HDM: Hill-Murray coach remembers parents after team beats St. Thomas Academy
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As he stood outside a makeshift, curtain-adorned locker room inside the Holman Field Administration Building on Saturday, Hill-Murray boys hockey coach Bill Lechner’s gruff exterior melted with a soft tide of emotion.
His team had just won 3-2 in overtime. Against a conference rival. On statewide and national television. Among the elements in which he grew up playing.
But as he walked past a C-130 cargo plane and a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and into the old terminal building afterward, the 60-year-old coach’s mind was somewhere else.
Lechner’s parents did everything together. They both served in the Navy. And they both died in 2008, shortly before the Pioneers’ last state championship run.
Ahead of that, Lechner’s folks told him to go win it all. Hill-Murray did. And seven years later, on a day centered on honoring America’s soldiers, the coach felt them pushing him again.
"In moments," a choked-up, teary-eyed Lechner said when asked how much his mom and dad were on his mind. "It’s really pretty cool."
In the second prep outing of Hockey Day Minnesota 2015’s outdoor portion at the St. Paul Downtown Airport, senior forward Jake Wittl scored 4 1/2 minutes into overtime to lift Hill-Murray (12-5-0) to victory over Metro East Conference nemesis St. Thomas Academy (14-2-0). Wittl corralled a dump-in off the refrigerated rink’s boards, skated in front of the net and fired a point-blank shot into the back netting.
Coming into the day, Wittl had just six points this season. He had two Saturday.
"Amazing," Wittl said to describe his euphoria. "Unreal."
He closed out the latest tale in a short-running but storied rivalry between Class 2A’s No. 3 (Hill-Murray) and 4 teams, according to Let’s Play Hockey. Since 2009, 11 of the programs’ 12 matchups have been decided by one or two goals, including Saturday.
And that stretch doesn’t include the teams’ fabled Hockey Day matchup, which Hill-Murray also won in overtime.
So at the other end of the hallway in which Lechner stood, it was silent.
"Overtimes are whoever kind of gets the bounce," said St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Greg Vannelli, who along with twin brother and fellow head man Tom Vannelli played with and against Lechner while growing up in St. Paul. "You kind of overanalyze it.
"It’s a tough loss."
Thanks to third-period goals from Hill-Murray’s Dylan Mills and St. Thomas Academy’s Alex Broetzman, the game was tied at 2 after regulation.
Heavy winds caused the teams to switch sides halfway through the first period and overtime of what was otherwise an aesthetically pleasing contest. There were just three penalties called, the pace moved along nicely and a reporter-estimated crowd of 3,900 made for a jovial atmosphere — particularly in the Cadets’ student section, where members didn’t sit down the entire afternoon.
"That was fun," said Lechner, whose team moved to 3-0 all-time in Hockey Day games. "It would’ve been a great day either way, just because of the event.
"Winning obviously caps it off."
Even in a wide-open, up-and-down affair, the score was knotted at one after two periods.
A scoreless first quickly gave way to Luke Ranallo’s goal 1 minute, 9 seconds in on an assist from Wittl. St. Thomas Academy’s Christiano Versich countered with a point-blank wrister from the left slot with 1 second left in a 5-on-3 power play.
That made it 1-1 with 7:05 left in the frame.
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