Prep boys hockey: Dream becomes reality for Raiders

COLERAINE -- Forget the fact that they've played hockey together since mini-mites, Greenway juniors Christian Miller and Ben Troumbly insist their verbal commitments to St. Cloud State 24 hours apart in the spring of 2017 was mere coincidence.

Greenway’s Christian Miller skates during Monday’s practice at Hodgins-Berardo Arena in Coleraine. (Steve Kuchera /
Greenway’s Christian Miller skates during Monday’s practice at Hodgins-Berardo Arena in Coleraine. (Steve Kuchera /

COLERAINE - Forget the fact that they've played hockey together since mini-mites, Greenway juniors Christian Miller and Ben Troumbly insist their verbal commitments to St. Cloud State 24 hours apart in the spring of 2017 was mere coincidence.

"I remember talking to him after he committed and I was like, 'I think I'm gonna do it, too,' " Miller recalled following practice Monday at Hodgins-Berardo Arena.

Both were adamant that they didn't spend a lot of time talking about their college puck plans as youngsters. Certainly, it wasn't a package deal pitched to the Huskies. What Miller and Troumbly did discuss was one day getting Greenway back to the state tournament and skating on the Xcel Energy Center ice.

"This is what everybody talked about growing up," Miller said. "It's a dream to be here. I mean, it's still unbelievable. We've been talking about it our entire lives."

The dream becomes reality Wednesday night when the fourth-seeded Raiders (15-13) oppose No. 5 Delano (17-9-2) in a Class A quarterfinal at about 8:30 p.m.


Miller and Troumbly are proof that good players come in different-sized packages. Miller, the son of Kris Miller, Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in 1987, is a towering 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman. He's Greenway's security blanket.

Conversely, Troumbly is about 5-5 and a lightning bug on skates. In other words, catch him if you can. Despite battling injuries for the second consecutive season, he has 21 goals - none bigger than the two he tallied against Hermantown in a stirring Section 7A final - and 19 assists.

Troumbly came to the Raiders after feasting on bantam goalies. But he quickly learned that "time and space is taken away from you at the high school level," Greenway coach Grant Clafton said. Troumbly thus had to alter his style, attack the net more and be OK with greasy goals.

Which he's done.

"Ben's obviously a spark plug for us," Clafton said. "He's got an ability to score goals and make plays. He's kind of a 200-foot player that can play all over the ice and in all facets of the game."

The coach similarly touted Miller's "upside" and "hockey sense." Miller grew a couple inches last summer and is still "developing into his body," according to Clafton.

"Those big guys take a while - he's still got little-boy legs for a 205-pound body," the coach said.

He may have small legs, but Miller plays a man's game on the blue line.


"He's a big, physical guy. He's very good defensively, protects the house," Troumbly said.

Miller and Troumbly both made commitments to then-Huskies coach Bob Motzko before reaching varsity. They were freshmen at the time. But their potential was undeniable. Clafton couldn't disagree with their college choices. After all, the former Grand Rapids standout played for St. Cloud State himself.

The two are looking forward to having a familiar face on campus whenever they arrive in St. Cloud.

"I think it'll make it more comfortable, just having someone you know," Troumbly said.

Back from the brink

How fast and far did Greenway fall after making the last of its nine state tournament appearances in 2001? The Raiders managed only four wins in 2004-05 and two the following season. In fact, they won just 25 games over a five-year stretch, from 2004-09. And to think: Greenway not only qualified for the big-school Class AA tournament in 2001, it finished third.

Less than a decade later, with participation numbers bottoming out, the Raiders were on life support and facing a cringe-worthy prospect: merging with rival Grand Rapids. Jim "Bird" Lawson took over as coach in 2009-10, and for a story in 2015 told the News Tribune that he "had 11 kids that first year." Lawson, former coach Pat Guyer and others banged on doors and spoke in classrooms trying to drum up enough interest to keep the storied program afloat.

They succeeded - and then some.


Greenway was 22-5 in 2015-16, advanced to the 7A championship in 2017 and '18 and, last week, did the unthinkable when the Raiders slayed the giant (Hermantown) in a dramatic double-overtime title tilt at Amsoil Arena. That night, it was senior Donte Lawson, Jim's son, burying a rebound for the game-winner.

Donte Lawson remembers tagging along to practices when his dad was the varsity coach, which lasted until Clafton took over in 2015.

"I'd even skate and I feel like I was better than most of those guys out there, to be honest, and I was only like 9, 10 years old," he joked Monday.

For Clafton, that's been one of the coolest things of the past week - to see this kind of payoff for a hockey-crazed community that wouldn't let its team die.

"Especially for me, being an outsider and kind of inheriting what a lot of other people did, it's gratifying that everybody else is getting rewarded for their hard work," he said. "Obviously, the kids got us here. But so much went into the restoration of the program."

In addition to Jim Lawson and Guyer, countless others pitched in. Many current players' fathers - including Kris Miller, A.J. Troumbly and Derek Vekich - coached them up through the ranks. One of Clafton's assistants, Adam Johnson, was on Lawson's staff during some of the lean times.

"These are the guys that made this happen," Clafton said. "They all had a role in this, and everybody is so emotionally invested in it. I think when you're that invested in it, to get a type of return like this, it's better than Facebook stock."



On the Amsoil Arena ice following another double-OT thriller between Greenway and Hermantown in the 7A final, the respect between Clafton and Hawks coach Patrick Andrews was obvious. Clafton heaped praise on Hermantown that night, and he had more of it Monday. Not long after the Raiders blocked the Hawks from a 10th state trip in as many years, Andrews sent his itinerary for state tournament week to Clafton, a courtesy to help the latter prepare for his first go-round with this whirlwind event.

• How 'bout this: Late last week, Youth Hockey Hub put out a call on Twitter seeking donation of an Xcel Energy Center suite for the Lawson family. Donte's brother, 13-year-old Dominik, underwent his third kidney transplant on Feb. 23. Dominik got through the procedure with flying colors and was up on his feet the next day, but his immune system is suppressed by medications. Consequently, he shouldn't be in the middle of large crowds. Within eight minutes of YHH's tweet, a suite was donated.

The good Samaritan, who wishes to remain anonymous, is from Hermantown.

• At the end of practice Monday, Clafton was accompanied into the locker room by Bob Gernander, one of the program's icons. Gernander, a Hall of Fame coach, led the Raiders to back-to-back state titles in 1967-68. His grandson, Micah, is a junior forward for Greenway.

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