This year was my sixth State Tournament weekend with Minnesota Hockey, and it is undoubtedly my favorite time of year. The passion shown by players, parents, coaches and fans for their team(s), community and this great game is truly remarkable.
Each year, I try to get to every host arena to see how things are going and thank the hosts that have worked tirelessly over the past three months to create the best possible experience for kids. The State Tournaments are always an outstanding example of this as the hosts go to extensive lengths to create special memories for the participants, despite rarely having a team from their own community in the event. Side note: It always amazes me how much volunteer work people are willing to put in when kids and hockey are involved.
When I tell people I drove a little over 800 miles in three days with stops in St. Cloud, Thief River Falls and Duluth, I often got a sympathetic laugh followed by a “that’s a lot of windshield time!”
But if I had skipped a stop, I would have missed a lot of great conversations with players, coaches and parents from all over the state. I might have missed seeing Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney jump onto the ice at Eden Prairie Community Center to celebrate a 12U A championship with her hometown Andover Huskies. I would have missed out on Mankato’s 15U B team battle to the final buzzer in the Consolation championship game with just nine skaters on the team.
My favorite moment was seeing a coach in Duluth, in a tie game in the final minute, send out his “third” line instead of calling a timeout so he could get his “best” players out there. Some thought this was ridiculous. After all, they might lose!
This coach was well aware of that, but the lesson he taught was more important. He showed every player on his team that each of them matter to the team. Giving each responsibility and the chance to make a great play or learn from mistakes is far more important than pursuing a win at all costs. I think there’s a lot to be said about a coach who shows trust in all of his or her players at the youth levels.
Yes, as kids get older and into high school, coaches will sit certain players and send their best out in crucial situations. Sooner or later, that’s a life lesson that almost every player is going to have to face in their life. But in youth hockey, these young men and women are still growing, learning and developing. They’re also having fun, no matter how pressure packed we adults think the situation might be.
There were 14 teams that walked out of nine different Minnesota arenas while wearing “State Champion” hats on Sunday night. But there were more than 1,500 kids that walked out of those nine arenas having made lifelong memories with their best friends.
I want to say a special thanks to every player, coach and parent that was a part of Minnesota Hockey this season. It is all of you that make Minnesota Hockey such a special and unique experience. And thanks to that coach in Duluth, who reminded me what the youth experience in any sport should be about.