FROM THE HIP: Tourney time! Chips & dip and Minnesota hockey legends

- There's almost nothing more exciting than watching high school athletes and their faithful fans during the Minnesota State High School Tournaments. We're already a few weeks in to this season's championships and already memories have been made for all involved. 

Next up, the 2017 Minnesota State High School Boy's Hockey Tournament.  The sights, the sounds, like Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne, who's been doing color commentary for the tournament for over 50 years! It just wouldn't be the same without him.

My mom might not like me telling you this, but she and my dad were both Minneapolis Southwest High School grads. Dad even captained the 1949 team.

So, among my fondest memories growing up were when Southwest made the tournament. Mom would actually let us stay home from school to join her in cheering on the purple and white! I think we learned their fight song from the time we could talk! (Don't worry mom, St. Louis Park Schools somehow helped us turn out alright!) It also meant we got to enjoy all the potato chips and Top the Tater dip our young stomachs could handle!

In 1969, the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament ramped-up to another level thanks to a "David and Goliath" match-up between metro powerhouse Edina and tiny Warroad High from up north. Fans realized in a hurry there was a very special player on that Warroad team. One who would become part of Minnesota folklore.  A Native American Chippewa named Henry Boucha (Boo-shay). (I provided the phonetic spelling, because if you're going to call yourself a MN Hockey Fan.. you better know how to say his name.) His end to end rushes were dynamic, until one ended with him crashing into the boards in the championship match knocking him out of the game. His spirited Warroad team still gave Edina all they could handle before Edina won the title in overtime. Henry Boucha went on to win a silver medal as an Olympian in 1972, then playing in the NHL until a devastating eye injury ended his career. He's even written a book about his Olympic exploits and many other Native Americans who gained Olympic fame.

Fast forward several years and these days Henry Boucha is trying to get his Native American Olympians story turned into a movie. It has the makings of a great tale, so I hope he succeeds! Much to my delight, Henry usually stops by our booth at the State Fair to give me an update on the project. And as I stand there chatting with him I think to myself, "I wonder if this guy has any idea how much we use to idolize him as kids? During our pickup games outside at the local rink, everybody wanted to be Henry Boucha! How lucky am I be standing with a Minnesota hockey icon? Something as a youngster I never dreamed would happen!"

My five brothers and I all played hockey growing up. (I'm the one on the upper right.. bandage over eye from getting hit by a puck.) Not sure how mom and dad managed to do it, getting all of us to our games, not to mention affording all that equipment! Toss in that the bulk of our growing up was done out of a two-bedroom house in St. Louis Park (mom, dad and my baby brother in one room and the rest of us in the other). We all had the dream that just about any kid who laces up some skates has. To one day play in the state tournament.

That never happened, but it led to a funny moment when I was live as a sportscaster at the tournament back in the late 1980's. News anchor Paul Magers tossed out to me and asked, "You played hockey growing up, but I never asked, did you get to the State Tournament?"  Looking back into the camera I said, "Yes Paul.. every year.  And we sat right up there in Section 228!"

In 1983, Sports Illustrated did an entire feature on the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, putting the event on a national stage. The section was called "Thrill of a Lifetime" and in it Herb Brooks, a St. Paul Johnson High School alum, architect of the Miracle on Ice 1980 Olympic team and longtime professional coach, was quoted saying, "Of all the thrills I've had in hockey, I can honestly say the biggest was winning the MInnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. Because you do that with the kids you came up through the ranks with."

In another publication, former Moorhead, St. Cloud State, Wild star and Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen said pretty much the same , "I never really dreamed of playing college or playing professionally. I wanted to play in the state high school tournament." 

One more example of the magnitude of this wonderful event came for me in the 1980's. Back then the Minnesota Twins spent spring training in Orlando, Florida. Then-owner Calvin Griffith and his brothers, Billy and Jimmy Robertson, spent every day in an air conditioned booth above the Twins dugout.

One day, Calvin motioned me to come into the booth and asked for a favor. He wanted me to provide the threesome with the daily/nightly scores from the State High School Hockey Tournament. Remember, this was long before cell phones, the internet or anything close. So each day, I'd call our office back in Minnesota from a pay phone at the ballpark and get the scores. Then, I'd head into Calvin's booth and he and his brothers would reach into their pockets and pull out a piece of paper: their hockey tournament brackets, their own little office pool. While announcing the scores, I distinctly remember an Edina loss was always met with some four-letter rumbling, followed by one of the brothers teasing the others that he got his picks right. This process continued through the tournament and I continued performing those same duties for several years in a row. Think about it. A Major League Baseball owner just as fired up about a bunch of kids playing hockey as he was about his team on the field!

So there you have it, legendary moments that make the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament so special!

Right now, I've got to go. The chips and dip are out and the game is on!

TUESDAY: Thoughts of spring already? I'm hooked!

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