Without a doubt, the most exhilarating time of each season for me is State Tournament weekend. Every year, it’s a chance to travel around the state to thank volunteers for all the effort they’ve put into hosting a tournament and helping kids create lifelong memories. And at each stop, I’ll take in a game. It doesn’t matter what level it is; it is so rewarding to see these kids compete, and the parents beaming at how they proud they are that their kids are realizing a dream to play in a Minnesota Hockey State Tournament.
The nerves have calmed after emerging from regions and most are able to focus on enjoying what’s left of the ride. Regardless of which team takes the title, all eight teams are celebrating the final weekend of a long and challenging season.
As I made my trip around the state this year, I couldn’t help but think about the pain and devastating feelings from last year when parents didn’t get to cheer on their sons and daughters, and the kids didn’t get to play.
During this tumultuous 2020-2021 season, the sole focus of the Minnesota Hockey board of directors and staff was to get the players through this season in the safest way possible. There was no blueprint on how to do this, and the season became one of reacting while also to read into the future.
As we were doing that, parents and volunteers around the state were taking on roles and responsibilities we never could have imagined a year ago.
Ice and referee schedulers somehow found a way to solve a 10,000-piece puzzle with no edge pieces and no picture to look at. Parents raised their hands to be association “Covid coordinators” not knowing they would have the most thankless job while also getting a crash-course master’s degree in applied epidemiology. And coaches had to learn to talk to and listen to kids through masks without saying “What???”, every 30 seconds.
And of course, players from Mini-Mites/6U through Junior Gold/19U went from the excitement of a new season to not being allowed to play and wondering if the season would ever resume to only being allowed to play with masks.
It was not easy. At best it was frustrating, and during the worst times, it was infuriating. It’s something we never want to deal with again, and we are optimistic that we won’t.
But everyone that was a part of it did this together. People put up with the frustration and inconvenience so the kids could keep playing and see the season through to the end.
And that was the best part of this past weekend. While some of the best parts of State Tournament weekend were missing like banquets and postgame parties, the kids were battling, celebrating, smiling and just playing. Like it always does, the game brought people from varying backgrounds and points of view together for a united goal, and seeing it play out the way it did may have made for the most memorable State Tournaments ever.
I was so happy for everyone, but still saddened when I thought of the kids who didn’t get to do this last year. A state tournament weekend can’t be replaced and that was never more apparent than this year.
Thank you to all who made this season happen. Thank you to those who persevered through adversity. And thank you for turning the most difficult season imaginable into one of the most special. I’m so thankful I got to travel around again this past weekend and I can’t wait to do it again next year while leaving my mask at home.