HIBBING — The combined record was 18-24-5 over two regular seasons, but the Hibbing/Chisholm High School boys hockey team didn’t listen to the naysayers.
The Bluejackets knew they had played a tough schedule, and lost to some good teams.
That prepared Hibbing/Chisholm for the Section 7A Tournament in both 2003 and 2004, and the Bluejackets didn’t disappoint.
Hibbing would beat International Falls in 1-0 in 2003, then the Bluejackets repeated as champions in 2004 with a 3-2 win over Hermantown.
Team members in 2003 were Trevor Northagen, Mike Kniffin, Mike Modich, Chris Modich, Andy Carlson, Drew Walters, Shea Walters, Troy King, Graham Parson, Travis Grahek, Tony Novak, Tom Waseleski, Brad Kern, Ben Kapella, Jake Klobuchar, Derek Lundquist, Jesse Vesel, Dan Tomassoni, Tony Trenberth, Jordan Hodge.
“It was a good, competitive group of guys that year,” Shea said. “It’s common amongst all teams that win championships that guys buy into their roles.
“You have guys that put the puck into the net, and secondary guys that bring the team together. That’s what we had in both of those years.”
Advancing to the state wasn’t surprising to Tomassoni.
“I knew we could get there,” Tomassoni said. “We played one of the toughest schedules in the state. We may have dropped to Class A, but we were still playing AA schools. A lot of people didn’t realize that.
“Our schedule was good. That’s what made us better. A lot of those losses were close games.”
During 2003, Hibbing finished 10-10-4.
The Bluejackets lost some close games to AA powers White Bear Lake, Grand Rapids, Hill-Murray and Benilde-St. Margaret’s.
Hibbing tied Edina 4-4, Warroad 3-3, Moorhead 3-3 and Virginia 3-3.
“We played Edina and Hill-Murray at a Christmas Tournament, and that was the turnaround to our season,” Vesel said. “We saw that we could play with some good hockey teams. That gave us a lot of confidence.
“That got us ready for the playoffs.”
The only non-close game was an 8-0 loss to Duluth East.
Trenberth, who was the backup goaltender, got his first varsity experience that game. Hibbing was down 5-0 when Trenberth went in the game.
“I was definitely not ready for that competition, with no experience,” Trenberth said. “I was happy that I only let in three goals in my first varsity experience.”
Hibbing/Chisholm was on a 5-1-2 run heading into the section tournament, then the Bluejackets got past Hermantown 3-2.
Next up was a 2-1 win over Virginia.
“The year before, we lost to Hermantown, and we should have won,” Vesel said. “Against Virginia, they were decent. They played us tough. We weren’t looking past them, but we thought we could beat them, for sure.”
The Bluejackets received a close call near the end of the game when Matt Niskanen ripped one off of the crossbar, but Hibbing held on to win.
That set up a showdown with International Falls and Ben Gordon.
There was no love loss between the two teams.
The Broncos had beaten the Bluejackets twice that season by the scores of 1-0 and 2-0.
“We didn’t have a good relationship with them,” Drew said. “Earlier in the season, that’s when everything started. One of their players was trying to get under my skin in the locker-room area.
“They were still chatting at me during the National Anthem. Our line was on the bench, and this kid came off of his bench, skated by our bench and he speared me in the throat.”
That player was escorted from the game.
The animosity continued into their next meeting at Bronco Arena.
“It was a war zone,” Drew said with a laugh. “I got beat up pretty good. They were out for me. It was ugly.”
Shea added, “Those were gritty games. Drew played bigger than he was, and that kid speared him on the bench. That was fuel for the fire. It was bad blood.”
The Broncos were 21-4-2 entering the game.
“Falls was good that year,” Vesel said. “They should have come out of our section, to be honest. Ben was an absolute superstar,”
From the opening faceoff, the Bluejackets let the Broncos know that they were in for a game.
“We got in their heads right away,” Shea said. “I pitchforked Ben on the opening faceoff. I tripped him and there was no call. That sent a message early.”
