Wednesday, March 9, 2011
The Minnesota State Boys' Hockey Tournament begins today with the quarterfinals in Class A, followed by the start of the Class AA tournament tomorrow. Class AA consists of the top 64 schools by enrollment in the state and Class A is for the remaining schools. In terms of enrollment, Class AA is roughly for schools with 1,200 students or more, with the largest of the Twin Cities suburban schools reaching enrollments of 3,000.
Often compared to the Indiana State Boys' Basketball Tournament or the Texas and Florida State Football Tournaments as the most important nationally for their sport, the Minnesota State Boys' Hockey Tournament is a four day festival of excitement, color and sound as the parents, relatives, fans, cheerleaders (on skates!) and bands from 16 schools all travel to the state capital of St. Paul to cheer on their teams as they compete on the ice at the home of the Minnesota Wild, the Xcel Energy Center, in front of sell out crowds of up to 19,500 fans.
The tournament began back in 1945 in St. Paul. After a stop at the home of the Minnesota North Stars, the Met Center, for eight years in the 1970's, the tournament returned to St. Paul at the new St. Paul Civic Center, known for it's clear boards, which you can see below in one of today's videos. For nearly 50 years the tournament was played as an eight team, single class tournament, which lent itself to classic David versus Goliath matchups, as the smaller schools from the northern part of the state travelled down to the big city, taking on some of the largest schools attendance-wise in the state.
Controversially, the tournament split into two classes in 1994, based on enrollment. While schools in the smaller enrollment Class A have the option to move up and play in Class AA, the tournament lost something special in the process. Still, it is the largest state sports tournament in the United States in terms of attendance and viewership, as all the championship bracket games are broadcast on local television. On March 7, 2008 19,559 fans attended the semi-finals, setting a new record for the largest crowed to ever attend a hockey game in Minnesota, exceeding even the Minnesota Wild's largest crowed.
Many NHL veterans have participated in the tournament, including Neal Broten, Phil Housley, Reed Larson, John Mayasich, Mike Antonovich, Henry Boucha, Mark Parrish and current NHLers T. J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues and Blake Wheeler of the Atlanta Thrashers. Of the 19 Minnesota players taken in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft between 2000 and 2009, 13 of them played in the state tournament.
Many rivalries, dynasties, villains and favorites have emerged over the years, with small schools from up north such as Eveleth, Greenway of Coleraine, International Falls and Warroad always being sentimental favorites. Roseau, in particular, has been one of the only small schools (enrollment 410 in 2009, compared to 24 Twin Cities schools between 2000-3100 students, and well below the 1200 cut-off point for Class AA status) to move up to AA and succeed with championships in 1999 and 2007.
Other schools have had their runs, with Eveleth in the late 40's/early 50's, International Falls in the 1960's, Bloomington Jefferson dominating in the early 1990's, but none more so than Edina, with ten championships, the first coming in 1969, four in the 1970's, three in the 1980's, one in 1997 and another one just last year. All those titles, as well as seemingly annual tournament appearances, put the Hornets at the top of the list of "teams you love to hate", as teams from the tony Minneapolis suburb Edina are considered to be "the rich kids", even sporting green and gold jerseys in the color of money, earning the Hornets the derisive nickname the "Cake Eaters", which they annoyingly wholly embrace!
Other schools on the outs with the general public are the private schools, such as The Academy of Holy Angels (champions in 2002 and 2005) and Hill-Murray (1983, 1991, 2008), who are considered to have the advantage of being able to recruit the best players to attend their schools rather than take what comes their way in the case of the traditional public schools who draw students from their local geographic region. This "class war" is an age old argument between the public and private schools and is only magnified with the arrival of a smaller school from the north, such as when tiny Roseau makes an appearance in St. Paul, and is one of the driving forces behind the ongoing popularity of the tournament, as every great drama must have it's villain.
Since it's inception Class A has been a battle between the smaller private schools, with Benilde-St. Margaret's, St. Thomas Academy, Totino-Grace and Breck winning nine championships and the smaller schools from the northern part of the state now given a chance to compete for a state title, with classic schools like Eveleth and International Falls able to win their first titles since the early 1970's and first time winners like Hermantown, Red Wing and four time Class A champion Warroad flying the flag for the public schools who have captured eight titles since the two class system was introduced.
