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Karl's 2024 Tourney Essay

By Karl Schuettler , 03/18/24, 11:00AM CDT


A final goodbye to the 2023-2024 BHS season with the famed Karl East's love letter to four days in St. Paul.

The annual tourney renewal comes as it always does. At the end of an eerie non-winter, our ponds turned to mush, the party begins. The faces change, the bleach content waxes and wanes, the kids remain kids as the rest of us add years. The 2024 Tourney flipped some scripts, with Class A intrigue and a AA march toward one great clash, the details changing as all the same great rhythms guide those four days.

Fresh blood meant new life in St. Paul: the return of the Rochesters, Elk River atoning for years of misery, newcomer Chanhassen, even White Bear Lake and Centennial and Grand Rapids returning after several-year absences. Growing more familiar is emerging powerhouse Cretin-Derham Hall, which pulled the first-round upset for a second season in a row, with Max Anderson bringing the flair and selfie-stick celly game. Thursday’s greatest juice came in the collision of orange that night, when the hockey gods again cast down their cruel judgment, moments after Jack Stanius rifled home the tying goal and made White Bear Nation believe. Instead it was Grand Rapids pulling out a hint of old northern glory as they plucked a rabbit from a hat, with Sheldon Willis’ call on KOZY radio and the band’s olés echoing through my ears the rest of the week.

Nate Garski's goal in the final seconds of the Class AA quarterfinals sent Grand Rapids to the semifinals with a win over White Bear Lake.

Class A Wednesday was a familiar script, but Semifinal Friday was the Tourney’s apex, a record attendance stuffing its way in as more and more people realize just how good this hockey is. 

Warroad came in bursts, surging early before sputtering in the second frame, born again in the third before running out of gas. For three straight reasons they have rewarded us with beautiful play from envy-inspiring top talent, but that fifth title has eluded Hockeytown USA. Carson Pilgrim, the wearer of that number five Warrior jersey that took on a new weight this past offseason, was left to linger after a third place win, wondering what could have been. 

Jeff Poeschl’s Mahtomedi magic, meanwhile, is now a yearly serving: where, Coach, can we bottle up some of this belief and borrow it ourselves? In the end AJ Francisco and his Hawk friends had other ideas, but that rise up from death yet again sent Hermantown hearts dropping and enraptured the X. The Zephyrs no doubt deserve a secondary assist on the Saturday result, when Cathedral’s top line chemistry overcame the grinding Hermantown force. Andrew Dwinnell to Joey Gillespie to John Hirschfeld, unstoppable goals at the end of a smooth finish, and a stout back end anchored by Nick Hansen, undefeated in net on the season

2024 Class A champion St. Cloud Cathedral rode the play of its top line Joey Gillespie, Andrew Dwinnell, and John Hirschfeld to the title in St. Paul.

A line that flashes that much brighter can carry the day in Class A, but in AA, it is just work, relentless hard work, across a complete roster, that creates separation. This is where Edina’s rotating cast of stars sets it apart. Of course on some nights it is Jackson Nevers powering through, but another it is Bobby Cowan sniping a clutch goal; the next it might be Ryan Flaherty or John Halverson stirring something up. Maybe, as on Saturday night, Joey Bertram will need to be a hero, or perhaps the seamlessly integrated sophomores (and freshman!) will step in to play their part. The one constant is Barrett Dexheimer, who fought through injury in this Tourney to rule the rink, shoring up the Hornet back end to steal away a title after Chanhassen threw down all its chips in the second. 

The Hornets did not carry the initiative in the final, but they did win the little battles, clear the necessary pucks, withstand the Storm before they could sting back in two sudden bursts. “What just happened?” chanted the Hornet faithful after the third period eruption, and the Chan moms in feathery boas to my left never did quite figure it out. Curt Giles now has a ring for his thumb, and he may yet hunt down Willard Ikola in the city that is built to win Tourneys. It seemed appropriate that Lou Nanne’s hometown would send him off with a win, the bar once again set.

This Tourney was an homage to Lou, to sixty years of commitment through every phase of life, and to the voice who taught me hockey as a kid. My brief brushes with Lou over the years have been uniformly positive: he is always happy to chat, willing to affirm my hot take in an otherwise skeptical elevator, still on mission and capable of booking it even at his advanced age. His story is the story of Minnesota hockey, of deep family ties and a generational bond, of community roots even as he and his brood surged to the highest level of the sport. His presence and commitment when any and all roads were available to him is a reminder of how to do things the right way, how to put in that work, and how to give back once one has reached the top. There is no replacing him, but we all have a role in carrying the work forward.

Edina captured the 2024 Class AA State Tournament title with a win over second-seeded Chanhassen.

My Tourney routines are set, my pace perfected. I still have to crawl over Darlene to get to my seat, and the old people in front of us keep up their annual tradition of looking at real estate on their phones while the games roll along. Danny, too, finds his pace as he works to maintain his voice, while Zach finds poignance amid yet more White Bear heartbreak.

Randy is back on the scene after moving away, Blake is a mainstay, and I catch up with stray friends, media and parents and players and fans from these 15 years of low-key hockey notoriety. I happen to bring together two old forum friends and it turns out they went to high school together. Tony gets to live his dream and wave his arms about vaguely in front of the Grand Rapids band. Some kid named Gunnar is not there, but the discipline meted out gets him even more attention than he would have if his misadventures on the glass had been allowed to slip quietly into the night.

The 200 level, for Tourney atmosphere good and possible societal ill, was as lively as it’s been in years. I rotate through dinner dates, stroll the concourse, share a few beverages, sneak out for runs and drift back to my hotel for moments of quiet at the start and end of long days.

Over these next few months I will be wandering the globe some, a non-Carson Pilgrim, and I’m not sure if the person who comes back will still have quite the same obsessions. Things may change, or they may not change at all. But one thing I do know is where I will be in early March of next year. 

Strike it up again, Grand Rapids band: take me home on these Tourney roads, back to the place where I belong.

Lou Nanne retired after 60 years on the call for the boys' state hockey tournament.

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