The line of Carlson, Kniffin and Mike Modich were assigned to the Gordon line.
“They shut them down,” Vesel said. “All of the credit goes to those three guys. We knew we had to win a lower-scoring game.
“We didn’t want that game to get into a shootout because they had a lot more firepower than us. We played well defensively, and shut them down. It was the best game I had played in. Coach DeCenzo had a good game plan, and we did it. We ended up on top.
According to Modich, he and his linemates had gone up against some good lines during the regular season.
“That’s something we took pride in,” Modich said. “Drew, Shea and Jesse could find the net from the red line. We didn’t score a ton of goals, but we didn’t give up a ton of goals.
“We played our positions well, and when that top line came out, we made sure they left the ice tired.”
That line was given specific instructions.
“Every time they touched the puck, we hit them,” Modich said. “Every time the puck went into the corner, we pushed someone up against the boards and held them there for a while.
“We exhausted them, and by the end of the game, they couldn’t run the lines like we did. They had to try and get other skaters on the ice.”
The score was tied 0-0 after two with both goalies, Baldwin and Tomassoni, playing flawlessly between the pipes.
“Danny played well,” Shea said. “Baldwin, he had some ridiculous saves in that game. We had more opportunities than them, but we couldn’t put the puck in the net.”
About midway through the third period, the Bluejackets got the break they needed.
Drew drew a penalty on Gordon, and that set up the game-winning tally.
“I was coming through the neutral zone, and Jesse fed me the puck,” Shea said. “I beat their defenseman wide and took it to the far side of the post.”
That shot tickled the twine, giving Hibbing/Chisholm a 1-0 lead.
“It was unreal, but there was like eight minutes left,” Shea said. “It seemed like time was standing still after that. They pulled their goalie. They had a lot of talent on that team. To shut them down…
“Ben was a dynamic player. For him to get shut down, the guys bought into their roles. It was good.”
Vesel started scoreboard watching, and that time ticked off slower than molasses in January.
“It seemed like an eternity,” Vesel said. “They could have scored at any minute, but we kept playing our game. We stuck to what we were supposed to do, but that clock, it took a long time. That last minute was long.
“They had their chances.”
More chances than Tomassoni wants to remember.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing at the end of that game,” Tomassoni said. “There was a big scramble in front of our net, and I couldn’t see the puck. I’m sure Brad made a couple of saves, like he did every time.
“There were bodies piled up around the net, and people were scrambling. I was kind of panicking. It was a blur. I was darn happy when that buzzer went off.”
That game took a toll on Modich’s line as well.
They found themselves on the ice with 1:30 remaining. A quick 30- or 40-second shift was all Modich was looking at, or at least that’s what they thought.
It didn’t turn out that way.
“I went out on the ice to start my shift, and as I started coming back to where I would normally jump off, the puck changed directions and went back into our zone,” Modich said. “We spent the last 45 seconds in our zone, scratching tooth-and-nail.
“I remember grabbing the puck in front of the net and throwing it behind the net. I knew that if I could get it behind the net, we could fight off the last couple of seconds. It was exhausting.”
Modich, Carlson, Kniffin, Novak and Kern staved off that Falls’ comeback in the final moments of the game.
“I was on Danny’s left side, and Kniffin was on the right,” Modich said. “They were trying to get it out front, and we weren’t going to let that puck anywhere near there. At that point, it didn’t matter.
“We didn’t need to score, but between the five of us, and Danny, we were all seniors. We weren’t going to let that happen. We weren’t going to come this far and let something happen where we could lose a chance at state.”
It was a frantic last 45 seconds of action.
“It happens all too fast for goalies,” Modich said. “They’re blocking that net, but the puck can change directions so fast. We all took it upon ourselves to not let Danny make a save there.
“We knew he’d protect that net, but if we could keep that puck from anywhere near the front, he wouldn’t let it in. That’s what happened. We went on 100-percent mode. We weren’t going to let it happen.”
Being a goaltender, Tomassoni had a number of superstitions before each game.
