Decades from now, when documenting the history of high school hockey in Minnesota, the hastily assembled, short-lived Bridge League probably won’t merit a full-blown chapter. But it will be worth a mention or even a small blurb when recapping a decidedly unusual 2020 dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forty teams played 99 games in a span of 26 days. Osseo’s Cade Wessman, the eventual league scoring champion, registered a hat trick in a 6-1 victory over Buffalo on Oct. 27 in the Bridge League’s historic debut. It is believed that was the earliest (modern seasons typical start in mid-November; start dates were in January in the formative years) sanctioned high school hockey game ever played in the state, dating to Jan. 13, 1900 when the first high school hockey game played in Minnesota occurred at the outdoor Virginia Rink in St. Paul (Mechanic Arts edged St. Paul Central 3-2).
With the exception of Oct. 28, at least one Bridge League game was played every day from Oct. 27 through Nov. 22. Osseo’s 11 games were the most. Chisago Lakes and Duluth Marshall squeezed in their first and only games on the league’s last day (state-mandated restrictions on youth and high school sports forced the league to shut down two days earlier than planned).
The Bridge League was here. And then it was gone.
“We hardly knew ye,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly said with a laugh about the league he was instrumental in organizing.
Pauly was part of an ad hoc Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association committee that this fall recommended the formation of the league as a “bridge” to gap what was then at least a two-week delay in the start of the Minnesota State High School League season.
“People were looking for places to play, and the thought was, ‘Can we provide something for a short period of time as an alternative under a governance that provided them insurance and protection?’ ” said Mike MacMillan, executive director of the MHCA who also serves as the high performance director for Minnesota Hockey, which agreed to sanction the league.
“It was welcomed with open arms,” MacMillan said about Minnesota Hockey’s approval.
Per Minnesota State High School League rules, high school coaches weren’t allowed to work with their teams. That left the organizational and coaching duties to parents and boosters. Osseo coach/manager Jeff Price was among the first to embrace the Bridge League concept. He networked with other parents and boosters in the north metro and beyond, encouraging them to form teams, too.
“It was phenomenal,” Price said about the league. “I can’t thank Minnesota Hockey and the other groups that stepped up to help out enough because this is one-thousand percent about giving back to the kids when everything around them is being taken away.”
Price and Wessman, who finished with league highs in goals (13) and points (33), both listed an outdoor game against St. Louis Park at the St. Louis Park Rec Center and a season-ending game against Duluth East at Amsoil Arena in Duluth as season highlights for the Osseo team with a will-play-anyone-anywhere mantra.
“I was just hoping to get some games in with my buddies before they shut us down,” said Wessman, a senior, about his Bridge League expectations. “It was super fun.”
Other league highlights:
Holy Family’s uniforms. In a stroke of marketing genius, Holy Family dad Jon Blood helped arrange a sponsorship deal with Back Channel Brewing, a “laid-back taproom” overlooking Lake Minnetonka. The team was named Back Channel Bruisers (Bruisers is, of course, a play on brew-sers). To keep the branding age-appropriate, there was no mention of beer or brewery, just Back Channel, on the eye-catching black and green jerseys. However, Blood and other team organizers did comb through a list of 80 or so Back Channel brews then put the best of those names on the backs of players’ jerseys. That’s how junior forward Ryder Ferguson ended up wearing a nameplate bearing Scribble Jam, senior defenseman Noel Rahn wearing Money Baby and senior defenseman Spencer Lewin with Tulips, among numerous other wacky names.
Volunteer army. After MHCA and Minnesota Hockey worked together to create the league, it was up to volunteers (mostly parents) to get players and teams registered, schedule games, create and update rosters, secure officials, keep statistics and on an on. Many of those same parents ended up coaching their teams. Northern Lakes’ coach/manager Chris Crutcher said he was so flooded with emails and text messages about scheduling and schedule changes that some nights he wasn’t sure what team his squad was facing.
“I was amazed at the support the parents or booster clubs or whoever was running the teams provided,” MacMillan said. “I thought they were remarkable. They were respectful, they understood the rules and they followed them.”
Hermantown vs. Mahtomedi. In a rematch of last spring’s state Class 1A championship game Hermantown beat Mahtomedi 5-4 in overtime on a goal by senior Ethan Lund. Ben Dardis, hero of Mahtomedi’s 2020 state tourney run, stopped 37 shots. Hermantown sophomore sensation Zam Plante had five points. The thrilling back-and-forth nature of the game played in Hermantown in front of a restricted crowd was reminiscent of spring 2020, when Mahtomedi defeated Hermantown 3-2 in overtime at the Xcel Energy Center just days before the first statewide COVID-19 shutdown.
Superb goaltending. Six goaltenders who played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League proved to be Bridge League stalwarts. Hastings’ Tyler McCarville led the league in goals against average (1.49), Benilde-St. Margaret’s Carson Limesand was the save percentage leader (.945) and Little Falls’ Dane Couture and Cretin-Derham Hall’s Marko Belak also cracked the top 10 in several statistics categories. Maple Grove’s Jack Weineke also would have appeared prominently on those stat lists but didn’t play enough minutes to qualify (Maple Grove played just two games). Dardis, who split time with three other Mahtomedi goaltenders, posted a .907 save percentage.
Future stars? Several players served notice they are on the verge of breakout MSHSL seasons. Granted, the Bridge League provided a small sample size, but Osseo’s top line of Wessman, Jack Pojar and Daniel Ellingson was unstoppable at times as it racked up a combined 35 goals. Forest Lake junior Gavin Middendorf scored 12 of his teams’ 36 goals. Coon Rapids junior Nathan Clark (12 goals), Hastings senior Jax Schauer (9 goals), Sauk Rapids junior Cayden Christensen (9 goals) and Little Falls senior Nicholas Stevens (9 goals) are four more players to watch once/if the MSHSL season starts.
99 out of 99. It was a challenge at times for coaches and team managers to find volunteers to keep stats, but scoresheets were kept for all but one game. Thankfully, that non-scoresheet game was captured on video, which allowed for a mostly complete statistics summary to be created. The final missing scoresheet was fished out of an arena garbage can before it was entered online (long story).
There’s no telling when, or if, high school hockey will resume this winter.
“One of the messages I was trying to tell the boys the whole time is nothing guaranteed,” Osseo’s Price said. “Enjoy every game and treat every shift to like it’s your last.”
Wessman is hopeful the start of the MSHSL season will coincide with the late-December end of the current four-week pause in organized sports.
“We are all just hoping to play, at least,” he said.
Not matter what happens next, Wessman will have the memories of a mini-season that saw Osseo go 7-4, make an appearance in the league’s Top 10 rankings and play several teams that normally wouldn’t appear on its schedule.
“I thought we played well as a team,” Wessman said. “Everybody played hard all 11 games, and we won more games than we lost. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
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