Hornets, Crusaders break Northern hearts

John Gilbert

St. Cloud Cathedral celebrated semifinal upset against Warroad. Photos by John Gilbert.

Bob Dylan might not recognize the modern-day state hockey tournament, even though he’s more aware of most at how “the time’s, they are a-changin.”

The Northern teams used to have the run of the state tournament, back before there were two classes, but the heavy influx of population overrun at the big suburban Twin Cities high schools has pretty much taken over.  

When we looked ahead at this year’s tournament feud, I was concerned that it might be a tournament somewhat devoid of the usual drama and excitement. I needed have worried, of course, because the tournament produced some of the most amazing last-minute turnarounds and surprises imaginable.  

Edina won its 14th state championship in Class AA, as coach Curt Giles steered his Hornets past a completely surprising Chanhassen team in the championship game Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul. Chanhassen, making its first state tournament appearance ever, had upset undefeated and defending AA champion Minnetonka to get there, and showed depth, skill and poise to reach the final.  

The bigger surprise came in Class A, where Hermantown had battled through alll sorts of adversity before reaching the tournament and assuming its normal place as No. 1 seed. The Hawks, without a doubt, continue to have the most sophisticated and polished youth program in the state, continue to strive for their fifth state title even while refusing to move up and play with the “big boys” of Class AA, but they also continue to attract ferocious competition from the likes of Warroad, Mahtomedi, and St. Cloud Cathedral, who torment them with repeated upsets that block their path to dominance.  

Hermantown's Drew Nelson (8) and Will Esterbrooks chased rebound behind St. Cloud Cathedral goal, and goalie Nick Hansen in State Class A final.

This time, it was St. Cloud Cathedral, which stunned Warroad in the semifinals with one upset, then beat Hermantown with a stifling defense to win the chm  pionship game 3-1 — refusing to let the Hawks score until the final two minutes after expanding on the 1-0 Crusader lead in the third period.  

The disappointing end to the high school season was still filled with thrills, and we are allowed to turn back to college hockey playoffs that continue this week. UMD, for example, had faded to seventh in the eight-team NCHC but stunned St. Cloud State’s contending Huskies with a final weekend sweep. The Bulldogs scored the last two goals to catch the explosive Huskies 6-6 in the final two minutes, then won it when sophomore Ben Steeves scored with seven seconds left in overtime.  

The next night, the Bulldogs broke a 2-2 tie with a third-period goal by Aidan Dubinsky, then clinched it at AMSOIL Arena when Captain Luke Loheit scored at 19:59 for a 4-2 sweeper. The Bulldogs don’t get any time ti celebrate because their next venture is off to Denver, where they play the mighty Pioneers in a best-of-three playoff series.  

Remember, this is the final year for the NCHC playoffs to end at Xcel Energy Center, where winners of this week’s best-of-three playoffs will advance — Miami at North Dakota, Western Michigan at Colorado College, Omaha at St. Cloud State and the UMD-Denver winner — for single elimination showdowns.  

In the women’s WCHA, the UMD women were smacked 5-0 by Ohio State, but they made it into the unusual 11-team NCAA playoff structure where they will take their swings against Connecticut, at Columbus, Ohio. The three-team pods will have a first-round game such as the UMD-Connecticut match, with the winner getting to face a rested and ready host school — in this case, Ohio State’s No. 1 ranked Buckeyes. Each of the four pod winners will advance to the Frozen Four, which will be at New Hampshire this season.  

The WCHA will be well represented, with both Wisconsin and Minnesota playing host to other pods, meaning handicapping the favorites for the Frozen Four mean than it is very likely going to be Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota all facing competition as favorites to make a run at another NCAA title.   The state tournament’s changing times are not all for the better.

White Bear Lake student "poachers" took over the reserved seating section, turned their backs rudely on introduction of Grand Rapids players, and stood in the way of legitimate fans through game.

For example, parking prices have skyrocketed, and when my wife, Joan, and I drove down from Duluth, by still-recovering body was not going to make it friendly to park four blocks to a mile away and walk the distance. We circled a few times, tried my old familiar favorite spots, then pulled into the big ramp across the street from the main entrance to Xcel. Sure, you can park here — $25!   We did it, squeezing into a narrow slot, but at least we got to leave it there all day. Next day, same thing. On Friday, Joan had some other things she wanted to do so she dropped me off early for the Class A final, then she returned later for the AA championship and had to park in the $25 spot again.  

Those surface lots that used to seem outrageous at $10 don’t seem any less outrageous at $25.   On Friday, we spent the day there, and I decided we were better off to stay in the arena and enjoy the in-house concessions. The hamburger was dry, the French Fries were monotonous, and when I balked at paying $7 for a bottle of Sprite, Joan insisted we should buy a bottle of water each — $6.   The chance to sneak out and go to Cassetta’s, or down the street to Mancini’s, didn’t work out because of my physical shortcomings. The best meal we had all week down there was at Mac’s Fish and Chips on Carpenter and Hamline in Roseville. We’ve gone to that place since it opened, and with a choice of halibut, walleye or cod, I can guarantee it is the best fish in the Twin Cities, And the fries aren’t bad, either, and the cole slaw is excellent.  

As a reporter covering state tournaments since 1964, the biggest change is that in today’s press box you do NOT get lineup sheets, period scoring updates, game results, or, of the game immediately following, again no more lineup sheets or stats of any kind. They also have a rule prohibiting shooting photos from the press box. They DO still have popcorn, and coffee. Otherwise, there is no benefit of any kind to sitting in the press box for a journalist.  

We still have the NCHC tournament, but that goes away next year. That leaves us only the Wild, and I want to suggest that the Wild are making a spirited bid to reach the playoffs this spring. They have a ways to go, but they can do it.