“A lot of them were goofy,” Tomassoni said. “In Bantams, I wouldn’t eat anything before a game, so I asked my dad to get me a Snickers and Gatorade between each period. I did that from that point on.
“The way I dressed… I put my right skate on, then my right pad. I’d put my left skate on, then my left pad.”
It went further than that.
“On the bus, I made my teammates sit in certain spots. Troy had to sit next to me in the locker room. Trevor had to sit by me on the bus, then the others were stationed in certain spots.
“If I played a good game, the clothes that I wore that day, I had my grandmother wash them, so I could wear them again.”
At state, the Bluejackets opened with Rochester Lourdes, and lost 2-1 in overtime
It was a tough pill to swallow.
“We outplayed them,” Shea said. “We were better because we had played a competitive schedule that lent itself well, but we missed on some opportunities. It went into overtime, and they got a breakaway.
“Their player made a nice move, and there we were in the consolation game.”
According to Modich, it was an unlucky bounce of the puck.
“We were in their zone, the puck bounced out and he was out there all by himself,” Modich said. “It happened, but we shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.”
Did the Bluejackets get caught up in the moment?
“They scored their goal, and we were playing from behind for most of the game,” Modich said. “We were tight, and we didn’t play as well as we could have. That’s what happens. You lose games you should win by not playing your systems.
“We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Vesel added, “That was a heartbreaker. We could have done some good things, but we didn’t put our best game out there. That’s what happens. It’s too bad because Warrorad ended up winning it.
“We had tied them 3-3, so it would have been nice to get past that first game. Who knows what we could have done?”
Tomassoni would like to have that breakaway back.
“The second he touched the puck I said to myself, ‘Poke check. Poke check,’” Tomassoni said. “I didn’t do that. I didn’t do anything. He didn’t even make a move. I could stop breakaways harder than that in my sleep.”
In the consolation semifinals, Hibbing would beat St. Louis Park, then in the fifth-place game, the Bluejackets downed Fergus Falls.
It was a nice way to end the season, but it was disappointing as well.
“We could have won that first game,” Shea said. “After that, anything is possible but that’s the beauty of the tournament. You have to come prepared, or you can be on the wrong side of the bracket.
“To win two-of-three games, we were proud to come back like that.”
“It’s still nice to finish the season with a win,” Vesel said. “Not many teams can say that.”
Lourdes lost to Simley in the semifinals.
Getting to play at state was a dream-come-true for Tomassoni.
“Everybody who plays Minnesota hockey wants to go to the state tournament,” Tomassoni said. “When I transferred, everybody said, ‘You’re not going to state.’ They wanted me to stay and play football, but I wanted hockey.
“That was everything, at least it was, but not anymore. Now, I want to get better at golf, but that’s not looking too promising.”
As fun as it was to play at state, Modich thought the section-final game was more exciting.
“ You play hockey for 20 years, and finally the clock ticks down and you get to go to state,” Modich said. “A total of 20 of us got to experience something that hundreds of others hadn’t before. The state tournament was a bonus.
“We didn’t play as well as we could have, but that section final stands far and above of them.”
In 2004, Hibbing/Chisholm lost some talented players, and with that schedule, the Bluejackets finished the regular season with a record of 8-14-1.
That team consisted of Chris Bougalis. Northagen, Ron Dycus, Waseleski, Chris Modich, Nick Selden, Walters, Walters, King, Parson, Grahek, Tom Whiteside, Adam Holm, Ben Sartori, Brendan Kapella, Lundquist, Eric Larson, Brennan Poderzay, Trenberth and Steve Sersha.
“We had a lot of ups and downs that year,” Shea said. “We had the pivotal moment where our backs were up against the wall. We weren’t playing good hockey, so we thought, ‘What do we have here?’
“We peaked at the right time. A lot of credit goes to Mark with the way he set us up in the section tournament.”
Trenberth became the starting goalie when Tomassoni graduated, and he remembers a game against Grand Rapids that was televised.
