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The 'Other' Great Minnesota Get-Together

By Jayson Hron, 03/08/17, 10:00PM MST

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When the varsity high school hockey teams from Maple Grove and Grand Rapids collide Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center, the attendance will exceed nine NHL teams’ largest single-game crowds this season.

That’s what the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament means in the State of Hockey, where it’s been described as a cultural touchstone and the greatest schoolboy athletic tournament in America.

By the numbers, it’s difficult to argue. More than 125,000 tickets sell for the tournament and there’s a five-year waiting list for Class AA full-tournament passes. Entire communities turn out the lights and trek to St. Paul to cheer their teams.

Grand Rapids, on the western edge of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, is one such community. In a hockey-mad state, this hamlet is among the maddest, having produced a disproportionately large number of NHL players (12 and counting) and countless more with big-league aspirations. Three of them, Gavin Hain, Blake McLaughlin and Micah Miller, combined to amass more than 170 points in 28 games this winter. The trio has played together in Grand Rapids for years, savoring the best of Minnesota’s community-based hockey model. In fact, nearly the entire roster has been circling in the same orbit since their youth hockey days, many of them together since 8U and most winning the Minnesota bantam state tournament together in 2014.

“In my experience, it’s been phenomenal,” said Hain, who also plays varsity tennis. “There’s no better place to grow up and play hockey. It’s unbelievable the way the whole community gets behind the hockey team. There’s no place like it.”

McLaughlin, now a junior, is a roster rarity, having relocated to Grand Rapids as a 12-year-old. Photos of beyond-capacity crowds at the IRA Civic Center helped ease his mind about the move and inspire his dreams of leading the community to a state tournament. Now he’s done it twice.

“I’m happy about the move,” he said. “It’s exceeded my expectations. The fans here are amazing every night.”

McLaughlin, who plays varsity golf and soccer in addition to hockey, also lauds the local ice fishing – and his linemates.

“We’ve developed a lot of chemistry over the years, starting back in bantams at the state tournament,” he said.

And while Hain and McLaughlin have been lethal linemates for years in Grand Rapids, they starred on separate lines with the United States Under-17 Select Team at the Five Nations Tournament this past August. McLaughlin was the team’s leading goal-scorer (six goals in four games) and Hain amassed three goals and four assists to finish third in overall scoring.

“Gavin was arguably our best all-around player at the tournament,” said USA Hockey’s Kenny Rausch, who served as general manager of the championship-winning squad. “Not only did he contribute seven points offensively, he also played some defense for us when we had a couple players get banged up. He’s a versatile player with good hockey sense and great physical tools. He has a very bright hockey future.

“As for Blake, he is a very explosive player who capitalized on his chances. He tied for the team lead in points with 10 and led us with six goals, many of them key goals coming at critical times. He’s the type of player who has a nose for the net combined with great playmaking and finishing ability.”

Both Hain and McLaughlin deemed the USA Hockey experience a springboard to their subsequent success.

“Going to the National Player Development Camp and then to Five Nations in Dallas, that was kind of the start to this season and it was for sure a confidence builder to make the team and put on that USA jersey,” said Hain. “It was unbelievable having my name called and wearing that jersey.”

When McLaughlin first saw his USA jersey, he thought of his mother, who brought him to the rink in Grand Rapids and a hundred others through the years.

“I teared up a little bit,” he said. “My mom was proud, and making her proud of me is one of the biggest things.”

With Hain, McLaughlin and fellow Minnesotan Devlin McCabe pacing the offense, Team USA rolled undefeated through the Five Nations Tournament, cementing a lasting brotherhood among the players who represented nine states in total.

“It surprised me how close we got to all the guys,” said Hain. “Even at the Player Development Camp, but especially during that two weeks in Dallas, we really bonded. I still talk to all the guys from that team. Nothing’s beat it so far in my hockey experience.”

That could change this week, however, if Grand Rapids was to claim a state championship all of northern Minnesota would celebrate.

“Watching the Minnesota high school season from afar, I’m not surprised to see Grand Rapids make it to the ‘X,’” said Rausch. “When you combine two players like Gavin and Blake with Micah Miller on a line, it gives you a threat to be successful in every game you play.

“The experiences Gavin and Blake had over the last 12 months, both in Minnesota and elsewhere with the National Team Development Program tryout camp, the National Player Development Camp and the Five Nations Tournament, should serve them well heading into the state tournament. They can draw on those experiences to help their team in a survive-and-advance type of setting. The same can be said for Ben Helgeson from Hill-Murray and Ethan Frisch from Moorhead, who also competed for us at the camps and Five Nations, and are now playing for a state championship, and also Casey Mittelstadt from Eden Prairie, who played for our Hlinka Tournament team in 2015 and for the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team in 2016.

“They’ve all been in pressure environments before and excelled when called upon.”

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