John's Journal
A Remarkable Championship Game That Will Be Discussed For Years 3/9/2013
Saturday’s Class 1A boys hockey state championship game was one that will be talked about for years to come, for varying reasons. For one, it was St. Thomas Academy’s last game in 1A before opting up to Class 2A next season, and the Cadets capped their time in the smaller class with a 5-4 victory for their third consecutive title and fifth in eight years.

Another reason was the way the game ended. Hermantown led 4-2 late in the second period before the Cadets scored three goals in the third, including the winner by Tommy Novak with six seconds to play.

But most of all, chatter will center around decisions by the officials in the final stages of the game. After a penalty was called on Hermantown, the Cadets scored the winner on a power play. The Hawks and their fans will aways believe that the officials should have called a similar penalty on St. Thomas Academy.

“I didn’t think we should have had a penalty on the one at the end,” Hawks coach Bruce Plante said, speaking in a measured tone. “And then we had the same type of thing at the other end. I thought they should have made a call right there. Their guys wraps our guy up and skates around. That’s the way I saw it, anyway.”

The Hermantown players were absolutely crushed after losing in the state championship game for the fourth year in a row and to the Cadets for the third straight time. During the postgame ceremony, there was no Hermantown rush to accept the runner-up trophy. Senior captain Jake Zeleznikar took it, skated to the bench and handed it to one of the coaches. While the Hawks sat in a silent locker room, the trophy was on a table outside the closed locker room doors.

Few teams ever play in a state championship game, doing so four years in a row is nearly impossible … and losing all four years is pure heartbreak. Especially when you’re playing the best game of your life and leading 4-2 in the final period.

“I loved our effort,” Plante said. “I thought it was the greatest effort ever. It was great. They played hard and played well. I don’t think we can play any better than that.”

In the locker room, he told his players that he loved them. He told reporters, “This is probably the most difficult loss I’ve ever had in my life.”

Plante and Cadets co-coach Greg Vannelli both showed their emotions afterwards, but when discussing massively different topics. Plante talked at length about the public school vs. private school debate, while Vannelli had tears in his eyes when asked about the fact that so many people outside of St. Thomas Academy don’t care for the Cadets.

A reported asked Vannelli a clearly satirical question: When you move to 2A, will you miss all this love and affection? The coach fought back tears and said simply, “I’m proud of our guys. It’s tough. We had a target on our back all year and to come through like this was really great.”

Next question: Do you get tired of wearing the black hat all the time? Vannelli’s reply: “We just focus on the positive things. I can’t control what other people think. I’m just proud of our guys.”

A question to Plante included the word “hatred” for the Cadets, and he quickly jumped on that interpretation.

“I have no hatred for the Cadets. And that’s another misconception that I heard on TV yesterday, that the coaches don’t like each other. That’s not true. I have nothing against the Vannellis, they’re great coaches, they do a good job of what they do. I don’t buy this private school philosophy, that’s all. I don’t think you should be able to get kids from Wisconsin and Missouri and all over Minnesota and make a team and play single A hockey. I don’t think it’s right. And I certainly don’t think it should be in single A hockey. We’ve been so unbelievably fortunate to be able to be in this championship game four times, it’s amazing, really.

“You saw how they played. These guys can’t play any harder than that. We don’t have three first lines; they have four. We just can’t pull guys like that. And I’ll tell you something else; this year I had nine parents, kids, (who sent) emails who wanted to move to Hermantown and play for us. You know what I tell them? ‘Stay there and play with the kids and do your best there and make everyone in your community proud.’ That’s what I tell them.”

TOURNAMENT TIDBITS

--Hermantown's initial goal against St. Thomas Academy was the first goal scored against the Cadets in five-plus postseason games. At that point, St. Thomas Academy had outscored its last nine opponenets 80-3.

--Before games, players stretch, jog and otherwise limber up in the open spaces underneath the Xcel Energy Center stands. Before the 1A championship game, I walked past the official’s locker room and saw one of the officials – wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers – jumping rope. It’s all about preparation.

