ST. PAUL, Minn. — The road that zigzags through the heart of Minnesota to get to the Boys’ state hockey championship is an arduous months-long journey for 16 of the state’s top programs. But this annual treasure of American high-school athletics that dates back to 1945 is more than just “survive and advance.” It is a tournament with deep roots in communities throughout the state where hockey is king.
Understanding why Minnesota is called the “State of Hockey” shouldn’t be difficult. It’s one of the coldest areas of the country and it borders Canada, where the game was invented in the mid-19th century. Hockey eventually made its way down to Minnesota’s Northern “Iron Range” of communities that were rich in both natural resources and hard-working European immigrants. The game became popular in a hurry.
Fast forward to today, and it’s Minnesota that has the largest enrollment of hockey participants in the United States. There are also over 20,000 hockey rinks throughout the state, and keep in mind that doesn’t include the freebies created when ponds and lakes freeze over by late November and don’t thaw until April.
But hockey is more to Minnesotans than a simple game played on a sheet of ice. The collective understanding throughout the state is that the sport transcends the day-to-day struggles inherent in the life of its average citizen. And when the calendar turns from February to March, hockey in Minnesota takes on a whole new meaning.
Want to learn about the local reverence synonymous with Indiana high school basketball? There’s an Academy Award-nominated movie for that. Curious about how crazed Texans are for their high school football? They have a couple of movies and a hit TV show for that as well. But when it comes to encapsulating the importance of high school hockey in Minnesota, Hollywood would be smart to sit this one out.
The Boys’ state hockey tournament, known around these parts simply as “state,” can deliver awe-inspiring performances without help from scripts and producers. Much like the world junior hockey championship, or college basketball’s “March Madness,” the dog-eat-dog nature of the single-game elimination can put the competitive spirit of the young men who participate into overdrive. And while supporters busily fill their brackets or paint their faces in support of their hometown heroes, the players are engaged in the biggest event most will ever be a part of.
Minnesotans come to the Twin Cities in droves in early March, most of whom are overflowing with school pride, and deservedly so. Only a select few from a pool of over 250 high school hockey programs earn the right to compete for state, and the edge-of-your-seat action and anticipation during four jam-packed days of intense competition is something Minnesotans clamor for as the warmth of spring approaches. In terms of attendance, the state hockey tournament draws more spectators than any high school sporting event in the country. That includes basketball in Indiana or Kentucky, and football in either Texas or Florida.
Each one of those 16 fortunate schools, as well as all hockey programs throughout the state, represent communities that range from geographically unique to demographically diverse. Socioeconomic status comes into play as well. The crowds for one game could be split between supporters from blue-collar communities versus those from affluent suburbs; the next, a standoff between fans from Minnesota’s rural farmlands and those from densely-populated metropolitan areas. None involved will turn down the chance to incorporate derisive chants towards their opponents and those who support them
The desire to win a state championship is something Minnesotans develop from an early age regardless of where these kids fit in the social class hierarchy. The organization of their hockey teams are also divided into two classes – Class A and Class AA – and each class has a total of eight sections. The larger schools make up Class AA while Class A is made up of smaller programs, with the primary objective for every hockey team in the state being a berth in the state tournament regardless of how big of school they attend.
“It’s a time-honored tradition,” Tom Chorske, a star for Minneapolis Southwest High School in the 1980s who went on to play 11 NHL seasons and won the Stanley Cup with the 1995 New Jersey Devils, told Sporting News. Last year was a dream season for his family as his son Brett won state with Edina just days after daughter Hannah took home the title with the Lady Hornets.
“Because of our community-based hockey system, playing in the state tournament is the goal of just about every kid growing up playing hockey in Minnesota.”
Although Class AA is seen as the superior group, Class A programs with smaller enrollment not only produce NCAA and NHL talent, but the inter-class schedule during the regular season affords its athletes the chance to prove their mettle against teams considered to be deeper in the talent department. Schools in Class A with a solid hockey program can opt to participate in Class AA.
