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SAINT PAUL, MN.
Bruce Plante remains the most popular interviewee in Minnesota High School Hockey state tournament press conference history. It’s just that the primary question asked of the Hermantown Hawks coach shifted a little this year.
After the Hawks won their only previous championship, they returned to the state tournament regularly, and for six years in a row, they won their first two state tournament games but somehow managed to lose the Class A championship game in all six of those years. They lost in all sorts of excruciating manner, with late goals, off-shinpad goals, fluke goals and various cruel twists of fate that made the annual question simple: “How long can Hermantown go losing consecutive state finals?”
“It’s pretty hard to block it out,” said Plante, after the semifinals. “Summer, winter, spring and fall, I can’t escape it. I go into Wal-Mart, and an 80-year-old guy asks me ‘When are you going to win that thing?’ About the only place I can get away from it is when I go fishing, or out in the duck blind.”
This year, to Plante’s ultimate relief and pleasure, Hermantown overwhelmed everybody in Class A to win the state title, sending the thriving little Duluth suburb into hockey ecstacy, and especially Coach Plante. Plante posed with his players for celebratory photos, then running out to shoot his own cellphone-camera photos of his piled-up players.
Afterward, the questioning shifted to two new directions: 1. Is he going to retire? And, 2. Will Hermantown now switch up to Class AA?
Plante is not ready to answer either question yet. But his Hawks have clearly risen above the rest of Class A. Breck was a powerhouse team, which had come to Duluth two days after Marshall had stunned Duluth East 4-0, and hammered the Hilltoppers 6-1. Well-coached, deep and speedy, Breck had no chance against Hermantown, which administered a 5-0 whipping that was pretty much settled in a 3-0 first period.
That 5-0 victory was substantial, but nothing like the semifinal, where Hermantown beat St. Paul Academy 7-1, or the first-day quarterfinals, where the Hawks crushed Litchfield-Dassel/Cokato 11-3. That’s a 23-4 goal margin for the state tournament.
Counting backwards, include the 8-0 Section 7A final romp over a very good Hibbing-Chisholm team, a 9-0 semifinal rout of a very good Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin team, and a 12-2 opening 7A rout against a promising Eveleth-Gilbert outfit, raises the ante to a 52-6 goal margin in all playoff games. The final regular-season game was a 7-0 romp over Hibbing, which means Hermantown finished the season having won its final seven games by a 59-6 edge in goals.
While Hermantown broke the six-year hex of losing in the title game, the Hawks also were establishing a streak of putting six straight opponents into running time, before letting up the offense to smother Breck with a total defensive effort in the final. The state tournament program lists Hermantown as 25-1-1 coming to state, with only a 4-2 loss to Bemidji staining the record. “We also lost to Minnetonka,” Plante said, correcting the ledger. So it should have been 24-2-1 coming in, and finishing at 27-2-1.
As usual, the heroes in Hawk outfits were many, but they all bought into the scheme that the collective team benefit is more important than the individual stats. Still, it was a spectacular first line that included Cole Koepke, Jesse Jacques, and Ryan Sandelin, and a puck-rushing first defense pair of Wyatt Aamodt and Eric Gotz. Back in goal, Luke Olson was nearly perfect, even though he was totally overshadowed by the goal-scoring antics of his teammates. As it turned out, that whole starting unit – Koepke, Jacques, Sandelin, Aamodt, Gotz and Olson – all made the 12-man all-tournament team.
In the 7A final, Jacques had a hat trick; in the state tournament opener against Litchfield-Dassel/Cokato, Koepke had four goals; in the state semifinal against SPA, Sandelin scored two goals; in the final against Breck, Koepke, Jacques and Sandelin each scored one.
“It doesn’t seem to matter, but each game a different member of that line comes up with the big goals,” said Plante. “They’re all over 20 goals and Koepke has 40. He’s more of a sniper, but they’re all such great players. This is probably the best transition team I’ve ever had. And you look at that first unit, when you can put the best five players in the game out there at one, it makes a huge difference.”
It almost seemed that the Hawks decided five goals was enough, and they just turned up the defensive screws to stifle Breck through the third period to make sure of winning the game and the title for their beloved coach.
“This is such a good group of kids,” Plante said. “And we could be pretty decent next year, too.”
That brought up the new line of questioning. Will he retire? “I’ll think about it,” he said. “I love coaching, and I love the kids.” Will he consider moving up to Class AA? “You can move up every two years, so we’ve got another year where we are before we consider it,” Plante said. “We’ve still got a problem with depth at the Double-A level.”
Then Bruce Plante had to go. He was a little late, he said, to tend to the maple syrup trees on his property and he was going out to work with them. We can add tending maple syrup trees to fishing and duck blinds when it comes to Bruce Plante getting away from the never-ending questions.