--Cheap, unclassy shot by the St. Thomas Academy students, who chanted “Fire Bruce!” – a personal reference to Plante. Behavior like that is embarrasing to their school and their alumni.

HERB BROOKS AWARD WINNERS

CLASS 1A: Hermantown’s Chris Benson was the recipient of the award.

CLASS 2A: Ryan Lundgren, Duluth East.

ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAMS

CLASS 1A: Matt Colford, Breck; Colton Poolman, Tommy Hajicek, East Grand Forks; Alex Funk, Rochester Lourdes/Stewartville; Neal Pionk, Chris Benson, Travis Koepke, Adam Smith, Hermantown; Jack Dougherty, Wyatt Schmidt, Matt Perry, David Zevnik, St. Thomas Academy.

CLASS 2A: Meirs Moore, Alex Toscano, Phil Beaulieu, Duluth East; Jacob Dittmer, Moorhead; John Dugas, Zach LaValle, Sam Becker, Mitch Slattery, Hill-Murray; Parker Reno, Andy Jordahl, Connor Hurley, Dylan Malmquist, Edina.

1A CONSOLATION

--Breck 3, East Grand Forks 2: The Mustangs scored all three goals in the second period and defeated the Green Wave in the third-place game. Tommy Hajicek scored both goals for East Grand Forks.

--Duluth Marshall 6, Rochester Lourdes 5: The Hilltoppers finished fifth by winning a game that saw six goals in the first eight minutes. Connor Flaherty and Matthew Klassen each scored twice for Marshall.

2A CONSOLATION

--Duluth East 7, Wayzata 3: Alex Toscano and Phil Beaulieu each scored twice for the Greyhounds as they beat the Trojans in the third-place game.

--Moorhead 5, Eastview 2: The Spuds survived 37 minutes worth of penalties and eight Eastview power-play opportunities to win the fifth-place game at Mariuccu Arena.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Diet Coke Count: 5 for the day, 16 for the tournament, 38 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,439
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
Edina Defeats Hill-Murray, Wins 2A Hockey Title3/9/2013
The boys hockey season came to a close Saturday with Edina beating Hill-Murray in the Class 2A state championship game. St. Thomas Academy rallied in the final period to defeat Hermantown in the 1A boys championship game. Read Luke Sleeper's stories by clicking here.
After A Game That Ended In Double Overtime, The Aftermath3/8/2013
After a two-overtime hockey game that ended with players from one team piling on top of each other and players from one team leaning on each other in agony, the debriefing provided an equally clear contrast.

The process at the boys state hockey tournament goes like this: When a game ends, a media steward asks the reporters who they would like to interview. Both coaches are automatically brought to the interview room, along with the requested players. The losing team normally goes first, sitting at a raised table in front of microphones and bright lights as the media asks questions, followed by the winners.

The difference is stark. The losing team, especially the players, are usually grim. Sometimes the losing coach will meet the media by himself. The winning team enters the interview room at Xcel Energy Center in a buoyant mood, ready to talk, smile and laugh.

So after Hermantown had defeated Breck 4-3 in a Class 1A semifinal that went into two overtimes, the Mustangs were the first on duty in the interview room. Coach Les Larson sat between seniors Matt Colford and Thomas Lindstrom. Larson did most of the answering, which was understandable.

“It’s hard, but you know what? We told our guys the best that they could do is the best that they could do,” Larson said. “And I don’t think we left anything on the table. Is it hard to take? It’s tough. And our guys are taking it tough. But the greatest thing about this game is tomorrow we get to play again (for third place), and we get to play here.

“You’ve got to turn the page and you’ve got to accept losing. That’s part of the deal. Maybe that’s the best thing about this game; how do you handle that stuff, adversity?”

Larson, who has been the Breck coach for five years, talked about the pride he had in his players and he complimented Hermantown and Hawks coach Bruce Plante.

