By Dave Wright
The news wasn't unexpected. The amazing thing was the place lasted as long as it did. It has been announced that Warner Coliseum on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds will no longer have ice after this season. The final game will be on February 29 when the Section 4AA final is played.
I worked the first game in the place -- a college game between St. Thomas and Hamline in 1975. Two years later, the St. Paul City Conference began moving games away from the St. Paul Auditorium. Soon after, the North Suburban began to move in with a regular slate. In its heyday, there were prep and college games three to five nights a week. Dick Stanford, who had already been doing the state tournament, was hired as the main public address voice for the first several years of the place.
When Dick was named to handle the duties of the North Stars, he pulled back severely and only worked a few games a year after that. I filled in for Dick and eventually got the main job when he decided it was too much to be at both venues.
Section 2 was the first to see the wisdom of playing sectional games there. At the time, the section consisted of North Suburban Conference teams in the south with the St. Cloud and Duluth schools in the north. There was a rotation set up. One year, the Coliseum would host the section semifinals and the finals would head to Duluth for a Saturday afternoon finale. The next year, the venues would be reserved.
Thus it was that Cloquet was playing St. Cloud Apollo in a semi when Corey Millen, perhaps the best-known player in the state, went into a corner and got crushed from behind. He left the ice with a broken ankle. To some, it looked like Cloquet's state tournament dreams went with him. Instead, the Lumberjacks broke away from a 3-all tie and scored eight straight goals. Coon Rapids won the other game and went to Duluth thinking they were headed to a state tournament. If they had been at Coliseum, that might have happened. But this was the Duluth Arena and the home-backed Lumberjacks ran them off the ice.
The next year, however, it was Cloquet's hearts that were broken. Columbia Heights, with a goalie by the magical name of Reggie Miracle, had won its way into the final. The Fire Marshall was told to go fishing as bleachers were installed within 10 feet of the penalty box. The final number was never officially announced but suffice it to say it was way more than capacity. You could hardly hear yourself at ice level. The Hylanders, who had never gone to a state tournament, won an earsplitting double OT game and the Lumberjacks, who probably had a better team than the one that had gone the year before, were left to wonder what happened.
The mind wanders. There was the Section 4 final between South St. Paul and Cretin-Derham Hall. The Raiders were newbies at this, having survived a double OT semifinal against Henry Sibley. Their goalie -- Finbar Murphy -- gave the heavily favored Packers fits all night but finally surrendered a goal to break a tie with 20 seconds left. The happy SSP fans littered the ice and then headed back to town to start celebrating.
It was nearly 10 minutes before the ice was ready. CDH coach Jim O'Neill looked at the matchup and called a timeout. The puck went down and I looked up and saw Chris Weinke suddenly break free for the net. He fired into the far corner of the goal and the game was headed into OT. It didn't last long and before South St. Paul knew what had happened, their season was over.
A year later, the Packers were back and feeling very good about themselves. Their opponent was another upstart who had never gotten that far before, Simley. The Spartans were understandably nervous and fell way behind early. It was 9-2 going into the third period when Simley suddenly started scoring goals. In a matter of a few minutes, a running-time game had turned into a 9-8 game. Russ Welch, the South St. Paul coach, looked like he had swallowed a mouse. SSP finally scored into an empty net and ended up winning the section final by the unlikely score of 11-8.
When full, it was hard to hear the buzzer at the zamboni end of the ice. One night, Edina came over to face Hill-Murray. In both the JV and varsity games, the team behind scored a tying goal with 0:00 on the clock. In both cases, the buzzer didn't go off. It was no malfunction. There is a split second between a clock hitting zero and the buzzer going off. It had happened twice in one night. The timer was a rookie working his first night in the place. It took a long time to explain that this wasn't his fault.
That experience did HM coach Jeff Whisler well later that year when, in the section semifinal, Park did the exact same thing to tie a game 7-7. Whisler just stared at Greg Shepherd -- the same referee who had worked the Edina game earlier this year in disbelief. Shepherd looked at the table in equal disbelief. The poor timer could only shrug his shoulders and sigh.
There was nothing to do but start playing overtime. After 14 goals in 45 minutes, there was none for 30 until the Pioneers finally scored.
When the girls state high school tournament got too big for Aldrich Arena, it came to the Coliseum for a few years. The 1998 tournament stands out in memory. Few of us had ever seen anything quite like Eagan's Natalie Darwitz dashing to and fro out of the building's tight corners. Darwitz, however, didn't get to the televised title game. (Eagan had to settle for the consolation crown.) Apple Valley, which had won the first girls title three years earlier, battled Hibbing/Chisholm/Nashwauk-Keewatin for 45 scoreless minutes. The Eagles scored in overtime for the only 1-0 final in girls hockey history.
Stuff just happened there. There was the night when Johnson's Herb Harvey got mad when he was called for a penalty and heaved his stick from the blue line over the glass and into the seats. The stick ricocheted and hit a guy standing behind the glass. He was unhurt but a little startled.
Two years ago, Blaine came into a section final there feeling good. Their opponent -- Maple Grove -- had never gone to a state tournament and the Bengals had won the previous five section titles at the Coliseum. But Blaine's best player got a five-minute major and a misconduct in the first 15 seconds of play. By the time he got out of the box, it was already 6-0 and the game was a wreck. Blaine could do no right and Maple Grove could do no wrong. It ended up 15-1 and it couldn't end fast enough.
We could go on but you get the idea. The place will always be stuck in a lot of folks' memory banks. One of them came up to me in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. He said, "Excuse me, but aren't you the guy who does the p.a. at the Coliseum? You did my section final game."
I asked where he played.
"Harding? Let me think. Oh, yes. They was a section final in the mid 80s when they played South St. Paul. They lost 2-1 but I remember a Harding kid had a breakaway near the end of the game but didn't score."
The guy looked up with a smile. "That was me," he said.
"Goalie made a great save on you," I countered.
At least I hope he did.