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High School Heaven Never mind the Twins, Vikings, T-Wolves and Wild--there's nothing in Minnesota to match the state hockey tournament

March 22, 2004
March 22, 2004

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March 22, 2004

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High School Heaven Never mind the Twins, Vikings, T-Wolves and Wild--there's nothing in Minnesota to match the state hockey tournament

Over the last 10 years Albert Hasbargen has followed all four of
his sons from Warroad, Minn., a town of about 1,700 on the
Canadian border, to the boys' state high school hockey tournament
in St. Paul, and on each trip he has felt a chill that has had
nothing to do with the Minnesota winter. "When I was a kid I
dreamed of coming to state, but I never made it," Hasbargen said
last week while watching his youngest son, Andrew, play at the
Xcel Energy Center. "For me and my family, and for the town,
coming here is the biggest thing. It means everything." ¶ For
Minnesotans the four-day tournament, in which a total of 16
teams compete in two classes, is more exciting than a Vikings
playoff game and is a state hallmark on a par with fried cheese
curds. "You ice fish, go to the state fair and watch the boys'
hockey tournament," Hasbargen says. "That's Minnesota."

This is an article from the March 22, 2004 issue Original Layout

How popular is the tournament? Every game at the Xcel Center is
televised live on the local Fox affiliate, and the broadcasts
feature such analysts as former NHL players Phil Housley and Tom
Chorske. "It captivates the state," says Wally Shaver, a longtime
Minnesota hockey broadcaster who has called the last 14
tournaments. The Class AA (large-school) quarterfinals last
Thursday drew a 5.01 share, better than this season's averages
for the Wild (3.06) and the Timberwolves (4.07).

Banquets and reunions are held in conjunction with the
tournament, as former players and coaches return to reminisce.
When Wayzata High, a Class AA school from Minneapolis's western
suburbs, qualified this season for the first time in 50 years,
members of the 1954 tournament team sent the 2004 squad a letter
explaining what the milestone meant to the former players. Some
of the '54 players attended the Trojans' three tournament games,
wearing yellow-and-blue shirts that read: 50 years in the making.

The tournament sparks game-watching celebrations across the
state, such as the Kragness Puck Party, held on the Thursday of
the Class AA quarterfinals for the past seven years. Last week
more than 100 people gathered for the event in and around the
garage of Mike Kragness, a 38-year-old bricklayer who lives in
Fridley, 10 miles north of Minneapolis. "I took work off for
this," said Brian Buechler, 39, a pipe insulator who at last
week's gathering described himself as a High Life (as in Miller)
kind of guy. "I look forward to it all year. It's my Super Bowl."

For the players it is at least that. A few years ago a hockey
columnist quoted former University of Minnesota and U.S. Olympic
coach Herb Brooks as saying that winning a state championship for
St. Paul's Johnson High in 1955 was one of the best moments of
his career. Upon reading it, Brooks called the writer and claimed
he had been misquoted. Brooks said it was the best moment, better
than coaching the Miracle on Ice team in the 1980 Winter
Olympics. (Appropriately, this year's tournament served as an
extended tribute to Brooks, who died last August in a car
accident near Minneapolis.)

The majority of participants will not play hockey beyond high
school, so for a player like Ben Ollila, a 5'8" (in skates)
forward for Centennial High in Circle Pines, "this is what I have
been dreaming about since I was seven. When I was little, I would
go out on the ice and pretend I was the guys I watched in the
state tournament, guys like Johnny Pohl [Minnesota's Mr. Hockey
in 1998]," says Ollila. "Kids who are watching this year will one
day pretend they are Tom Gorowsky [Centennial's star forward and
this year's Mr. Hockey]."

In 1992 the Minnesota State High School League switched to a
two-class tournament. While Indiana's 1997 decision to break its
high school basketball tournament into classes still draws
complaints, Minnesotans have embraced the new format. Before the
change schools from small towns could no longer compete with
teams from the Twin Cities' suburbs, many of which were supported
by huge youth programs.

Among the 2004 Class A semifinalists was South St. Paul High,
which dropped from AA this year, resurrecting hockey hopes for a
school that has a declining enrollment (296 seniors this year)
and last reached the state tournament in 1996. "As in any sport
it becomes a numbers situation," says South St. Paul principal H.
Butch Moening, "and the question is, Should we be competing with
schools that have nearly 2,000 kids and feeder programs and all
that? Having two classes allows us and other schools the
opportunity to experience the state tournament."

South St. Paul High has a strong tradition in the sport. It
counts Housley and former University of Minnesota hockey coach
Doug Woog among its alumni and has made the state tournament 28
times (second only to Roseau High's 29) but has never won a
title. Located in the town of Charles Schulz's birth, the Packers
are as luckless as Charlie Brown. "Actually, we prefer to think
of ourselves as the Chicago Cubs," says Moening. A loss to Breck
in the semifinals on Friday assured that both comparisons will
continue.

The exodus of some of the best players to junior hockey has hurt
the level of play over the last five years, but it hasn't dulled
fan interest. The afternoon session for the AA quarterfinals last
Thursday drew a tournament-record 19,027, and another 15,571 came
for the evening session. Since 1992, total attendance for the
event has never dipped below 100,000. Fans can reserve the same
seats yearly, and many do, guarding them like heirlooms. "I have
the same seats my parents signed up for in 1956," says Woog. "No
one gives up their seats."

It is no wonder why. The tournament is void of thuggery and
features wide-open play and unstaged fun and drama. School
officials estimated that almost half of Moorhead High's 1,274
students made the 250-mile journey to watch their team win its
Class AA quarterfinal against Elk River, many of them sporting
orange hunting vests (the Spuds' colors are orange and black) and
screaming for Moorhead's mascot, a skating potato that circled
the ice before the game.

After Centennial's 3-0 victory over Wayzata in Friday's
semifinal, coach Erik Aus was in tears as he greeted reporters.
"What's wrong, Coach?" one writer asked. His voice cracking, Aus
responded, "I've just never been so proud of my team." The next
night, after Centennial defeated Moorhead 1-0 to claim the AA
title, the first in school history, he was again teary-eyed as he
spoke. "I told the boys that on Saturday, March 13, the state
stops for this tournament," Aus said. "And this year the state
stopped for them."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRUCE KLUCKHOHN GOOOOOAL! South St. Paul's Nick Stalock celebrated after scoring in the Class A semifinals, but his team was sent packing, 3-2, by eventual champ Breck.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRUCE KLUCKHOHN LAST HOPE A cheerleader saw her Hibbing team lose its semi.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRUCE KLUCKHOHN GAME FACES While Breck players got focused for their final against Orono, a Wayzata supporter whooped it up over his school's first tournament appearance in 50 years.

"This is what I've dreamed about since I was seven," said
one player. "When I was little I would pretend I was the guys I
watched in the state tournament."

This is the 35th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Vermont

For more about sports in Minnesota and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.