“It was a great game. Hermantown’s a great team, strong defensemen, great kids. They’re hockey players up there, and well-coached. And Bruce is a great guy. That’s why we play, to be in situations like this. It couldn’t get any better. When you critique your own play, you have to take into consideration the other team. And they played very well.”

Colford summed up the Mustangs’ day pretty well when he said, “We worked really hard the whole game and didn’t get the last bounce.”

Plante then brought four requested players with him to the interrogation center: Zach Kramer, Jake Zeleznikar, Bo Gronseth and Travis Koepke. The man of the hour was Kramer, who had scored the winning goal. His smile didn’t need the bright lights to make it sparkle.

The first question to Kramer was garden-variety Journalism 101: How does it feel?

“Oh, pretty good,” said the smiling junior. A few questions later he was about racing to reach the puck that, a second later, he put in the net. “That was probably the fastest I’ve ever moved on skates.”

Plante is an old-time coach – in his 24th year as the head man at Hermantown -- who admits that he’ll bark at his players but they always know how much he cares about them.

He admitted to having tears in his eyes when Kramer scored the game-winner. He also gave some love to Lane LeGarde, who did not score when the Hawks were awarded a penalty shot in the first overtime.

“We could have chosen to have a power play or let 28 (LeGarde) take it,” Plante said. “We gave him a chance to be the hero. He made a nice move, he just missed by an inch or so and the kids rallied around that, as they should, because it was a positive thing.”

Pretty quickly the questioning turned to the championship game. The second semifinal had not yet started, but just about everyone assumed that St. Thomas Academy would get past East Grand Forks (which the Cadets did by an 11-0 score).

Hermantown and St. Thomas Academy will meet in Saturday’s championship game for third straight year. The Cadets beat the Hawks 5-4 in overtime two years ago and 5-1 last year. Hermantown fell to Breck in the title game in 2010, meaning the Hawks are trying to avoid four consecutive runner-up finishes.

“We just have to play our game again,” Plante said. “We have to play as good as we can. I think in last year’s championship game we played as good as we can. I think the two previous years we played very well. We didn’t get the puck to go our way. Today it kind of went our way.”

--St. Thomas Academy has scored 23 goals in the tournament; the tournament record is 30, set by Eveleth in 1945. The Hermantown-St. Thomas Academy game will begin at noon Saturday. This is the Cadets' final season in 1A before they move up to 2A next season.

BEST COSTUME CHANGE

Breck’s enthusiastic student fans came to the game wearing white. But they had something special in mind, and it was pretty clever. When Breck scored, the students yanked off their white shirts to reveal red shirts. That signified, of course, that the goal lamp had been lit.

2A CONSOLATION BRACKET

--Moorhead 5, Lakeville North 3: Aaron Herdt and Grant Weiss each had two goals for the Spuds and Jack Poehling scored twice for North.

--Eastview 3, Centennial 2: The Lightning scored a goal in each period to advance to Saturday’s fifth-place game vs. Moorhead,

--To see a photo gallery from the tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 11 for the tournament, 33 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,439
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
Edina, Hill-Murray Will Meet In 2A Championship Game 3/8/2013
Edina defeated Duluth East in Friday's Class 2A boys state hockey semifinals and Hill-Murray rallied to beat Wayzata. In Class 1A, St. Thomas Academy rolled past East Grand Forks. Read Luke Sleeper's stories by clicking here
Sometimes It’s All About The Team … Injury Or Not3/7/2013
When Lakeville North boys hockey coach Trent Eigner talks about senior captain Alex Wood, you would be wise to listen. Wood’s story is the kind that makes you appreciate what team is all about, what it means to not give up on your buddies.

“You don’t come across kids like this very often,” Eigner said Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. “When you do, it’s good fortune.”

Wood is a defenseman for the Panthers, who lost to Edina 9-3 Friday in the Class 2A state quarterfinals. The fact that the 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior was even on the ice was a longshot before the season began, because he was walking around on a right knee that was shredded.

