Thursday, March 9, 2017

The 2017 Minnesota State High School Boy's Hockey Tournament

The 2017 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!

Such is the stature of the tournament, that in 2014 KSTC-TV 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 last year being Nanne's 53rd 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 traveled down to the big city to take 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 and 135,618 fans attending in 2015.

Despite the Xcel Energy Center 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 St. Paul in 2011, on March 4, 2016 22,244 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 21,609, which was also a session of the State High School Tournament in 2015.

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 Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders Brock Nelson and Blake Wheeler, captain 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 Housley 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 341 compared to 27 Twin Cities schools between 2000-3100 students, and well below the 1,300 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 12 championships, the first coming in 1969, four in the 1970's, three in the 1980's, one in 1997 and most recently in 2010 and back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. 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 photo EdinaChampions.jpg
Edina celebrating one of their 12 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, winning championships in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013 until moving up to Class AA in 2014).

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 its villain.

Since its 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 12 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 13 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 the Red Knights 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 Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake (MAML) from 25 miles northwest of the Twin Cities metro area vs #2 Delano from 20 miles west of the metro area, with the MAML pulling off the upset 3-2 win. #3 Mahtomedi from northeast area of the Twin Cities faced Northfield from 20 miles south of the Twin Cities, with the Raiders prevailing 3-1 to advance to face Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake. Defending champions and #1 ranked Hermantown from just northwest of Duluth, took on Luverne from the far southwest corner of the state, with Hermantown surviving with a 3-2 overtime win. Finally in the nightcap, the only private school in Class A, #5 St. Cloud Cathedral from an hour northwest of the Twin Cities faced #4 ranked East Grand Forks from the northwest corner of the state on the border with North Dakota, with Cathedral Crusaders winning 6-3 to advance to face favored 27-1-1 Hermantown.

Class AA begins today and sees a vastly different looking field than tournament regulars would expect to see. During section playoffs, upsets abounded with many of the top ranked teams falling and falling early, as #1 Benilde-St. Margaret's, #3 Minnetonka, #4 Holy Family Catholic, #5 Blaine, defending champions #7 Lakeville North, seemingly annual participant #11 Edina, #12 Elk River, #13 Duluth East, #14 St. Thomas Academy, #15 Centennial, also virtually annual participant #16 Hill-Murray all failing to make it to St. Paul this year. And of those who did make it to the State Tournament, not one of the field of eight is a private school for only the fourth time since 2000.

In today's first game, #2 St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1), a private school from the Twin Cities takes on Lakeville South (18-9-1) from the southern edge of the metro area. The survivor of that game will face the winner of #3 Moorhead (22-3-3), another school from the northwest part of the state across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota, and Hill-Murray (19-5-4), a private school from St. Paul and virtually annual state tournament participant.

The upper half of the Class AA bracket that plays in the evening session begins with a rematch of last year's championship game, defending state champions Wayzata (10-17-1) from the west metro area facing the #1 rated Eden Prarie (21-4-2) squad, led by arguably the best player in the state and future University of Minnesota Golden Gopher Casey Mittelstadt, whose decision to return for his senior season of high school hockey and shoot for a state title for his school with his friends rather than leave school to play junior hockey was written up in no less than the New York Times! Despite Wayzata being the only team in the tournament with a losing record, they are battle tested, having played in the toughest conference in the state and had a hellish non-conference schedule to prepare them for today's game. The final game of the day sees the only classic Iron Range school #5 Grand Rapids (20-7-1) from northern Minnesota 3 hours drive from St. Paul facing #4 Maple Grove (22-6) from the northwest Twin Cities suburbs, with the winner facing the team that advances out of the Wayzata vs. Eden Prairie clash.

Eden Prairie has to like the way things have gone so far, as #2 Edina, #3 Stillwater, #4 Holy Family, #5 Centennial, #7 Elk River and #8 Lakeville North, as ranked by the Let's Play Hockey newspaper, all fell in the section playoffs and they then drew the only team with a losing record in the tournament and their #1 ranking allows them to avoid the #2 and #3 tournament seeds until a possible meeting in the championship final.

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 while 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

Moose, Tigers, Zephyrs, Raiders, Hawks, Cardinals, Crusaders, Green Wave, Cadets, Cougars, Spuds, Pioneers, Trojans, Eagles, Thunderhawks and Crimson.

16 teams, 4 days, 135,000 fans, some seriously bad hair, 16 bands, 2 champions. There's nothing else quite like it!

And just how important has the hockey hair become to the tournament? Last year sports broadcasting powerhouse ESPN sent former Los Angeles Kings head coach and their lead hockey analyst Barry Melrose to do a feature story, not on the hockey games, but the hockey hair, popularized by the All Hockey Hair Team videos posted annually on You Tube since 2011. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Minneflowta.

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 wearing jerseys from this set.

Larson defied superstition and wore this jersey during their undefeated (29-0-2) championship season of 2005 and was a teammate to current Washington Capitals and 2014 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 gold 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

Bonus jersey: Today's bonus jersey is an Anoka Tornadoes jersey. While many schools create brand new logos for their teams, such as Warroad's locally designed logo, many other appropriate logos from various professional and college teams, either directly or slightly modified. Anoka has been using the logo from the NHL's defunct Atlanta Flames for years, resisting the urge to change the flames in the center of the logo to a tornado, saving that for frequent use as their secondary shoulder logo.

2003 state champions Anoka have been home to one NHLer, Steve Alley, who played 105 games for the Birmingham Bulls of the WHA in 1977-78 and 1978-79 and 15 games for the Hartford Whalers divided between 1979-80 and 1980-81.

Anoka High School jersey photo Anoka High School F jersey.jpg
Anoka High School jersey photo Anoka High School B jersey.jpg

Let's see if we can possibly capture the event, spirit and emotion of the tournament with today's video selections, beginning with a look at last year's 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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