Another Tourney has come and gone, though this one will linger longer than most. It was a golden year for Tournament play, one that raised the stakes ever higher every night. First and foremost we were witnesses to perfection, a seamless machine from the north side of Lakeville that brought the AA title south of the river for the first time in 20 years. The precision of the Poehlings and the seamless breakouts from the four defensemen flipped aside three straight strong opponents, and when they wavered, Ryan Edquist was there in goal to say ‘no’ yet again. These Panthers were among the all-time greats, ones to compare with the powers of old in debates at the bars along Seventh Street for years to come.
The Class A winners this time around were familiar ones, as East Grand Forks doubled its pleasure. The heroes of Tyler Palmiscno’s squad were the relentless stars up front, three man-children on a top line that powered its way to two straight upsets, and a defense bearing the unmistakable mark of that smashmouth scourge of the northwest corner of the state, Al Oliver. This is Northern Hockey epitomized, with the Green Wave battering Mahtomedi into submission in a delectable semifinal war before locking down against Hermantown, only to rebound with the poise of champions when the defenses did suddenly come down.
Poor Bruce Plante’s sorrows mounted on Saturday afternoon, the teaser of a comeback a cruel joke for the longtime Hermantown general, now left with a sixth straight runner-up medal. The Class A tourney also saw monster Mahtomedi crowds and a continued rise to relevance in the South, plus a steadfast St. Cloud Apollo defense that made games interesting by virtue of being boring. Twenty years into its life, the Class A tournament finally feels like it has come into its own, and is doing what it ought to do: spread hockey wealth to all corners of the state, and give each of them a fighting shot at a slice of the prestige.
The story of this Tourney for me, though, won’t surprise anyone: a run of miraculous escapes from the scrappy squad from Duluth East. The Greyhounds are no strangers to March delight, but this team, fresh off a pair of section playoff upsets, seemed out of luck early against the confident firepower of St. Thomas Academy. But then the Heart-Attack Hounds began their push, rallying to an overtime stunner, and before long I was wandering down through Rice Park beneath a sunset of brilliant purple tinge, lost between fantasy and reality, basking in my alma mater’s latest spurt of mastery.
There was to be no rest for the vicariously stressed, and Friday night’s renewal of the classic Hounds-Hornets battle eclipsed the wonder of the day before. Mighty Edina finally fell, toppled by the least likely Tourney entrant, the dream match-up in the championship game ruined by the perfect game plan. Its crowning moment: Ash Altmann’s knife to the heart of a dynasty, a goal that lifted the largest crowd in Xcel Center history to its feet in unison. I stumbled about the press box in delirium, wiped my eyes, and broke into a grin that wouldn’t leave my face till I fell into bed six hours later. Where else is anything like this possible?
The Hounds basked in glory for the rest of the Tourney, none more so than the architect of it all, the man whose legacy now approaches legendary: Mike Randolph, vindicated, any past tumult fading into history. He is a champion for high school hockey; a man with strong opinions, but so clearly born of genuine belief in the greater project that he stands for. He is in love with this sport and in love with his players, pushing them to greatness at this age when kids become aware of who they are, where it is they come from, and where they are going to go.
Randolph, humbly, made every effort to deflect the attention from himself, and on to his tireless boys in those vintage black sweaters. Duluth East’s run was a reminder of all that is pure in high school hockey, of how a team with no true stars can achieve the improbable if only it believes. The Hounds came down to St. Paul and stunned the stars of Minnesota’s two most classic villains, every kid on the roster pushing himself to the brink, every last ounce expended in pursuit of an impossible dream. This old Hound was compelled to hang around the X after the loss to Lakeville for the players to emerge to meet their parents and fans, waiting to give them one last round of applause.
There had been whispers of the Tourney’s decline in recent years, suggestions that early departures and domination by a handful of West Metro or private school powers had sapped away the old ideal. This year put all of that to rest. The stars were out in full force, from Bowen to Aamodt to Mittelstadt to the Lakeville legion of D-I talent, and the action was relentless. The raucous fans responded in turn, smashing attendance records left and right, packing the house and soon rewarded for their support with a phenomenal slate of games. For me, a reunion with both old East friends and press box regulars from all corners, trading our nonstop give-and-take while Dave LaVaque prowls down the back of press row in his finest Randolph impression, exhorting us to stay strong through two last games.
After bidding my Hounds farewell, it was back out into the St. Paul night one last time, with a pause on a street corner to gaze about: the full moon to my left, the Cathedral to my right, and the X before me, settling into quiet before the next Wild home game. Here I am now, mid-20s and firmly a man but still gushing over a boys’ game, watching as my own generation starts to take the reins from the old guard to carry the tradition forward. It’s our duty. But the players make it easy for us, and these stories write themselves: our four-day party at the dawn of spring always provides something, some little spark that re-ignites our belief in the power of youth, if only for a little while. The wait for next season will take far too long. But the sun is out, the ice on the lake hasn’t gone totally to slush quite yet, and we have another heap of memories to carry us through to November.