VIRGINIA, MINN. -- There were 5,000 people in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for the Section 7A boys' hockey championship game last Wednesday. The Virginia estimate is that 60 percent were there to cheer for their Blue Devils.
Hibbing scored twice late in the second period to take a 3-2 lead. Was there a feeling of doom in the Virginia sections?
Dave Hendrickson rolled his eyes at the question and said: "There were probably a few people mumbling, `Here we go again.'-"
Keith Hendrickson, Dave's son and in his 18th season as Virginia's coach, had no time for painful flashbacks. "I told the team we had stopped moving - that we weren't playing to win but not to lose," he said. "I told `em, `Play the next 17 minutes like you can, and we'll be OK.'-"
A minute into the third, Virginia's Nico Sacchetti got the puck behind his net. The freshman took it through his zone, through mid-ice, walked around two defenders and scored, making it 3-3.
Midway in the period, Kyle Altobelli and Mark Gillvray scored 16 seconds apart to give Virginia a 5-3 lead. Keith Hendrickson almost vaulted from the bench on McGillvray's goal, as apprehension turned to celebration for the Virginia faithful.
Eight minutes later, it was done, 5-3. Virginia had waited 50 years, since a dormant program was reborn in the winter of 1954-55, and now the Blue Devils had reached their first state hockey tournament.
The sign adorning Oaky's Arrowhead Bar in Virginia's downtown reads "Curse Is Over/Best of Luck Devils."
This was an edited version of what some oldtimers at Virginia's Miners Memorial Arena have referred to as the Hendrickson Curse - more in honor of Dave than his son.
"I coached here 10 years, although most people think it was 30," he said. "We had some terrific teams, but the Range back then, you were fighting for your life every night."
Dave Hendrickson grew up on Summit Avenue in Eveleth.
"Johnny Mayasich and his brothers were neighbors," he said. "We had 13 kids from our street play what's now Division I hockey."
Hendrickson played at Michigan State. He coached at Crookston High. In 1967, he was hired to coach at Virginia. "It was as close as I could get to being back home," he said.
It was only 5 miles from the Eveleth Hippodrome to Miners Memorial Area - but it was light years in hockey tradition.
"Virginia had some excellent individual players, but we weren't much of a threat compared to the Range powerhouses in my first few years here," Dave Hendrickson said.
That changed in the early `70s, when the Carlson brothers - Jack, Jeff and Steve - led a charge that put Virginia among the Range's best.
The new hockey excitement was such that, in the winter of 1971-72, a Virginia student named Steve Begich started bringing his keyboard-style organ to Blue Devils games. He was surrounded by a group of fellow students billed as "the Hombres."
They filled Miners Memorial with amps. They turned "When the Saints Come Marching In" to the "Blues" marching in. Officiating crews were serenaded with "Three Blind Mice."
Keith Hendrickson was a four-year starter in this era. "You had crowds hanging from the rafters, and Beggie banging on that organ and those amps blasting," he said. "Thirty years later, I've never seen an atmosphere at a high school hockey game - any hockey game - that approaches what we had then in Virginia.
"Beggie started taking the organ to away games. The band directors in those towns went crazy. They started putting up signs at the arenas: `No organs allowed.' Really. There were signs banning Beggie's organ."
Mountain Iron and Buhl have been sending their hockey players to Virginia for more than a decade. There have been occasional contributors, but now Mountain Iron has added a genuine star in Matt Niskanen to Virginia's first state tournament team.
Niskanen is a 6-1, 195-pound defenseman. The Gophers wanted him, and they wanted him to play junior hockey - at least, in fall and spring around his senior season.
Niskanen was the quarterback on Mountain Iron-Buhl's football team. He also will pitch and play on the infield for that school's baseball team. He wasn't going to pass on playing his final seasons with his Mountain Iron teams.
As for hockey development, Niskanen said: "I have a great coach here in Keith Hendrickson. I can get all the time I want on the ice. There's a lot of open hockey in Virginia. How good I wanted to get has been pretty much up to me."
