All I ever wanted to do was wear that baby blue uniform and play at the old St. Paul Civic Center with those clear boards in front of a packed house. If I could do that, my hockey world would erupt. That was the epitome of everything.
Growing up in Bloomington with the Met Center and the Minnesota North Stars practically in my own backyard, I was an NHL fan, no doubt. But to me, the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament was and is bigger than that. It’s beyond it. It literally makes you forget about the NHL or college hockey. The state tournament is the Holy Grail to every kid in Minnesota and is something that even NHLers today talk about how much they missed if they didn’t get the opportunity to play in it.
I still remember North St. Paul native Bret Hedican talking to me about how jealous he was for not getting the chance to play at state while I played in a couple. The guy played 18 years in the NHL. He has a Stanley Cup—and a really, really nice ring to go with it—and he’s an Olympian. To think he’s jealous of me for anything is pretty awesome.
But that’s what the state tournament means to us kids from Minnesota.
I remember my brother and I would beg our parents to let us go down to the tourney every year to walk around with our friends all day and watch all these other teams. We’d watch Rochester, Duluth East, Bemidji, Warroad; you get to know all these different towns and see these players who, to you as a kid, are like gods.
I watched the Bloomington Jefferson dynasty begin to form. The 1988 third place team, the 1989 championship team; those guys were my heroes.
I’ll never forget my first state tournament my sophomore year. I skated out and looked up at the spider web of lights and I just couldn’t believe I was there. It blew my mind that I was actually on the ice that all my heroes had skated on, and I was on the ice with some of my heroes: Nick Checco, Brian LaFleur, Mike Crowley, it just blew my mind to be a part of it, let alone having a chance to win it—which we did, three times from 1992-94.
But winning the tournament is only the cherry on top. It’s about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about becoming heroes to the youth in your community. The kids who are running around wearing that baby blue jersey and dreaming of playing on the same big stage that you’re on. That’s what makes the state tournament so special.
Speaking of community, how amazing is it to see each school’s community out in full force to support the high school team—or to cheer against the team that nobody really likes.
I remember in that 1993-94 season we were already pretty hated by just about everyone around the state for how much we won (that year would be our third consecutive state championship and we had won 60 straight games over the span of two seasons). I was used to going into buildings where the hometown went crazy when their team won, but now, for the first time, we had 18,000 people get excited when a goal was scored against us.
But that’s what makes the congregation every March in St. Paul fun. It’s the passion of every hockey fan in this state coming together to watch highly competitive hockey and cheer as loud as they can—whether your hometown team is playing or not.
As head coach at Orono I want my boys to get that experience. If they don’t, like I remind any player, including Bret Hedican, it’s OK. You can still be a part of the state tournament mania. Play hooky from school (sorry mom and dad), go watch with your buddies and wear your Peewee or Bantam jerseys or jackets. Keep an eye on players like Casey Mittelstadt, Noah Cates and others whose last name will probably be in the NHL someday.
I played 11 seasons in the NHL and only nine games in the state tournament, but I wouldn't trade those minutes for another 10 years in the League.
Oh, and one last thing, Go Jags and Spartans!