One team, one dream:

What it’s like to make Minnesota’s famed boys hockey state tournament

What it’s like to make Minnesota’s famed boys hockey state tournament

By Chip Scoggins Star Tribune

Photos by Carlos Gonzalez Star Tribune

March 10, 2023

The bus ride takes 6 minutes, 32 seconds door to door: 392 seconds of anticipation, of nervousness, of gratefulness that a dream that took root so many years ago is about to become a reality.

The bus carrying the Maple Grove boys hockey team from a downtown St. Paul hotel to Xcel Energy Center transports the shared hope of lifelong friends.

"What is high school hockey without a snowstorm?" coach Todd Bergland says from the front seat as large flakes create a snow globe outside.

And what is high school hockey in Minnesota without its crown jewel, the state tournament?

Those fortunate enough to play in it say there is no greater thrill. Those who fall short lament it forever. And thousands of young players across Minnesota cling to the hope that someday their time will come.

The Maple Grove Crimson granted the Star Tribune special access to witness their tournament preparation. From a victorious bus ride after a section final to living room haircuts to snowball fights in the park, the Crimson created memories that will be retold at class reunions.

Participants in this grand event also understand that the experience ends in heartbreak for all but two teams — champions of Class 1A and 2A — and that became Maple Grove's fate, too, after a 3-1 loss to Cretin-Derham Hall in Thursday's opening game.

Two hours before the game, heartbreak isn't even a consideration for Crimson players. They stand along their bench and soak in what's before them. The 18,000-seat arena is empty. A whisper could carry.

"Sick," one player says. In teenage lingo, that's the highest compliment.

The final few minutes before showtime are intense. Music blasts from inside the locker room. Teammates take turns yelling encouragement as they wait in the tunnel.


Let's go boys!

Let's do this!

Finally, they get the signal to hit the ice.

The arena lights shine brightly at the end of the tunnel. The school pep band starts playing. The student section roars.

That dream they all shared as kids is here.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
The team hoisted their trophy to celebrate with the student section after winning their place in the state tournament.

One week earlier: March 2, 9:06 p.m. — "State!"

The Maple Grove student section inside a soldout Elk River arena chants "Tune in next week" as the final seconds tick off the scoreboard in the section final. 3 … 2 … 1 …

Maple Grove 7, Rogers 3.

Start the party.

Sticks and helmets and gloves soar into the air, landing on the ice like shrapnel as teammates dog pile behind the goal.

"It's everything you ever dream of," says Mr. Hockey finalist Finn Brink, who notched a hat trick.

This is Maple Grove's fourth consecutive season of clinching a state tournament spot, and that euphoria never gets old.

Players embrace and laugh and shout until they spot somebody else to hug. They are a sweaty, smelly mess of pure joy.

Brink grabs his linemates Jack Kernan and Jay Ellingson for a photo with the winner's plaque. Three seniors who have known each other since they were 7. They talked for years about this moment. Senior year, state tournament. Wouldn't that be cool?

"Only eight teams get to do this," Kernan says. "It's an honor to be one of them."

Just before 10 p.m., everyone leaves the ice and retreats to the locker room. Dance music thumps behind the door. Players shout Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! as loud as their voices allow. A half-hour later, Brink leaves sporting funky sunglasses that would fit perfectly at Mardi Gras.

Showered and dressed, players toss their equipment into a trailer attached to their school bus. They hang their jerseys on the windows at their seat.

Coach Bergland is the last to board. He congratulates his players again and asks if anyone needs fruit to eat.

"No tweeting on the way back," he says in a joking tone.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Ty Patefield and Riley Bot checked social media during the bus ride home after winning sectionals.

The glow of phone screens pierces the darkness inside the bus on the 16-mile trek back home. Giddy teenagers checking social media. Their laughter can be heard over the rumble.

The bus pulls up to the Maple Grove Ice Arena. As players exit, each one offers the same salute to their driver: "Thank you, sir."

