`HOCKEY Capital U.S.A.'' Dozens of red, white, and blue chamber of commerce banners with this message hang from light poles throughout this snow-covered state capital. And for once, a chamber of commerce can't be accused of hyperbole. Here in the land of 10,000 (now frozen) lakes, hockey is king. And at no time is this more apparent than during the annual high school hockey tournament that begins today.
Now in its 46th season, the three-day event is the culmination of more than a week of single-elimination playoffs. The tourney pits the state's eight top high school hockey teams against one another. in a sports extravaganza televised around the state. (TV rights for the tournament, estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million, are equal to what the Minnesota North Stars, the local National Hockey League team, generate in 20 games.)
This year is the last year, however, that the state will have a one-tier playoff system. Next year the smaller schools are slated to play in their own playoffs and tournament, while the larger schools battle it out in another division. The two-tiered system will allow twice as many youngsters to participate, but many hockey fans here are still disappointed. In a St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper survey earlier this year, 1,571 of 1,763 respondents said they opposed a two-class system.
``There has always been a `David and Goliath' syndrome,'' says Lou Nanne, senior vice president of the North Stars. ``Sports is about the opportunity to win, and I hate to see the system change.''
Last year, for instance, Roseau, a school with an enrollment of 250, defeated Grand Rapids, a school with more than 1,100 students.
John Mayasich, a former high school and University of Minnesota hockey superstar, supports a two-class system.
``Two-hundred forty kids could play in a two-class tournament, not 120 as there are now,'' the three-time all-American hockey player says. ``Sure, the current tournament is a sellout and a success, but we're looking at TV revenues, season ticket holders, a packed St. Paul Civic Center. We're not asking the kids what they would like,'' says Mayasich, who played on the United States Olympic hockey teams in 1956 and 1960.
While it may be uncertain whether Minnesota kids would prefer a one- or two-class tournament system, there is no doubt that youngsters here love hockey. An estimated 100,000 of them play hockey, and about half a million people are involved in some way with the sport.
``Hockey is just what kids do,'' says Gerry Yackel, a onetime speed skater and mother of two former high school hockey-playing sons (one of whom is now a college hockey referee) and of a daughter who has a skating school. Mrs. Yackel is also grandmother of two hockey-playing grandsons, and wife of Jim (Ken) Yackel, former Minnesota hockey player and ex-Boston Bruin. ``Every kid on our block has a hockey stick and a jersey,'' she adds.
Children pick up the hockey-playing habit early, many of them beginning when they are four or five. When they reach the third grade they are eligible for the ``Mites'' junior hockey program. Then they can progress to the ``Squirts,'' the ``Pee Wees,'' the ``Bantams,'' and the ``Midgets.'' The next steps, high school junior varsity and varsity squads, are the culmination of about 10 years of hockey playing.
There are even special classes for fathers of hockey players, so that Dads who don't know the sport can better understand what their children are going through.
``I played hockey, and continued to play hockey, because it was always fun,'' says Len Lilyholm, a high school hockey star in the 1950s and a 1968 Olympic hockey player. ``Even the practices are fun. You always looked forward to playing,'' the former professional hockey player says. ``I was a `rink rat' from early on.''
AT a recent hockey practice at Edina High School, Willard Ikola led his 20 players in a practice. All the rink rats are intense - and having fun - as they perform countless drills in an indoor arena.
One of 145 high schools with hockey teams in the state, Edina has won eight state titles under Coach Ikola, who retires this year after 33 seasons and 616 wins - more than any other Minnesota high school coach in any sport.
Ikola's team lost last Saturday to Richfield High School in the final game of the playoffs. Edina's goalie throughout the playoffs was a girl, senior Jenny Hanley (see accompanying story).
``We've had success at the high school level because we have a good feeder program,'' Ikola says. ``All of the powers in high school hockey have good feeder programs,'' the 1956 US Olympic hockey team player says.
Regardless of whether players are at a ``hockey power'' school, such as Edina, South St. Paul, Rochester, Burnsville, Warroad, Bloomington, Grand Rapids, Roseau, or Anoka, to name a few, Ikola says the state tournament is ``the biggest thing that the kids will play in unless they play in the Olympics or the NHL.''
Herb Brooks agrees with the Edina coach, and he should know: Mr. Brooks, in addition to being a Minnesota high school tournament player, played at the University of Minnesota and on the 1964 and 1968 Olympic teams. And he coached the gold medal-winning 1980 US Olympic team that beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, N.Y. That US team of 20 had 12 former Minnesota high school hockey players.
``This tournament ranks right up there with the top experiences I've had in hockey,'' Brooks says. It ``reflects the pure, unadulterated joy of sport. The tournament has a folklore all its own,'' and that folklore ``fuels one's desire to want to play in the tournament.... The tournament becomes more than a game - it becomes an event. It's part of the culture that youngsters grow up to aspire to,'' Brooks adds.
This hockey culture has been part of the cement that traditionally bonds Minnesota children - especially boys - for decades.
``The kids grow up together; they play baseball in the summer, they fish together - they're just a close-knit group,'' Ikola says.
Add to this comradeship fathers and older brothers who played hockey, and a modern-day tradition is established. It also helps, Mayasich says, when kids can use hand-me-down equipment, since it costs $700 to $800 to outfit a hockey player.
It is uncertain how long hockey will dominate the sports scene in Minnesota. While most experts agree that the sport goes with the climate, giving kids an outlet during the Upper Midwest's long, bitter winters, there are increasingly fewer boys playing hockey. Part of the reason stems from declining birthrates, and part from other options youngsters have now, such as television and basketball.
``The down side of hockey,'' Mayasich says, is that it's ``too structured, not affordable for many; that it overemphasizes sons at the expense of daughters, and that there are pressures from parents for kids to be exposed to the game 12 months a year.''
Ikola concedes that after spending 50 years in the hockey rink every Saturday night either as a player or as a coach, it will be nice to spend a ``normal'' Saturday night once he retires.
``But hockey is so much fun to play, coach, and watch,'' he adds. ``And I know I'll still be watching a lot of high school hockey - that's for sure.''