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High School Heaven

Never mind the Twins, Vikings, T-Wolves and Wild -- there's nothing in Minnesota to match the state hockey tournament

By George Dohrmann

  Click for larger image South St. Paul's Nick Stalock celebrated after scoring in the Class A semifinals, but his team was sent packing, 3-2, by eventual champ Breck. Bruce Kluckhohn
Over the last 10 years Albert Hasbargen has followed all four of his sons from Warroad, Minn., a town of about 1,700 on the Canadian border, to the boys' state high school hockey tournament in St. Paul, and on each trip he has felt a chill that has had nothing to do with the Minnesota winter. "When I was a kid I dreamed of coming to state, but I never made it," Hasbargen said last week while watching his youngest son, Andrew, play at the Xcel Energy Center. "For me and my family, and for the town, coming here is the biggest thing. It means everything."

For Minnesotans the four-day tournament, in which a total of 16 teams compete in two classes, is more exciting than a Vikings playoff game and is a state hallmark on a par with fried cheese curds. "You ice fish, go to the state fair and watch the boys' hockey tournament," Hasbargen says. "That's Minnesota."

How popular is the tournament? Every game at the Xcel Center is televised live on the local Fox affiliate, and the broadcasts feature such analysts as former NHL players Phil Housley and Tom Chorske. "It captivates the state," says Wally Shaver, a longtime Minnesota hockey broadcaster who has called the last 14 tournaments. The Class AA (large-school) quarterfinals last Thursday drew a 5.01 share, better than this season's averages for the Wild (3.06) and the Timberwolves (4.07).

Banquets and reunions are held in conjunction with the tournament, as former players and coaches return to reminisce. When Wayzata High, a Class AA school from Minneapolis's western suburbs, qualified this season for the first time in 50 years, members of the 1954 tournament team sent the 2004 squad a letter explaining what the milestone meant to the former players. Some of the '54 players attended the Trojans' three tournament games, wearing yellow-and-blue shirts that read: 50 years in the making.

The tournament sparks game-watching celebrations across the state, such as the Kragness Puck Party, held on the Thursday of the Class AA quarterfinals for the past seven years. Last week more than 100 people gathered for the event in and around the garage of Mike Kragness, a 38-year-old bricklayer who lives in Fridley, 10 miles north of Minneapolis. "I took work off for this," said Brian Buechler, 39, a pipe insulator who at last week's gathering described himself as a High Life (as in Miller) kind of guy. "I look forward to it all year. It's my Super Bowl."

For the players it is at least that. A few years ago a hockey columnist quoted former University of Minnesota and U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks as saying that winning a state championship for St. Paul's Johnson High in 1955 was one of the best moments of his career. Upon reading it, Brooks called the writer and claimed he had been misquoted. Brooks said it was the best moment, better than coaching the Miracle on Ice team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. (Appropriately, this year's tournament served as an extended tribute to Brooks, who died last August in a car accident near Minneapolis.)

The majority of participants will not play hockey beyond high school, so for a player like Ben Ollila, a 5'8" (in skates) forward for Centennial High in Circle Pines, "this is what I have been dreaming about since I was seven. When I was little, I would go out on the ice and pretend I was the guys I watched in the state tournament, guys like Johnny Pohl [Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in 1998]," says Ollila. "Kids who are watching this year will one day pretend they are Tom Gorowsky [Centennial's star forward and this year's Mr. Hockey]."

In 1992 the Minnesota State High School League switched to a two-class tournament. While Indiana's 1997 decision to break its high school basketball tournament into classes still draws complaints, Minnesotans have embraced the new format. Before the change schools from small towns could no longer compete with teams from the Twin Cities' suburbs, many of which were supported by huge youth programs.

Among the 2004 Class A semifinalists was South St. Paul High, which dropped from AA this year, resurrecting hockey hopes for a school that has a declining enrollment (296 seniors this year) and last reached the state tournament in 1996. "As in any sport it becomes a numbers situation," says South St. Paul principal H. Butch Moening, "and the question is, Should we be competing with schools that have nearly 2,000 kids and feeder programs and all that? Having two classes allows us and other schools the opportunity to experience the state tournament."

South St. Paul High has a strong tradition in the sport. It counts Housley and former University of Minnesota hockey coach Doug Woog among its alumni and has made the state tournament 28 times (second only to Roseau High's 29) but has never won a title. Located in the town of Charles Schulz's birth, the Packers are as luckless as Charlie Brown. "Actually, we prefer to think of ourselves as the Chicago Cubs," says Moening. A loss to Breck in the semifinals on Friday assured that both comparisons will continue.

The exodus of some of the best players to junior hockey has hurt the level of play over the last five years, but it hasn't dulled fan interest. The afternoon session for the AA quarterfinals last Thursday drew a tournament-record 19,027, and another 15,571 came for the evening session. Since 1992, total attendance for the event has never dipped below 100,000. Fans can reserve the same seats yearly, and many do, guarding them like heirlooms. "I have the same seats my parents signed up for in 1956," says Woog. "No one gives up their seats."

It is no wonder why. The tournament is void of thuggery and features wide-open play and unstaged fun and drama. School officials estimated that almost half of Moorhead High's 1,274 students made the 250-mile journey to watch their team win its Class AA quarterfinal against Elk River, many of them sporting orange hunting vests (the Spuds' colors are orange and black) and screaming for Moorhead's mascot, a skating potato that circled the ice before the game.

After Centennial's 3-0 victory over Wayzata in Friday's semifinal, coach Erik Aus was in tears as he greeted reporters. "What's wrong, Coach?" one writer asked. His voice cracking, Aus responded, "I've just never been so proud of my team." The next night, after Centennial defeated Moorhead 1-0 to claim the AA title, the first in school history, he was again teary-eyed as he spoke. "I told the boys that on Saturday, March 13, the state stops for this tournament," Aus said. "And this year the state stopped for them."

Issue date: March 22, 2004

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