In the sports world, particularly if you pay attention to high school sports, there's no busier time in the calendar year than February and March. The term "March Madness" is no joke, and it doesn't just apply to the NCAA basketball tournament.
Last week, the greatest high school hockey tournament in the country took place at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Not only did it not disappoint, but it was one of the best tournaments in quite some time complete with upsets, close games and two championship celebrations in one game.
Hermantown went back-to-back winning Class 1A titles for their third overall. This after years of finishing as the runner-up, usually to either St. Thomas Academy (which has since moved up to Class 2A) or Breck. Cue the private school v. public school and move-up or don't move-up debates. I'm not going to get into it here, so debate amongst yourselves.
Anyway, the Hawks didn't make it easy. They needed overtime to win all three tournament games, including double-overtime to beat unseeded and surprise tourney underdog Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake. A goal review determined Hermantown's goal with 5:16 to play in double OT didn't count because of goaltender interference. So, they picked up their gear littered all over the ice, then scored in the final 30 seconds of the period to officially win.
Thunderhawks get hot; plenty of upsets
Grand Rapids succeeded in knocking off top-seed and heavy favorite Eden Prairie in the Class 2A semifinals, in a rematch from last year. Then, they beat always-a-bridesmaid Moorhead 6-3 in the championship game. Rapids was a 5 seed and a 4 seed in the stacked Section 7. As their coach former NHLer Trent Klatt said, they played their best hockey lately.
It's a great example of a team getting hot at the right time. There's something to be said for that.
Among the upsets right away in the Class 1A quarterfinals, No. 2 seed Delano was knocked out by the MAML Moose, then No. 3 seed Mahtomedi went down at the hands of Northfield. This set up a semifinal between two unseeded teams making their first state tournament appearances.
In Class 2A, St. Thomas Academy went down as a No. 2 seed at the hands of Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. Grand Rapids technically upset No. 4 seed Maple Grove, though that's a pretty tame upset when you have seeds right next to each other.
Each game was exciting, which doesn't often happen, especially in the quarterfinals when there are likely to be some blowouts. Not this year.
The tournament is more than just the games. It's an experience. It's a tradition. I was lucky enough to be there all four days to cover it for coldomaha.com. I've often said it should be state holidays during the tournament, so everyone could stay home and watch. The demand is so high that it bring out ticket scalpers and increased parking fees. For the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday, it was a whopping $25 to park at the History Center, a lot that's $10 for Wild games and a nice hike to the X. The bars nearby were packed, too. Tom Reid's was open at earlier at 9 a.m. during the tournament days.
Everybody seems to get into it, hockey fans or not. People watch and attend even if they have no connections to the teams involved. This hockey tournament is what makes Minnesota the state of hockey.
My dad recalls his tradition at the office in years past, ordering pizza to watch the tournament when it got started. I'm sure there are plenty of other offices that have TVs turned to it, too.
Hockey hair is most definitely a thing
I took in the afternoon session Wednesday, went to church in the evening, then stopped at the local Jersey Mike's to grab some late dinner afterward. I walked in and noticed the restaurant had the hockey tournament coverage on its flatscreen, with the sound up. The starting lineups were being introduced for the last Class 1A quarterfinal of the day between St. Cloud Cathedral and East Grand Forks.
Both me and the sandwich makers were pretty preoccupied with the intros as I placed my order. Normally I'd be annoyed, but this time I didn't care. The young workers chatted to each other about the tournament. One guys said something like: "Everybody either wants to get to the state tournament to win or for the hockey hair!"
That's the other part of the tradition: The Hockey Hair team. Guys try to have just the right flow to show off as they skate up to the blue line for player introductions. It's really taken on a life of its own. I'm a little neutral on it. It's cool, but could be getting a bit overdone now.
The tournament brings out some great stories each year, too. From upsets to cat sweaters to coaches returning to the tournament they once played in. It's a big deal for communities, especially the small towns that have to travel for hours to make the trek to the X for a few days.
Of course, my parents still talk about what a great tournament it was when it was just one class and the private schools had their own tournament. I know they're not alone in that thinking either. They call it a diluted tournament. That's another argument I don't want to touch much on here. I've really only known the two-class tournament. I'm OK with that.
One other thing I'd like to point out to people. While I consider semifinal Friday to be one of the best days of the tournament, don't forget about section finals in order to get to state. Those games are often packed with people and the excitement level is off the charts. Just the chance to play at state is enough to create a great hockey atmosphere.
It's often a grind for sports reporters this time of year, but as I've said, it's a good grind. Hours go by and you don't even realize it. Until you get home at 1 a.m. and have to be back the next day for the early game. I'll borrow this analogy that I heard from Star Tribune reporter and friend David La Vaque who heard it from Glen Mason when he referenced the Metrodome: It's like Vegas. Being inside the X all day for the hockey tournament means the concept of time and daylight is lost.
But in such a great way. Stick taps to all the teams for an entertaining #TheTourney17.