Photo: KSTP/Frank Rajkowski
Photo: KSTP/Frank Rajkowski
March 09, 2019 03:26 PM
Paul Nitz turns 50 Saturday.
And what the five-time paralympic athlete wants most for his birthday is to see his favorite team win a state championship.
That would be the Edina boys hockey team, which counts Nitz among its biggest supporters.
"These guys have been so good to me," said Nitz, who has been there for all but three of the Hornets' games this season, and has gotten to know many of the players over the years.
"They haven't just made me part of the Edina hockey family. A lot of them have made me part of their individual families as well. I'm really grateful for that."
Nitz, a 1987 graduate of the school whose spinal cord was severed at birth, was on hand Friday night as top-seeded Edina beat No. 4 seed St. Thomas Academy 6-3 in the Class 2A state semifinals at Xcel Energy Center.
But he said he hadn't told any of the players that his birthday was coming the following day.
"I don't want to put any more pressure on these guys," he said. "They already have enough on their minds as it is."
Nitz is certainly an accomplished athlete in his own right. He's competed at five Paralympics, earning four gold medals and one bronze.
But he had to step away from competition for health reasons in 2016. And since then, he's devoted even more of his attention to his favorite hockey team.
"I talk to them about training and stuff like that a little bit," he said. "But they really don't need to hear that much from me. The things these guys can do on the ice are amazing. And I know how much hard work they put in."
And both he and the Hornets are hoping that hard work results in Nitz spending his birthday celebrating a state title Saturday night. Edina takes on Eden Prairie in the championship game, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
"This is really like the Olympics for these guys," he said. "Some of them are going to go on to play at the Division I level. But a lot of them won't. And for them, the state tournament is their time in the spotlight.
"It's their time to shine."
* It may have seemed on the scoreboard like Eden Prairie got off to a slow start in Friday's first Class 2A semifinal against Blaine. But Eagles coach Lee Smith didn't feel that way at all.
Led by a pair of goals from junior Cole Hansen, the second-seeded Bengals took a 2-0 lead after the first period. But Smith, whose team needed almost three full overtimes to beat Lakeville South in the quarterfinals Thursday, never panicked.
And Eden Prairie rallied with four unanswered goals in the second period, then held on for a 4-3 victory.
"I actually thought we played a pretty good (first) period," Smith said. "One of their goals was kind of a fluke and the other one came on a power play, which we never want to give them.
"We have 12 seniors on this team and they're not going to go away easy," he added.
The Eagles' rally began with a power-play goal from senior captain Keegan Langefels, then Eden Prairie tied the game at 2 on a less-than-pretty goal from senior Garrett Smith, who literally pushed the puck into the net with the middle of his stick.
"I tapped the puck at first, but I could tell it wasn't going to get all the way in," he said. "I actually got a jab from the guy behind me and I used it to my advantage.
"I just pushed it the rest of the way in there."
Updated: March 09, 2019 03:26 PM
Created: March 09, 2019 03:23 PM
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