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Tournament Thursday at Mancini's: the quintessential Minnesota hockey tradition

The venerable St. Paul charhouse has fed and watered tournament-goers for decades.

It’s 6:10 p.m. Thursday at Mancini’s, and one can sense a collective "whew" blowing through the lounge after the busiest two hours of the year culminate at St. Paul’s legendary char house.

Big-screen televisions show Edina-Elk River/Zimmerman player introductions as the evening session of the Minnesota high school boys hockey tournament commences at the Xcel Energy Center a mile east on West Seventh Street. Stragglers scramble to catch shuttle buses back to the arenas, trading places with the regular crowd shuffling in to forget about life for a while. Or so the song goes.

Capturing the spirit of this annual rite is not so elusive during intermission of the Class AA quarterfinals among tables of hungry and thirsty hockey fans. The State Fair might be the Great Minnesota Get-Together, but on this day, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Mancini’s is the state’s greatest neighborhood bar.

Fans who have attended Minnesota’s signature amateur tournament, some whose namesakes started the tradition in the waning days of World War II, gather here to reconnect with old friends, break each other’s chops and swap stories of overtime games of yore.

Or an overtime game that just ended.

Cretin-Derham Hall’s early afternoon comeback, double-OT victory over Centennial compressed the yearly rush even tighter for Pat Mancini and his well-oiled machine of cooks, servers, bartenders, hostesses and bus boys. Mancini said his restaurant served about 700 steak dinners during the frenetic day. The annual scene resembled an orchestra playing Grand Central Station. Reservations are made months in advance for Thursday afternoon. Many are rolled over every year, with patrons requesting the same table. The handwritten placards are broken out for this one day and mothballed for the rest of the year. Hockey royalty mixes with random surnames throughout the sprawling 27,000-square-foot bistro: Housley. Happe. Steichen. Fletcher, as in Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and his brood.

One the regulars was Jim Rubbelke, the East Side St. Paul patriarch whose reservation is among the longest-running on quarterfinal Thursday. "Rubelke" has been misspelled in blue magic marker since it was first plopped down on their table in 1970, but no one’s bothered to correct Mancini’s.

Mancini's tournament Thursday

"We joke every year it’s the only way we can find our table, so we never tell them," said Rubbelke. Surrounded by about a dozen friends and three generations of relatives, including his son, Jim, head softball coach at Hamline University, Rubbelke glows when he and his wife, Barb, describe their Thursday routine over the last five decades. 

The Rubbelkes meet at Vogel’s Lounge on Arcade Street in the morning before their rental bus takes them to the 11 a.m. game at the Xcel. They ride the Mancini’s shuttle to and from dinner before hopping on the rental following the late game for the return trip to Vogel’s. Jim and Barb have been married since 1959. She’s attended every tournament since ’55. Both went to Johnson High School with Herb Brooks. Theirs is the quintessential St. Paul hockey story, but the experience is universal. The heavy pours and chatter in the lounge are the soundtrack of the State of Hockey. From the bro-hugs and back slaps among grown men in high school hoodies and jerseys to cheek kisses and high-pitched greetings by longtime girlfriends, it is a time to reconnect and bask in the warm glow of familiarity.

New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are the busiest on Mancini’s calendar, though Thursday of state tournament week provides the most intense burst of controlled chaos at the restaurant.


Workers start rolling silverware and setting tables the night before. Wait staff is provided a scrawled floor plan showing designated serving areas. There is a staging area for easy-to-reach salad fixings, relish trays and Mancini’s trademark garlic bread. A pair of banners on the outer walls were hung to honor Lou Nanne, who is wrapping up a remarkable 60-year career as color analyst for the high school tournament broadcast. Pat Mancini said he is overbooked and expects to sell more steak dinners this weekend than ever before.

“It’s the perfect storm this year,” he said. “With so many upsets, we have a good mix of fans. The weather’s fantastic. And Lou Nanne is hanging it up. They’re coming out of everywhere."

"A lot of people think they don’t have to call ahead," Mancini added. "But we get ’em in somehow."