Way up in northwestern Minnesota, in Thief River Falls, a white board on a back wall in the Prowlers locker room lists six games — representing each playoff matchup — written in marker.
Only the first three are checked off. The Thief River boys swept through the Class 1A, Section 8 playoffs, including a victory over longtime rival Warroad in the final. Thief River Falls went to the state hockey tournament eight times from 1951-65, but this year marks only its second trip since those glory days.
As the Prowlers sat in the Xcel Energy Center stands, watching the early games Wednesday afternoon, all they could think about was those three blank squares and what it would feel like to etch bold victory checkmarks in each one.
They haven’t got them all marked yet, but the Prowlers are going home with some ink reserved for at least one of those boxes after stunning Breck 7-5 in the opening round of the Class 1A tournament.
“Just actually making it here is the coolest thing,” sophomore Logan Engelstad said. “This is it. You dream about this from Day 1.”
At breakfast, the Xcel ice was still something of an enigma, as distant, perhaps, as the inevitable stomach lump wrought from strips of bacon and syrupy pancakes. The players lightheartedly razzed and fake-punched each other and erupted into loud conversation and laughter.
“You think about it, from 3:30 until 7 p.m. every day, for three months, you’re with these guys … you’re going to get close,” senior Josh Koop said. “I spend more time with these guys than my family for sure.”
That was by design. The squad came into the season with one goal: get to the state tournament.
“They’re an unusual group,” coach Tim Bergland said of the team that made it to the sectional final three times in the past four years only to be denied each time. “We’ve been knocking at the door here for four years. They’ve been really focused at the end of the year.”
The Prowlers’ home arena is among the nicest of its kind in the nation. The work of Ralph Engelstad — who also built the arena at the University of North Dakota — seats nearly 4,000 and for many years bolstered a great hockey tradition in northern Minnesota. Prowlers sophomore Logan Engelstad is a distant relative, helping carry on the name and tradition.
“The excitement for hockey was huge; the arena was always packed,” said Corey Poole — who played for Thief River Falls from 1989-91 and whose son, Riley Soderstrom, is on the current team — of the years when he wore the jersey.
“They were just ecstatic,” he said of the town after the Prowlers finally put Warroad away in the section final. “The community has just surrounded them with open arms. … It’s almost to the point of where you get emotional thinking about it. For my son to do it, I’m just so excited and so proud.”
Soderstrom said strangers have come up to him at the gas station where he works to congratulate him.
“It’s just the fact that our town hasn’t really had that much in a long time, as far as hockey,” he said.
Minutes before the Prowlers’ skates hit the ice against Breck, the Prowlers’ locker room was ripe with anticipation.
“We’ve lost to Warroad the last there years, and now we’re finally here,” Derek Kayser had said earlier. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
Now, they remembered times in which they had overcome the odds. Before their regular season win over Warroad, the Prowlers had gotten a pep talk from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who was in the area during the Twins’ Winter Caravan.
“He said always lean on each other and look to the guy to the left and the right of you, and play for the guy next to you,” said senior Matt Audette, standing in full gear and mask and remembering that moment as he prepared to hit the ice and try to do that very thing again.