Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time out for some sticks

Between the final assault on the USA middle classes and the terrible tragedies in Japan, it is probably a bit self-indulgent to pay attention to something as "trivial" as boys high school hockey.  But I just got through indulging myself and man, was it fun this year.

I saw my first hockey game in Estevan Saskatchewan in February of 1965.  My father had taken a church in a tiny town in northwestern North Dakota and was looking for a way to bond with his sons after moving them to such a place in the dead of winter.  So on a brutally cold afternoon, we set out on a 60-mile (100 km) drive into the fading light.  Our 1963 Ford's heater barely kept open a small clearing on the windshield as we huddled around the openings roaring away at max output.  About 10 miles from the Canadian border, the road turned to gravel so we began to worry if we had lost out way.  But we made it and the border guard was friendly--especially when he heard we were going to our first hockey game.

This was minor league hockey and there was nothing luxurious about it.  It was played in an unheated metal building.  They didn't have a Zamboni to make ice.  Kids were expected to stand behind a railing at the back of the few rows of seats in return for their reduced-price admission.  But the ice was gleaming and set off the players in their colorful uniforms, the fans were knowledgable and enthusiastic, and the players performed feats of magic while skating.  Loved it!

But what really cemented my love for the sport came in the fall of 1972 when the University of Minnesota decided to hire its last choice as coach--a hockey genius named Herb Brooks.  The change at the U was stunning.  When Brooks was hired, hockey was played in a dilapidated wing of a converted dirigible hanger mostly used for basketball.  The ice was larger than a standard NHL rink and there was a Zamboni but the "glass" above the boards was still chicken wire.  Tickets were a freebee attached to the football pass.  A few hundred fans would try to find what passed for the good seats.

Six seasons and three NCAA championships later, tickets to Gopher hockey were the hardest to get in town, the fans were loud, and the hockey was superb. Because of the interest he generated, the U would go on to build a true little jewel of a rink with an international-sized ice sheet and superb seats with perfect sight lines for 10,000 fans.  I got to see every home game Brooks would coach.

In 1980, Brooks would take his brand of hockey to Lake Placid where his final proof of excellence would be winning the gold medal.  This feat would be called by hockey illiterates "The Miracle on Ice."  It wasn't a miracle--it was the trumph of superb coaching.  In fact, the only thing "miraculous" about the 1980 victory is that the lounge lizards who run hockey in North America ever let USA's version of Anatoli Tarasov get close to coaching the national team.

Like all good Minnesotans, Brooks' favorite tournament was the Boy's High School playoffs that are now in their 67th year.  What's not to like?  There are rivalries between the small schools from the rural north of the state and the big sprawling programs of the Twin Cities' suburbs.  Games are played at blazing speeds with a life-and-death intensity in front of packed crowds in the same building used by the NHL Wild.

And me?  I finally moved to a city with a first-rate hockey program a few years ago and this year, the schoolboys went into the final eight seeded #1.  They cruised through their first two games winning 5-0 and 5-1.  They looked terrific--playing sort of like a high school version of the Detroit Red Wings.  But for the final game, they faced serious competition from up north in Duluth East.  My guys fell behind twice 1-0 and 2-1 before finally tying the game with just over 2 minutes remaining.  Then in the third overtime, they won it on a desperation diving play.

The crowd didn't go wild--it is a long tradition around here that hockey fans without a rooting interest will always cheer for the outstate team.  I understand--I am that way myself.

In these days when it looks like everything good about USA is being destroyed, it is damn fun to see something that is still getting better, that still promotes virtues like sharing and team play, where the best team in the state represents a public school, and is still the great final celebration of winter.

The fun's over.  Spring cannot be far away.  Now those strong young men can do things like fill sandbags.  This was a nasty winter.  There is a LOT of snow to melt and flooding will be a major problem in many areas of the state.

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