March 08, 2018 02:08 PM
The 1998 state boys hockey tournament marked the last one played at the old St. Paul Civic Center.
And it was fitting that the final team crowned champion there was one that had seemingly took up residence in the building throughout much of the 1990s.
Duluth East defeated Anoka 3-1 in the Class 2A title game that year, capping a tournament that saw the top-ranked Greyhounds knock off the No. 2 (Hastings), No. 3 (Bloomington Jefferson) and No. 4 (Anoka) ranked teams in the state.
It marked a sweet moment for a program that had captured a state title behind three tournament hat tricks from future Gopher Dave Spehar in 1995, but lost 5-4 to Apple Valley in five overtimes in the 1996 semifinals and 1-0 to Edina in the state title game in 1997 (the team's only loss that season).
"We knew ahead of time it was going to be the last state tournament in that building, and we really wanted to win the final one," recalls Adam Coole, the senior starting goalie on the 1998 team.
"But we were a team on a mission after what had happened my sophomore year against Apple Valley, then losing the year before to Edina. Anything short of a championship was going to be a failure for that group."
Duluth East and Anoka had played in the regular season that year, a game the Greyhounds rallied to win on the road. So the two teams were familiar with one another.
"They had some great players," said Rick Talbot, a standout on that Anoka team. "We knew how good they were. They've had some great teams over the years. And they continue to have great teams today."
Duluth East has remained a perennial state tournament presence in the years since 1998. But after the Greyhounds advanced to state in 1975, they didn't return until 1991.
The 1991 appearance started a run, though, in which the team advanced to state again in 1994, '95, '96, '97, '98 and 2000 – capturing two state titles.
"We made a lot of memories in that building," said then-and-current Duluth East coach Mike Randolph of the old Civic Center, which hosted the state tournament from 1976 to '98.
"But nothing compares to winning a championship. Because, as my experience has shown me, they don't happen every year. It's a special moment when it all comes together like that."
Coole and Patrick Finnegan, a junior defenseman on the 1998 team, both said making the annual trip to the Civic Center never got old.
"I can still remember coming in the back entrance to that building on the bus," said Finnegan, who went on to play professionally for six years at various levels after high school, and today runs an organic produce farm in Two Harbors.
"It was always really quiet. But then you'd get inside and you'd hear the roar of the crowd from the early game. That's when the chills would set in. Your game face became a part of you after that. Because you knew you were about to head out onto the biggest stage there was in high school sports in this state."
"I remember it was a long tunnel from the locker room to the ice," Coole added. "So it felt like you'd be walking for awhile. Then finally the arena would come into view. You could see how high the seats were and how bright the lights were.
"It felt like you'd finally arrived."
For Finnegan, whose grandfather played on the Eveleth team that won the first state tournament back in 1945, it meant a lot to be part of the final team to win a title at the Civic Center.
"There was definitely a sense of nostalgia for me because of that," he remembers. "And also because there was just so much tradition in that building."
The state tournament moved across the river to Target Center in Minneapolis for two years in 1999 and 2000. But it returned to St. Paul in 2001 after the Xcel Energy Center (built on the site of the demolished Civic Center arena) opened as home to the NHL's Minnesota Wild the previous fall.
"I think the tournament has been at Xcel for long enough now that it's starting to get some of that spice the old building had," Talbot said. "But the Civic Center, or I guess they were calling it RiverCentre by the time I was playing, had become synonymous with high school hockey in this state."
"In the Civic Center, the fans felt further away," Randolph said. "The seats at the higher level were more spread out from the ice. At Xcel, it really feels like the fans are right on top of you. You can hear them a lot more."
Randolph's team will be back at Xcel this week.
The Greyhounds (23-2-3), the No. 3 seed in this season's 2A field, face unseeded St. Michael-Albertville (23-5) in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Thursday.
A victory could set up a semifinal matchup with No. 2 seed Edina (26-2) Friday. The Hornets face unseeded Lakeville North (16-10-2) in the quarterfinals at 11 a.m. Thursday.
Members of the 1998 team are planning to be there Friday. They are holding an unofficial team reunion that night. Coole said about 15 players or so are expected to attend.
"It's always great to get back together with those guys," he said. "We still have a really special bond.
"We won the last state tournament at the Civic Center, a building with so much history. That was a really big deal."
Eveleth-Gilbert Closed Out Civic Center With Title in Class A
The last state tournament played at the St. Paul Civic Center represented a clean sweep for northern Minnesota.
Not only did Duluth East capture the Class 2A state title that year. But Eveleth-Gilbert claimed the championship in Class A, beating fellow northern Minnesota school Hermantown 2-1 in the title game.
It was perhaps a fitting moment, as it had been Eveleth that captured the title at the very first state hockey tournament, held at the old St. Paul Auditorium in 1945.
"I still remember the excitement that was going on in town," recalls Pete Samargia, the starting goalie on the 1998 team. "You could just tell something special was going on from the moment we got on the bus to go down there."
And once down there, Samargia and company came back champions.
"I do remember skating around on the ice before they brought the AA teams out, and just thinking 'Wow, this is the last time someone is going to skate for a state title on this ice,'" said Samargia, who added his old teammates also plan to reunite this weekend and attend Saturday's championship games.
"It was a pretty incredible feeling."
Updated: March 08, 2018 02:08 PM
Created: March 06, 2018 04:42 PM
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