Once the regular season ends, however, schools compete within their sections for the right to go to state, where champions are crowned for the respective classes. Bragging rights and conference pride certainly play into the ruggedness of the affairs, which are not only testy but also numerous – a total of 22 games are played during the four days, as losers in every stage are afforded the chance to play in consolation and third-place matches. Even the coaches involved understand the importance of each event beyond wins and losses.
“Did you see the bowl today? It was full.” St. Cloud Cathedral head coach Derrick Brown said after his Crusaders dropped a 6-2 decision to Hermantown in Friday’s Class A semifinal. Last year, St. Cloud Cathedral won state in Class A and was the No. 2 seed in this year’s event.
“What an awesome atmosphere that was for Class A. My players took me on a really fun ride as coach.”
Interweaving local hockey with day-to-day life is something Minnesotans hold sacred. A competitive high school program can provide its community with a sense of belonging and pride. And while it is the players who are pouring sweat and leaking blood, it is their neighbors and townspeople who are right there with them as they advance towards state, which is played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Even a six-hour drive from the northern lake town of Warroad couldn’t stop supporters from cheering on their Warriors, who were the No. 1 team in Class A and made their first trip to state in 10 years.
“State has always been a big deal no matter how big or small the communities were,” says Pat Micheletti, a hockey analyst for Westwood 1 Sports and NHL veteran who in the 1980’s was one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the University of Minnesota.
“Hibbing, Chisolm and all those Iron Range towns – every rink up there is historic from a hockey standpoint. They were so packed on game night they had to have the fire marshals there to control the crowds. You’re talking about 4000-plus people from a small town crammed into a rink to watch high school hockey.”
Tradition and dedication to the sweater also play critical roles in the intensity of the competition. Notable prospects from throughout the state are often pressured by agents or higher hockey federations to leave high school early for what they believe to be a better environment. But the lure of a more prestigious development junior league, or even the NHL for that matter, was not enough for several notable prospects in recent years to spurn those offers and stay in high school for a chance to win state.
In 2017, forward Casey Mittelstadt – the Buffalo Sabres’ first pick in that year’s NHL draft — decided to remain with his Class AA Eden Prairie Eagles for another shot at state rather than play a full season in the United States Hockey League. In 2018, two highly-regarded prospects in this year’s tournament — St. Cloud Cathedral’s Jack Smith and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi — turned down invitations to the high-profile U.S. National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich., mostly because of the strong bonds they formed with the teammates they’ve known most of their lives. Success in such a high-stakes, hyper-competitive environment can be dependent on the strength and support from more than just coaches and parents.
“As little kids growing up in Minnesota, our heroes were high school hockey players and we wanted to be just like them”, says Micheletti. “To this day my best friends are my teammates from high school some 40 years ago.”
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The players themselves are no strangers to the euphoria and excitement surrounding the tournament. State hockey organizations work with local leaders and businesses to fund and promote early-age involvement. Scores of youth programs are invited to perform in Minnesota’s top ice facilities, including the Xcel Energy Center, which is home to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Players from levels as low as Mini-mite (ages 5-6) and as high as Bantam (13-14) are groomed to not only become quality hockey players and contributors to the program, but also carry themselves responsibly and learn the history of hockey in their hometowns.
“Everyone rallies behind hockey for generations,” Dan Hogan, who hails from the eastern lake town of Lindstrom (home to the Chisago Lakes Wildcats), told Sporting News. “As a player you feel their support but also accountability as a representative of the community”.
To date, Minnesota has produced nearly 300 NHL players — including Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Housley, who led South St. Paul to state in both 1980 and 1981. This year’s tournament featured at least 20 commitments to Division I NCAA programs, with more likely to come once the scouting community reassesses the prospects who played under such a microscope. But playing for a scholarship or a chance at the NHL is not what the tournament is about. The team-first nature of the competition, coupled with the responsibility the schools have to make their communities proud, are what make the first week of March in the State of Hockey the most exciting hockey showcase in America.
“(Brett’s) team had 12 seniors who had grown up in the same town”, said Chorske. “They weren’t always on the same team, but they had a bond and were on a mission, like all the teams in the tournament.”
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