David La Vaque has covered all but one state hockey tournament game since 2009 and has worked as a Star Tribune high school sports reporter since 2004. His favorite tournament experiences include cheering for alma mater St. Paul Johnson in 1991 and staying for most of the Apple Valley/Duluth East marathon semifinal game in 1996. Loren Nelson has covered every state tournament since 2009 as the national media editor for Sport Ngin. He attended many, many other Tourney games as a high schooler from the far northern reaches of Minnesota making the annual pilgrimage south to the old St. Paul Civic Center in the 1980s.
Corey Millen took in Thursday’s Class 2A quarterfinals, his first tournament appearance since a broken ankle forced him to watch his Cloquet teammates play back in 1982 at the old St. Paul Civic Center.
A note on Millen will appear in Friday’s paper. But after 33 years away, Millen deserves a little more ink, er, type. He is one of Minnesota’s all-time prep greats. The photo of Millen watching the action in 1982 with a cast on his leg and crutches nearby remains an iconic, heart-wrenching image.
So here is the entire Thursday interview, in which Millen reminisces a little, laments the decline of northern Minnesota hockey a lot and shares his honest feelings about his new role as coach of the Minnesota Wilderness in the North American Hockey League.
Q Do people appreciate how tough the 1982 state tournament was for you?
A It’s one of those moments I haven’t pondered too long. I went to the University of Minnesota and later played in the NHL so I was fortunate to have some good hockey things happen after that.
Q What do you think of your first trip back?
A It’s a great venue. I’m glad the tournament still has some mystique. It was different when I was growing up with eight teams but it’s still a great event. The north teams now aren’t as strong. All those little towns were so dominant north of Hinckley. I loved watching the north teams go down to play the bigger schools and have some success.
Q Did coming back stir any emotions?
A I have an appreciation for the whole atmosphere and the nerves that go along with it. But it’s a different time and a different building.
Q Have you heard Cloquet is considering moving down to Class 1A?
A It’s a tough one. Right now Cloquet has a bantam team and a peewee team that are very strong state-wide. But you’re going to have an ebb and flow. I’m torn, I guess. Back in the day, when you had a good group, you hopefully got there. And that was huge. There are teams that get there 10 years in a row and lose that great feeling of getting there. It’s just expected. Whereas back in the day, if you had a great group of guys, you’re like, ‘Just think, in a year we might get there.’ We’ve lost a little bit of that with two classes.
Q Did you keep any sort of residence in Cloquet?
A I just moved back last year to coach the Wilderness. Before that my time in Minnesota had diminished to visiting a week or two per year.
Q Have you heard any concerns about a product of the community model coming back to coach a junior team?
A I haven’t heard a lot of backlash. The NAHL is a great league to become a better player. We just committed a guy to the Gophers [Wednesday]. Darian Romanko. He played two years for us and he’s going to Minnesota.
Q Is the NAHL more about giving players an option beyond high school? Or is there an appetite for attracting younger players?
A That’s the balancing act. Are people going to be nervous that I’m going to come in here and pluck all these kids? Well, I do think there’s a spot for us for underclassmen. I think there are some kids who would benefit from playing in our league opposed to playing their senior year out. I just do. The purists are going to say, ‘Stay away,’ but right now, with the competitive nature of the game, if you don’t move up and stay with it, you’re going to fall behind. I think there are some guys ready to move up to the USHL, guys that are ready to play in our league and guys that would be better served playing out their high school years and then going to junior hockey.