ST. PAUL — There are so many things that make the Minnesota boys hockey state tournament special to this state: the pageantry, the drama, the talent, the actual games and, perhaps most importantly, the stories.
The tales of John Mayasich’s wizardry, Roseau’s “Masked Marvel” Rube Bjorkman, Dave Spehar’s scintillating goal-scoring ability and Bruce Plante’s prominent press conference appearances are known and told far and wide across the state.
But no one knew all of the stories of Minnesota’s magical March event, nor could you find them all in one spot.
David La Vaque came to realize this in the early buildup leading into the tournament’s 75th edition, which was played last winter. In 2017, the Star Tribune sports writer found there was no book that properly portrayed the tournament’s magic. So, why not write it? He quickly enlisted the help of fellow sports writer Loren Nelson, and the two went to work.
Less than three years later, the finished product — Tourney Time: Stories from the Minnesota Boys' State Hockey Tournament — is slated to be available in March from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
It’s a 288-page book that features more than 100 stories and countless images, including some that have never been seen before. Separate chapters are designated to each individual year, along with scattered sidebars that provide additional context and color, plus various top-10 lists sure to entertain and spark debate.
“I think it’s a big love letter to the state tournament,” said La Vaque, a St. Paul native and current Woodbury resident.
But it is done from a journalistic perspective. La Vaque has covered high school hockey for the Minneapolis newspaper since 2010. Nelson is an author and freelance journalist who is the founder and president of LegacyHockey.net. The two cover the tournament in tandem every year, and approached this book with a similar mind-set.
There are resources out there where you can find boxscores of every tournament game ever played, but Nelson and La Vaque wanted to tell the stories. Many of those celebrate what made the tournament’s stars and championship teams special. The dynasties in Edina, Eveleth and International Falls are all dissected, as are the individual stars and one-off champions throughout the past 75 years.
But the tougher issues were also tackled. La Vaque and Nelson made it their mission to cover the stories of the tournaments, which aren’t always the winning teams or best players.
La Vaque’s account of Benilde-St. Margaret’s 2012 title run dives just as deeply into why Jack Jablonski wasn’t on the ice for the championship celebration as it does Grant Besse’s title game heroics, and Nelson investigates whether International Falls’ Bobby “Slopjohn” O’Leary’s stick to the head of Greenway’s Bob Zuehlke in the 1962 state tournament may have been intentional payback for an earlier incident.
“We’re journalists by trade,” La Vaque said. “You can’t ignore all these very public things that happened that are absolutely critical to telling the journey of that championship team. We didn’t go looking for every bit of dirt on everybody’s nails that we could, but if there was something that was very public … we didn’t want to shy away from it, either, because then it compromises your integrity.”
The tone of most chapters have a certain levity to them — only deviating when called for — true to who La Vaque and Nelson are as writers. The titles of the chapters feature a few clever quips, such as a reference to a particularly glitzy tournament won by Edina, titled ‘Every Day I Need Attention.’
“We both like to bring a little air of lightness and humor,” said Nelson, who lives in Excelsior. “This is just high school sports, this is just high school hockey, it’s not life or death or stuff.”
The tone aids in the general ease with which the book reads. The format makes it easy to either flip to your favorite seasons or take the chronological trip through the tournament’s year-by-year history.
The tournament has grown into such a spectacle that media coverage of each edition is ample. In the more recent years, La Vaque initially worried there may not be much meat left on the bone for which to work. He quickly found that wouldn’t be a concern. Armed with more than a few minutes to process their journeys and successes, players and coaches had more perspective and appreciation for their feats in the book interviews than they ever could have during a post-game press conference.
And the additional time and space allowed Nelson and La Vaque to dive into stories, as La Vaque did with the 2017 Grand Rapids team that won a title a year after team turmoil that led to player suspensions and a coach’s resignation.
“I liked being able to really analyze these teams and, hopefully, what a lot of this is is what made these teams tick,” Nelson said. “What really was the defining moment for them during the season … or what was it like in the locker room? Who was the one kind of running the show? … We were able to kind of zero in on a lot of that stuff and do a lot of reporting, which I think was pretty satisfying.”
La Vaque thinks the book will both humor and move readers, while gaining a history lesson in the process.
“Not hockey history, but Minnesota history. This tournament matters. That’s why it’s still drawing 100,000 people in its 75th year,” La Vaque said. “We couldn’t go waxing on and on about Eveleth and the mining industry and Grand Rapids and the lumber industry or the expansion of the suburbs, but you get a taste of all those elements, so all that history, I think they’ll take from it. It’s a wonderful history lesson.”
With this project, La Vaque said he and Nelson were just glad to add their small part to the tournament’s overall tradition.
“We’re kind of documenting history, in some ways,” Nelson said. “Even though we’re just basically telling stories. … A lot of this stuff is probably better than you could even write it up.”