Thunderhawks, Hawks carry Northern Pride

John Gilbert

Jubilant Grand Rapids players took their Section 7AA trophy to celebrate with their fans at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Jubilant Grand Rapids players took their Section 7AA trophy to celebrate with their fans at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Back in 1963, a young and eager journalism student at the University of Minnesota was taking a really beneficial course in shooting and editing video. We got the use of a camera and film to shoot any project we chose, and then come back and edit it into something resembling a made-for-television news item.

It was early March, and as that naive student, I knew exactly what I wanted to shoot. I had heard a lot about the state hockey tournament growing up in Duluth, and here was my chance to attend it. I got credentials, took my movie camera, and set out for the St. Paul Auditorium. After years of the flashy Civic Center, and now Xcel Energy Center, the old St. Paul Auditorium was positively dingy. But back then, it was magical.

My determination to video a part of the tournament hinged a lot on Duluth East playing in the tournament, because my cousin, John McKay, played defense for the Greyhounds. I remember vividly walking into the old Auditorium and being astonished at the old horseshoe-shaped stands, filled with people, and with smoke. Cigarets were in vogue, and legal, even in such a dank, confined place, and the upper section of seats were pretty much obscured by the thick, low-hanging blue cloud. I shot much of the game, as much as I had film for, and I was really excited to turn it into a video masterpiece.

One problem, though, was that when I put the  film on the editing machine, I didn’t want to cut any parts that I thought were good. And I thought all of it was good – exciting and dramatic. I figured my professor would understand, so I turned the whole thing in. As I recall, I got a pretty poor grade on the editing part, even though I had captured a lot of great action. And when it came to a choice, I couldn’t make myself destroy any recapturing of hockey action, just to get a better grade.

East lost in that tournament, but another Northern team, from International Falls, came out on the ice wearing old, faded purple jerseys, but there was something captivating about that team. The old, worn uniforms fit too tightly, but they had a certain class, just because of the way those Broncos players wore them, as they hit the St. Paul Auditorium ice and skated in rapid warm-up circles.

Who were these kids, who didn’t care how worn out their jerseys were – in fact they were downright proud to wear them, as if they were putting a large slice of history on display. As a kid, I always admired neat, new uniforms in any and every sport, but that day, I learned that the uniform doesn’t matter a whit compared to what was inside them.

Because I had a pass for that tournament, I went back for the Friday to watch International Falls again, and then I went back for the championship game, when International Falls played St. Paul Johnson. It was an absolute classic game, in that old, smoke-filled arena. I moved around to different vantage points in the sold-out place. Falls had great players, with magical names, such as Peter Fichuk, Gary Wood, Jim Amidon, and a ninth-grader centering the third line, named Tim Sheehy.

They played to near-exhaustion, through three periods. Johnson had a fantastic first line, Greg Hughes, Mike Crupi and Rob Shattuck. They were relentless, and as the game raged back and forth, they would score for the Governors, and then Amidon would take off on a meandering venture, stickhandling end to end, to score for Falls.

One of the Falls defensemen was Dick Haugland, and he was so tired by the end of regulation that he was bent over to rest at each whistle. Falls wound up losing that game in overtime, and I was disappointed at what seemed like the Big City sullying the magic of Northern Minnesota. But watching that tournament hooked me for life, convincing me that the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament was the greatest sports event on the face of the earth.

A day or so later, I learned that when the Falls team was herded onto their school bus by coach Larry Ross they learned that Haugland was in serious pain, and they took him to a hospital where it was divulged that he played the entire championship game while suffering with acute appendicitis.

The game has changed a lot, and the Big City powers have lost everything to the bigger suburbs, who now dominate high school hockey, if they can fight off the private schools.

But Northern Minnesota yields nothing, except numbers. Duluth East has held high the torch of Northern Minnesota, and this year, Grand Rapids takes that same torch, burning with pride, to the glittering Xcel Energy Center. Unfortunately, the Indians...Oops! I mean Thunderhawks, must open the tournament with a Thursday  night game against Bemidji. The Lumberjacks are from Section 8, and they are a strong team that shoots the puck well enough to beat anybody. We just hate to see the only two Northern schools have to beat up on each other.

Of course, we now have Class A as well, presumably for smaller schools and those without the numbers to compete with the larger schools of Class AA.  Strong teams, regardless of size, dominate Class A, and going into the tournament’s Wednesday opening for Single A teams, it seems more than a safe bet that when the Class A championship game is held, it will be between Hermantown and Breck. Both are powerhouse teams, and both should bow to the great and historical legacy of the sport and move up to Class AA. Not only could they compete very well in AA, but they would no longer block good-but-thin small-school teams from ever having a chance to reach the state tournament.

How good is Hermantown? Well, in Section 7, Denfeld, North Shore, International Falls, Eveleth, Virginia, Greenway and Hibbing were the best of a strong crop. In the 7A semifinals, Hermantown beat Greenway 8-0, while Hibbing beat Denfeld 5-1. Then in the final, Hermantown beat Hibbing 9-0. That doesn’t mean Greenway and Hibbing are lousy teams. They had very good teams. But the powerful Hawks routed both of them by a combined 17-0. My hope is that the Hawks win the state title, and then coach Bruce Plante encourages the school to make the move and go 7AA. It’s time.

Hermantown players piled out to celebrate 8-0 Section 7A victory over Hibbing-Chisholm at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hermantown players piled out to celebrate 8-0 Section 7A victory over Hibbing-Chisholm at AMSOIL Arena. Photo credit: John Gilbert