THE BOYS made a pledge, like many 13-year-olds do. No contract. No blood oath. Just a promise. In 2004, five eighth-graders from Edina, Minn., teammates in the youth hockey program, committed to the same dream. Brendan Baker, Zach Budish, Marshall Everson, Connor Gaarder and Patrick Regan would not merely win the state high school hockey championship someday. They would win it together, for Edina High.
It might not have been an extraordinary pledge in other sports, but in hockey, star players have the opportunity to leave high school for prep schools, junior leagues or the national development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. The idea of playing against better competition, developing more rapidly and enhancing their value to Division I schools or NHL scouts is too seductive for many boys to resist. Stay at your high school and you'll go to your prom—but you might not go to the pros.
No matter: For kids steeped in Minnesota's puck culture some things are more important. "My heroes [growing up] weren't guys who played for the [NHL's Minnesota] Wild," says Baker, 17, a defenseman who will play for Holy Cross next year. "They were guys who played at the high school."
Of course, by pledging to stay in school Edina's Faithful Five were taking another gamble: No matter how skilled they became, their team still might not win the tournament, a feat that carries huge cultural cachet. (Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks always said the highlight of his hockey life was not the Olympic gold medal in 1980, but taking the state title with St. Paul's Johnson High in 1955.) Last year when the Faithful Five were juniors, the Hornets lost in the AA final to Hill-Murray, a result that crushed the boys even as it probably tickled the rest of the state. The citizens of Edina, an affluent Twin Cities suburb, have been scornfully dubbed Cake Eaters for at least 50 years. (A Marie Antoinette joke—that is old-time hockey.)
Last Thursday Edina entered the quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed, facing the unranked Spuds from Moorhead, a city of 35,000 on the Red River known for its russet potatoes and as the destination of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on the day the music died. Moorhead, a team without a Division I prospect, had lost eight straight during one stretch of the season. Edina was going to eat the Spuds' lunch. Instead, Moorhead ate cake, 5--2.
In a postmatch press conference that bubbled with emotion, Baker was asked if he would have made that eighth-grade vow again knowing that he would never achieve his goal. A catch in his voice, he replied, "I wouldn't give up growing up with my friends for anything."
"This is what youth sports should be about," says Lee Smith, the coach of Eden Prairie, an Edina rival. "It's not about rushing your kids out of their households. They can stay back and do something within their own communities, their own schools."
Consider Eden Prairie's star, Nick Leddy, who on Sunday was named the state's Mr. Hockey and might go in the first round of the NHL draft in June. He made the same decision as the Faithful Five, resisting the blandishments of the USA Hockey development program to be, well, a stay-at-home defenseman. "When Nick comes back for his fifth or 10th high school reunion, he'll be a god," Smith says. "If he had traveled to Ann Arbor, where do you go back to when all is said and done?" Leddy weighed the option but chose to stay at Eden Prairie—because, he said in reference to the huge crowds the state tournament draws each year, "where else can you play before 19,000 people?"
He was off by a few thousand. There were 15,967 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the Moorhead--Eden Prairie final—a throng, incidentally, larger than that for the men's Big 12 basketball tournament final in Oklahoma City that same day.
There is the embroidery of big-time sports on the fringe of the Minnesota tournament—impressive crowds, statewide television coverage—but it has retained a dewy innocence. Juxtaposed with March Madness, it is March Sanity, a Norman Rockwell painting in which the subjects leap out of the frame and go hard to the net. There are no names on the backs of players' jerseys. The fans wear so many varsity jackets and letter sweaters that the arena looks like an Ozzie and Harriet convention. Even the cheers from the student sections are G-rated, and clever. When a Spuds player was crunched into the end boards in the final, Eden Prairie students chanted, "Mashed po-TA-toes!"