March 10, 2011
This morning I find myself lucky enough to be on a flight to Minnesota -- not a sentence normally typed by someone leaving Phoenix in March, but my excitement comes with just cause.
I'm about to soak in Minnesota's High School Hockey State Tournament in St. Paul at the Xcel Energy Center. And that folks, is the breeding ground for hockey love at its purest.
My freshman year at the University of Alaska Anchorage brought me to that same building for the WCHA's Final Five, which afforded my teammates and I the opportunity to explore the confines of the Minnesota Wild's home barn. That was the first time I saw the unrecognizable jerseys that hung around the building.
To clarify, they were unrecognizable to me. Not to anyone from Minnesota.
Those high school jerseys pay homage to the state's true love of the game at its roots — they love their NHL team, but it's bigger than that. They just love the damn game, period. In fact, they love the game so much they've sold out the Wild's 18,064-seat arena on numerous occasions to watch these high school kids battle it out. In 2008, back to back games featuring Edina vs. Benilde St. Margaret's and Roseau vs. Hill-Murray played in front of a record 19,559 people.
Kind of makes a hockey fan living in Phoenix like myself feel a little shame, actually.
The tournament isn't such a bad launching point for a career in the game either — more than a few recognizable talents have participated, including no-namers like Phil Housley, Herb Brooks, Neal Broten, Tom Preissing(notes), Mark Parrish(notes), TJ Oshie(notes), Blake Wheeler(notes), Brian Lee(notes), and Paul Martin(notes).
This tournament gives the state a chance to acknowledge and celebrate its passion the way Canada reacts during the Winter Olympics. It's the shared experience that makes it so special.
The best part is, nobody in that event is playing because they're roped in by a contract. Nobody is overpaid. And we can rest assured that 95 percent of those kids are playing because they simply want to play hockey — there's not a lot of parents out there who'd pour out the kind of money that hockey costs for a kid who didn't want to play. And those that do - sad that they're even out there - usually give up by the time they get to this age.
So in some ways, it's the sport at its most honest — kids playing to play, playing to compete, playing to move on. As you move up through the ranks, the reasons for playing begin to change, and rarely in a positive way. I found myself a little disheartened by the process, and even the game itself at times.
But I found the game again not that long ago.
I went out with some friends, some pucks, and a clean sheet of ice, and played a little no-gear shinny. I took a few snapshots, made a few passes, hit a few posts. It was my "oh yeah...hockey" moment.
When you strip the game down and remember how great the game is at its base elements like that, it's a wakeup call. And that's what this tournament embodies, to me. Most of these kids are itching to get on the ice.
The want to hit, to shoot, to raise their arms in front of all their friends and family and share a goal with everyone, not because they're trying to hit a contract bonus, but because it feels so damn good to score a goal. They want to be the hero, to have their name and team in the history books of Minnesota hockey.
The winners will cry, and the losers will too. Not every kid has a future in the sport beyond this weekened, so for some, these will be the last games they ever play. For others, the games may be among the last meaningful ones they ever take part in.
With hearts on their sleeves, players will be pouring it all out for the game so many of us have devoted so much of our lives to. When things get frustrating in the NHL — with hits, with suspensions, with fights and with calls, we can't lose sight of what the game used to mean to us.
Oh yeah … hockey.
I get flustered like everyone else does, what with the Zdeno Chara(notes) non-suspension, the Sidney Crosby(notes) concussion, the debates over fighting and more. I worry for professional hockey too. But it's comforting to know that there are still places where the game exists for the right reasons.
I'm on my way to go find the game once more.
The effort and energy these kids put forth is insane. The passion of the fans matches that. And I'm pretty darn excited myself.
Oh yeah … hockey.
Photo via www.mnhockeyprospects.com.