Fans were sitting in the aisles and stacked two-deep around the glass.
Chaska had a massive student section. So, too, did Chanhassen.
High school hockey made an emphatic return to the Chaska Community Center on Tuesday night as one of the state’s most underrated rivalries, at least for now, produced an edge-of-your-seat thriller in the form of Chaska’s 3-2 triumph over Chanhassen.
Proximity, the two high are schools separated by six miles, most of which consists of the nationally renowned Hazeltine National Golf Club, fuels the rivalry. So does the fact the towns feed players into a combined Chaska/Chanhassen youth program, then tugs them apart when they hit high school.
That means kids who have bonded through countless sleepovers, out-of-town tournaments and pizza parties since they were barely old enough to lift a hockey stick were out on the ice trying to pummel each other on Tuesday night.
In a respectful way, of course.
“Playing against these guys, you definitely get a lot more, like, physical and a little chippy,” said Chanhassen junior Joe Parker, who all but lit a stick of dynamite in the arena by scoring twice in in a span of 49 seconds early in the third period as the Storm rallied from a 3-0 deficit. “It’s awesome that you can battle that hard, and when it’s over say ‘Alright, good game,’ and shake hands.”
Players milled about on the ice long after most of the crowd of over 1,000 had left the building. Large and small groups of Chaska guys chatting it up with their Chanhassen buddies. While the two high school programs are their own entities, they’re as intertwined as a pile of spaghetti.
Chanhassen coach Sean Bloomfield was an assistant at Chaska for nine seasons before taking over the Storm this fall. First-year Chanhassen assistant coach Zack Friedli was co-head coach of the Chaska/Chanhassen Bantam AA program that consistently competed for state titles over the past several seasons, including a runner-up finish to Wayzata last spring.
Most of the top-end youth talent has migrated to Chaska over the years, and the Hawks, naturally, have had a decided advantage in the series. But higher numbers of AA players have been landing in Chanhassen in recent years, and the Storm, traditionally a non-factor in the big-school playoffs, figure to be highly competitive against not only Chaska but other Section 2AA powers such as Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and Prior Lake in the coming years.
“We've always kind of owned the rivalry,” said Chaska senior Zach Seltun, who scored goals in the first and second periods as the Hawks built their three-goal lead. “But they have a lot of good young players. In future years, it'll be closer. Just like it was tonight.”
Chanhassen played a preponderance of freshmen and sophomores last season as it went 8-11-0 and lost in the quarterfinals of the Section 2AA playoffs. The Storm lost to Chaska by scores of 5-0 and 3-0. Tuesday’s game was their season opener.
“They didn't give up,” Bloomfield said about his players. “These games, these rivalry games are all emotion based, and being able to channel those emotions correctly.”
“That’s just like, how we play,” Parker said about the Storm’s third-period revival. “I mean, our team's never gonna quit. We never let up no matter what the score is. If it was 7-0 we'd still be playing the same same way.”
Chaska, which unveiled an exciting trio of high-scoring, highly imaginative first-year forwards in freshman Sam Spehar and sophomores Sam Scheetz and Tanner Bruender in season opening wins over St. Thomas Academy and Duluth East, leaned less on razzle and dazzle and more on grit and tenacity to escape with Tuesday’s triumph.
The Hawks were called for a slashing penalty with 2:16 remaining, and Bruender was one of the forwards instrumental in killing it.
“He’s a guy that can win face offs, he can take the body, he’s strong on the puck, and he's willing to sacrifice his body, too,” first-year Chaska coach Matt Cooke said about Bruender, who played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League this fall and had a one-game stint with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL before the start of the high school season.
Cooke, who played more than 1,000 NHL games and won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, knows all about the value of shot-blocking, body-sacrificing defense.
“I had to rely on four guys that I trust out there on the ice that are willing to do everything it takes to keep the puck out of the net,” he said about the final, frantic minutes.
As for the rivalry game and all its trappings, including the huge crowd, Cooke wasn’t surprised by the playoff-like atmosphere.
“It's the first time fans were allowed to be in this building in long time,” he said. “So I had expected to be pretty electric.”