There is something that I have always loved and dreaded about heading into a big-time sporting event. Whether it be the NFL playoffs or a high school state tournament, that sense of intensity and high stakes nature always makes me giddy.
On a Saturday night in early March 2020, my mom, dad, brother and I filed in, shoulder to shoulder, along with tens of thousands of other people to watch the Class 2A boys’ hockey state championship game between Eden Prairie and Hill-Murray at the Xcel Energy Center. As we made our way through the packed crowd, that sense of adrenaline was there.
Less than two weeks ago, my group of four was in the same venue for a similar circumstance. Once again the Eagles found themselves in this year’s state tournament at the home of the Minnesota Wild.
Comparing the two situations, there are some similarities. But the differences seem to be outweighing any sense of regularity as the arena was covered head-to-toe in COVID protocols.
In the end, the experience ended up coming in full-circle. For the first time since that Saturday evening in March 2020, I was back inside the Xcel Energy Center. It was also the first time I got to see the Eagles hoist a state championship trophy since my days as a student at EPHS.
From 2009 to 2021, my journey with the state hockey tournament and Eden Prairie’s role in it has gone through its ups and downs. But with a strong start and a happy ending, I was reminded again why I love this tournament so much.
A Heck of an Introduction
As a freshman in 2009 at EPHS, I certainly knew of the state boys’ hockey tournament. It’s a statewide phenomenon. Those in the hockey community revel in the high school hockey product being on display for all to see in the state’s biggest hockey venue.
Over the years, the nation has also observed the tournament’s vast popularity. Whether it’s Howard Cossell taking the mic decades ago to the annual trip of national media outlets descending upon the tournament to wax nostalgia and compare it to Indiana’s love of basketball or Texas’ love of football.
But despite my knowledge, I had never seen the action. Eden Prairie made it just once during my childhood. It was 2003. The Eagles fell to Anoka in the semifinals.
In 2009, my interest peaked. Eden Prairie had put together a squad that sat near the top of the state rankings all season. The Eagles were led by a defenseman named Nick Leddy.
Eden Prairie went on to capture the Section 2AA championship and emerge into the state tournament for the first time in six years.
As a freshman who was (and still is) obsessed with sports, I loved the idea of watching the Eagles in the state tournament. I had been to countless EP football games in the Metrodome as I grew up in the golden age of Eagle football and lived just a short walk from EPHS and the football stadium.
The Eagles opened the tournament as the No. 2 seed and played at 11 a.m. against Hill-Murray. That Thursday, the EP student section was massive. It spanned four sections in the upper deck of the arena. Dressed in red, we were loud and did our best to make some noise despite being what felt like thousands of feet from the ice.
The first game was a nail-biter as the Eagles won in overtime against Hill-Murray. Then, things tightened even more. EP went down 2-0 to Blaine the section semifinals. The Eagles rallied thanks to Leddy and Kyle Rau, a sophomore who was ready to take the big stage as a goal-scorer for EP.
After defeating the Bengals, the Eagles faced Moorhead. The Spuds were not quite the heavyweight Eden Prairie was expecting. Edina was the top seed in the tournament but bowed out as the Hornets lost to Moorhead in a massive upset in the quarterfinals.
The Eagles cruised to a 3-0 triumph against the Spuds in the final. EP had won its first hockey state championship. After being avid cheerers throughout the tournament, our support hit a crescendo as we celebrated the state championship.
Eventually, Leddy became Mr. Hockey in 2009. He went on to the University of Minnesota and now stars for the New York Islanders. Rau, meanwhile, was just a sophomore. He and the rest of his sophomore class got a taste of the state tournament as youngsters.
For me, it was a dream come true. Our student section was raucous and the games were a thrill to watch. As the 2009 tournament finished, I was ready for more.
A Dramatic Run
Though many of the players, including Rau, returned to the 2010 EP boys’ hockey team, the Eagles did not find as much success. EP failed to make the state tournament, falling to Minnetonka in the section final.
A year later, the Eagles had a senior class motivated to finish things off with a second state title. Rau was the leader of the pack, followed by other key players, including defenseman Nick Seeler. He went on to play for the Gophers and has made his way into the NHL, playing for teams such as the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks.
EP played that year like a team that was pegged to win the state championship. The Eagles rolled through their schedule.
Heading into the postseason, EP still sat in the proverbial driver’s seat as the favorite to win state. However, for any team playing in Section 2AA considered to be a state tournament favorite, the road is always tough. That was certainly the class in 2011.
Though the Xcel Energy Center and state tournament get all of the hype when it comes to boys’ hockey, the section finals across the state are also some big-time events. That’s especially true for the 2AA and 6AA finals. These games normally take place at Mariucci Arena, home of the University of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.
In 2011, EP headed to Dinkytown to play a strong Wayzata team. The team played multiple overtimes. That left students in attendance such as me, decked out in white with all of the students, chewing off our fingernails waiting for that game-winning goal.
Eventually, Rau would make a great move on the Trojan goaltender and score, sending the Eagles back to the state tournament and the EP fans inside of Mariucci roared in excitement.
