When it comes to Minnesota high school sports, no other event carries the stature of the boys’ hockey state tournament, which is expected to draw more than 120,000 to Xcel Energy Center during its four-day run that begins Wednesday morning.
And when it comes to the state tournament, no person carries a larger stature than Lou Nanne, the unofficial ambassador of all things Minnesota hockey who’ll work the tourney for the 55th year as a TV color analyst. Nanne, 77, recently reflected on the state of high school hockey in Minnesota.
Q: This will be your 55th boys’ hockey state tournament. Are you still enjoying it?
A: I do enjoy it. It’s a fun time of year, and it’s fun to watch the kids compete. It’s really interesting to see teams from all over the place, the surprises that come to the tournament, the kind of play we get to see, how the kids have developed over the years. If you like hockey, how can you not love the state tournament?
Q: What is the biggest evolution you’ve seen in high school hockey?
A: It’s mind-boggling, the development of the kids themselves, the depth, the quality of the players, the size of the players, the speed of the players. When you look at the overall capabilities of a team –- in every sport, people get bigger, stronger and faster -– and it’s no different in hockey. You’ve seen the quality really develop. We’ve got so many good players in the state of Minnesota. Frankly, all you have to do is look at the National Hockey League. There’s more kids from the state of Minnesota playing in the NHL this year than any other state. That just tells you about the quality of the hockey players in Minnesota, and it’s just continued to evolve over the years.
When I first started watching it, there might be one or two good players on a [high school] team. That was it. Now there are plenty. They’ve all got four lines, six defensemen and a couple goaltenders. It’s just really staggering how the depth has developed over the years. … And when you’re talking about guys who are playing in the National Hockey League, a lot of those guys never made it to the state tournament.
Q: With an increased number of players leaving for junior hockey rather than finishing their high school careers, has that adversely affected the state tournament?
A: I don’t care who you are or what kind of fan you are, when you see competitive teams out there, you really don’t see or notice the difference. As long as it’s competitive and you’ve got good games, there’s enough quality players around to show you that the product is excellent. Now, would it be even better if more players stayed? Yeah. And should more players stay? Frankly, I think they should because if they get a chance to play [in the state tournament], it’s a lifetime experience. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if you go to junior [hockey] a year early or not. If you’ve got the talent, the ability, you’re going to make it all the way. If you don’t, you won’t. Junior does accelerate your development a little bit, but does it make a difference in the long run? No.
I like to tell kids that if they’re really good, it’s always good to dominate at a level. When you keep dominating, you keep building your confidence and building your ability. You know how to play. And you get noticed when you dominate. It doesn’t matter if you’re in pee-wee, bantams, midget, juvenile, junior, whatever it is. You’ve got college coaches scouting bantams, for crying out loud. You’ve got pros scouting high schools. That’s why it’s not wrong to stay in a place and develop and dominate if you can.
Q: The current PairWise Ratings in college hockey have three Minnesota teams in the top four. What does that say about the type of players the state is producing, especially at the high school level?
A: It just says the state of Minnesota is continuing to develop the most hockey players in the country. We have the most hockey players playing of every state. You’re seeing kids from all over playing college hockey. When you look at the 630 players in the NHL this year, over one-third of them have had college experience, which is incredible compared to what it used to be.