In 1969 a school bus loaded with 17 kids, a student mgr, and two coaches crammed with hockey bags, left a Minnesota town on the Canadian border for a seven and a half hour drive to the big city. On that bus road the Warroad High school hockey team, a school with a class of 38 kids, just 2 seniors on the team. There were no tryouts. When hockey season began they they took every boy who showed up.
They were headed to the high school hockey tournament, where few days later they would make it to the finals and would play one of the most epic games in MN high School history.
Even more, they were about to play for the very soul of the sport.
It was the 25th anniversary’s of The Minnesota High School State Hockey tournament, perhaps the most iconic high school sporting event in the United States. 1969 saw the tournament moving from the 3,000 seat St. Paul auditorium to the 16,000 seat metropolitan sports center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars. Games televised and everyone watching. Families in front of their black and white tv’s.
As they watched the bus roll out of town the residents the of Warroad, (less than 1000) had no idea what to expect. they knew that their kids of Warroad just played. It was part of the cultural fabric, a community of play, built for kids, mostly in areas where families were doing their best toiling in the paper mills or the open pit mines ranges, where parent left kids to make their own choices and they just played every day just as their fathers had done befor them. On that bus rode their traditions, values, relationships, their kid built in a community of play.
As those kids slept on the hockey bags and the north plains passed by they may have reflected on that play. Hours of mindless hockey in the Floodlight, shadowed, outdoor rinks over many long northern winters. warming houses with charcoal heaters, where the slap and crack of the puck and whoosh of skates outside snuck through the crackly, drafty, uninsulated walls. Inside as quiet as a church, after all if you listened closely you could hear the deity of play.
For anyone who recalls and was fortunate to experience, this sort of play, your thoughts are that it must, just has to, go on forever. The infinite game.
Floodlights were not needed in Edina. They were forming a different community. A western suburban school with more kids than the whole city of Warroad, they boasted a varsity, Jr varsity, b and c squads, an association of 1000 kids and a new secret weapon, indoor artificial ice.
For years the City schools faced a curious problem. How to beat play? Since 1945 when they began the Minnesota State High School Championship the tournament had been dominated not by schools. but by environments. The community iron range rinks, close knit small towns built around the the open pit Iron ore mines, or Northern Minnesota lumber towns, paper mills. communities took to the game building play rinks for their kids. Not to win anything, just because they wanted their kids to play.
Their river falls, Eveleth, hibbing, International falls, Roseau, Warroad.
There was one city team that could play with them. Pond hockey generated out of the east St. Paul area created a generation of kids who played for the fun of it. Outdoors, unstructured, self directed. They called themselves the "Grand Army of Phalen Creek.”
Johnson High School, where many of them attended started to win and dominate the Minnesota High School championships in the fifties and sixties. A number of them were members of the 1960 Gold medal winning Olympic Hockey team. Also from that group but cut from that team was Herb Brooks who coached in 1980 and helped famously bring home the Gold medal in Lake Placid in 1980.
Between 1945 and 1968 the state championship was back and forth between the one City school, Johnson, and the northern small schools. The tournament dominated by those environments that allowed kids to play.
The growing metropolitan suburbs were now crawling with hockey players, but left frustrated. Besides Johnson, no city school, schools of huge numbers, of coaching and resources, had been able to crack the code.
How do you beat play?
You organize, plan, schedule and purchase, control, train and perform. What if we could control their development? They thought. instead of goofing around they could be gathered, selected, trained and scheduled. And this new indoor ice was the ticket.
In 196o there were just four Indoor ice rinks in Minnesota, by 1970 there were 25, Edina was the first to think about this ice as a training method. They formed a powerful association, manning board positions, or coaching, and involved to build achievement.
It changed the game from community based to performance based. It wasn’t the game that drove them, it was something else, something more concrete, the tournament, the championship. The win. They wanted it. They were willing to dedicate resources to get it. They were playing the finite game.
