Photo credit: Mark Hvidsten, MN Girls' Hockey Hub
The 25th edition of the Minnesota Girls State High Hockey Tournament starts today at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul! The changes over those past 25 years have been nothing short of remarkable both in the magnitude of the tournament and girls’ high school hockey as a whole.
To celebrate that progress and hear firsthand what those early days were like, we caught up with Mound Westonka coach Claire Goldsmith, who has seen the tournament at various points throughout its evolution.
Goldsmith played a key role on the 1996 Blake team that qualified for the state tournament in only the second season of Blake’s girls’ hockey program, as well as the tournament. Then, her sister, Elizabeth, was on the 2001 Blake team that qualified for the tournament. Just a few years later, Goldsmith joined the Bears as an assistant coach for their 2007 State Championship run.
In only their second year behind the bench, Goldsmith and co-coach Bob Kuehl have led the Whitehawks to an undefeated (22-0-5) season and a third seed in the Class A tournament.
Minnesota Hockey: When did you start playing hockey?
Claire Goldsmith: I started when I was 11 or 12. That was the first time Orono and Mound had a girls’ team. I was old enough to play eighth grade the year after that. I tried out for the varsity at Blake. That was their second year of having a team. Everybody was very green. A lot of people had figure skating backgrounds.
We went to state as freshmen, which has obviously changed very significantly to what it is now.
MH: Girls’ high school hockey was really just starting to find its legs when you were playing. What has been the biggest change from when you were playing to today?
Goldsmith: I think the disparity is one of the biggest things I’ve noticed. There were a handful of girls who had either played with older brothers or just skated with the boys when I started. You could have people, for example Krissy Wendell, who would skate circles around 90% of the teams out there. Not discrediting her in any way, shape or form, because I think she could still skate circles around a lot of players, but you don’t have that as much in the game now. You’re focused more on the strategic concepts of the game and the passing and hockey as a sport, rather than individuals skating the puck from end to end.
MH: While the sport was still young, there were some real stars. Who was the best player you played against?
Goldsmith: I think Krissy is the best player I played against. We played her my junior year. It did not turn out well for us, and it turned out really well for her. We played against Natalie Darwitz when she was an eighth grader in Eagan. You could tell she had just as much potential as anybody out there. She was scoring goal after goal, but it didn’t feel like it was as bad as it was against Krissy.
Ronda Curtin was my year. We didn’t get to play against Roseville when we were in the tournament. The Curtins were both big. Winny was big at that point. Given the fact, she was the first Ms. Hockey winner and then Ronda went on to win it my year.
MH: What are your fondest memories of playing at State?
Goldsmith: I think there were 56 teams at that point. To be one of four remaining out of 56 is incredible. When you’re at that point, you have no idea what to expect, especially as a freshman. You don’t have any experience, and you don’t know what you’re doing. You walk into the Coliseum, which obviously doesn’t have the magnitude that the Xcel does, and you walk in and there are just seats for days.
We knew we were the underdog, considering we shouldn’t have made it out of our Section in the first place. We played Wayzata in the [Section] semifinals and upset them at their place, which was unheard of for us at that point. We had gotten big wins, but that was by far the biggest. Then, we go to Parade and played Eden Prairie/Chaska, which is funny to think about today that they had a co-op, and played them in the Section finals. Roseville was obviously leading the pack with Blaine and Burnsville.
We just sort of reveled in the moment and experienced everything wide-eyed.
MH: Have you shared any stories with your current team?
Goldsmith: We haven’t really talked about State Tournament experiences, mostly due to the fact it was sort of an unwritten rule during the season to not bring it up. One of those things that you’re going to jinx no matter what so we haven’t talked about that.
The experience I can tell you is much different now. I went as an assistant coach with Blake in 2007. I could already see how things were changing and the experience was so much different.
MH: You mentioned the experience has changed significantly. What have been the biggest changes in your eyes?
Goldsmith: I went to the first one that was at Aldrich. With the cages and South St. Paul and Apple Valley, where it was packed, and you didn’t really know what to expect. They realized it had taken off much bigger and faster than anyone had anticipated.
When I played in it, it didn’t necessarily feel as big as the boys’ tournament in the sense there were four teams and you’re playing at the Coliseum. Not saying that when we went, it didn’t feel amazing, but it didn’t have the same energy in terms of what the boys state tournament was. I think that part has changed a lot.
Seeing it go from the Coliseum to Ridder to the Xcel and the magnitude that has brought, it has definitely shaped girls’ hockey and given the girls’ game its own place. To be in the 25th year, it feels almost unreal. It’s great to see the growth and the potential the sport has achieved as well as the new fans that continue to come in.
Now, if you’re going to the Xcel, it doesn’t matter if it’s girls or boys, it feels huge.
MH: Knowing the awe-inducing feeling the tournament had on you and how that component has grown significantly, is there anything you’re planning to share with your team to help them mentally prepare for the experience?
Goldsmith: For the younger girls, definitely. It’s about them understanding it’s okay to be nervous.
Encourage them to appreciate the moment and go out and play like you don’t have anything to lose. At this point, you have made it to the tournament. You have done everything you can possibly do to prepare. Now, it’s just time to play.
It doesn’t matter who is on the other team. Whether it’s playing against the Curtins and Winny Brodt or Burnsville who we started with, you just go and play and have fun.
MH: Last but certainly not least, tell us about your team and their journey to an undefeated regular season and a trip to “The Tourney”.
Goldsmith: We don’t have one superstar that we’re always relying on to get the game winning goal. Not saying we don’t have those players but it’s not always the same one. That’s what has allowed us to do as well as we have. We’re a hustle team, and that’s how we have to play.
Hopefully, we come out flying on Wednesday, and we take it from there.