a spurt in the second period on Friday night they had all of 218 Territory rising in unison, as the band cranked out one of its impeccably timed Olés and the west end of the arena, painted in orange, bounced in unison. United with the mass of Wayzata yellow on Saturday afternoon, Grand Rapids pulled off one last stirring comeback to bring home another trophy for 7AA.

The Burnsville black and gold also made its way back to St. Paul for only the second time in twenty years, and for one period gave us a hint of past glory. Thief River Falls, another claimant to dynasty in a more distant age, cruised to small-school third place behind a pair of genuine stars. Anoka’s Tornadoes shocked the world by spinning their way back to the Tourney, and the Lumberjacks from Bemidji axed their way through the consolation bracket. Their effort against Rapids gave us the Tourney’s only overtime affair, and its one true thriller before Saturday night. All four northern squads went home with at least two wins and a trophy in tow.

But even as the old guard kept up its proud legacy, newer faces showed the changing tides in hockey and beyond. As the suburbs grow, so goes the high school hockey success, and Farmington and Stillwater gave us glimpses of the future with their tight opening game. There is a learning curve for these teams, as there is for the southerners who got shellacked on the first day of Class A, but whole towns turned out anyway, and who can forget Mankato West’s display on that first skate up to the line? The flow poured forth from buckets left and right, its perfection driving me to self-consciously run a hand through my own mediocre mane at the intermission.

There were no surprises in Class A this year: everything went according to seed, up and down the bracket. But there was sheer, sweet relief, as Hermantown finally threw off a burden worthy of Buffalo and brought a title back to northeast. The Hawks left no doubts, dominating each and every game, and while they’re no longer the scrappy upstart story they were a few years ago, they are out of a long shadow and ready to claim a higher mantel. One hopes they embrace the challenges that may come their way next, and whatever Bruce Plante decides for the future, he has now earned himself a less anxious summer on his lake.

With no Duluth East in the field, I thought it might be a more relaxed Tourney for me, but the infectious nerves still swept through on Saturday night as the Trojans ran the clock down. That emotion never gets old, nor does this yearly dive back in to meet friends old and new, to revisit those Tournament institutions along Seventh Street or opposite Rice Park. I can even enjoy a momentary foray into that cloud of adolescent male hormones that hangs over the upper deck of the X, though before long I’ll beat my hasty retreat back to the land of free popcorn up in the press box. It’s a reminder of who we are and where we come from, even if our immediate alma maters may not have made this trip this year. It’s all timeless, and we can all go back, if only for a little while.

It’s all over now, headed into history books and video vaults and the realm of memory. Memory and that sense of rightness, emblazoned in the mind’s eye, a home where it will stay longer than in any pictures or words that try to capture it. An early spring is already melting away any icy dreams, but there’s work to be done, and it won’t be long before we begin the cycle anew. Thanks, boys, for another memorable year.

State Tourney Reflection 2014

12 Mar

This post originally appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com and on the USHSHO forum.

The seventieth State Tournament has come and gone, its whirlwind collision of nostalgia and renewal consuming us for four days before melting away into a Minnesota spring. The best team in each class was obvious, but it was still more competitive than last year’s, particularly on the Class A side. We had one instant classic, a double overtime thriller with drama and intrigue at every turn, as stars dropped like flies with injury and exhaustion late in the game. Gary Thorne graced the Tourney with an added dose of gravitas, and the referees made their presence felt a bit more than usual. Edina’s repeat at the top of the heap lets us use the word ‘dynasty’ for the first time in many years, and with an all-public AA field, the Hornets had little trouble claiming the villain tag.