The 1969 Edina team, with the giant stinger bee on white and green jersey did not have far to drive, they were the first of their generation. They knew about these play kids. They were coached up and ready.
And they came taking names.
The 1969 Minnesota High School final was a battle of of many kinds, of methods, of kids who grew up on the outdoor rinks playing mostly with friends vs the new, farmed, and trained indoor ice kids. The old and the new. Real vs artificial. No one had seen this before.
It was not, and never is, a battle over a score, it was a battle for the future of the game. The old, antiquated goofy, mindless, bad ice, poor technique, lack of elite, too many beginners, diverse method of free play ice hockey vs the drilled, contained, controlled, operated, leveled, clean.
As if the gods were choosing sides they could not have delivered teams more different, more representatives of their beliefs. It would be the very best play kids, vs the very best trained kids.
But one of the gods must have had first pick: a tall, powerfully built Ojibwe Indian who rarely came off the ice, his name was Henry Bouche and he played for Warroad.
He was State’s best player, a three sport star who was always around or near the puck, sucking up all the oxygen in the building with his constant electrifying rushes. You could not take you eyes off him.
Herb Brooks, then a freshman coach at the University of Minnesota, asked "What can Bouche do with the puck?"
Brooks said, “He can make it talk."
Bouche was unstoppable for two periods sweeping and weaving through the checks toward the goal, sliding it to a teammate for a near miss or honing in on goal himself.
Edina’s was not there to sweep the ice with beauty, it was not there to connect with those watching. It did not care for David in his battle vs Goliath, no history would suffice, no tradition other than winning, no measure of greatness other than the score.
For two periods they hassled, checked and hit at Bouche. Late in the second period Bouche was knocked out of the game with a ruptured ear drum and fracture cheek, at the end of the 2nd period it looked over.
But Warroad came back, even without their leader they found a way. Scoring two late period goals they tied the game and took it to overtime. Still, with no Bouche their efforts lost purchase and Edina won 5-4 in overtime, setting the template for scheduled, indoor, artificial, organized and coached up teams for the future.
The god’s may have had their favorites, but here on the ground There was never much discussion. Indoor was better in every way.
Bouche went on to an Olympic and pro career, his career cut short when a Boston Bruin, Dave Forbes, using his stick not to play the puck but to swing as a weapon took it as to his eye. His vision in that eye never recovered and he soon retired.
Meanwhile Warroad has produced 8 olympians in a town that has boomed to 1,500, while Edina has produced no male olympian (2 female olympians). Yet they have won 13 state titles, more than any other school.
The emigration from the outdoor rinks was underway. The following winter one of my friend’s dad drove up to the local park rink, “who wants to go to Golden Valley Tryouts?” Three of my friends left with him. They made the team and they never really came back to the park again.
I was now in charge, marshaling, helping kids play and enjoy so that my game could be infinite. I did my best.
But it was a losing battle. The clubs always came for our kids. The mini leaders, the kids who had most time invested, who had the ideas and energy, the willingness to help others just so their own game could grow, passing down the tradition to the younger kids. Those were the kids they came for.
When I returned from college I saw there was no longer a warning house. A few years later they stopped flooding the rink.
Today, the wonderful play environments of the city rinks are gone. Johnson high school no longer has a hockey program. Most outdoor rinks in the twin cities lay empty. Kids are gathered and scooped up at early ages dressed up in full gear and placed in refrigerated indoor rinks.
A generation of kids who rely on coaches to learn the game.
I sat with Neal Broten and Tom Chorske, two of MN hockey's greatest. They were sitting with me on the inflatable court being used for pick up soccer. They acknowledged the loss of play. "I told myself that my son would only play pick up until he was 15, but as soon as he turned seven I got sucked right in," said Chorske.
I watched my own son go through the hockey system with mites and squirts. I watched him travel 1 hour away to play ten minutes on a full sheet of ice. I took him to the park but it was just us. The kids were gone.
Artificial has won (for now).
The game is infinite. The game is for everyone. It never was away form us. We walk away from it.