Thursday, March 6, 2014

The 2014 Minnesota State High School Boy's Hockey Tournament

The 2014 Minnesota State Boys' Hockey Tournament continues today with the start of the Class AA tournament following yesterday's Class A Quarterfinals. 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 sellout crowds of up to 19,500 fans!


Of note this year, KSTC has brought in no less a talent than nationally known broadcaster Gary Thorne to handle the television play-by-play duties along side Minnesota hockey legend, Lou Nanne's expert commentary, with this year being Nanne's 50th year working the state high school tournament.

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.

Somewhat 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.

Despite the arena having hosted NHL playoff conference finals, the 2004 NHL All-Star Game and the NCAA Frozen Four twice, with the nearby University of Minnesota winning the title in 2002 and the in-state University of Minnesota Duluth taking home the national championship in 2011, on March 9, 2012 19,893 fans attended the semifinals of the state tournament, setting a new record for the largest crowed to ever attend a hockey game in Minnesota, breaking the record of 19,559, which was also a session of the State High School Tournament in 2008.

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 Winnipeg Jets. 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.

Housley Packers, Housley Packers
Phil Housely of the South St. Paul Packers

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 (with an enrollment of just 374 in 2012, compared to 18 Twin Cities schools between 2000-3100 students, and well below the 1150 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 most recently in 2010. 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!

Edina Champions, Edina Champions
Edina celebrating one of their 11 state titles

Aside from Edina, schools on the outs with the general public are the private schools, such as The Academy of Holy Angels (champions in 2002 and 2005), Hill-Murray (1983, 1991, 2008) and most recently St. Thomas Academy (who played in the smaller Class A until moving up this year and who have won championships in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013). Those private schools 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.


The 2012 Class AA tournament was won by Benilde-St. Margaret's, whose players all wore large patches in support of paralyzed teammate Jack Jablonski. Tied at 2-2 with less than a minute remaining in the semifinals, the Red Knights scored the game winning goal with less than 24 seconds remaining. They then stormed to the championship when Grant Besse set twitter ablaze with his five goal performance, three of which were shorthanded(!), as Benilde-St. Margaret's steamrolled Hill-Murray 5-1 to win an emotional championship with all thoughts on Jablonski, who was in attendance to enjoy the storybook victory that will be talked about for years to come.

Benilde, Benilde
Benilde-St. Margaret's players wearing #13 patches in support of Jack Jablonski

This year's tournament began Wednesday with the quarterfinals in Class A with #2 seeded Hermantown from up north outside of Duluth, taking on undefeated Luverne from the far southwest corner of the state, #3 seed New Prague from south central Minnesota against Chisago Lakes from northeast of the Twin Ciites, #1 seed East Grand Forks from northwest area of the state facing Orono from just west of the metro area and #4 seeded private school St. Cloud Cathedral from the center of the state facing another private school, Totino-Grace located in the northern Minneapolis suburbs.

Hermantown, runner's up to St. Thomas the last three years, won 6-3 to end Luverne's unbeaten run on their first trip to the state tournament and will face New Prague who won 5-2 in their state tournament debut. Hermantown, East Grand Forks won5-1 over Orono after a fast start and will face a tough test when they meet private school St. Cloud Cathedral, who came back from a two goal deficit to win an overtime thriller. Despite most of the attention being focused on the Class AA schools, Hermantown's quest to win their second championship after battling against private school St. Thomas Academy the last three years is not to be overlooked and could play out the same way yet again if Cathedral gets by favorites East Grand Forks.

Class AA begins today and sees #2 seed Lakeville North from the south metro area take on tiny Roseau from up near the Canadian border in a true David vs. Goliath matchup that makes the Minnesota State High School Tournament so special, as Lakeville North has an enrollment roughly five times that of Class A eligible Roseau. #3 seed Eden Prairie from the southwest metro suburbs, champions in 2009 and 2011, taking on Centennial from the northern metro suburbs. #1 ranked Edina, coached by former Minnesota North Stars captain Curt Giles, is back to defend their championship and will face Stillwater, from west of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River with #4 Duluth East facing #5 Eagan, a southern metro suburb. With the large number of Twin Cities schools taking part, one can see why little Roseau will be a fan favorite for those without a rooting interest in one of the other seven teams.

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.

Herb Brooks Johnson 1955, Herb Brooks Johnson 1955
Herb Brooks, back row far right, celebrating with his St. Paul Johnson
teammates after winning the state championship in 1955

Hawks, Cardinals, Trojans, Wildcats, Green Wave, Spartans, Crusaders, Eagles, Panthers, Rams, another Eagles, Cougars, Hornets, Ponies, Greyhounds and Wildcats again.

16 teams, 4 days, 120,000 fans, some seriously bad hair, 16 bands, 2 champions. There's nothing else quite like it.

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 and recent United States Olympic standout 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 United States Olympian Gigi Marvin, current New York Islander Brock NelsonDave 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, the late 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. During it's history, no United States Olympic hockey team has ever won a medal without having a player on the team from tiny Warroad!

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.

Warroad Warriors 2001-2008 jersey photo WarroadWarriors2001-2008F.jpg
Warroad Warriors 2001-2008 jersey photo WarroadWarriors2001-2008B.jpg

Let's se if we can possibly capture the event, spirit and emotion of the tournament with today's video selections, begining with a look at last years excitement.








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.


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