Duluth East's Dave Spehar celebrated his goal on a penalty shot in the final period against Moorhead in the Class 2A title game. (Star Tribune file photo)
His first hat trick dispatched a hockey dynasty and heralded his rise. The second propelled his team to the championship game. A third three-goal performance ensured his legend.
The wonder that was Dave Spehar at the 1995 hockey state tournament provided memories — the no-look goal against Bloomington Jefferson, the Edina faceoff play, the Moorhead penalty shot — made more remarkable because they happened night after night after night on prep hockey’s grandest stage.
Recalling Spehar’s feats, 20 years old this week, is less about than nostalgia than celebrating what many uphold as the tournament’s signature individual performance in that span.
“At that time and for years after, that’s what you measured yourself against to tell if you had an elite tournament — his raid on the Civic Center,” said Toby Petersen, who played for Bloomington Jefferson in the 1995 tournament. “It was just his time, his destiny, to wow the state of Minnesota.”
Back in 1995, pro hockey had left Minnesota. Adding a second class to the high school tournament the year before had caused a rift among hockey insiders and fans. New magic was needed. That March, along came the baby-faced Spehar, the most dynamic player on a talented, creative and unselfish team. His three hat tricks matched hockey legend John Mayasich’s efforts in 1951.
“It was a very, very special time with a special group of teammates that grew up together,” Spehar said last week. “You were expected to win when you put on a Duluth East jersey. It culminated with a wonderful experience at the state tournament.”
The Greyhounds reached the state tournament for the seventh consecutive time this season. But consider this: Duluth East ranks last among the eight-team field with 78 goals. In 1995, Spehar scored 58.
“You had to recognize and respect his unique talent,” Duluth East coach Mike Randolph said. “I will never have another Dave Spehar.”
Down with a dynasty
Duluth East (22-3) and top-ranked, three-time defending state champion Bloomington Jefferson (22-1-2) met as quarterfinal opponents. The game started at 9:45 p.m. and was all but decided just nine minutes, 28 seconds into the first period by Spehar’s pure hat trick.
Wary of long passes springing the 5-9, 175-pound Spehar for breakaways, Jefferson coach Tom Saterdalen drilled his defensemen — four of them future Division I players — in the days leading up to the game. Yet there was Spehar, catching a 60-foot pass from center Chris Locker at the far blue line between two Jaguars on his way to a goal at 1:23.
“Everybody knew what was coming, and we couldn’t stop it,” Saterdalen said.
No one was quite ready for what Spehar did next. Skating the puck into the zone on a 3-on-1, Spehar turned as if to pass before pivoting to snap the puck under the goaltender.
“I think I heard the goalie say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Locker said. “That shot epitomized Dave. You hear about a goal-scorer’s goal — that was a legend’s goal.”
Another 60-foot pass, this one from Cullen Flaherty, sent Spehar hurtling toward the Jefferson goal unopposed. Spehar 3, Jaguars 0.
“Against Jefferson it was almost like, ‘Get out of my way. I got this,’ ” Locker said.
The Greyhounds, 5-0 victors, returned to the Embassy Suites hotel on the east end of downtown St. Paul. The reception they received from a mix of parents, Duluth East faithful and nonpartisan tournament attendees still gives Spehar chills.
“Every railing was full and everyone was giving us a standing ovation, cheering,” Spehar said. “There was an electricity.”
The outpouring of support started at the Civic Center, where despite the lateness of the game “a lot of people hung around,” Randolph said. “The crowd started to embrace us and you could feel the momentum building.”
‘Never seen that before’
The Greyhounds’ next opponent, Edina, saw Spehar’s ability to score in tight areas. His first and third goals were scored around the net. But it was the second goal that still sticks with Hornets coach Bart Larson. Moving his feet even before the referee dropped the puck for a neutral zone faceoff, Spehar sped toward the Edina zone and caught a deft pass from Locker.
“When he got it, I could’ve put my arms up then,” Locker said.
Spehar finished tops in the state with 58 goals and 102 points. Locker’s 92 points, including 59 assists, ranked second. Locker, Spehar said, “had a different internal clock. He didn’t wait the extra second and a half. I could find the seams, but if that puck isn’t delivered, I might as well be drinking a soda and having a hot dog.”
Spehar wound and fired from the faceoff dot, beating the goalie on the far side and triggering high-fives among flannel-clad Greyhounds fans.
“By the time the puck was dropped he already had a burst,” said Larson, an assistant coach on five Edina state championship teams. “I’d never seen that before.”
Duluth East rolled to a 6-2 victory.
In a zone
Locker, the teenage Scottie Pippen to Spehar’s Michael Jordan, kidded with his linemate before they faced Moorhead for the championship.
“I said, ‘You have six goals and I have none,’ ” Locker said. “ ‘How do you score here?’ ”
Spehar tallied the game’s first goal. Moorhead’s Matt Cullen, a dynamic player and Mr. Hockey candidate, answered with two. Locker’s first tournament goal tied the score 2-2.
The teams were knotted 3-3 in the third period when Spehar turned a long Locker pass into a breakaway until he was hauled down from behind.
“I thought we were going on the power play,” Locker said. “Then the crowd erupted.”
Spehar, already the tournament’s must-watch player, had earned a penalty shot.
“This is going to be as exciting as it gets,” analyst Lou Nanne told television viewers.
Spehar went to Randolph, who said he urged “the greatest scorer in Minnesota to go bury it.”
Locker said he advised him “to go to his backhand. He might have been thinking that already. Who knows if he even heard me? He was in a zone.”
Taking the puck at the red line, Spehar took off toward the Moorhead goal. About 30 feet out he cut the engine. Closer still, he made one move, from forehand to backhand, and slid the puck under the goalie.
“His reaction after he scores is still vivid,” said Randolph, who still ranks the goal as the tournament’s finest.
Spehar later scored the game’s final goal, cementing Duluth East’s first state title since 1960 and his legacy.
In 2012, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Grant Besse set a title-game record with five goals — three of them shorthanded — in a 5-1 victory. Coach Ken Pauly told the media afterward, “That’s a Spehar-type performance.”
The 1995 tournament was the apex of Spehar’s career. He led the Greyhounds back to state as a senior in 1996 but they fell in an epic five-overtime semifinal game against Apple Valley.
He won Mr. Hockey and later scored 20 goals as a freshman with the Gophers. But as a senior at Minnesota, he endured scratches from the lineup. He never played professional hockey.
Today Spehar works in wealth management at U.S. Bank. He lives in Minnetonka with wife Rebecca and their sons, Sam, 7, and Finn, 5.
Spehar struggles to get his boys off the back yard rink. And the task will only become more difficult. The boys, Spehar said, “saw a highlight on TV and, when they went to papa’s house, they started looking around the storage room.”
Someday they will understand where their dad stands in state tournament lore.
“Three hat tricks in three games — what more could you want?” Randolph said. “That’s what dreams are made of.”