March 2, 11:15 p.m. — Revenge

Senior captain Luke Margenau pokes his head into Bergland's office.

"We want to talk?" he asks on behalf of the team.

"No, we're talked out," Bergland says with a chuckle.

Margenau picks up a stack of pucks that are bound together by tape. This mass is a result of an annual exercise where players state what they plan to bring to the team and then write that word on a piece of tape that goes around a puck. The captains then bind all the pucks together in the shape of something meaningful. They call it the Rock.

Margenau asks a visitor to guess the shape of this season's Rock.

"It's not a turtle," he says.

Some other animal?

"It's the leaf," he says, referring to the school logo.

A piece of white tape with one word scribbled on it stretches across the top. The seniors chose "revenge."


"Because we lost in the championship," Brink says, standing beside Margenau in the office.

The sting from that 6-5 double-overtime loss to Andover last March has not faded away.

The room goes silent for a few seconds.

"All right," Bergland says. "Get some rest."

Carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
Coach Todd Bergland prepped his players before the big game. The seniors had picked "revenge" as the theme for the season, recalling their 6-5 double-overtime loss to Andover last March, at left. Each year, the captains collect a puck from each player with their contribution to the team and tape them up into a symbolic shape.

March 3, 2:15 p.m. — Bergy's boys

"It's a great day to be at the rink," Brink says as players trickle into the locker room.

A little sleep-deprived, their bodies are paying the price of a hard-fought game 17 hours earlier, but the afterglow is also evident.

Assistant coach Tom Miller puts a bag of beef sticks in the office mini fridge. Coaches keep them handy, and sometimes they pass them out as a reward for good work in a game or practice. They'll say, "That deserves a beef stick."

Margenau walks into the office and grabs one. He's a connoisseur.

"I'm the beef stick guy," he says, biting into it.

Bergland calls out players' names enthusiastically as they walk by his office, which elicits the same response: "Hey Bergy." Crimson players have deep admiration for their coach.

Here comes Luke Giuliani, a junior who suffered a broken wrist in practice last month. His injury will keep him out of the tournament, but "that just fuels the fire for me to get there next year," he says.

Junior Joey Imgrund bounces into the coaches' office next. Having moved in from Colorado last summer, he's only heard about the state tournament. "They said it's crazy, 18,000 people," he says. "They said it will blow my mind."

March 3, 4:30 p.m. — 'Hi, Mom'

The team gathers after Friday's one-hour practice. Time to discuss tournament logistics.

Bergland jokingly asks someone to call the meeting to order. Another player seconds the motion.

First up: Room assignments at the hotel in St. Paul. Three people to a room, Bergland tells them. He goes down the list of seniors, asking for their roommate choices. The answers inspire one-liners and friendly ribbing from the peanut gallery.

"Does a requested roommate have an opportunity to decline?" someone asks.

"That's going to be a stinky room," another player notes.

After Kernan selects his roomies, a teammate blurts out, "There's a party room."

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Blake Steenerson pitched a snowball at a teammate during a day for fun — no hockey practice, just hanging out together.

When Jack Roach gets picked, the goalie answers, "I accept," as if a contestant on The Bachelor.

Next: Biographical information for media purposes. Bergland asks if anyone has someone famous in their family sphere.

Brink raises his hand. "My dad's grandpa's cousin won a Super Bowl," he says.

The peanut gallery accepts that answer — reluctantly. "You're probably really close with him huh?" a teammate shouts.

Last item: Bergland tells players to send him their grade-point average.

"From your whole life?" one player asks.

The peanut gallery groans.

"Ever since kindergarten," Bergland jokes.

The meeting concludes with a parting message from assistant coach Andy Hedlund, who reminds them to use their free nights Friday and Saturday wisely and be smart when posting on social media.

"When we're back here on Monday," Hedlund says, "it's business."

