Prep boys hockey: Sting of 2021 state tournament experience 'added fuel to the fire' for Hermantown
After the Hawks’ varsity squad was exposed to COVID-19 in the 2021 section tournament, a team of mostly junior varsity players were forced into action for the state quarterfinal.
DULUTH — Late Wednesday, after the fans and officials had departed Amsoil Arena, Hermantown players made their way back onto the ice to celebrate their dominant 11-0 win over Duluth Denfeld in the Section 7A championship.
One player carried a boombox on his shoulder. Garron Opsahl took over the microphone in the scorer’s box next to the rink.
Zam Plante, who had a hat trick in the win, made his way to center ice in his suit and black cowboy hat. The junior moonwalked down the ice and Opsahl gently ribbed his teammate over the Amsoil sound system.
“Zam Plante, get a haircut,” Opsahl said with his voice echoing through the arena.
The relaxed scene with the boys celebrating their return to the state tournament was a far cry from earlier in the day as they made the quiet, focused bus ride from Hermantown to the arena.
“Since we got on the bus everyone was listening to music and doing their own thing,” sophomore Dallas Vieau said. “I don’t think one word was said on the bus the whole time. We knew what we had to do. We came prepared and went on the ice and did it.”
Vieau also had a hat trick, with all of his goals coming in the Hawks’ six-goal outburst in the first period.
This trip to the state tournament — their eighth Section 7A title in the nine years they’ve been back in the section — is even sweeter for the Hawks after what happened in 2021.
Hermantown again beat Denfeld in a matchup for the section title March 25, but when practicing the following Saturday coach Pat Andrews knew something was wrong when he saw Hermantown Community Schools Superintendent Wayne Whitwam come onto the rink.
“I’m like ‘this probably isn’t good,’” Andrews said. “Either he was coming by to say hi and congratulate us, but it’s Saturday. This probably isn’t good and it wasn’t.”
What Whitwam told Andrews later was that the team had been exposed to COVID-19 during a section semifinal against Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl. Anyone who played in that game would have to sit out at least one game, leaving Plante — who was unable to play because of a shoulder injury — and the junior varsity squad to face Dodge County in the state quarterfinal.
Andrews remembered how difficult it was to tell his players the bad news.
“It was devastating, it was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had in my life other than somebody dying — that’s how it felt,” Andrews said. “Not to be melodramatic, but seriously, they had worked so hard for this. Guys had sacrificed. Joey Pierce had come back and not gone to juniors. He came back for senior year to win a state championship and it got torn away and it was hard — it was really sad.”
Senior captain Gavin Blomdahl described the tough scene in the Hawks’ locker room after Andrews delivered the news.
“We just sat in silence, because we were heartbroken,” Blomdahl said. “I felt bad for the seniors because obviously that’s their last chance and I thought we had a good chance at winning state.”
Plante, the Hawks’ leading scorer in 2021, had been at the practice, but was at a physical therapy appointment for his shoulder during the meeting.
“I got out of physical therapy and our captain had called me 38 times,” Plante said. “I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Ohh crap, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to get to the rink, you’ve got to practice with the JV guys.’”
Plante and the JV squad had just two or three practices together before heading into the quarterfinal showdown with Dodge County.
The Wildcats jumped out to a 4-0 lead early in the second period, but Plante and the rest of the JV team battled back to cut the lead to 5-3 with about 3 minutes to play. The team was really starting to believe it could come back and force overtime, but University of Minnesota commit Brody Lamb scored two goals in the final two minutes — including an empty-net goal — to give Dodge County a 7-3 win. Lamb finished the game with six goals for the Wildcats.
Despite the loss, Andrews said he was as proud as he’s ever been of the way the team played.
“The JV guys stepped up, they all showed up — a kid flew back from Florida — and we put our best foot forward and we were that close to making a miracle happen,” Andrews said. “I thought that moment last year was one of the brightest moments in Hermantown hockey history. Honestly, I think it shows the true character of our kids and it showed the depth of our program and how everybody’s bought in.”
What’s more, the sting of the loss to Dodge County has carried over into 2022, Blomdahl said.
“It gave us some motivation,” Blomdahl said. “We set our mind on going to state and that added fuel to the fire and we just wanted to get back there.”
The team has been “dialed in” since last April, according to Andrews, when players first got back together after the state tournament defeat. Practices have been “hyper-competitive” all season with the single purpose of winning a state championship.
“That’s been the goal since day one and I’m just proud of them as a coach,” Andrews said. “What we ask them to do and for them to do it to the best of their ability and they keep getting better — they easily could have said, ‘Awe, we’re good enough, in January, but they haven’t. We’re a better team now than we were at the end of January and that’s all you can ask for as a coach.”