Some of the best stories in this Tourney came far from that small town on the west side with a dream, though. Feisty Luverne proved its doubters wrong and proved it can compete on the highest stage, while New Prague recorded the South’s first top-3 finish in over ten years. Roseau added to its proud Tourney history with a very competitive 5th place showing in AA, its stars once again coming south to dazzle the St. Paul crowds. The biggest of the small-town winners, though, was East Grand Forks, and with its seamless breakouts and a relentless Green Wave of powerful hits, the Class A champion’s mysterious mascot only seemed apt. There is room for all types at the Tourney, but the growth and sustenance of hockey in small towns keeps the Tourney in touch with its roots. There were good storylines among the big city schools, too: Stillwater made its debut, Lakeville North’s thrilling overtime victories put AA’s southernmost section in the title game for the first time in 25 years, and while their faces are a bit more familiar, section wins by Eagan, Centennial, and Duluth East were a reminder of what good coaching and smart defense can do in the playoffs.

As always, the players make the Tourney. There was the delight of Eddie Eades, posing theories on cookies and ice cream, and then there was the agony of Luc Snuggerud, the wounded warrior bowed in defeat. Tyler Nanne channeled his grandfather’s ease with words, while Nick Wolff probably still hasn’t finished his latest shift for Eagan. Zach Yon of Roseau made a last-second pitch for Mr. Hockey, while Luverne eighth-grader Jaxon Nelson gave us a glimpse of the future. Erik Gadbois proved an unlikely hero for scrappy St. Cloud Cathedral, and Eden Prairie’s Michael Parrish mustered a heroism that transcended hockey, putting together a hat trick in the shadow of his father’s death.

The coaches, too, add their own distinct flavor. The old guard was on hand, still plugging along; Bruce Plante was understandably chastened after a fifth straight second place finish, but still managed to show why he is beloved in Hermantown, and a vintage Mike Randolph pulled all the levers he could in a losing cause before making “embellishment” the word of the Tourney. The bubbly and quotable Trent Eigner took his program to the next level, while Luverne’s rising star, Derrick Brown, did a victory lap for all of small-town hockey. But the clear-eyed focus of Tyler Palmiscno (with an assist from the peerless Scott Oliver) and the supreme confidence of Curt Giles carried the day.

Giles is normally one to run a tight ship; he’s not one to furnish reporters with juicy quotes, nor does he hold strong public opinions on the endless debates over private schools and junior hockey. Such is the luxury of Edina, of course: he presides over a program of unmatched depth, and he knows he’s blessed not to have many of the worries facing others. Back at the pinnacle yet again, though, Giles let the façade come down and channeled that old Herb Brooks line, saying the emotion of a Tourney win rivals that of the Stanley Cup. Repeats may tire some fans, especially when they taste of cake, but sports need dominant powers to serve as the measuring stick. Edina sets the standard for all of hockey in Minnesota, and it’s up to the rest of the state to find a response to this latest Hornet run. They came in with the flair and swagger of champions, a fast and edgy team unafraid to show off its talents and let the world know who is number one. Oh, to be young and a Hornet.

The whole weekend overflows with youth, even for those whose follicles have forsaken them, rendered them ineligible for the Hockey Hair Team. This year there was no one quote that fixed itself in my mind, no one poignant moment that pierced through the din. Instead, it was a steady, sustained buzz, fueled by stops at bars between sessions and those incessant Hornets. There are the kids doing what we once did: plotting an off-color chant, smuggling in a beach ball, fighting the crowds at the Expo, bumming around the upper deck, perhaps going on a run through the St. Paul night in the ecstasy of victory, or off to a party in some hotel room, all pretense of dignity and decorum forgotten for a weekend at the start of Lent. For those of us with some remove from the glory days, we have the impromptu reunions, the ease of chatting up anyone knowing we have common ground, the gathering of generations, the march of time and a ceaseless cycle bearing us back to the past. Those of us in the stands can lose track of the constant turnover, forget the rawness of emotions that come out no matter who is on the winning or losing end. That part never changes, and even as we head into summer or perhaps out into the world beyond high school, it long lingers, waiting to be brought forth again for four more days next March. No matter where the world takes us, the memory endures.