Memories to Last a Lifetime
In his new column, Dave Schwartz looks at what makes the
state high school hockey tournaments special.
The end of February and March is a special time in Minnesota. No, not the time at which we’ve officially had enough of winter, although that certainly coincides.
It is the boys and girls state hockey tournament and they are, in my mind, among the best tournaments in the country, for so many reasons.
First of all, the tournament brings out such strong emotions. Not bad, nasty emotions that breed contempt and ill will, but fun rivalries. Kids are allowed to skip school, they come up with cutting chants and cheers that dance on the border of “okay-ness” but, by and large, are all in good fun.
It is a time in which folks from Eden Prairie truly do hate the kids from Edina, although just about everyone dislikes Edina; it’s the price of being the best. But the hatred is only jersey deep.
This year, for the first time in a long time, there are NO private schools in the tournament. Ask a public school coach how they feel about that. After they are done pumping their fist in triumph I am sure they’ll be happy to tell you about it.
Secondly, it’s the hair.
It’s hard to explain to anyone outside of Minnesota or even just outside of the hockey community why the kids do the things they do to their manes. They dye it, they shave it, they grow it, the give themselves mullets and they do other things you couldn’t even imagine. All in the name of solidarity with their brothers and it’s awesome.
While watching the tournament on television this week with my parents (who were visiting from New York) my mother, watching a team get introduced, yelled at me, “What did he do to his head?” in reference to a young man who had a mullet with shaved lines in the side of his head.
I replied, “It’s what they do, it’s just a Minnesota hockey thing.”
“Making yourself look like a fool is a hockey thing?” she openly wondered.
I guess it is and it’s one of the things that make the tournament great and what also confuses those on the outside of this phenomenon.
Third, it can’t be described, it must be experienced.
Have you been to one of these games? It’s sold out. An NHL arena is SOLD OUT for a high school game. Do you think the Florida Panthers would love to have that kind of attendance one night? Maybe they should do a Duluth-East vs. Hermantown series. Fans dress up in neon colors, tout signs and yell (see my earlier discussion on chants). It’s a full on hockey party.
The ratings on television are more than decent. This year, famed hockey television play-by-play man Gary Thorne called the tournament. Partly because a few other people were not available (how he was not on the top of the list I’ll never know) but mainly because he says it was on his “bucket list”. Think about that. A guy who has called big time college games, NHL playoff games and more wanted to fly to Minnesota to call this tournament. If that doesn’t say everything about just how much regard the country has for this time of year, I don’t know what does.
Finally, it’s the memories.
Former Warroad star T.J. Oshie—who won State titles in 2003 & 2005—had a pretty big game for Team USA in the Olympics against Russia. He single handedly won the game by going 4-for-6 in the shootout for the Americans, a game which, sadly, become their biggest win of the tournament.
I spoke with Oshie afterwards and asked him how the pressure of playing in the Olympics compared to playing for Warroad in the State Tournament. I’ll admit it was more of a joke question; I was hoping for nothing more than a laugh and to make a connection that we had come all the way from Minnesota just to talk to him (as well as others).
The answer I got kind of surprised me, though. Instead of laughing it off, he said those state tournament games were a kind of pressure he’s never really experienced since. Of course time factors into that—he’s played on some very big stages in some very big spots since that time—yet he still remembered that stress and excitement years later.
That is incredible to me. After so many years of hockey at the NCAA, NHL and international level, the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament still ranks up there as one of his most pressure-packed performances.
It truly is a special weekend for those watching and those playing. It’ll be amazing, and remarkable as it always is, and best of all, it’s sure to be back again the same time next year.