I'd heard about the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament for years. Friends who had played in it had sounded like carnival hawkers outside a 7-foot Amazon woman's tent: "Big Chloe! Big Chloe! She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen. You've got to see her to believe her!" Someday, I'd resolved, I would do so.
Still, I was surprised to hear the Minnesota tournament brought up in this setting: February 1980, moments after the U.S. Olympic hockey team had scored with 27 seconds remaining to tie Sweden 2-2 at Lake Placid. The squad had just filed into the locker room, which was rapidly turning into a madhouse. Mike Ramsey, one of the American defense-men and now a member of the Buffalo Sabres, was breathing deeply, sweating, his eyes alive with the thrill of where he was and what his team had just accomplished. "That's the most nervous I've been before a game since the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament," said Ramsey.
Recently, Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach at Lake Placid, who's now with the New York Rangers, did Ramsey one better. "Of all the thrills I've had in hockey—playing and coaching in the Olympics, winning NCAA titles, coaching the Rangers—I can honestly say the biggest was winning the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament," said Brooks. "No question about it. It's because you do that with kids you've come up through the ranks with. You lived for the day you had a chance to try out for the high school team, hoping you'd get the sweater number of some guy you admired. Then you lived for the day you made the tournament, so you could win it and share that with your mates. It sounds like bull, but that win in high school was a bigger thrill than the gold medal."
It did sound like bull, but in the back of my mind I could hear a tinny, insistent voice barking, "Big Chloe! Big Chloe! You've got to see her to believe her!"
Last year the tournament was held, as usual, in St. Paul. The dates were Thursday, March 11 through Saturday the 13th. (This year's tournament will be played next week.) As I had been warned, all the hotels in the St. Paul area had been booked for months, so I stayed 25 minutes away, in Bloomington, across the street from the Met Center, where the Minnesota North Stars play. Wednesday night the New York Islanders happened to be in town—a replay of the 1981 Stanley Cup finals—so I took in the game. It was a dandy—for the regular season—ending in a 4-4 tie.
After that I wasn't enjoying the prospect of three straight days of schoolboy hockey. But on Thursday I rose early, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on the way to the St. Paul Civic Center. "Just look for the school buses," the first gas station attendant told me. I looked.
"Just follow that Winnebago," said the next attendant, pointing at a brown camper sporting a bumper sticker that read: IRON RANGERS: WE'RE NOT TOO SMART, BUT WE LIFT HEAVY THINGS. The Iron Range, I later learned, is an area in northern Minnesota rich in ore and hockey talent. Rangers, as the people who live there are called, are easily distinguished from Twin City folk. Taciturn, thrifty, outdoorsy, hard-drinking, Rangers are regarded by their St. Paul hosts as one might look upon an eccentric uncle who visits once a year: You're exhausted by the time he leaves, but for the next 51 weeks you tell tales of his stay.
Eventually, I spotted a sea of yellow buses parked bumper to bumper. Clusters of people were milling about, and a stray trumpeter in uniform ran by. The weather was relatively mild, in the 30s; it was bright, and not much snow was left on the ground. Youngsters were selling programs, a band was getting itself organized and a few hopeful-looking sorts were holding up signs asking for tickets. After a long, long nap, the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament was stretching its muscles, catlike, in the March sunshine.
The Civic Center seats 15,706. with standing room for several thousand more fans. The largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Minnesota—19,145—attended the tournament's opening session in 1979. Pretty good for a Thursday afternoon. I recalled my own illustrious high school career. At the biggest game of the year—Hotchkiss vs. Choate—you could tell how big the crowd was simply by counting the noses peering over the boards. This would be a different kettle offish. At 11 o'clock the line for standing-room tickets was already 100 yards long and three or four persons wide. Someone in that queue may not have been between the ages of 13 and 17, but I failed to locate him or her. Thursday apparently was a light day in Minnesota schools.
"This tournament is the premier high school sporting event in the country," Larry Larson, the director of information and publications for the Minnesota State High School League, told me as I picked up my press credentials. "The Indiana basketball and Texas football people will debate that, I imagine, but I think I'm right. Part of the secret is having only one division—all 150 or so of the state's hockey-playing schools are in it—so you get the real David and Goliath games, the small schools that become Cinderella stories. And the tournament is the harbinger of spring for our state. We're coming out of winter."