Rapids, Hawks will carry Northern pride

John Gilbert

Grand Rapids goalie Carter Casey took a short break after Andover's Keaton Coe sped left to right, scoring the first goal of the 7 AA championship game – and disappeared from view. Casey and the Thunderhawks came back to win 3-2 and reach the state tournament. Photos by John Gilbert.

Minnesota’s state high school hockey tournament is this week at Xcel Energy Ca inter in downtown Saint Paul and like all of its predecessors, the tournament is poised to live up to its heritage — always the same, and yet always different.

Up North, here, we have two worthy representatives, with Grand Rapids returning to the AA field after allowing Andover to borrow the 7AA title for the last four years. Andover treated it with respect, and won it, in fact, and delivered us a couple prospects who led the UMD Bulldogs for four-year spans of distinguished service — goaltender Maddie Rooney, who crossed over to tend goal for the boys team and was recruited by Shannon Miler because of her obvious overload training, and Wyatt Kaiser, a brilliant puck-rushing defenseman.

Both have moved on, Rooney now tending goal for the new Minnesota pro women’s hockey team, and Kaiser showing flashes of brilliance for the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL.

But Grand Rapids came back to surprise Andover in the 7AA final, and has reclaimed that prized 7AA title occupancy. The favorites are the usual suspects in Class AA, but there were some upset along the way. The biggest upset came when Minnetonka, which had been ranked No.1 all season and sailed into the playoffs undefeated, was stunned by tournament newcomer Chanhassen. Among other notable surprises, St. Cloud shocked Roseau, and was then, in turn, eliminated by Buffalo, and Buffalo was knocked out by Elk River. So Section 8AA will be without Roseau or Moorhead or Bemidji, but by Twin Cities northern tier suburb Elk River.

As usual, Class A kicks off the tournament with a full slate of quarterfinal games. Warroad (23-5) opens the tournament as No. 2 seed and faces unseeded New Ulm (23-5) at 11 a.m. The New Ulm Eagles are striving to break out of an 0-forever state tournament record in quarterfinals — actually 0-12 overall in quarterfinals. Warroad is smooth and familiar, and are the only Class A team to hod a victory over No. 1 seed Hermantown.

At 1 p.m., Northfield puts an impressive 22-4-2 record on the line against No. 3 seed St. Cloud Cathedral (23-4-1). Kim Kaiser has 35 goals and 19 assists, with 15 of those goals igniting Northfield’s 40.4 percent power play.

In the first night game, Hermantown — the team everyone loves to hate because they won’t move up to Class AA — faces Alexandria (18-9-1) at 6 p.m. The Hawks, who schedule as many AA teams as possible, and usually beat them, which excuses their 18-8-2 record for the times they fall a bit short. The experience, of course, gives Hermantown the experience and resilience they need to succeed in the Class A tournament. Junior River Freeman, senior William Esterbrooks and sophomore Bradford Skytta prove that Hermantown can beat you with all four lines and every class. Freeman is attracting Division 1 hockey offers, but also a number of Division 1 baseball offers.

Orono is the No. 5 seed at 20-8, and faces No. 4 seed Mahtomedi (17-11) in the final quarterfinal game, scheduled optimistically for 8 p.m. The field looks balanced and pretty even, and after the first round, the Class A teams all get a day off Thursday in the championship round while the AA schools take over the X.

On Thursday, the big schools will fill Excel starting with the combined programs of Rochester Century and John Marshall (22-4-2) might be a Cinderella entry, except the they play Chanhassen, which is a true Cinderella team, making its first-ever appearance at state, and earned its No. 2 seed at 23-5 after knocking off undefeated and defending state champion Minnetonka, in the 11 a.m. game.

At 1 p.m., No. 3 seed Centennial (19-7-2) takes on Cretin-Derham Hall (17-10-1), which knocked out St. Thomas Academy in a game that prevented St. Thomas Academy coach Mike Randolph from breaking the all-time career record for victories.

At 6 p.m., perennial power Edina (23-4-1) gained the No. 1 seed after Minnetonka was knocked out, and the Hornets of coach Curt Giles will face Elk River/Zimmerman.

In the AA quarterfinal finale, No.4 White Bear Lake beat nemesis Hill-Murray in the section final and faces the late-maturing Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (17-11) in the 8 p.m. contest.

The competitive balance of both tournaments might mean that they could well be projected to play a completely different tournament next week — and have different winners in almost every game.

