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How "the best week of my life" unfolded for Hill-Murray hockey's Charlie Strobel

Chris Long
Updated: March 22, 2020 05:02 PM
Created: March 21, 2020 05:41 PM

Charlie Strobel captained Hill-Murray to the Boys State Hockey Championship this season - the fourth state title in program history.  Not only was Strobel an exemplary leader, he scored a handful of timely goals without which the Pioneers might be still sitting with three state titles.

Click the video box on this page to see KSTP Sports' full chat with Hill-Murray senior captain Charlie Strobel about the State Hockey experience, his recent declararion for college hockey, and the Championship bond he shares within his family

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Strobel won't let you get far in heaping praise on him.

"I couldn't have done it without those 20 to 23 guys, including the managers," Charlie said. "All of us guys came together before the season started and were like, 'We want to win a state championship this year and this is how we're going to do it'."

"Our motto was, 'Don't ever say 'what if' once we leave and once we're finally done,'" Strobel said. "I think a lot of the guys bought in."

The Pioneers earned a 16-6-3 record in the regular season. They won their way through the first two rounds of the Section Tournament to earn a date with an old, famiiar rival in the Section Championship - with a trip to State on the line.

For a while, it looked like this was where the Pioneers season and Strobel's high school career would end. Three minutes into the second period, Hill-Murray trailed White Bear Lake 2-0.

The adopted "Don't ever say 'what if'?" mantra would be put to the test.

"I think we kind of rode the wave and just continued on what we were saying our whole year," Charlie said.

Late in the second period, Strobel broke through.  His goal was Hill-Murray's first, and sparked a run of three unanswered goals. The last, on a shorthanded sprint by sophomore Nick Pierre with six minutes to go in the game, was the eventual winner in a come-from-behind 3-2 win.

"Those two quick ones went in and then I chipped one off the boards in the third to give (Nick) Pierre that shorthanded one."

The Pioneers were heading to the State Tournament.

"Kind of after that -  just a dream," Charlie said. "From then on, we kind of had that same mentality and motto into state."

The experience of a Section Final win had already given Strobel and the Pioneers a memory they'll carry forever.

"That's why it's so cool to play in the State of Minnesota," Strobel says. "You go out to Aldrich Arena and play in front of a few thousand fans. The experience is like no other. After that buzzer went, it was crazy."

But there was now more work to do, more memories to be made.

The section title delivered Hill-Murray their 30th State Tournament appearance since 1975 - the year private schools were added to the tournament.

The Pioneers were given the 5th-seed - the lowest seeded team in the 8-team 2020 State Hockey bracket.

Strobel had a goal and an assist in Hill-Murray's tourney-opening 5-1 win over highly-touted and 4-seed Moorhead in the quarterfinals that moved the Pioneers into a semifinal matchup against St Thomas Academy.

The unseeded Cadets had upset #1-seed Andover in their quarterfinal.

The semifinal started with Hill-Murray racing out to a fast 2-0 first period lead - a lead that held all the way into the third period. But St Thomas Academy scored a minute in, then again with six minutes left to tie the game at 2-2.

The final six minutes of regulation time ran out with the teams still tied 2-2, which seemed ominous for the Pioneers.

"We kind of had a loss/overtime streak going on," Strobel says. "(During the season) all our overtimes either ended in a loss or a tie. We didn't win one of them in the regular season." 

Indeed, Hill-Murray went 0-3-3 in six overtime games during the season. 

"In the State Tournament, when we we're into overtime we were kind of freaking out, but I just told the guys to stay calm," he says.

With 22 seconds left in overtime, his calmness paid off. 

Strobel set up in front of the St Thomas Academy crease as a teammate wound up for a shot.  Their overtime luck was about to change on the biggest possible stage.

"Flye (teammate Matthew Fleischacker) had a great shot from the point that that got deflected into the goalies chest. I was just kind of standing there and just, you know, tapped one in on the five hole," he said. "The rest is history."

