(Video by “Papa Joe” – Tribute to MSHSL Hockey 2011-2014)
Minnesota is known as “The State of Hockey”: since before the turn of the 20th Century, hockey has been part of Minnesota lore and culture. According to VintageMinnesotaHockey.com, the first international hockey game played in Minnesota was on Feb. 18, 1895, between the University of Minnesota and the Winnipeg Victorias (the U of M lost that game 11-3). By 1928 Minnesota had 25 high schools with hockey teams. In 1945, Eveleth defeated Thief River Falls in the first High School State Hockey Tournament held in St. Paul. The tournament lasted three days and was watched by 8,434 fans. Now, Minnesota High Schools have 256 schools with boys varsity hockey teams boasting a combined total of over 6500 players on their rosters.
This year, Minnesota leads the country in the number of players 8 years old and under: over 17,000 kids played at the “Mite” level. Minnesota also led the nation in 8 and under girls’ participation with 3,901 girls playing last year. In total, USA Hockey reports that in 2014-2015, Minnesota had over 55,000 hockey players, with approximately 45,000 of those players 18 years old or younger.
Along with dreams of playing college hockey and making the NHL, young Minnesotan hockey players look to the Minnesota State High School League’s annual State Hockey Tournament as the Holy Grail of hockey accomplishments. Games are played between the Xcel Center in St. Paul (Championship bracket) and Mariucci Arena on the U of M campus (Consolation Bracket), and the tournament draws over 100,000 fans over the course of the five day long event. 2015 broke attendance records, with 135,618 total fans cheering on their teams. That year, the Friday evening session games (Edina vs. Duluth East and Lakeville North vs. Eden Prarie) broke the Minnesota indoor hockey record with 21,609 fans.
Even USA Today took note of the record number of fans at last year’s tournament, headlining an article: “More Fans Attended Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament Than Minnesota Wild Game Held on Same Night” on March 9, 2015, and including a tweet from Pioneer Press reporter Chad Graff:
The 2016 Tournament will dominate Minnesota hockey fans’ attention this year, too. In an unusual twist, there is no Edina or Hill Murray team playing this year; in fact, many of the perennial State Tournament-making teams such as Duluth East, Blaine, Benilde, St. Thomas, Moorehead, etc. – were knocked out during Section play, which opened the door for teams new to the tournament or for those who have not been back for many years. One such team is St. Paul Academy, which made its tournament debut by beating St. Cloud Cathedral 4-2 in the Quarterfinals March 2.
The Class A Quarterfinals began March 2 at 11am with a game between Breck and Mankato West (Breck won 8-0) and continued throughout the day and evening. Stillwater and Farmington began the Class AA Quarterfinals at 11am on March 3.
The tournament is one of a kind; Minnesota’s answer to the southern states’ “Friday Night Tykes” football obsession. Many of the boys playing this week began skating before they started kindergarten, and making it to the State Tournament fulfills a dream many have had just as long. It is a time where young and old gather together to celebrate one of Minnesota’s most treasured past-times, to watch amateur hockey at its finest: kids playing for the joy of the game (and possible scholarships and/or tenders to Junior Hockey teams); playing wholeheartedly for their schools in front of thousands of fans, and making memories that will last a lifetime.
Updated 4:43pm 3/3/16