The hottest ticket in Minnesota high school sports has lost a bit of its allure.
After increasing steadily for several years and peaking in 2008, attendance at the boys’ hockey state tournament in St. Paul has fallen by 10 percent. Buffeted by the recession, the four-day extravaganza saw only an uptick in the year that Benilde-St. Margaret’s made an improbable title run after teammate Jack Jablonski’s life-changing spine injury.
This year a record number of top players gave up their prep careers to play out of state, assuring them of no chance of reaching the Xcel Energy Center’s coveted ice hockey stage. That trend has longtime hockey observers fretting about an inevitable drain on tournament excitement.
“With all the kids that are leaving, you could have trouble down the road,” said Tom Saterdalen, who coached Bloomington Jefferson to five state championships and still revels in what he calls the tournament’s “charisma and charm.”
But when the first puck is dropped Wednesday morning, it’s virtually certain that some fans will be holding season tickets that they’ve waited two or three years to obtain. By the time the Class 2A championship game ends Saturday, the tournament will have attracted more than 100,000 fans and likely reap more than $1 million in profit.
No other high school tournament even comes close to those numbers.
“Could the tournament be better? Yes,” said former coach Larry Hendrickson, whose Apple Valley team outlasted Duluth East in five overtimes in the 1996 semifinals. “Is it still great? Yes.”
‘Bulletproof’ or different?
Local hockey icon Lou Nanne cannot board a plane without someone mentioning the hockey tournament, making its 70th run this week. Regarded as the nation’s premier prep sports event, the tournament “is probably the most bulletproof sporting event outside of the Super Bowl or Final Four,” said Nanne, who will provide television color commentary for the 50th year.
The Minnesota State High School League, after injecting tournament seeding in 2007, is leery of making other changes to something it views as a roaring success. Hundreds of fans wait years for season tickets, while others plan winter escapes around this rink rat ritual no matter who is playing.
Increasingly, a top tier of talent is not among them. Before the season, a record 41 high school players opted to advance their careers throughout North America. Among them were 14 players who made Division I college commitments. By comparison, 12 Division I college-bound players will participate in the state tournament this week.
“Why is the tournament less popular? We don’t have all the players,” Hendrickson said. “The world has changed so the state tournament is not going to be the same. It’s still spectacular, but it’s different.”
One thing that isn’t different: The tournament is a stalwart moneymaker. It generated a record $1.1 million for the league in 2013 after expenses were considered and accounted for nearly half of the league’s tournament-related profit.
High school league executive director Dave Stead said tournament proceeds help finance other state tournaments, only 14 of which make money out of 40. Additional funds go back to schools to offset their state tournament expenses.
Broadcast beefed up
This year hockey fans with Zamboni-size televisions will get to watch KSTC-TV Channel 45’s first full high-definition tournament broadcast. In addition, Gary Thorne, the longtime ESPN announcer and familiar voice to hockey fans, will handle play-by-play.
Thorne, who has called Olympics, the World Series and the Stanley Cup Finals, said, “I don’t keep a bucket list but if I did, I’d view this opportunity that way. This is a one-of-a-kind tournament.”
Adding Thorne, said Dennis Silva, executive sports producer for 45 TV, is not a business decision.