Not quite history, not just yet. A shot at that would come the following night in a State Championship clash against the perennial powerhouse Eden Prairie. The Eagles were appearing in the title game for a second straight season.

"It feels like a dream when you're there," Strobel says of the atmosphere surrounding the team in the hours leading up to the championship game. "We were just trying to stay as calm as possible but also kind of having a fun experience."

Playing what is likely to be the biggest game in any of their hockey lives, the Pioneers were - as has become expected - led by their senior captain.

After assisting Fleischacker's goal that had Hill-Murray up 1-0 after the first period, Strobel scored one of his own in the second to push the lead to 3-0 after two.

The Pioneers defense did a nearly-perfect job smothering Eden Prairie's offense - a talent-laden juggernaut with multiple Division-I college recruits.

The Eagles cut the lead to 3-1 in the third before Strobel shut down any hope of a rally.  His second goal of the Championship came with six minutes to go, all but icing the fourth state title in Pioneers program history.

As the final seconds ticked down the scoreboard read: Hill-Murray 4, Eden Prairie 1. The arena horn sounded, and the Pioneers cascaded en masse over the boards. A frenzied celebratory flurry of helmets, gloves and cheers charged toward Hill-Murray goalie Remington Koepple.

One television angle switched to a pile of players amassing in a pile in front of the goal.  Then, from the right of the screen, a green and black blur enters the frame. It leaps into the air, soars over the pile in a joyful mid-air cartwheel, clears the pile and ends up landing in the goal. 

The blur? Strobel.

"After we won it, it's the best feeling in the world," he says. "I feel like we left it all out there.

"I was saying to my buddies and teammates - we can talk about it for the rest of our life. It's history now.

"It's an amazing experience that the state tournament has been put on for years and years and a lot of guys at Hill-Murray threw on that jersey before I did. It's cool in all that tradition and history when you're out there."

Making it even cooler - also part of that tradition and history are Strobel's father Mike and uncle Mark, twins who skated on Hill-Murray's second title-winning team in 1991.

Once his on-ice and locker room celebrations with teammates subsided, Strobel walked into another celebration after ascending to the Xcel Energy Center concourse.  There, friends and family awaited the newly-minted champions. Reaching the cheering crowd, Charlie spotted his father. 

"When I saw him upstairs," Charlie says, breaking into a huge smile. "We kinda hugged each other and cried and looked in each other's eyes like, 'We're both state champions?!'

"To me, that's so special, because I couldn't have done it without my family.

"Not a lot of people can say a father and son are both state champions."

Crediting his teammates and coaches at every turn, Charlie did allow himself to admire a small individual accolade, "Nothing's better than seeing your name in the paper after you won the whole thing. Yeah, that's pretty cool."

If this is where the story ended, it's already enough to etch Charlie's name in the lore that surrounds the legendary Minnesota State Hockey Tournament.

But one more chance-of-a-lifetime accomplishment awaited a few days later.

The cheers from State had barely had time to fade before Charlie accepted a scholarship to play college hockey for the Minnesota Gophers just days after winning the title.

"I had four or five schools talk to me after the state tournament, but I knew Minnesota was always looking at me," Strobel said. "Once I stepped foot on campus it felt like home... It felt like just like Hill-Murray, just, family.

"Then once they told me they really wanted me, I kind of thought about it in my heart I knew that was going to be the spot for me for the next couple years."

That commitment finally presented a potential snag in Strobel's so-far-perfect fairy tale.

His father and uncle both played college hockey at Wisconsin - the Gophers' archrival - and uncle Mark's presently one of the Badgers assistant coaches.

But, as it went for Charlie throughout this entire amazing sequence of events... even that worked out fine.

"Yeah, with my dad - he kind of wants to be known just as Charlie's dad," he said. "He told me ... a lot of great stories about his past but now he wants to be a 'Gopher Dad', which is pretty cool."

A final fatherly blessing to close out a remarkable run.

"Man," Charlie says, shaking his head, likely still finding it hard to believe how his story unfolded. "It was probably the best week of my life."


Copyright 2020 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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