When the Minnesota Wild were commissioned as an NHL franchise, the phrase "State of Hockey" was coined and quickly popularized by the organization.
While it was indeed a phrase "invented" by the Wild, its meaning across the state has very little to do with the Wild. Part of the genius of the Wild's initial marketing effort was the franchise's decision to embrace the state's hockey tradition. No, the Wild aren't any good right now. But Minnesota's love affair with this sport existed long before the Wild came into existence, and the team helped its own popularity in its infancy by becoming one with the rest of the state.
In all honesty, Minnesota's status as the "State of Hockey" goes far, far beyond the National Hockey League. It's about the outdoor community rinks, small-town youth hockey, college hockey and high school hockey.
This week, it's high school hockey taking center stage. The annual Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament started Wednesday, and it really cranks up at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Thursday, as the big-school Class AA quarterfinals are played.
The Minnesota State High School League -- the state's governing body for high school sports -- reports that, as of early Thursday morning, fewer than 1,000 tickets remained for the day's afternoon games, and the night session of quarterfinal games was even closer to a sellout in the 18,000-seat building.
Every year, there's a great story to watch. There's a small-town team trying to do big things that you can hitch your wagon to. No two tournaments are ever the same.
As a hockey fan, it's heaven. Students and parents of the participating teams certainly take up their share of seats (and you haven't lived until you've seen a large chunk of an NHL building comprised of fans of Roseau, a school in a town of fewer than 3,000 people that opts to play "up" in Class AA, and won a state title as recently as 2007). But it's also a special time for families and fans from all over the state. You don't need a dog in the fight to have a good time.
Thursday, all eyes will be focused on the last of the quarterfinal games, when fourth-seeded Edina plays unseeded Benilde-St. Margaret's, a private school based in St. Louis Park. You might be somewhat familiar with Benilde, the school that Jack Jablonski played for until his paralyzing on-ice injury in December. It's a story that captured the hockey world, and Jablonski was able to celebrate the Red Knights' section championship on the ice with his teammates -- albeit confined to a wheelchair -- last week.
Benilde isn't necessarily "dedicating" its season to Jablonski. As coach Ken Pauly notes, Jablonski will need support far beyond this weekend. But there's no doubt that the Red Knights are rallying around their injured teammate, and there's also little doubt they will be a sentimental favorite for many this weekend.
While most of the top teams in the tournament -- Edina and Benilde, along with Eagan and Maple Grove -- are based in the Twin Cities, "greater" Minnesota still is represented. Duluth East is the tournament's top seed (nearby Hermantown is the top seed for small-school Class A, and easily won its quarterfinal game Wednesday) and a favorite to win, thanks to a 27-1 record. Moorhead, located in far western Minnesota near Fargo, is in the tournament, and some believe the Spuds could pull an upset over favored Eagan Thursday afternoon.
The event, which has been around in some form or another since 1945, is so incredibly popular that offices in the state practically shut down during the tournament. Places where employees don't attend games usually have them on television. Nowadays, even if the boss won't let the television be tuned in to the games, people can find them streamed on the internet.
Last year, Duluth East lost in triple overtime to Eden Prairie for the Class AA championship. Not only was the game seen by an overflow crowd in the Wild's home building, but televisions statewide were tuned in. At the same time, Minnesota Duluth was playing a quarterfinal game in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs. Televisions in suites at UMD's Amsoil Arena were tuned in to the East game, and a private bar used by UMD season ticket holders was jam-packed with people wanting to watch the game. Once Eden Prairie won in the third overtime, attention turned back to UMD's game, which the Bulldogs won ... in triple overtime.
The state tournament's shine goes far beyond what the bracket looks like in any given year. It's a part of this state's culture, and it might be the state's greatest sports tradition. And in a time where the Wild are struggling beyond belief, it's a reminder that hockey lives in Minnesota, far beyond the NHL.