This year's tournament begins today at 11 AM with the quarterfinals in Class A with the traditional mix of #1 seeded St. Thomas Academy, a private school from the Twin Cities, taking on New Ulm from the south central part of the state, #2 seed and traditional Class A power Breck, another private school from the Twin Cities, against Thief River Falls from the northwest corner of the state 70 miles from the Canadian border, #3 seeded private school Rochester Lourdes facing another classic small school from the Paul Bunyan country in the north, Hibbing, and #2 seed Hermantown from up north outside of Duluth, facing Alexandria from the west central part of the state.
Class AA begins on Thursday when #1 seeded Twin Cities suburban powerhouse Eden Prairie squares off against Lakeville North from the southern suburbs. #4 ranked Eagan from the southeast suburbs takes on the Spuds from Moorhead, which is located in the northwest part of the state across the river from Fargo, North Dakota. That game is followed by another Twin Cities suburban entry White Bear Lake taking on #3 Duluth East, champions in 1995 and 1998 who were led by the prolific Dave Spehar, who once had hat tricks in each of his three tournament games in 1995, something no one has ever done before or since, making Spehar an instant tournament legend. Friday concludes with the #2 "Cake Eaters" from Edina (not them again!) taking on Blaine from the northern suburbs, champions in 2000.
The semi-finals for both classes are held Friday with the championships being played on Saturday.
It's a huge deal to make it "to state" in Minnesota. This past week thousands of fans attended the eight section finals just for right to go to the state tournament, which for the kids involved means staying in a hotel in the big city, playing in an NHL arena with your buddies that you grew up with in front of all your family and friends and having your games televised live throughout the state. Many players have gone on to win national championships in college and even in the NHL, and over and over again when asked for their greatest hockey memory, the answer frequently comes back "playing in the state tournament in high school." Not necessarily winning it, just playing in it.
Once, a hockey writer quoted former three time national champion University of Minnesota and 1980 "Miracle on Ice" USA Olympic coach Herb Brooks as saying that winning a state championship with St. Paul Johnson in 1955 was one of the best moments in his career. Brooks called the writer to inform him that he had been misquoted. He said it was the best moment.
Cardinals, Bengals, Mustangs, Greyhounds, Wildcats, Hornets, Hawks, Bluejackets, Panthers, Spuds, Cadets, Prowlers, Bears and Eagles, Eagles, Eagles.
Today's featured jersey is a 2005 Warroad Warriors Zach Larson jersey. This jersey was worn by players at Warroad High School from 2001 to half way through the 2008-09 season. Warroad won the Class A championship in 2003 and 2005 with jerseys from this set, but being a #13 jersey, there were several seasons in which no one chose the unlucky sweater number 13.
Larson defied superstition and wore this jersey during their undefeated (29-0-2) championship season of 2005, and was a teammate to current St. Louis Blues forward Oshie, who is the all-time leading scorer in Warroad history with 104 goals and 137 assists for 241 points in just 93 games. Oshie led the entire state of Minnesota in 2004-05 with 37 goals and 100 points.
Warroad Warrior T. J. Oshie
Other notable hockey players to come from Warroad include Dave Christian, a member of the Miracle on Ice 1980 gold medal winning USA Olympic team, who would go on to play 15 NHL seasons with Winnipeg, Washington, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago, Dave's father Bill Christian and uncle Roger Christian, who won gold medals in the 1960 Olympics, and Boucha, a 1972 silver Olympic medalist who would play for Detroit, Minnesota, Kansas City and Colorado of the NHL.
This is a classic looking jersey in the style and colors of the old Boston Bruins jerseys of the mid 70's to the mid 90's and is one of the few remaining schools to use a Native American nickname and imagery, while others such as Grand Rapids, Minneapolis Southwest and Burnsville all discontinued their use. The use of the Warriors name by Warroad High School is approved by the local Ojibwe band of Chippewa Indians who designed the logo used on the Warriors jerseys.
Due to the multiple years of service the jerseys often see, names on the back are seldom, if ever, worn on high school jerseys.
Let's se if we can possibly capture the event, spirit and emotion of the tournament with today's video selections.
Here's some classic footage from 1984 with St. Paul Johnson defeating Hill-Murray showing the unique clear boards from the St. Paul Civic Center and everyone wearing Cooperalls!
Check out the explosion of joy as Hill-Murray captures the state title in 2008 over Edina.