So, where is Andover? Seniors on the Huskies’ varsity team got that question a lot as youth hockey players.w
“When people would ask, I’d just say, ‘Next to Blaine,’ ” forward Luke Kron said. “Growing up, we didn’t even play in Andover that much. Our home games were played at Super Rink 6 in Blaine.”
Hockey success this winter raised the profile of the north metro school opened in 2002. The girls’ program won its first Class 2A state title this season, accomplishing the feat on Feb. 22. Five days later, the boys earned their first state tournament appearance after two consecutive section final losses in overtime.
Winning big games allows for a little fun at the expense of neighboring communities.
“Now when they ask, ‘Where’s Andover?’ I tell them, ‘Just above Blaine and Coon Rapids — on the map and in the standings,’ ” said Mark Manney, coach of the boys’ program.
Andover slingshot its way from unfamiliar to state tournament favorite. The top-seeded Huskies (24-3-1) open at 6 p.m. Thursday against St. Thomas Academy. Expectations are high, especially from their female hockey peers.
Standout senior defenseman Wyatt Kaiser received a text from younger sister Madison, a sophomore standout on the Huskies’ championship team, that read, “You guys better go win it, too.”
Depth of talent separates each program from the pack. On the boys’ side, eight players have scored anywhere from 11 to 22 goals. Desperation helps, too. A year ago, the girls lost in overtime to Brainerd/Little Falls. Less than a week later, the boys’ lost in overtime to Duluth East. Again.
“Losing the last two years in overtime made us better and made us appreciate this more,” Kron said.
Gratitude comes easy for Kron after a tumultuous first half of the season. A broken wrist on the last weekend of the fall Elite League cost him two varsity games. Just as he was getting rid of the brace, Kron took a puck in the ear hole at a holiday tournament game and suffered a concussion. He returned, only to deal with a bout of the flu. Still, he scored 15 goals and added 26 assists.
“He doesn’t stop,” Kaiser said. “He’s everywhere. Every time you see him, he’s going to the net.”
Kron said Kaiser, a defenseman and Mr. Hockey Award candidate, impresses with an ability to “always jump up in the play and move the puck. He’s just smooth.”
Kaiser, who signed with Minnesota-Duluth and is regarded as an elite skater, ensured his team made important strides off the ice.
One afternoon in early February, Kaiser sent Manney a text asking to meet at the rink. Kaiser sat down next to Manney’s desk in the coaches’ room and said his piece.
“I said, ‘Instead of coming in between periods and nagging about everything, just be positive and mention the things we’re doing well. Instead of looking in the past, maybe look in the present about things we’re doing well and then look at what we’ve got ahead of us,’ ” Kaiser said.
“That sank in with me,” he said. “There are times when I can be a little negative. Since then, I’ve consciously tried to say, ‘We did a lot well tonight, including these things and I’m proud of you boys.’ Rather than talking much about the things we didn’t do as well, we emphasize them at practice. We’ll get rid of the negatives by working on them.”
Andover was in the midst of closing out the regular season on a 12-game winning streak when Kaiser spoke up. His message hinted at an even brighter destination further down the road.
“He said, ‘We are a very good team. We do a lot of things well and we’re good kids. We know when we make mistakes and we don’t always need them pointed out. If you can just be positive with us, then we will reward you, too,’ ” Manney said.
The Huskies outscored three Section 7 opponents 24-1 to leave no doubt. They affirmed their worth by capturing a previously elusive state tournament appearance. But have they arrived?
Kaiser said, “We’ve got to go win the state tournament first.”