Backstory: Minnesota's little hockey town wins it all – again

In the hockey-frenzied town of Roseau, Minn., 10 miles south of the Canadian border, septuagenarian grandmas can give you a 10-minute lecture on the technique of a face-off in the defensive end.

But you aren't going hear it today because Roseau is awash in euphoria – again – after winning the Minnesota boys' state high school AA championship Saturday night against a field of opponents with student bodies five and six times larger than their own.

The amazement was not that Roseau won the championship with a 5-1 victory over Grand Rapids, but that anyone in the jammed galleries of 18,000 in the Excel Energy Center Saturday night should have been surprised. Today marks the seventh time in the tournament's 62-year history that championship banners are flying in the little town of scarcely 2,000 folks just beneath the 49th parallel.

Four days ago the citizens locked up the town, pointed their SUVs south on Highway 89, and drove 430 miles to St. Paul. Most of them didn't need maps or compass headings. Somehow in the biggest tournament of them all, Roseau's hockey team seems almost always to be there, and one of the reasons might have been reflected in the quiet and respectful leave that Coach Scott Oliver took on Saturday morning, the day of the championship game.

His nephew, Chad Allen, lost his life while serving with the Marines in Iraq. The coach and his player-son, Nick Oliver, attended the funeral in Maple Lake, Minn., and then returned to the team. Before each player left the locker room for the championship game a few hours later, they touched their bonding board above the doorway, brought down from Roseau and inscribed "Play Like a Champion."

***

Roseau thrives on its image as the team of the north. How far north? So far that the huge, ice-sheathed Lake of the Woods, 20 miles away, is a certified remnant of the last glacial age of North America. It is what's left of the prehistoric Lake Agassiz that was created by the receding ice floe.

Sometime a little more recently in Roseau – something like 100 years ago – they discovered hockey. And the community of predominately second- and third-generation Scandinavians created its own history. Thirty one times it has advanced to the Minnesota state tournament, which among most hockey clans is regarded as the blue-ribbon event in American high school hockey. It has given to world hockey the brothers Neal, Aaron, and Paul Broten, all of whom played in the National Hockey League among nearly a dozen Roseau graduates who made it to the pros. Neal Broten starred on the "Miracle on Ice" American team that won the 1980 Olympics.

And after sophomore Tyler Landman scored twice and sophomore goalie Mike Lee stonewalled the more experienced Grand Rapids attackers here Saturday night, there had to be some logical explanation for the little town's remarkable achievement over the decades.

"Well, it's become a way of life up there," says Jack Almquist, a Minneapolis accountant who was a goalie for Roseau in the 1950s and the son of the man who became the godfather of Roseau hockey, Oscar Almquist, the coach for 30 years. "We were close enough to Canada to hear all those Hockey Night in Canada radio broadcasts. We had a lot of ice up there, and hockey was what you did if you were a kid."

"We played street hockey. We played hockey anywhere we could," he adds. "Sometimes we played in towns that didn't have indoor rinks. I remember playing in Williams one day when it was 40 degrees below zero. But now they have three hockey arenas in Roseau. A lot of the building was done with volunteer help, and now there's all the ice time the kids want, and I guess it's been free, so the whole town gets involved. And the standards are high. The kids take pride. The whole community does, and they're in it together."

What it meant was a decision by the Roseau school system (and the community) to enter the recently created Minnesota Class AA tournament, reserved for the heavyweights of Minnesota schoolboy hockey, although its enrollment of 325 could have qualified for the smaller school tournament. Instead it went for broke and in this year's playoffs defeated Woodbury of the Twin Cities (enrollment 1,765), Rochester Century (1,352), and Grand Rapids (877).

It played with the discipline, swift movement, and confidence that continually impresses hockey scouts from throughout North America who come to this tournament expecting to see the action dominated by megaschools from the Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbs. Often it is.

***

The big state tournament is a showcase of atmospherics: a noisy and jubilant mesh of State Fair, Mardi Gras, and the biggest family reunion of the year, because in certain parts of Minnesota, including the big cities, hockey creates something close to a cult. You know you're at the state hockey tournament when otherwise sensible people playfully body check their friends and yell, "Keep your head up."

The game does reach obsessive levels among families. Kids' hockey has become part of the fabric of life in many Minnesota communities, from the rural towns to the expanding and prosperous suburbs. It's not uncommon to see 10- and 11-year-olds entered in tournaments hundreds of miles away from home, arrayed in uniforms and the latest equipment.

But in Roseau, tradition is a word they prefer to obsession. In St. Paul Saturday night, it was close for a while, but near the end of the first period, Ryan Larson banged in a goal off a rebound. In the next two periods Ben Johnson, Ben Nelson, and Landman (twice) all scored while the Roseau defense and young Lee in goal shut out the Grand Rapids star, Patrick White.

It was not exactly another miracle on ice. Roseau played as though it expected to win, which it usually does.

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