Through all those blissful afternoons of outdoor hockey, through their years together on Lakeville’s mite and squirt teams, one thing never changed. Brady Skjei and his friends always pretended they were playing in the boys’ hockey state tournament, and they dreamed of the day it might happen for real.
Last year, Skjei and his Lakeville North pals — including goalie Charlie Lindgren and forwards Blake Winiecki, Evan Peterson and Charlie Hayes — got there. Most of them made a return appearance this week. Skjei was there only in spirit; now a member of USA Hockey’s under-17 team in Ann Arbor, Mich., he sent his friends good-luck texts before Thursday’s quarterfinal against Eden Prairie, then watched the Panthers’ 5-0 loss via computer.
Skjei is one of three Minnesotans in Ann Arbor who are following their former high school teams from afar during the state tournament. Defenseman Matt Van Voorhis, with Edina, and goalie Matt McNeely, with St. Thomas Academy, also achieved that ultimate Minnesota hockey experience of making it to the state tournament before moving on.
The early departure of players for junior teams, or for USA Hockey’s national team development program, remains a highly charged issue here. Those who consider the high school experience sacrosanct cannot understand why anyone would forfeit any part of it; some players who leave are labeled as disloyal to their schools and communities.
It’s mostly the adults who indulge in such sniping. This week, the boys in Ann Arbor are cheering as loud as they can for the people and schools they still love, and the boys in the tournament are making sure their faraway friends can vicariously share in the fun.
“It’s tough, because the state championship is the Holy Grail of hockey,” said Lindgren, who stopped 37 of 38 shots Friday as Lakeville North beat Moorhead 2-1 in the consolation bracket. “Brady chose to go to USA Hockey, which a lot of people would, because that’s great hockey, too.
“We miss him, for sure. But he’s one of my best friends, and I respect his decision fully. I’m happy he’s doing well.”
Lindgren gave Skjei a shout-out during the team introductions Thursday. The two also have been talking and texting regularly as Lakeville North made its way to the state tournament.
Years before, the foursome often attended the tournament with their fathers, taking a day off from school and eating pizza at Cossetta between games. Those March weekends — and last year’s trip to state, when the Panthers finished 0-2 — rank at the top of Skjei’s hockey memories. But when he was invited to try out for the USA Hockey program just after the 2010 tournament, he decided the opportunity was too enticing to pass up.
“Making it to the state tournament has been a goal since I was a kid,” said Skjei, the top-scoring defenseman on the under-17 team with five goals and 13 assists in 44 games. “If we hadn’t made it last year, it would have been a lot harder to leave. I would have loved to go to state again, and I’m really happy for my friends. But I’m very happy where I’m at.”
McNeely was a freshman when St. Thomas Academy won the Class 1A title in 2008. He shared a hotel room during the tournament with Zach Schroeder, who is now the Cadets’ captain and scored twice in Friday’s semifinal victory over Thief River Falls. This week, McNeely said, he has been bragging to his USA Hockey U-18 teammates about how big a deal the Minnesota state tournament is.
He’s also been talking to Schroeder and following the tournament online. “Ann Arbor is a great place for a goalie to develop,” said McNeely, who is 9-11-1 this season. “But I wish I could be back with the guys this week. I love them all like brothers, and going to state with them was a great experience.”
Today, when the 2011 champions are decided, Skjei’s and Van Voorhis’s U-17 team will be playing at Muskegon, Mich. McNeely’s U-18 team will be between road games in Des Moines and Waterloo.
They will be calling, texting and checking the Internet to get all the details of the tournament’s final day. Some of their friends will be living it, knowing there is no place they’d rather be.
“I don’t resent anyone else for leaving,” said Max Everson, a senior defenseman and captain for Edina. “Personally, it’s not something I would do. I grew up dreaming of playing for Edina High School in the state tournament. Playing on this stage with your buddies, the kids you’ve played with since Mites and Squirts, that’s something really special.”