There is one other consideration each player must tackle privately before Thursday's game: What to say during pregame introductions when their name gets called and they skate out and look directly into the television camera for those few seconds as the center of attention.

Those who have played in the tournament call it a nerve-wracking moment.

"I was like, I hope I don't fall," Brink says.

And what did he mouth to the camera last time? He doesn't remember.

"I might have said hi to my buddy's little brother," Brink says. "He was texting me, 'Say hi to me. I'll give you 20 bucks.' "

March 4, 1 p.m. — Sunshine and snowballs

Players walk into the dry-land training room at their arena to find 10 pizzas, 100 buffalo wings and a large pan of salad. They learned a few hours earlier Saturday that they will play Cretin-Derham Hall in the first game.

Today is a day for fun. No hockey. Just time together. Players scarf down lunch before team-building exercises. One game called "pie tin" calls for blindfolds, trust and communication, and Bergland's players are all-in on this.

Next is a walk outside around West Arbor Lake, which sits between the hockey complex and city government center. The sun is shining, with temperatures warm enough for hoodies.

Perfect conditions for a favorite activity of Minnesota teenage boys.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Ty Patefield reached for the net — with the team egging him on — during a game of "pie tin," which calls for blindfolds, trust and communication.

"Look out," someone yells as a snowball falls from the sky, launched from the group leading the pack.

Game on.

Snowballs start whizzing between players on the path.

"Whenever we're all together, we're happy and having a good time," Roach says. "No matter what we're doing, there's always a little competition. A snowball fight today."

Monday, 6:30 p.m. — Going for a dip

A 120-gallon Rubbermaid livestock trough is filled with icy water outside the garage at senior Grant LeNeau's house. Time for a plunge.

"I feel like it helps your body adapt to stressful situations," he says. "If you can stay calm in that, you can stay calm in any game scenario."

LeNeau and Roach make ice baths part of their daily routine, and they always put in extra work in strength training. They both look like they could bench press a Prius.

Today, they take turns submerging in the tub for 3 minutes. Yesterday, each stayed in for 15 minutes.

When the timer buzzes, they dunk their heads in the frigid water for a few seconds.

"I feel really good after it every time," Roach says.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Goalie Jack Roach soaked in an ice bath after practice, part of a daily routine.

Monday, 9 p.m. — Good flow

The front door of the Margenau home opens, and a distinctive smell hits with force.

"We've got a perm going," someone inside says.

Hockey hair is a matter of great importance at the state tournament. Teams often dye their hair blonde in a show of solidarity. Senior Ty Patefield has a cautionary tale about that.

Patefield played on Maple Grove's football team that made it to the Prep Bowl. Teammates bleached their hair.

"About two months later I started losing hair," Patefield says. "Right in the middle of my head it just started balding. I'm not going to do that this year. Might just do a couple of mullets."

LeNeau opts for a perm, as teammates gather around with a hockey game on TV in the background.

"Can we get a candle?" Margenau asks his parents. "It stinks."

Players put down a trash bag with a chair on top of it and have a towel to collect their hair as it gets buzzed by clippers.

Margenau and Patefield handle barber duties, buzzing off clumps as they go. There is reluctance in the air. Those not sitting in the hot seat try to paint a rosy picture after each cut.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Hair is key at the state tournament, and the Crimson stepped up, with a perm for Grant LeNeau with the help of Lucas Margenau and Alexis Hard; a mullet for Andrew Karkoc, to the amusement of Bella Fox and Alexis Hard, and another mullet for Andrew Leafblad — after he declines a bowl cut and a mohawk.

"It doesn't look that bad," one says.

"It's already growing back," another offers in a reassuring tone.

"Your girlfriend will stay with you," someone promises.

Teammates try to talk senior Andrew Leafblad into getting a bowl cut, even putting a bowl on his head to see how it might look.

"I don't want to look like Lloyd Christmas," he says of the Dumb and Dumber character.

