Sawatzke: Last goal does little to change the legacy of this group

The Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake boys hockey team put together a run that won't soon be forgotten in those three communities. (Photo by Clay Sawatzke)
The Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake boys hockey team put together a run that won’t soon be forgotten in those three communities. (Photo by Clay Sawatzke)

My brother, following along from Toronto (after attending the quarterfinal round), texted me shortly after Hermantown broke the collective hearts of Monticello, Annandale and Maple Lake.

His text read: “The trophy wouldn’t have made much of a difference dude, these guys are legends.”

Ain’t that the truth?

The local boys hockey squad cemented its place as the best team in Monti history weeks ago. By the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, they had added a legacy as one of the better stories in the history of the boys state hockey tournament.

Playing in Class A, where upsets simply don’t happen, the Moose turned the tournament on its head. With the biggest Class A morning quarterfinal attendance in history watching, the Moose outworked an extremely talented Delano crew in the very first game of the 2017 tournament – sending a signal that this tournament would not be business as usual.

Most teams in MAML’s position would’ve just been happy to be there. For the first time in program history, they had qualified for the state tournament. They had avenged last year’s section final and here they were, playing at the Xcel Energy Center. But MAML had no interest in turning state into a celebration parade for their prior accomplishments. From the time the puck dropped Wednesday morning, and Ben Ward took about 12 seconds to set up Nick Zwack for the first great chance of the tournament, it was clear the Moose had a lot more in mind.

Nelson said afterward that it wasn’t even a challenge to get MAML refocused for the state tournament. They were ready all along.

“They had the desire the entire year to kind of prove that we are for real and that we can play,” said Nelson.

By the time the final horn sounded on a 3-2 MAML victory – the first quarterfinal loss for a Top-2 seed ever in Class A – there wasn’t a hockey fan in the state doubting just how for real the Moose were.
Quite the opposite in fact – quickly, MAML’s bandwagon filled up. Fans around St. Paul congratulated players, gave Coach Nelson smiles and encouragement, and started pulling for MAML. A quick Twitter search alone reveals numbers of people with no connections to MAML who found themselves falling for a team that simply refuses to be outworked.

It’s that dynamic that really made this team special, after all. Sure there is a ton of talent. Ben Ward is an incredible hockey player. One who held his own, and then some, against arguably the two best forwards in Class A (Ben Meyers and Dylan Samberg) during the week. Nick Zwack is a tremendous forward, with a beautiful scoring touch. Charlie Voller and Honza Stibingr make for likely one of the top-defensive pairs in the class. And goaltender Tyler Klatt’s skills were on full display all week. Many others bring a number of talents to the squad as well.

But much more than that, it’s a compete-level and a desire that runs from the first d-pair to the fourth line. It’s a will to win that a number of the MAML athletes have shown across sports. It’s heart that can not be questioned.

Following the state championship loss Saturday, Zwack acknowledged how unique this group is.
“It’s something special,” said Zwack. “To have the work and the drive in one person, then to have it in every single person on the team is what makes team’s special, and this is definitely a special team for me.”
That drive was evident again in the semifinal, where MAML ran into a red-hot Raiders goaltender and found itself behind 2-0 late in the second despite significantly outplaying Northfield.

At one point, a goal was prevented by the butt of the netminder’s stick. Moments later, a puck bounced on his helmet and fell out of harm’s way.

Zwack admitted after the game that frustration was certainly growing on MAML’s side. But rather than pack it in and accept it wasn’t their day, they only came harder. It finally paid off, with MAML scoring three goals in the final 19 minutes to win in regulation.

That set up a showdown with Hermantown. The No. 1 ranked team in the state. The defending state champion. A team that was playing in their EIGHTH consecutive Class A Championship game. The Moose were playing in their third state game ever. The run had been cute – but, it was time for a wakeup call right?

Sure was – only that call came for Hermantown.

Just when you thought MAML has done everything they could do and proven everything they could prove – they went toe-to-toe with the best program in Class A for 76 minutes, leading for a good chunk of those minutes, before finally being done in by none other than a Mr. Hockey finalist.

If MAML scored in the 76th minute, it likely would’ve been a bigger story state-wide. Their jerseys would’ve went up at the X and the number on their trophy would’ve been different. But it is my true belief, as my brother first said, that when it comes to what these three communities think of the 2016-17 Moose hockey team, it didn’t matter who scored the final goal in that instant classic.

The 2016-2017 MAML Moose are Monticello, Annandale, and Maple Lake legends. And they will be for at least as long as local hockey fans are around to continue telling the story – the story of an underdog that didn’t know it was an underdog.

“The whole team was amazing this weekend,” summed up Nelson in the Saturday post-game presser. “Little engines that could.”

Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]