Don’t you just love high school hockey? To do what we do at Wisconsin Prep Hockey, it is a requirement, part of the job description: “Must love high school hockey.” This season that just wrapped up reminded me of why we do this year after year.
You can’t fully appreciate the recent season without mentioning the previous season. To put it mildly, the previous season sucked. It started going bad in August when my long-time collaborator Michael “Trasher” Trzinski announced his retirement from Wisconsin Prep Hockey. For twenty years, Trasher was our front-man. Mick Jagger to my Keith Richards. He knew all the coaches and could match faces to names and teams, which I still cannot do.
And then there were the Covid protocols, which for me meant no in-person games. We had to learn about the different streaming services and watch games on little screens, or big screens, or multiple screens. But it was not the same as being there. And no big State Tournament get together at the end of the season in Madison. The State Tournament is usually what makes the season-long effort worth the while, whether it is in Madison or in Green Bay. As Bill, Jr. said, last season was almost like work.
The new season started for us when Bill and I went to Marathon Park to watch East-Merrill United host Shawano/Bonduel/Clintonville. These may not be the strongest teams in the state, they combined to win 3 games and tie 1 on the season. But it was the Shawano group’s return to varsity hockey after an 11 year absence. And they played hard. I have always maintained that if you have two teams that are evenly matched and they are both trying hard, you can have a good hockey game. At any level. And this was an exciting game.
In December we made our first trip up to Minocqua to see Lakeland hosting Amery. We got to talk with Tim Henningsgard and Matt Humpal from Amery about the boost having a Division 2 State Tournament has given to their program and to their youth association. Amery is a small school in an area long dominated by Eau Claire, Hudson, and Superior. Their path to a one-division sate tournament did not exist. Later on I would witness each of these teams lose their final game of the season to Rice Lake - Amery in the sectional final, and Lakeland in the state semi-final.
In January my grandson, Brett and I went over to Eau Claire to watch Hudson take on Memorial. Everything that is good about high school hockey was on display that night. Hobbs Arena was full, each school provided a packed student section, ECM brought their pep band. And it was a great hockey game. After the game we went to Manny’s Cocina, who I should really get to sponsor something, as much as I like talking about them.
February brought up two of our favorite annual events, the Badgerland Conference Tournament and the Great Northern Conference Tournament. The Badgerland was at the new Community First Champions Center in Grand Chute. It was open for games last season, but as previously mentioned, we didn’t go to any games last season, so it was new to us. Bill and I were there for the four games of the final round, and were introduced to Talan Blanck in the championship game. His three goals and two assists in that game gave St. Mary’s Springs the conference title, and earned Mr. Blanck Player of the Week honors.
The next Saturday Bill, Brett and I went back up to Minocqua for the final round of the GNC Tourney, also known as the preview of the D2 Section 2 playoffs. Mosinee wound up beating Lakeland for the Conference Title, but Lakeland would end up turning the tables on Mosinee to take the Sectional crown and the trip to State two weeks later.
That same weekend Brett and I went over to Amery for their sectional final match-up with Rice Lake, then hung around until Saturday afternoon for the Baldwin-Woodville game against Somerset on Saturday afternoon in Somerset, a full 25 minute drive away. Two packed arenas. Two exciting games. Two joyous teams. Two disconsolate teams.
All that was left was the State Tournament in Madison, maybe the last one in Madison, that has yet to be decided. Wherever it is played, it is still the pinnacle of high school hockey in Wisconsin. The last level of hockey where the kids are still just playing for the love of the game, to borrow from Billy Chapel. Still just playing for fun, with their friends, for their school and their town. Welcome back. We missed you.
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Please also keep “woofing,” taunting, and otherwise unsportsmanlike behavior to a minimum. Your posts will more than likely be deleted, and worse yet, you reflect badly on yourself, your favorite team and your conference.