Then, the stakes rose higher with the state tournament. The Eagles were the top seed but had plenty of worthy challengers including Edina and Duluth East. EP cruised into the final winning each of the first two games since blowout fashion.
Then came the state final. Many anticipated the Eagles would have to get past the rival Hornets to capture the state crown. However, Edina fell to the Greyhounds in overtime to set up a metro-outstate state final.
Once again, the EP students brought the noise and excitement to the X. On that championship Saturday, thousands arrived in their red, black and white and filled four sections of the upper deck of the arena.
Though there were probably about 2,500 Eagle fans inside the building, the other 15,000 or so were ready to see the high school power from the West Metro fall to the outstate darlings that were Duluth East.
In 2009, the state title game was a stress-free game as EP cruised to a 3-0 win. The 2011 final could not have been any different.
The Eagles entered the third period trailing 1-0. The students stood in shock. The offensive power led by Rau and company had been shut down by this plucky Greyhound squad. The fans who had made the trek and the rest who were delighted in the struggles of Eden Prairie, greeted the Duluth East team with a standing ovation after taking the lead against the Eagles.
Eventually, EP tied the game at 1 and sent my peers and I into a frenzy. It felt like some sort of tension had been taken off. But we didn’t have much time to bask in the glory. Duluth East came through and took the lead on a puck that bounced off the goalie into the net. Watching from about 200 feet away, I felt a complete lack of control as I watched this fluttering puck enter the net.
EP got back into it late in the third, however, tying the game at 2. We headed to overtime thinking that 51 minutes of regulation action was stressful. We had no idea what was to come.
One overtime came, the score stayed at 2-2. Then, the teams took a 20-minute break for the zambonis to come out and resurface the ice. We sat, waiting to see how this storybook season was going to end.
The second overtime went by, nothing yet. Still 2-2. In the shorter break before the third overtime, our section decided an acapella singing of “Don’t Stop Believing” was a good way to hype up the team. We were desperate. We needed our squad to score to relieve everyone of the stress of this game.
In the third overtime, tensions stayed extremely high. Then, on one random rush down the ice, Curt Rau, twin brother of Kyle Rau, fired a shot from the blue line to the net. The puck eked past the goaltender’s leg pads, sitting near the goal line.
From high up in the X, we stood and watched in agony hoping someone in an Eagle uniform could get to that puck and could will it into the net. Sure enough, Kyle was soon on the scene, flying in head first to push the puck in off a defender and in to give the Eagles a win.
At the time, it was a combination of a whirlwind and a marathon. The puck felt like it sat there for ages but the puck seemed to go in so fast. Seeing the red light come on signaling a goal, a mass celebration broke out between myself and my friends. One of my friend’s phones popped out of his pocket because of our mass celebration. He might have lamented the cracked screen later, but it seemed worth it at the time.
Breaking The Drought
After each of my first two state hockey tournament appearances, I was hooked on the tournament. It became a highlight each March, even when the Eagles weren’t part of the eight-team field.
However, when EP did make it, there was an increased level of interest. My sophomore year of college, I brought along two friends from Missouri to see the spectacle. Unfortunately, the Eagles fell in overtime to Lakeville North in the semifinals.
Three years later, I made it a priority to get back as EP played in the semifinals against Grand Rapids. The Eagles were led by future first-round NHL draft pick Casey Mittelstadt. That game also was a heartbreaker as EP was upset and Mittelstadt’s high school career ended without a state title.
That theme of close but not quite became a theme for the Eagles. In 2019, EP was the underdog and had Edina on the ropes but couldn’t finish the job. Then, I watched that rare 2020 night of normalcy as the Eagles were upset by Hill-Murray in the state final.
Heading into 2021, I was cautiously optimistic. I had both the good memories of ‘09 and ‘11 but the bad taste in my mouth of recent years.
Then, I entered the X for the Eagles’ semifinal matchup against Maple Grove. I was masked up and distanced from the fellow EP fans, but there still was that magic there along with the nerves of a high-stake game such as this one.
Much like the 2011 final, this current Eagles squad certainly raised the heart rate of their supporters. In that semifinal against the Crimson, the teams headed to overtime tied at 5 after a stretch in the third period where the teams combined for four goals in less than two minutes. It was exhausting as a viewer.
Then, the overtime period had a similar frenetic pass. Then, Carter Batchelder was all alone in front of the net and scored to give EP the win. Though I am nearly 10 years out of high school, that explosion of glee that I experienced as a student came over me.
One night later, I got a second round of that adrenaline high. The Eagles went to double overtime against Lakeville South. Eventually, Jackson Blake got the winner. Much like Rau, Blake is a smaller but dynamic scorer that can frustrate opponents.
Though I was not in attendance, I still cheered as if I was that student decked out in red in the upper deck. Though there was a much smaller crowd than the dramatic 2011 final, the outcome was the same for EP, and myself. Both provided a sense of relief and excitement all wrapped into one.
For the first time in a decade myself and the community got to celebrate an Eagles’ hockey state championship. Hopefully, we can do it again in 2022 with an arena full of fans who can fill that similar delight.
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