They beg him to do a mohawk, which he declines. Someone suggests a "modified mohawk," whatever that means.

He settles on a mullet — and seems reasonably happy with how it turns out.

Imgrund, the Colorado transplant, makes plans to go buy bleach to dye his hair instead of getting it cut. He must not have heard about Patefield's pate.

Wednesday, 1 p.m. — Off to St. Paul

A surprise greeted players as they walked into their arena for a final practice. The moms decorated the locker room with balloons and posters, which players anticipated, but each player also found an envelope at their locker stall. Inside were notes of encouragement from relatives. They weren't expecting that.

Not just notes from their parents but also from siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Ellingson even received notes from members of his brother's junior hockey team.

"That was cool," he says. "It really makes you want to show them something."

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
The moms decorated the locker room before the team's final practice before state. DaleAnn Busch, mother of Lucas Busch, was surprised to find an old sandwich above a locker. The players were surprised to receive an envelope full of notes of encouragement from relatives and friends.

Loved ones gather in the arena lobby for a send-off celebration after practice. They form a tunnel for players to pass through before boarding their school bus.

Kids hold up signs. Parents and grandparents cheer. The players wave their sticks and smile.

A Maple Grove firetruck provides an escort to the interstate. The bus pulls up to the InterContinental Hotel in downtown St. Paul at 4 p.m. Players lug their equipment bags inside, an otherwise normal chore that this time brings sighs of relief.

The side door to their trailer had come unlatched and opened somewhere along their drive. Luckily, nothing fell out. Maybe it's an omen. A good omen, someone says.

Wednesday, 6 p.m. — Calm, cool

The players clean up well. They meet in the lobby in suits and dress clothes for a banquet at Roy Wilkins Auditorium that Let's Play Hockey hosts for the eight Class 2A teams.

The skyway system allows them to avoid the snowy slush. The mood is upbeat as players weave through the corridors, but being in St. Paul near the arena brings everything into focus. Players say nerves won't really hit until tomorrow morning.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
The team looked sharp for a banquet the night before their tournament game.

"Ten minutes before the game," Ellingson says. "You're getting ready and you hear the crowd roar. After the first shift, they'll be gone."

Their prep work is complete. One more sleep until they step onto the biggest stage in Minnesota high school sports.

"It's go time," Kernan says.

Thursday, 7:30 a.m. — The day is here

LeNeau bursts into a conference room on the hotel's basement level raring to go. His energy level is already at 10. He's followed by a group of teammates seeking to fill up. Eggs, sausage, potatoes and French toast.

A phone in Margenau's pocket plays music.

"The game-day playlist," he says.

Bergland has been thinking about what he wants to say in his final pregame message later. He knows a strong start is imperative. But mostly he wants his players to be themselves today.

"Our purpose has been strong all year," he says in a quiet moment before players arrive for breakfast. "Our vision has been strong. Our vision has been to win that Eveleth Trophy."

carlos Gonzalez and Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
The moment arrived: Captain Lucas Margenau stood ready to take the ice, then each player got their 2 seconds of fame in front of a TV camera — Finn Brink (27) had a scowl that turned into a smile. The student section roared as a crowd of thousands packed the Xcel.

Thursday, 1:20 p.m. — The end

The end always feels painfully abrupt. Tie game, 1-1. Then Cretin-Derham Hall scores, and scores again, and the horn sounds.

Maple Grove's disappointment pours out in the postgame news conference. Bergland brings along his two captains, Brink and Margenau, and thanks them for staying home to play high school hockey over other opportunities.

Margenau notes that more than a dozen teammates started playing together as Mites. They are best friends away from the rink. This is not the ending they wanted, but these players will always have this week together.

"This is the event we dream of our whole life," Brink says. "It's just a special event and I'm thankful for the opportunity to be here."

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
Blake Steenerson hugged goalie Jack Roach after their quarterfinals loss. It's not the ending these players dreamed of, but they're grateful to have made it there together.