Joey Pierce and Jack Peart are two of the top boys hockey defensemen in the state of Minnesota.

They also share a common bond: Both players eschewed junior hockey to return to their high schools for their senior year and one more chance to play in a state tournament.

Hermantown’s Pierce had that opportunity a year ago as he helped guide the Hawks to the Class A final, where Hermantown fell 3-2 to Mahtomedi in an overtime heartbreaker.

For Grand Rapids’ Peart, this marks his last go-round.

“I always wanted to finish up my high school career at Grand Rapids, and coming back and playing with my high school buddies in a state tournament has always been a dream of mine,” he said. “I’ve never gotten the opportunity yet, so I wanted to finish it out and get my last shot at it.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Grand Rapids' Jack Peart (23) controls the puck during a 2020 game against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. (Clint Austin / File / News Tribune)
Grand Rapids' Jack Peart (23) controls the puck during a 2020 game against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. (Clint Austin / File / News Tribune)

Peart, who is committed to play at Division I St. Cloud State and was a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program, recently left the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League when it was announced that high school hockey would return with a state tournament at the end of the season.

“You grow up with these kids, go to elementary school with them and skate on the outdoor rinks and play youth hockey with them,” Peart said. “You’re watching your high school team when you are a little kid, and if you are lucky enough you get to see them in the state tournament. Every kid’s dream in the state of Minnesota is to go play at the Xcel Energy Center with their town behind them.”

Grand Rapids coach Wade Chiodo was thrilled to see Peart choose to return.

“It shows the importance of playing for your hometown,” Chiodo said. “These kids have all grown up in the program, and I think it’s really cool they take pride playing for the community. Jack takes pride in putting that Grand Rapids sweater on.”

Likewise for Pierce at Hermantown. Winning that title that eluded him so narrowly a year ago was the driving force behind him leaving the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers.

“When they said they were going to have a state tournament, that was huge,” Pierce said. “That was the reason I came back because that’s still my goal (to win a title). I want to give back to this program as much as I can because I’ve gotten so much already. So when they did announce (a state tournament), I was all in on coming back.”

Pierce played two games with the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League and two games with Des Moines before contracting COVID-19 around Thanksgiving.

Hawks coach Pat Andrews was ecstatic to have Pierce, a Minnesota Duluth commit, return.

“He’s a great human being, first and foremost, and he happens to be a gifted hockey player,” Andrews said. “He’s our leader from the start, competitive, intense, focused and driven. And he has a way to bring everybody in. All the guys in the room love Joey.

“That he wanted to come back and try to win a championship made us all happy, and it’s very selfless for him to do that.”

Peart contracted the novel coronavirus as well in Fargo, along with nearly half the team. He still played in 16 games before heading eastward.

Hermantown and Grand Rapids will play each other twice this season so fans — whatever few are allowed in arenas due to COVID-19 protocols — will be treated to a spectacle.

Both players and opposing coaches are big fans of the other as well.

“To have Jack Peart back is awesome, too, because he’s such a great talent,” Andrews said. “We get to play them twice, so that’s something you circle the calendar for. To watch Joey and Jack go head to head is going to be a riot. That’s exciting for Northland hockey that those guys are selfless enough to come back and try to win a championship for their community.”

Chiodo, a former Bemidji High School coach in his second season at Grand Rapids, also coached Pierce for two seasons in the Fall Elite League.

“Joey is a great hockey player and a great competitor,” Chiodo said. “He’s got a great stick and sees the ice and is a great kid. It’s important for him going back to Hermantown because he needs to be that guy that has the spotlight on him, just like Blake Biondi did the year before. Hermantown has a great tradition of kids sticking around. As a hockey player or any athlete, there’s not too many times in your career where you are that guy that’s going to lead that team, and this is his opportunity.”

When the pair tangle on the ice, Peart knows what he’ll be up against.

“He’s a big, strong guy and is very aggressive,” he said of the man-child Pierce. “If you turn the puck over to him, he’s going to more than likely score a goal. He’s dangerous on the ice and you have to make sure you don’t turn any pucks over to him.”