Lynx star Lindsay Whalen and her father, Neil, right, watched Wednesday's game between Mahtomedi and Northfield. (Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune)
Yes, the hockey is nice. Great, exciting. But the memories that stand out for Lindsay Whalen?
Getting a day off from school in the middle of the week.
And being with her dad.
Whalen has done just about everything possible on a basketball court. The former Hutchinson High School star led the University of Minnesota into the NCAA Final Four. She has won three WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx and has won Olympic gold.
But she started as a hockey player, like her dad, Neil Whalen.
And it was when she was 5 or 6 years old — and still playing hockey with the boys as a center/wing, describing herself as “pretty good” — that she and her dad started a tradition of going to the first day of the state boys’ high school hockey tournament together.
It became a thing.
“You’d get a day off from school,” she said. “As a kid, that’s a treat. You’d go to St. Paul and eat all that food at the game. The mini doughnuts. It was something I always looked forward to. A fun day. Unique. We both love all the March Madness — hockey, basketball. It’s fun to have that to still do.”
Neil Whalen grew up playing hockey. He was a goalie for Grand Forks (N.D.) Central High School, a state power. Central won two titles while he was there and shared a third; in 1977 he was in the nets when Central and Grand Forks Red River — archrivals — battled through eight overtimes and a total of 85 minutes on the ice before the game was called as a 1-1 tie. Neil, 58, has a picture in his house of he and the other goalie hoisting the trophy together.
So hockey was in the blood.
“We always went on the first day,” Neil said. “It was fun, watching the pep bands, great atmosphere. We’d go spend the day. We started going, probably, in 1987.”
Inevitably, the tradition had a hiatus. Whalen switched over to basketball, full time, in sixth grade — though she said if there had been a girls program back then, she might have chosen hockey over hoops. Neil noted that there was a girls program back then in Buffalo, 32 miles away.
“But at that age it was like, ‘We’re not trekking to Buffalo every day for practice,’” he said.
So he nudged Whalen to basketball, where he felt she could get the benefit of both playing a sport and feeling the camaraderie of being on a team.
Soon after there were tournaments of her own in March, in high school, and then at Minnesota. By the time she hit the WNBA she spent the winter playing overseas. But Neil and Kathy Whalen usually came to visit, and they tried to do it in March, so Neil and Lindsay could watch the tournament together on TV.
But the past two winters Whalen, 34, has stayed home. And that allowed she and her dad to renew the tradition. They go on Day 1 because it’s easier to get prime seats; they always sit behind one of the goalies, as they did Wednesday.
But some things have changed. Whalen, just weeks out from Lynx training camp, is in training. No mini-doughnuts for her.
Neil laughed. “But I can,” he said. “And I’ll have a hot dog, too.”