St. Thomas Academy won its third Class 1A title in a row before bumping up to 2A next year, but the controversial ending ignited more private vs. public school debates.
Bruce Plante can’t stand the private school philosophy. He didn’t like it before Saturday and he likes it even less now.
The Hermantown hockey coach probably will even help the St. Thomas Academy Cadets pack their bags before they shove off for Class 2A, their rightful new home starting next season.
The public school vs. private school debate raged after the Cadets defeated Hermantown 5-4 in the Class 1A boys’ hockey championship game for a third consecutive season, thanks to a third-period rally and winning goal by sophomore Tommy Novak with 6.1 seconds left in regulation.
The Cadets became the first boys’ team to three-peat since Bloomington Jefferson’s 1992-94 run, and they left their legion of critics seething with a final exclamation point that fanned the flames of those who believe the private-school powerhouse has no business playing small-school hockey. That St. Thomas Academy benefitted from questionable officiating late and Hermantown didn’t was the equivalent of throwing a match into a gasoline can.
“It makes you feel like you’re getting homered,” Plante said. “It stinks.”
No topic in Minnesota high school hockey circles stirs as much emotion as private schools. Diplomatic peace talks have a better chance at civility than a high school game between private and public schools.
St. Thomas Academy has long served as a villain in that conversation because of the school’s insistence on remaining at the 1A level. The school had that prerogative based on enrollment figures, but the Cadets also enjoyed the best of both worlds: They could recruit top players and play 2A teams during the regular season and then collect trophies against weaker competition in the tournament. They outscored their opponents 28-4 in this tournament.
School officials finally made the right call in December by announcing a move next season to Class 2A, which is where they belong based on their stature and built-in advantages. They should test themselves against the big boys. Plus, this move gives their players a chance to receive proper credit for success without having to apologize for it. State championships should be celebrated, not mocked.
“There’s a lot of pressure, more from the outside,” co-coach Greg Vannelli said. “You’re not human if you don’t recognize that it’s going on.”
Plante hasn’t masked his thoughts on the matter. The veteran coach has railed against private schools before and he spoke his mind again after his team lost to a private school in the championship game for a fourth consecutive season.
“I have nothing against the Vannellis,” Plante said of Greg and his brother/co-coach Tom. “They’re great coaches. I don’t buy into this private school philosophy, that’s all. I don’t think you should be able to get kids from Wisconsin and Missouri and all over Minnesota and make a team. I just don’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s right, and I certainly don’t think they should be in single-A hockey.
“This year, I had nine parents of kids that wanted to move to Hermantown and play for us. You know what I told them? Stay there and play with your kids and do your best there and make everyone in your community proud. That’s just my philosophy. It’s not personal. I don’t believe they should be able to get all the kids from wherever and then come here. And we have to compete against that? Come on. Plus, it kills other programs. You finally get a couple of good players and off they go to a private school. It doesn’t feel good to me, it doesn’t feel right.”
Greg Vannelli declined to get into a verbal sparring match.
“We have a different philosophy than he does,” he said. “If I lose, I just say, ‘Congratulations to the other team and I have to get better.’ He likes to go at St. Thomas and say [that] because we win, we’re supposed to move up and there’s no way they could beat us. I just disagree with that philosophy.”
Hermantown had its chances. The Hawks played hard and tough and led 4-2 entering the final period. But they lost their lead and left themselves vulnerable to a controversial finish, which started when Scott Wasbotten received a holding penalty with 1:57 remaining. In the final flurry, the Cadets’ Alex Johnson grabbed Jake Zeleznikar in what the Hermantown player called a “headlock” as he went to retrieve the puck, but the officials did not call a penalty. Novak buried the winner on a slapshot a few seconds later.
An irate Plante confronted the officials on the ice after the game. His face was still red 30 minutes later as he addressed reporters.
“I will never forget this one,” he said.
Neither will anyone else.