Arena could barely contain HDM excitement

BY foxsports • January 21, 2012

MINNETONKA, Minn. — It was the kind of crowd in which parents make plans with their children in case they become separated.

"I'm in, babe,” one man yelled to the woman behind him, as if it were a point of pride. "Hold my hand. Follow me.”

When the doors of Minnetonka's Pagel Activity Center opened to fans around 1 p.m. Saturday for the game between Minnetonka and Duluth East, a crowd six doors wide and more than seven minutes long streamed through.

For a high school game. At a freezing-cold rink.

That's Minnesota, I guess. That's Hockey Day.

This year's Hockey Day was marked by two distinct and very different events, each which altered it in ways planners could never have imagined just months ago. First, on Dec. 30, Benhilde-St. Margaret's sophomore Jack Jablonski was checked into the boards and paralyzed. Then, after weeks of unusually warm winter weather, the Hockey Day high school games were moved inside from their original location on Excelsior Bay in Lake Minnetonka.

Neither event had anything to do with the other, but both could have cast a shadow over Saturday's games. Somehow, though, it was less of a shadow than just a shade of difference. The games were inside, but that didn't stop the crowds, and the entire day became a tribute to Jablonski and everything he stands for.

As someone who moved to Minnesota just a month ago, it's hard to see the scope of this year's changes. However, it's far easier to notice what everyone takes for granted, the remarkable that for Minnesota hockey fans has become normal.

The event itself this year was obviously more of an undertaking, as months of planning were scrapped just nine days prior, when the three high school games were moved inside. Greg Clough, the Pagel arena manager, said that somehow, by working in tandem, everyone involved with the event was able to pull it off, to coordinate hockey games and concessions stands, T-shirt sales and a Jack Jablonski fundraiser.

And though the indoor event was obviously a boon to Minnetonka High School, Clough said he and his staff were just as disappointed as everyone else that it couldn't be held outside.

"It's wildly popular, and it's followed by many,” Clough said of Hockey Day. "We at Pagel are just really proud to be a part of the day and hope that everybody enjoys themselves.”

Clough wasn't the only person rushing to plan for this weekend. The referees who worked the tripleheader also put in extra preparation after new high school hockey rules went into effect this week. As a result of the Jablonski incident, harsher penalites were put in place for checks from behind, contact to the head and boarding. With Saturday's games televised and attendance high, the referees were responsible more than ever for enforcing these new sanctions.

"It all hinges on those three new rule changes, and everyone's sitting in the stands and on the benches wondering when the first major penalty's going to be called,” Dave Delmonico, the assigning referee for the Minneapolis Hockey Officials Organization, said.

Delmonico added that he believes that both Jablonski's injury and the new rules have changed the game in a positive way.

"The players are playing with on their minds,” Delmonico said. "I have seen a lot of hits that could have been maybe injury-related hits that were avoided or altered.”

But while Delmonico and Clough might have spent some of Saturday worrying, wondering how the refereeing crew was handling things and whether the indoor event was a success, those concerns hardly seemed to be reflected among the crowd.

If anything, the indoor venue magnified the event. Collisions into the boards were louder, reverberating through the arena. Cheers echoed. Whistles blared. Just an hour in, the rink smelled of a cold sweat. Any possible complaints about the change of venue must have been drowned out by the noise and excitement.

For a crowd like this, one of children in giant high school jerseys and brightly colored wigs, of so-called "superfans” and parents, Hockey Day is an event regardless of the venue. Mothers surrounded by their children discussed who would be playing pee-wee and which of their children would be mites or squirts. It's a world of hockey jargon and buttons with players' smiling faces on them, and it's uniquely Minnesota.

If Hockey Day is just about the sport or its athleticism, then maybe it's best represented by the games that went on later Saturday at Mariucci Arena and the Xcel Energy Center. But if it's about everything the sport creates, the community and the truly devoted fans, then Saturday's high school games might be the best approximation of what is Minnesota hockey.

A roundup of Saturday's three high school games:

High school boys: Minnetonka 9, Duluth East 3

In a faceoff between the top two teams in the state, second-ranked Minnetonka did much to boost its reputation --and probably its ranking -- in a win against previously unbeaten Duluth East.

Minnetonka (16-1-0) scored first, on an Erik Baskin goal in the first period. Duluth East (17-1-0) quickly answered with a Jake Randolph goal, and Dom Toninato had the assist. But Minnetonka scored twice more in the first to go ahead, 3-1.

Minnetonka's Max Coatta logged the first goal of the second period on a power play, and he scored again with 3:43 remaining in the period to put his team up, 5-1. Duluth East answered at the end of the period with a Toninato goal and Ryan Lundgren assist.

Coatta opened the third period with a goal, marking the day's first hat trick. Baskin wasted no time in scoring again, putting Minnetonka up, 7-2. With Randolph's second goal of the day, Duluth East pushed the score to 7-3, but Coatta wasn't finished, scoring his fourth goal of the afternoon. Minnetonka's Vinni Lettieri capped what was already an almost guaranteed win with his first goal of the day, and the blowout was complete.

High school boys: Grand Rapids 4, White Bear Lake 3

The game was scoreless for most of the first period until Grand Rapids (12-5-0) took the lead on a goal from Cody Mann. Travis Underwood had the assist.

In the second period, White Bear Lake (8-8-1) tied the game at one on a Jack Morrisette goal, assisted by Mike Abrahamson. The tie didn't last, though, as Grand Rapids  scored just two minutes later in a four-on-four situation, when Jake Bischoff assisted on David Horsmann score.

The third period was scoreless for the first 10 minutes, until Grand Rapids' Nick Koerbitz scored on a breakaway. Just 2 minutes later, Grand Rapids added to its lead with Cody Mann's second goal of the day.

White Bear Lake didn't quit, though, scoring with less than 2 minutes left on a Jack Morrisette pass to Mitch Morisette and narrowing Grand Rapids' lead to 4-2. Just seconds later, White Bear Lake's Jake Wahlin scored again on an empty net, bringing his team within a goal of a tie game. But Grand Rapids was able to hold its lead in the game's final 30 seconds, ending White Bear Lake's hope of a comeback.

High school girls: Minnetonka 5, Hopkins 1

Minnetonka was dominant in the final game of the day.

Neither team got good shots on goal early, but Minnetonka scored first on a Kira Von Steinberg’s goal. Maggie Bazany had the assist. Hopkins' Corbin Boyd tied the game at 1-1, but Minnetonka pulled ahead for good at the end of the period with a goal from Diana Draayer.

After strong play from Minnetonka's goalie, Sydney Rossman, to open the second period, her team took the puck down the ice and increased its lead with a Laura Bowman goal.

That 3-1 score held until nearly halfway through the third period, when Minnetonka scored again on a shorthanded Bowman goal. Minnetonka scored once more, with just over a minute remaining, on Bowman's third goal of the night.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.


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