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Why Boys High School Hockey is “My Sport”

Brad Shelstad (Goalie) with coach Peterson

Brad Shelstad (Goalie) with coach Peterson

Here I sit on the second Sunday of March. Clocks have “sprung” forward and another Minnesota State High School League Boys State High School Hockey Tournament is in the record books. There are the victors and there are those who lost, some whose favorite memory of the season may ultimately be a glorious upset in section finals that allowed them to be embarrassed in a larger venue like the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Any shame or embarrassment will fade, like the red rings around their eyes that match the ribbons holding the second place medals around their necks. As they age there will come a time when the thrill of the trip will mean more than the scores. It’s athleticism at its purest form, performance for the sake of competition not a pay check. Often it is with a group of kids they have grown up on ice with and I love it for that and many other reasons.

My grandfather and his brothers played hockey but in the era prior to the storied tournament. They were West High guys out of Minneapolis and legend has it the “Rose boys were scrappers” (there were seven of them). My father remembered the end of my grandfathers playing days, long after high school and as a father with two boys of his own, he arrived home fairly banged up sometime in the late 1930’s and it was grandma who made the pronouncement that his hockey career had ended. He still flooded the yard on Girard Avenue to create a rink for his own boys and the neighbor kids to skate on. Though my dad and uncle grew up skating neither of them participated in any formalized hockey and I’m not sure if that was based on personal choice or by design of my grandma.

My brothers were regular rink rats at Linden Hills park, occasionally Pershing or as interlopers at Weber park in Edina. My one brother played organized hockey up to a certain level and then traded in his breezers for a telephoto lens where he captured his classmates on ice. There was a time when the televised hockey tournament had profiles of each high school and community they represented and my brother produced the one that aired when he was a senior. Both of my brothers got in some quality bar league play in college.

So other than growing up in Minnesota during the North Stars era and skating in parks and on lakes like most of my peers you might wonder why I have such a devotion to Boys High School Hockey. For me it is more fun than the Super Bowl or the World Series, I like it better than any college athletics and it is simply without compare to any youth sporting event. It’s in my blood and as much as I have great memories of attending tournament games while in high school I have an affinity for watching it on TV. This year marked the 25th tournament I have watched with my husband. He was an early member of his schools hockey program and has great memories of coming to watch the tournament in St. Paul during the first few years at the St. Paul Civic Center.

For me it began the winter of 1970. I was a six year-old first grader. The Southwest Indians had made it to the State tourney. During the era of living within walking distance of your High School this meant that most of the kids at Lake Harriet elementary school knew somebody on the team; siblings, friends siblings, cousins or neighbors. We wore purple as if the outcome of the games depended on it!

I’m unclear if this is how other schools handle tournament play or if it was unique to ours but instead of having class we sat in the hallway with our classmates (who had not been pulled from school that day to attend) and watched hockey on the large (by standards of the day) TV that perched atop a rolling cart. We ate popcorn out of grease spotted brown paper lunch sacks that we naively believed were “nickel bags” because of the fee the PTA charged for them. A TV at both ends of the hallway on the first and second floor. Most of the teachers had taught players and despite being in the middle of a city it was my first glimpse at what it must be like for the small towns that earn their way to the tourney.

The final game against Edina, a wealthy neighboring suburb in walking distance from Southwest High School was a Saturday night game. Southwest won the game in sudden death overtime 1-0 bringing to an end Edina’s 25 game winning streak. It was late but I was able to stay up for it. South Minneapolis was euphoric! Coach Peterson would go on to coach two Olympic teams but I like to think that as with many players who went on to college and even professional careers on the ice that the high school hockey tournament victory was a pinnacle event. In an ironic twist the goalie who shutout Edina did not make the “all tournament team”.

Ten years later, as a high school junior the Indians were fourth in the state. It’s probably best that we didn’t know then that the Indians would become the Lakers, that the tournament would become two tiered (which after over twenty years I have come to accept and actually enjoy seeing more play) or that eventually no Minneapolis public school would field their own team.

All these years have passed but I am still thrilled by the introductions; the ones who acknowledge a parent or grandparents when they skate out, the ones that wink, the others who look too nervous to enjoy the moment. There are a lot fewer cheerleaders lining the staircases during the games, a nod to the fact that there are a lot more options for high school girls than simply cheering for the boys. Many of the girls play hockey now and their tournament is televised as well.

Though neither my son or daughter have played hockey they have been raised with the tradition of watching the tournament. They know that every March they can find their dad and I yelling at the TV set. They know that I have grown soft and despite the glorious shutout of 1970 I am happiest when the game is close and doesn’t end with a zero on the scoreboard.

I love an upset, I truly enjoy an underdog victory but the reality is that even if a school has sent a team many times I know that these are kids and it is as important and exciting to them as it was for the first team their school ever sent. Edina won the tournament this year, as they did last year and many other seasons. Next year will mark the 45th anniversary of that 1970 Southwest victory. Those players are now in their early sixties. The victories are monumental, the losses seem devastating and bragging rights last for a lifetime. The legacy, tradition, teamwork and fan enthusiasm are truly unparalleled. I love the hockey tournament because it reminds me each year how to be a kid again.

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2 thoughts on “Why Boys High School Hockey is “My Sport”

  1. Steve Rose says:

    Nancy: Thanks for writing that story. You neglected to mention that you played on one of the first organized girl hockey teams in the country. Perhaps, you were saving that for another story. Many of those winters that we skated at Linden Hills Park were much like this winter, plenty of snow and cold. Due to good freezing conditions, the ice was flooded often. So often, that the boards would get short, and it was not uncommon for a player to get checked over the boards. The boards got stiff too, due to being backed to the top with snow. Once February ended, ice maintenance ceased and we would resort to boot hockey with a mushball (a wadded wool sock wrapped in hockey tape). Though the rink was officially closed, they kept it lit so that we could play at night.

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