There is a standard format for player introductions before quarterfinal games at the boys state hockey tournament. The players, helmets off, line up at an end line and skate to the blue line as their names are announced to the crowd at Xcel Energy Center and the KSTC Channel 45 audience. Some smile, some say “Hi Mom” and the process continues until all the players have been identified.
There was a change in the process Wednesday before Orono and Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato squared off in the Class 1A tournament. When stadium announcer Dave Wright got to No. 18 for the Orono Spartans, a TV camera panned to the bench. Will Larson, wearing a suit and tie, helmet and facemask (the latter two are required of students on the bench), smiled as he saw himself on the mammoth scoreboard hanging above center ice. What the fans could not see was a medical boot on Larson’s left leg.
Will (pictured) is a senior center for the Spartans and this has not been a typical season. Playing in a no-contact hockey league last fall, he lost an edge and slid into the boards. The result was a fractured tibia and fibula. He missed the first 13 games and finally made his on-ice debut on Jan. 12, playing in three games before more trouble arose.
“I had a plate put in my leg, and with the rubbing from the plate on my skate the plate broke through my ankle so I had to have surgery,” Will said after the Spartans defeated Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato 6-1. “I got cleared, and the day I got cleared the scar broke open again. I had the plate removed last week.”
You’d think this would be a season to forget for Larson. You would be wrong. He was all smiles Wednesday, on the TV screen before the game and outside the locker room after the game.
“I’m not playing in the tournament right now, but it’s been a blast,” he said.
The most important thing is that he’s with his friends.
“It’s too bad that I can’t play but it really didn’t matter to me, as long as we made it here and I can be with the guys I’ve grown up with,” Will said. “We’re having an absolute blast and we’re just trying to take it all in right now.”
Orono coach Will Scholz is not surprised at all that Larson is smiling rather than sulking. The senior is a team leader who leads even when he’s not in uniform.
“He’s a great kid,” said Scholz, the Spartans’ first-year head coach and previous junior varsity coach who has worked with Will for three years. “He hasn’t missed a practice or a game, unless he had therapy or something. He was one of the main reasons we came back and beat Minneapolis (in the Section 2 semifinals), because he was jumping around on the bench and willing the kids to go.”
Will also plays lacrosse (although he will miss his senior season in that sport because of his injury) and is very involved in Special Olympics Unified Sports, which join people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
The day he was injured, Larson had planned to give a Unified sports friend a ride to the Homecoming dance that evening. While being taken to the hospital in an ambulance, the first phone call he made was to his friend’s parents, assuring them that he would find someone else to provide transportation and spend time with their son at the dance.
“He’s a great leader, a great student,” Scholz said. “I don’t have kids, but if I had one I’d wish it was him. He’s a joy to coach. His parents are lucky. They got a good one there.”Tournament Tidbits
--The first goal of the state tournament was scored by the grandson of one of the game’s giants. Mahtomedi’s Joe Paradise scored at 7:39 of the opening period; he and twin brother Tom – juniors on the hockey team – are grandsons of the late Herb Brooks. On Saturday one player from Class 1A and one from 2A will receive the Herb Brooks Award, which goes to players who represent the values, characteristics, and traits that defined Herb Brooks. Joe Paradise scored two goals in the Zephyrs’ 4-2 victory over Mankato East/Loyola.
--Scholz became Orono’s head coach when former NHL player Mark Parrish stepped down after two years to take a broadcast job with the New York Islanders. Parrish was at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday, but not with the Spartans; he was working as an analyst on the tournament’s TV broadcast.
--The tournament’s first hat trick was scored by Hermantown sophomore Blake Biondi in the Hawks’ 4-2 victory over Monticello. The game was a rematch of last year’s state championship game, won by Hermantown 4-3 in two overtimes.
--Thursday's first-session attendance was 6,590 and the second session drew a crowd of 6,036 for a total of 12,626.
--A limited number of Class 2A tickets are available for Thursday’s quarterfinal sessions at Xcel Energy Center; approximately 360 tickets for the 11 a.m. session and 800 for the 6 p.m. session. Standing-room tickets will be made available if reserved seats are sold out. Tickets will go on sale at the Xcel Enery Center box office one hour prior to the start of each session. Boys State Hockey Tournament
At Xcel Energy Center
Wednesday’s Class 1A games
Mahtomedi 4, Mankato East 2
Orono 6, Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato 1
Hermantown 4, Monticello 2
Alexandria 1, Thief River Falls 0Thursday’s Class 2A games
Lakeville North vs. Edina
St. Michael-Albertville vs. Duluth East
Hill-Murray vs. Minnetonka
Centennial vs. St. Thomas Academy Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn