Throw some royal blue uniforms with a touch of white on Grand Rapids’ players, maybe stitch an anchor on the front of their jerseys, and the Thunderhawks would make a more than passable Minnetonka impression. Same goes for the red and black of Eden Prairie or green and gold of Edina — sprinkling eagles or hornets into the ensemble as needed.
Grand Rapids, if so inclined, could disguise itself as most any Lake Conference team, and none would be the wiser.
“They are almost exactly what you see in a Lake team,” Wayzata senior defenseman Carson Peters said after the Trojans and Thunderhawks skated to a 3-3 overtime tie on Saturday at the Plymouth Ice Center. “Hard forechecking, they make plays, they have skills from the defensive side, solid goalie. No, that’s a great opponent.”
All of this may sound like blasphemy, given that Grand Rapids’ championship pedigree (state titles in 1975, 1976, 1980 and 2017) is so closely tied the team’s distinctive and instantly recognizable orange and black, “Halloween Machine” uniforms. But the point is ultimately the ultimate compliment: The Thunderhawks, for decades one of northern Minnesota’s dominant programs, compare favorably to a group of metro-area teams that are always bunched in and around the state’s top 10 and competing for — and often winning — state titles.
And the compliments flow both ways. Drape Wayzata in some Warroad gold and black or Roseau green and white and you’ve got yourself more than a reasonable facsimile of the powerhouses hailing from the Canadian border.
“They play kind of just like Roseau and Warroad, in your face and on the puck all day,” Grand Rapids senior defenseman Jack Peart said about Wayzata, the state Class 2A champion in 2016. “It’s fun.”
With the section playoffs set to begin as early as Tuesday for some teams, Saturday’s game served as the ultimate in last-minute dress rehearsals. No. 11 Wayzata (10-5-2) controlled the first period as it built a 2-0 lead. No. 5 Grand Rapids (13-1-1) was equally dominant in the second as it tied the score at 2-2. And the third and overtime periods were, in essence, a stalemate.
“They are very similar to some of the teams we see,” Grand Rapids coach Wade Chiodo said about the Trojans. “They play sound in all three zones, and you’ve got to fight for every inch. It was just a battle.”
The teams were whistled for a combined 12 infractions. Six of those came in the third period as the game’s back-and-forth flow ground to a halt. And six of the penalties were coincidental calls made in the aftermath of the numerous scrums that erupted in and around the crease.
“That’s just playoff-style hockey,” Peart said about all the pushing and shoving. “We wanted this kind of game at the end of the year, a chance to play against a top team like them. See how we can respond.”
Peart, a St. Cloud State commit and lock to be named a Mr. Hockey finalist, leads Grand Rapids with 26 points. He was held to a single assist on the scoresheet but had his fingerprints on just about every positive play for his team thanks to his superior skating ability and passing skills and an unflappable demeanor.
Saturday marked Grand Rapids’ second regular season trip south to the Twin Cities. In a normal season — one not shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic — metro-based fans would have had at least three and sometimes four or five opportunities to watch the Thunderhawks in person. Still, Peart put on a good show in the rare big-city appearance.
“He’s top notch,” Chiodo said about Peart, who starred in the USHL for the Fargo Force last fall before returning to Grand Rapids before the start of the high school season. “He obviously does an unbelievable job on the ice. He controls the game, he commands the game.”
He has fun.
“It has been an awesome year,” Peart said. “Our team is so close, I really wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”