THE BOYS made apledge, like many 13-year-olds do. No contract. No blood oath. Just a promise.In 2004, five eighth-graders from Edina, Minn., teammates in the youth hockeyprogram, committed to the same dream. Brendan Baker, Zach Budish, MarshallEverson, Connor Gaarder and Patrick Regan would not merely win the state highschool hockey championship someday. They would win it together, for EdinaHigh.
It might not havebeen an extraordinary pledge in other sports, but in hockey, star players havethe opportunity to leave high school for prep schools, junior leagues or thenational development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. The idea of playing againstbetter competition, developing more rapidly and enhancing their value toDivision I schools or NHL scouts is too seductive for many boys to resist. Stayat your high school and you'll go to your prom—but you might not go to thepros.
No matter: For kidssteeped in Minnesota's puck culture some things are more important. "Myheroes [growing up] weren't guys who played for the [NHL's Minnesota]Wild," says Baker, 17, a defenseman who will play for Holy Cross next year."They were guys who played at the high school."
Of course, bypledging to stay in school Edina's Faithful Five were taking another gamble: Nomatter how skilled they became, their team still might not win the tournament,a feat that carries huge cultural cachet. (Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooksalways said the highlight of his hockey life was not the Olympic gold medal in1980, but taking the state title with St. Paul's Johnson High in 1955.) Lastyear when the Faithful Five were juniors, the Hornets lost in the AA final toHill-Murray, a result that crushed the boys even as it probably tickled therest of the state. The citizens of Edina, an affluent Twin Cities suburb, havebeen scornfully dubbed Cake Eaters for at least 50 years. (A Marie Antoinettejoke—that is old-time hockey.)
Last Thursday Edinaentered the quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed, facing the unranked Spuds fromMoorhead, a city of 35,000 on the Red River known for its russet potatoes andas the destination of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on the daythe music died. Moorhead, a team without a Division I prospect, had lost eightstraight during one stretch of the season. Edina was going to eat the Spuds'lunch. Instead, Moorhead ate cake, 5--2.
In a postmatchpress conference that bubbled with emotion, Baker was asked if he would havemade that eighth-grade vow again knowing that he would never achieve his goal.A catch in his voice, he replied, "I wouldn't give up growing up with myfriends for anything."
"This is whatyouth sports should be about," says Lee Smith, the coach of Eden Prairie,an Edina rival. "It's not about rushing your kids out of their households.They can stay back and do something within their own communities, their ownschools."
Consider EdenPrairie's star, Nick Leddy, who on Sunday was named the state's Mr. Hockey andmight go in the first round of the NHL draft in June. He made the same decisionas the Faithful Five, resisting the blandishments of the USA Hockey developmentprogram to be, well, a stay-at-home defenseman. "When Nick comes back forhis fifth or 10th high school reunion, he'll be a god," Smith says. "Ifhe had traveled to Ann Arbor, where do you go back to when all is said anddone?" Leddy weighed the option but chose to stay at Eden Prairie—because,he said in reference to the huge crowds the state tournament draws each year,"where else can you play before 19,000 people?"
He was off by a fewthousand. There were 15,967 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for theMoorhead--Eden Prairie final—a throng, incidentally, larger than that for themen's Big 12 basketball tournament final in Oklahoma City that same day.
There is theembroidery of big-time sports on the fringe of the Minnesotatournament—impressive crowds, statewide television coverage—but it has retaineda dewy innocence. Juxtaposed with March Madness, it is March Sanity, a NormanRockwell painting in which the subjects leap out of the frame and go hard tothe net. There are no names on the backs of players' jerseys. The fans wear somany varsity jackets and letter sweaters that the arena looks like an Ozzie andHarriet convention. Even the cheers from the student sections are G-rated, andclever. When a Spuds player was crunched into the end boards in the final, EdenPrairie students chanted, "Mashed po-TA-toes!"
The wholesomeness,coupled with the quality of play, makes the tournament's appeal universal—or atleast intercontinental. There are eight or nine fans who come from Sweden everyyear. (When tiny but storied Roseau High, a tournament darling, didn't get outof its sectional, the Swedes were so disappointed, you would have thoughtsomebody had overcooked their meatballs.) Says Tim Schroeder, a 59-year-oldphysician's assistant and native Minnesotan who lives five hours away inDubuque, Iowa, but takes vacation annually to attend the event, "If youlike hockey, it's the best you'll ever see. Better than colleges or pros. TheWild is boring compared to high schools."
You might havemissed it, but last Saturday's final will never be forgotten by the players andtheir towns. Leddy went coast-to-coast and snapped in an NHL-heavy 35-footwrist shot, and Eden Prairie won its first championship, 3--0. Moorhead playerswere disconsolate, but the news that a celebration was scheduled for them backhome the next day should have lightened their moods. "Little kids areasking us for our [broken] sticks and our autographs all the time," saysTrent Johnson, Moorhead's 18-year-old captain. "They look up to us."Johnson is 5'4".
Future Spuds don'thave to raise their gazes too high to see a reflection of themselves. Like theEdina seniors who gambled and lost a state championship but won everythingelse, the Moorhead players are a template for the valor and value of youthsports in a nation where kids' fun and games have lost their way.
America, theseSpuds are for you.
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The event draws huge crowds and statewide TV coverage,but it retains a DEWY INNOCENCE.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER