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.
--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)