Members of the 1974 Golden Gophers gathered for the 50th anniversary of Minnesota's first NCAA championship between periods of Saturday's 6-5 overtime loss to Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

College playoffs

I was invited by the members of the 1974 University of Minnesota players to join them last Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first NCAA championship that coach Herb Brooks magically assembled in only his second season of big-time coaching. Memories can get foggy with time but not this one. Brooks took over a Gophers team that had sagged to the bottom of the fiercely competitive WCHA, and in is first year as head coach he lifted them to the middle of the pack. In his second year, he pushed his no-name team to the NCAA title in Boston that is riveted in my memory the same way Mike Polich’s short-handed goal punctured a Boston University last-period challenge.

Goaltender Brad Shelstad is only one of those team members I’ve stayed in contact with, and there were many more who remain close. The even would be at 3M Arena at Mariucci, where, we were told, we would have access to Suite 7, with catered food and drinks, and we would be able to kibitz and joke around with the players who truly raised the Gophers to elite status. Brooks led his Gophers to a runner-up tournament finish in 1975, then won it again in 1976. When he and his merry men won a third NCAA title in 1979, Brooks took off to put together the legendary 1980 gold medal Olympic team.

UMD goalie Hailey MacLeod protected the net against St. Cloud State captain Taylor Lind on the way to her fifth shutout.

Thirteen members of that 1974 team made it to the event, and my wife, Joan, and I drove down from Duluth and were first to arrive. We were invited inside, graciously, and invited into a private room where, as promised, I was given a commemorative pullover with a skating Gopher on the chest. They said I should put it on, over my clothes and under my jacket. Then they gave me a hat, one of those inexpensive mesh back caps with a big M on the front. I put it on, and we awaited our escorted trip up the elevator to “Suite 7,” where we were to be fed and pampered as we watched Minnesota play Michigan in a key Big Ten stretch-run game.

I thought I might see Mike Polich, ho scored the pivotal goal to snuff Boston University in the semifinals, but he was a no-show. I enjoyed talking to John Sheridan, Doug Falls, Bruce Carlson, John Perpich, Tom Vannelli, Buzzy Schneider, Cal Cossalter, Jim Jetland, maybe a couple others.As we got up to move toward the elevator and head up to the press box level, which connects to the suite level, the hockey coordinator, Tom McGinnis, walked up to me and said, “We only have enough pullovers for the players, so I apologize, but can I have your pullover back?”

Of course. I peeled off the pullover and handed it to McGinnis. They didn’t ask for the mesh baseball cap back. Too bad. i would have gladly parted with it.

Joan and I caught the elevator and went up to the suite level, and as we walked around the bowl end we were advised that we could get food and beverages there, and there even was an area designated as “Suite 7” where we could sit, high up behind the goaltender. As we had been told, the players would go down to ice level after the first period, where they would be walked out on the rink by the player benches, and be introduced.

It was an exciting, fun game, although Michigan put the pressure on the Gophers and built a 3-0 lead that lasted into the third period. When the Gophers finally broke through for a goal, the place erupted in noise. The final few minutes flared up into a goal frenzy, as the Gophers scored three more in a row and tied the game 4-4. With three and a half minutes left, Michigan took a 5-4 lead, but with 1:39 left, Luke Mittelstadt tied it for Minnesota with the fifth Gopher goal of the third period.

As we sat in the top row at the end of the rink, Joan spotted a familiar couple of folks in one of the “real” suites, around to our left. “That’s where all the players went,” she said. Sure enough, the entire group that had gone downstairs had been advised to reconvene in Suite 7 for food, drink, camaraderie, and a good time. We had not been advised to go up there, or to go up there after the second period to rejoin the players we had been invited to honor.

Maybe the pullover with the Gopher logo on the chest was the ticket for entry. We got a pretty good chuckle out of our exclusion, and believe me, I don’t need another commemorative jacket. But Joan and I felt bad about missing out on the fun conversation. Neither one of us knows Tom McGinnis, but we both felt embarrassment on his behalf for how he handled the whole thing.

The stirring Gopher comeback and the arrival of overtime was cut short when Seamus Casey scored a power-play goal from the left circle at 1:31 of OT, and Michigan skated off with a 6-5 victory.

Drew Blair (22) prepared for the Northern Sun tournament title run by sneaking his layup up and over St. Cloud's Wyatt Hawks in the regular-season finale.