On Sunday night, my fiancee and I had amazing seats and witnessed the Minnesota Wild dominate the Edmonton Oilers. We were the adult couple that still rocked the face paint and took advantage of the opportunity to eat, drink and be merry — before we get married.
On Monday night we returned to the arena for more entertainment, and although we didn’t rock any face paint, we rocked the night away to the music of Owl City, Neon Trees, and Maroon 5. My sister and brother-in-law joined the party and provided plenty of comedy along the way.
Not exactly a bad mini-vacation, right?
Still, as I returned to Duluth on Tuesday evening, most conversations with my friends featured shocked reactions.
“I can’t believe you didn’t just stay down for state hockey,” they all said. “I just assumed you’d be much more excited for that.”
“Oh don’t worry,” I would reply. “Even though I’m home, I’m really excited for 4-H camp.”
Anyone else hear crickets?
Stay with me on this one, sports fans. As far as we’re concerned, the Minnesota State Boys Hockey Tournament is 4-H camp. I’m talking Hilltoppers, Hawks, ‘Hounds and of course, hockey! When you’ve got all that in one tournament, what the “H” else do you need?
Northland fans love to rally around a team this time of year, and an appearance by these three teams can be counted on as heavily as the metro-biased statements Lou Nanne will mumble in his television broadcasts.
Duluth Marshall (7), Hermantown (10) and Duluth East (20) have now collected a combined 37 state tournament berths. Twenty-three of those have come since 2000. There has been ample opportunity to root for these teams, and if you have ties to any one of them, it’s only natural. Yet what if you have ties to more than one? Does it become more difficult? More exciting? Maybe a little of both?
“I am so proud of the Marshall players, especially the Flaherty boys,” said Natalie (Repesh) Johnson, a proud Hilltopper alum, who also happens to be a cousin to the hockey playing tandem of Caden and Connor Flaherty.
“It has been a special season,” Johnson explained with obvious emotion. “My mom was Marshall’s biggest fan last year and is smiling down on this team.”
Johnson’s mother, Lillian Repesh, passed away this past summer after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. She was loved by all she encountered and even by some she never met, simply through the wonderful daughter she raised. The duo of Lillian and Natalie easily became the ideal Hilltopper hockey fanatics. Lillian made it not just a big deal for her nephews, she put Marshall hockey in the spotlight for the whole family.
“Marshall hockey has been very special to our family over the past few years,” said Brandon Johnson, husband to Natalie, and also a former Duluth East hockey standout. “If I didn’t have the family connections, I probably would not have had the opportunity to watch this team.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing about watching Wednesday, was knowing that one northern team had to lose. The Hilltoppers battled the Hawks of Hermantown well, but fell short in their quest for a state title — Hermantown defeated Duluth Marshall 3-0.
The Johnson family could still reflect proudly on the season for the Hilltoppers, and still had another area team to cheer for.
“I am always excited when Duluth East advances to the State Tournament. This is my favorite time of the year,” smiled Brandon.
Perhaps the most-famous smile in Duluth East history is now grinning for the Hermantown Hawks. Kristi (Duncan) Plante may have a more interesting family dynamic than any involved in the state tournament.
She herself is one of the greatest athletes in Duluth East history. She’s also married to Derek Plante, arguably the best athlete to come out of arch-rival Cloquet. With no sign of the Lumberjacks at state, what’s the big deal?
“We are Hawks through and through now due to living here and Grandpa coaching,” Kristi explained.
“Grandpa” as Derek and Kristi’s sons would know him, is Bruce Plante, Derek’s father and a legendary head coach at Hermantown.
“The kids wear Hermantown (mites) sweaters,” smiled Kristi. “Yet as an East alum, I’m always cheering the Greyhounds on too. During the season Derek loves to stir the pot by cheering against them, but in the tournament he always roots for northern teams. It’s hard for him when he bleeds Cloquet purple, but he does root for East at this point.”
I asked about what happens during regular season games that match the Lumberjacks against the Hawks. Derek was suddenly unavailable for comment. Smart kid.
Ahhh — the kids. That’s what this tournament is really about, both on the ice and in the stands. Family stories are great, and rivalries are fun, but this is high school sports, and it is about enjoyment for kids.
“I enjoy seeing the school spirit that my kids are experiencing,” insisted Dave Cook, who serves as the public address announcer for Duluth Marshall hockey during the season, but has children attending Duluth East. “My daughter will be experiencing that environment for the first time — when the Greyhounds play on Thursday. I hope East goes a long way, I want to share that excitement with my kids and see their faces!”
Cook also roots hard for the Marshall kids he works closely with on a regular basis.
“I have worked at Mars Lakeview Arena since 1999, and have seen the program grow, and the players mature as they grow,” Cook beamed. “I get to know them, so I pull like crazy for the Hilltoppers to win.”
All the kids who are fortunate to be involved in this tournament are true winners. The biggest winner of all is Minnesota itself. The state can be very proud of the event, and it is only one day old. Class AA — and for this area, Duluth East — can add to the excitement on Thursday.
“I am very impressed with this year’s team,” Johnson (Brandon) said proudly. “Section 7AA is a tough section and they found a way to make it back to St. Paul.”
Yes, the Greyhounds certainly did. For those friends of mine who are shocked that I didn’t — it really doesn’t matter. There are countless other fans doing much more cheering down there than I could, and they’re cheering for just about everybody.
Perhaps Cullen Flaherty, who has ties to the Marshall coaching staff in his family, and was a state champion defenseman at Duluth East, summarized it best.
“I hope the parents and coaches help create an unforgettable experience for the teams, just as our parents and coaches most certainly did for us,” he said. “Congratulations to all the teams. It’s an honor to be in the state tournament.”
There’s that extra “H” we needed. Although silent, it speaks volumes.