The locker room door swung open and a glorious mix of Tom Petty music and pungent hockey equipment wafted into the hallway. Inside, a group of teenagers laughed and cheered and sang as they celebrated a hard-earned victory.

Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down ...

The scene felt like one big party, a bunch of childhood buddies having the time of their life at that exact moment. I thought to myself: Welcome to the high school state hockey tournament. 

I don't remember the team, details of the game, the final score, or even the exact year. But I still remember that scene outside a winning locker room. I instantly understood why Minnesotans cherish the state hockey tournament and why the event takes such pride in its tradition and history.

You could see right there on those teenagers' faces.

As a native of the South, I didn't grow up around hockey. As kids, we didn't gather friends to play street hockey. We couldn't flood our backyards -- unless we wanted a makeshift swimming pool -- and had no concept of the term "ice time."

But it didn't take long to gain a respectful appreciation for what the hockey tournament means to this state, its fans and, in particular, those who aspire to play in it someday. 

"It was the dream of all dreams," said Darby Hendrickson.

Hendrickson is ingrained in Minnesota hockey. He won the Mr. Hockey Award as a senior at Richfield High, and he played for the Gophers, the 1994 U.S. Olympic team and the Minnesota Wild. He ranks his lone state tournament appearance in 1991 "right up there" with his other career achievements.

"It was just like you picture it," he said.

The atmosphere is festive, the games intense. Students ditch school, dress up in crazy outfits and attempt to outdo the opposing student section with their cheers. Pep bands provide the soundtrack. Players often dye their hair in a display of unity.

They love playing on that big stage, an NHL arena, with so many people in the stands, particularly for championship games. The tournament represents the pinnacle of their careers. Sure, some will advance to play in college or maybe even the pros. But for most of them, this serves as the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and early morning practices.

In many cases, those players grew up together, starting as mites, all the way through varsity. To experience the state tournament as a group is a cool way to end things.

A few victories and some Tom Petty tunes make it even sweeter.

By Chip Scoggins