Minnesota's Class A state hockey tournament starts this morning. It was a controversial move when the state went to the two-tiered tournament system, but ultimately, it was a noble goal. Allow the state's smaller towns and programs, many of which had a great hockey heritage, the ability to compete and still have hopes of making it to the state tournament, even if they couldn't compete with the more populous and wealthy areas of the state. But in recent years, and this year is no exception, the tournament has simply become a few hours of free advertising for a few private schools in some of the state's largest cities.
There are sixteen cities in the state of Minnesota with populations over 50,000 people. Eleven of them are suburbs of the two largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the other three are Rochester, Duluth, and St. Cloud. Playing the small school Class A tournament this year is the Breck School, a school made up entirely of students from the Minneapolis suburbs, St. Thomas, a school made up entirely of students from the St. Paul suburbs, Rochester Lourdes, and Duluth Marshall. Only St. Cloud Cathedral kept it from being a clean sweep for the state's five largest metro areas.
The dominance of the tournament by those teams robs the tournament of what should make it so special. I had the opportunity to cover the 2007 Class A tournament won by Hermantown, the last time a public school won the Class A tournament, and one of only three wins by a public school since the turn of the century. In the aftermath of that victory, Joe Krause, now playing for Nebraska-Omaha, dedicated the victory to all the dads that spent countless hours working on the community ice rink that they all grew up playing on. I doubt you'd ever hear the kids from St. Thomas Academy say the same thing. They all come from different cities like Lakeville and Rosemount, and others which are all big enough that their city can put up multiple public rinks. In 2006, when Thief River Falls made the tournament for the first time since the 1940's, their entire town shut down to make the trip to St. Paul. To find mention of the tournament on the Rochester Post-Bulletin's website, you have to go to their (albeit excellent) hockey blog.
Losing those teams may hurt the overall quality of play in the tournament, but it would certainly make the tournament more special. When Little Falls, a town of just over 8000 people, put together teams with multiple future Division I players, that was something pretty special. Their reward was to get pounded by the likes of St. Thomas Academy and Duluth Marshall in the tournament. The Class A tournament should be a showcase for towns in Minnesota with one stoplight, not the schools like Breck that are literally one stoplight from the city limits of one of the 50 largest cities in the country.