Jim Sobaski attended his first state hockey tournament in 1959 as a student at the former St. Paul Park High. He has missed the tournament only two years since then, a brief hiatus that occurred while he was serving in the U.S. Navy.
“It was very disappointing,” said Sobaski, 69. “That tournament, there’s nothing like it.”
He’s right in that regard. The state tournament being played this weekend in St. Paul is more than a typical end-of-the-season championship. It’s become an event, an annual celebration that binds generations and families and a state’s love of its hockey history.
Games are intense, with often dramatic finishes. That’s always the main attraction, of course. But the sights and scenes on the periphery are what make the tournament a bucket-list destination for so many fans, even if they don’t have a rooting interest in the outcome. They just want to enjoy the party.
Raised in a southern state that didn’t offer high school hockey, I got my first taste of the tournament in 2000. I was instantly hooked when I heard a victorious locker room swell with cheers and a bunch of kids singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” at the top of their lungs. Those boys were having the time of their lives. Suddenly, it all made sense.
Fans come for different reasons, but here’s my list of reasons that make the state tournament a unique experience:
I love player introductions. How can you not enjoy watching players skate up, stare into the camera and attempt to fill those awkward few seconds with a smile, scowl, nervous laugh or by mouthing the words “Hi mom?” Some even manage to do all those things simultaneously.
I love creative byplay among student sections. After Eastview goalie Zachary Driscoll made a difficult save in the quarterfinals, his student section immediately chanted, “He’s a sophomore.”
St. Thomas Academy’s cadets tried to rile their East Grand Forks counterparts in Friday’s semifinals by yelling, “We can’t hear you.”
The response: “Where’s you girlfriend?”
Touché. The cadets got the last laugh, though. Their team won 11-0.
Speaking of which, I love the sniping that goes on between private and public schools. It’s like watching a hockey version of the Hatfields vs. McCoys and adds flavor to those matchups.
I love the way Seven Corners in downtown St. Paul comes alive and is flooded with fans wearing jerseys and hoodies that reveal their hometowns and hockey associations.
I love that Minnesota’s unofficial hockey ambassador, Lou Nanne, has served as TV color commentator for 49 years and has worked games that included one son and two grandsons.
“Not bad for a guy who’s only 52,” he joked. “There’s nothing like this. Every year, you see something different.”
I love that every pep band seemingly has “Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Crazy Train” in its rotation.
I love that even basketball fans get into the tournament. Lynx star and former Gopher Lindsay Whalen attended Friday’s morning session with her dad and watches most of the games on TV.
“It’s good competition and the kids worked hard to get here,” she said.
I love that even professionals get excited by the tournament. Wild coach Mike Yeo watched the quarterfinals; former Wild players Wes Walz and Andrew Brunette stopped by Friday night.
“It’s a unique event,” Brunette said. “It’s something special. Playing here, you hear so much about it. My neighbors or anybody that I know here, it’s always, ‘My high school played in state in 1980.’ It’s unbelievable. That piqued my interest.”
I love that the tournament gives us great characters such as Hermantown’s Bruce Plante, who has coached forever but still treats this event as if its his first trip.
“I looked around when it was 3-3 and I was like, ‘This is something else, man,’ ” Plante said after his team’s 4-3 victory against Breck in double overtime Friday. “Everybody was having a good time and sitting on the edge of their seat, me included. I had tears in my eyes when we scored that goal. An old-timer like me, it’s very emotional.”
I love that families and friends make the tournament an annual gathering for years, even decades.
Sobaski, a Woodbury resident, is attending his 52nd tournament and can’t imagine missing one.
“This is the best thing going,” he said.
A cheer that erupted from the Breck student section at the start of the second overtime underscored his point:
“Love state hockey!”
Hey, couldn’t agree more.