The anterior cruciate ligament went kaboom in the Prep Bowl on Thanksgiving weekend. Wood -- a linebacker who was named the defensive player of the year in the South Suburban Conference and was a finalist for the Mr. Football Award -- was playing fullback with 90 seconds left to play in North’s 28-7 loss to Eden Prairie. He threw a block and immediately knew something was wrong.

“I took a step, felt a pop and then felt a ripped feeling in my knee,” Wood said. “My thoughts were, ‘So that’s what (a torn ACL) feels like.’ ”

The knee required surgery, but Wood didn’t want to miss his senior hockey season. He has signed a letter of intent to play football at Minnesota Duluth, and a lot of athletes would have said goodbye to their No. 2 sport, undergone surgery and began rehabbing for their first college football season. Not Wood.

He sat out the Panthers’ first eight games and just missed it too much. Instead of surgery, he was fitted with a knee brace and began doing all the work he could to be able to play hockey. He talked to Minnesota Duluth football coach Curt Wiese, who approved Wood’s attempt to return to hockey.

“I told (Eigner) it was time for me to get back on the ice and I did what was necessary to do that,” Alex said. “I was rehabbing religiously, lifting weights for my upper body, to prepare and get stronger. I was cleared to do some leg lifts, quad extensions, hamstring curls, I got on the bike for 30-40 minutes at a time to try and get my endurance up.”

He returned to the ice for a holiday tournament, a little more than a month after his injury. And he was skating with his teammates on Thursday; his final game as a hockey player will come Friday or Saturday, depending on how North fares in the consolation bracket.

“You don’t get kids like Woody very often,” Eigner said. “I’m sure there are other programs with similar kids with similar attributes, but for me this is our guy as far as a kid that just competes. He pours himself into everything he does. The sacrifice he made coming off the knee injury, being there for us, was really special.”

Wood will have finally knee surgery on April 16.

STEPPING IN AND STANDING TALL

Moorhead sophomore goalie Jacob Dittmer made the save of the day Thursday and proved that he is capable of filling some big skates. Michael Bitzer was a goaltending legend in Moorhead before graduating last spring; he won the Frank Brimsek Award as Minnesota’s best senior goaltender after going 18-9-2 with a 2.30 goals-against average and helping the Spuds reach the state tournament.

Bitzer has played 32 games this season with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, ranking fifth in the league with a GAA of 2.63. He has made a commitment to play college hockey at Bemidji State.

Dittmer stepped into the crease this season and learned quickly. He came into the state tournament with a record of 11-6-2, and his finest moment came in Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Duluth East. Dittmer sprawled in front of a shot, clipped it with his left skate, then quickly reached back with his glove hand to stop a rebound attempt. It was an NHL-caliber highlight.

“(Bitzer) is a special player and Jacob’s just a sophomore,” Spuds coach Peter Cullen said. “He’s trying to learn things, learn his own game, find himself in different ways in the net. He’s been a work in progress and he’s making progress.”

Duluth East’s winning goal against Moorhead was scored by Jack Kolar early in the second period. Dittmer made 29 saves and East goalie Dylan Parker stopped 12 shots.

Duluth East will face Edina in Friday’s semifinals at 6 p.m.

--In Thursday’s evening session, Hill-Murray beat Eastview 6-3 and Wayzata beat Centennial 2-1 in overtime.

TOURNAMENT TIDBITS

--I Tweeted this before Thursday’s 2A games began: “Remember what happened last year in the #mshsl 2A boys hockey state quarterfinals? That's right, the top four seeds all lost.” That was not the case this time. In both the 2A and 1A quarterfinals, the seeds held.

--Thursday’s first pep band tune was a beauty. The Duluth East orchestra pumped out Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to start a fantastic day of hockey and music.

--To see a photo gallery from the tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 7 for the tournament, 29 for the winter state tournaments
*Schools/teams John has visited: 504
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,389
(*During the 2012-13 school year)