Niskanen has gotten so good that Dave Hendrickson puts him in the same class as Billy Baker, Grand Rapids' star of the `70s, among all-time Range blue-liners.
Scott Sandelin, the Minnesota Duluth coach, encouraged Niskanen to go ahead and play three high school sports. That was among the reasons he signed with the Bulldogs last fall.
There were eight sophomores skating with Virginia's strong 1972-73 team, including Keith Hendrickson, Dave Joelson, Tony Sacchetti, John (Bah) Harrington and Greg Harrela. John Gilbert of the Minneapolis Tribune started referring to this group in print as the "Super Sophs."
The name soon was adopted for the entire athletic Class of `75, including a basketball team led by the magical Pat Foschi, a four-year Virginia starter.
Gary Friedlieb played hockey and basketball through junior high. Foschi had been his closest friend since kindergarten.
"I finally chose basketball over hockey because I wanted to be on Patrick's team," he said. "That's how close we were as friends. That's also how good he was as a player."
In 1975, the hockey team fought its way to the Iron Range Conference title, winning at Grand Rapids in the last week of the season.
Soon, the Blue Devils were again facing Grand Rapids in the Region 7 semifinals. This was a Rapids team that had Baker, John Rothstein, Aaron Roth, Pete DeCenzo, goalie Danny Clafton and still more Division I recruits.
There were Hendricksons coaching both teams - Dave with Virginia, younger brother Gus with Rapids.
Virginia, leading 1-0, put a puck in the net with one second left in the first period, and went hooting its way to the locker room. A few minutes later, the referees called out the captains, Keith and Joelson, and said the second goal wasn't going to count.
"One said it was knocked in with a high stick; the other said it came after the period ended," said Dave Hendrickson, sadly shaking his head 30 years later.
Keith smelled a rat - namely, lobbying from his uncle Gus to get the goal disallowed. The nephew stormed after his uncle outside the locker rooms before the second period.
Grand Rapids rallied for a 5-2 victory, beat Eveleth in the Region 7 final, and cruised to a state championship.
Toughest loss? "That one, by far," Dave Hendrickson said.
After a pause, he said: "Gus and I didn't talk to each other until August. That's when our mother called and said, `Enough is enough.' She made us get together and put it behind us."
Painful though it was, that hockey defeat was more noble than the elimination suffered by the basketball team of Virginia's Super Sophs class. This was coach Richie Olson's last season before becoming the full-time athletic director, and he dreamed of going out with a second state title (to go with one he earned at Edgerton in 1960).
Foschi had become friends with Jim Garrett, a New York city transplant, in the summer of 1974. Garrett was a 6-4 leaper. He moved to Virginia. Suddenly, with two superstars, there was a shortage of basketballs for the Blue Devils.
"We were seeded No. 1, and Duluth Denfeld was 2-17 and seeded eighth in the section," Friedlieb said. "We were up eight or 10, and then Garrett was given a technical for touching the rim. Patrick had one or two technicals for complaining. Then, coach Olson got one or two.
"We wound up with seven technicals in the second half, and suddenly we were down six. We had a very talented team, but we lost our composure. We deserved to lose."
The Super Sophs still hold a notorious place in Iron Range athletic history, as demonstrated by this story from Keith Hendrickson:
"A bunch of us from that class were duck hunting with a fellow named Carl a number of years ago. We were a little hung over, sort of sleeping in our blinds, when this lone hen mallard flew over. We all popped up, six or seven of us, and started firing away. That mallard just turned and flew to the other side of the lake.
"And the next thing we hear is Carl yelling, `The Super Sophs choked again.'-"
The Super Sophs have some bloodlines with this state tournament team. The coaches from `75 and `05 are father and son, of course. Nico Sacchetti, the triggerman for Wednesday's comeback, is Tony's son. Defenseman Evan Friedlieb is the son of Gary, an ex-basketball player with a great appreciation for what this hockey journey means to his hometown.
"It was tear-evoking stuff when we won that game last Wednesday," Gary said. "I've known Keith all my life - and his dad, Dave, a great person, all my life. They deserved this. Virginia deserved this."