The 72nd Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament (for boys) starts on Wednesday in St. Paul. I haven’t been what one would call a regular attendee, what with those grueling obligations to attend spring training, but I certainly knew how to pick my spots.
I covered the 11 games (consolation included) of the 1969 and 1970 tournaments at Met Center as the prep reporter for the St. Paul newspapers. And I dropped in for the afternoon quarterfinal session in 1983 as a St. Paul columnist.
The 1969 tournament has to rate as the most historically significant since the whole thing started as an eight-team invitational in St. Paul in 1945.
That was the year the tournament moved from the antiquated St. Paul Auditorium to the major league venue in Bloomington. As traumatic as this was for the city that had embraced the tournament for decades, it also became the point that the hockey event escaped the shadow of the boys basketball tournament and started a rapid ascent to being Minnesota’s No. 1 high school attraction.
Two years later, the smaller schools would get their way, basketball would go to two classes for 1971, and the plummet to becoming a competition only of interest to the schools and communities involved would be under way.
Prior to 1969, the basketball tournament had two things that had kept hockey on the tournament back burner:
One, involvement of schools and communities from border to border; and two, the possibility of a tournament “darling’’ beating a behemoth on the elevated court of Williams Arena.
Those of us who were witness will die off, and the significance will be lost to the ages, but there will never be a phenomenon in Minnesota high school athletics to compare with Edgerton – “tiny Edgerton’’ as it was perpetually called – defeating Chisholm, Richfield and Austin to win the state basketball title over three days of madness in Minneapolis in 1960.
There were attempts to create that darling aspect with the hockey tournament, but the big-city teams were not frequently better than the teams sent to St. Paul from the North. It’s hard to offer an underdog story when the teams from the remote areas are actually the favorites.
Finally, in 1969, with standing room crowds approaching 16,000 at Met Center, that aspect came to the hockey tournament:
Edina had not yet won a state hockey title, but it had become a constant presence and had been winning enough in all sports (including basketball and football) to have earned the indignation of the masses. They were the “Cake Eaters,’’ and nobody living outside those leafy streets of Edina wanted them to win.
In the other bracket was Warroad, a town of 1,500 about as far north as you could get, and led by Henry Boucha, a member of the Ojibwe Nation. If Minnesota ever had a Jim Thorpe of hockey, it was Henry.
This is the lead to an advance story I had written for the Pioneer Press on the Thursday of Boucha’s debut vs. Minneapolis Southwest in the 1969 tournament:
HENRY BOUCHA HAS been playing regularly -- and spectacularly -- for the Warroad hockey team since 1965, when he was an eighth grader. But most of Minnesota high school hockey fans will be getting their first look at the sensational defenseman this afternoon.
You will notice that Henry's right eye is heavily bandaged. He has a 12-stitch gash sustained when he was struck by a stick in the Region 3 championship Saturday night against Eveleth.
The injury forced Henry to the sidelines -- for three and one half minutes. It was the only time the Warroad defenseman left the ice in the double overtime clash. And it was Boucha who finally broke up the marathon. He scored on a 25-foot shot with one second remaining in the second eight-minute session to give the Warriors a 3-2 victory.
What does Coach Dick Roberts think about this amazing 17-year-old? "I have never seen a high school player to compare with Henry," said Roberts.
Herb Brooks, freshman coach at the University of Minnesota, overheard a TV man ask Roberts, "What can Boucha do with the puck?"
Brooks said, "The coach should have said, 'He can make it talk.' "
This was the era when northerners referred to Region 3 as “The Back Door’’ – the chance for the teams losing in the Regions 7 and 8 finals to have a playoff game to fill the field for the state tournament.
Warroad had lost to Roseau in the Region 8 final, and Eveleth had lost to Greenway. The Warriors won the overtime game vs. Eveleth and that got Boucha to the state tournament.
Warroad defeated Southwest 4-3 and then won a 3-2 rematch with Roseau in the semifinals. Edina was smoking Mounds View and South St. Paul by a combined 12-1 to reach the finals – two routes that added to the anti-Edina sentiment.
Of course, on Saturday night, Henry was checked into the boards, knocked from the game and the screaming, stomping crowd turned fully hostile. Edina finally won 5-4 in overtime vs. the Boucha-less, undermanned, underdogs from the hamlet of the far northwest.
Hockey had its Edgerton moment … and the fact the villains won, rather than the darlings, almost fit the hard-nosed, unsympathetic sport of hockey more perfectly.
I covered the entire tournament again in 1970 and watched St. Paul Johnson goalie Dougie Long make 61 saves in the first round to beat Greenway 5-4 in five overtimes, and 52 saves in a three-OT loss to Edina (dang Cake Eaters) in the semifinals.
Southwest’s Brad Shelstad shut out Edina in the final, in that battle of France Avenue.
That was it for me until 1983, when Loel Schrader, the plucky St. Paul sports editor, announced that I would be taking my column-writing talents to the state hockey tournament as a prerequisite to heading off to Orlando for spring training.
So, I went to the afternoon session on Thursday, and Columbia Heights’ Reggie Miracle made 45 saves to give the upstart Hylanders a 2-0 victory over defending champ Edina.
It was a Miracle indeed. I wrote what was a very topical column on Reggie and made the last flight to Orlando.
I won’t be doing that again as the puck is dropped for No. 72. Nope. I’m going to Fort Myers.
(NOTE: There’s another hockey blog – call me Mr. Puck – coming in the next couple of days on the northern “Back Door’’ that was part of the hockey tournament from 1949 to 1974.)