“That was new back then,” Trenberth said. “Anthony LaPanta was the announcer. Alex Goligoski scored the hat trick, and we lost 4-3. He had to score that hat trick on me.”
During that regular season, Hibbing/Chisholm would lose to Hermantown by the score of 7-2 just a couple of weeks before the 7A playoffs.
As it turned out, that was a preview for the Section 7A finals.
“He (DeCenzo) gave up that game to get information as to what they were doing,” Shea said. “We changed the way each player forechecked, which players forechecked and it worked to a T.”
In the first round of the Section Tournament, Hibbing got past Eveleth-Gilbert 6-0, which set up a semifinal contest with Virginia in Grand Rapids.
The score was tied 2-2 with about two minutes to play.
Virginia’s top line had been on the ice for over six minutes, while DeCenzo ran two lines.
“They were gassed,” Shea said. “Even to go two lines, that’s a tough thing to do as a coach because you have to get that sequence right. That’s what wore them down.”
Drew said, “If I remember right, they had to take their timeout because they were so tired.”
As the Bluejackets returned to the ice after that timeout, Drew looked at Shea and said, “We’re scoring on this shift.”
What gave it away?
“I remember seeing them with their sticks across their knees,” Drew said. “They were gassed. They weren’t ready for that shift. They were tired. It was an absolute war.”
Drew would take the faceoff, with Lundquist stationed in front of the net.
Drew won the faceoff back to the point. The shot went on net, and Lundquist was johnny-on-the-spot, tapping home the rebound for the go-ahead goal.
“When Shea, Derek and I put our minds to it, we could make things happen,” Drew said. “We couldn’t score at will, by any means, but when we had to get gritty, and get a dirty one, we could make that happen.”
Hibbing didn’t panic in a tough situation.
“We played such a tough schedule that when we got in those moments, we were OK,” Shea said. “We were always in shape. We had been in moments like that many times the previous year, so we knew what it took.
“We understood what it meant to win those types of games.”
That win set up the showdown with Hermantown and Nick Kemp.
This time, Waseleski’s line was assigned the task of shadowing Kemp, and they shut down the Hawks’ talented winger. Waseleski was on a line with Dycus and King.
“The coaches came up with that game plan,” Waseleski said. “I was never on a line that scored a ton of goals. We came out with that deal where we were playing against the top player on their top line.
“We did well. We took pride in that. That helped free up our top line to play against their second and third lines to get some scoring. We had a fair amount of success doing that.”
Drew said, “Mark didn’t want to match lines. In that way, we didn’t tire out. He wanted our third line to play against their No. 1 line.”
To achieve that, DeCenzo incorporated the neutral-zone trap, but it took some time to learn it.
“It took us about one week of practice to get it down,” Drew said. “If we didn’t do something right, he immediately blew the whistle, and we’d start over. He definitely got us ready for that game.”
The Hawks would put 37 shots on net in that game, but Trenberth was equal to the task.
“That was our best team effort of the season,” Drew said. “That was the best game of Tony’s life. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Trenberth credited his teams’ all-around defensive play for his success.
“None of those shots were testing shots,” Trenberth said. “That was the best defensive game we played all year. It was amazing.”
Drew had the hat trick in the Bluejackets’ victory.
“It was one of those nights where the puck was going into the back of the net,” Drew said.
Hibbing did get a little scare late in the game.
“There was a faceoff in our end that we lost,” Drew said. “Kemp ringed one off of the post. When that horn went off, I dropped to my knees, looking at the scoreboard.
“That’s when the chaos started. That was so good.”
Shea said, “We had players that blossomed at the right time. Everybody competed their butts off. It was another one of those games where nobody had us pegged to win, but we had them on the ropes right away and won.”
Trenberth remembers getting mobbed by his teammates.
“The first person to come to me was Graham,” Trenberth said. “He literally spears me, and my helmet goes flying off. They tackled me, and piled on top of me. I was doing all that I could to protect my head.”
The Bluejackets departed to state with an 11-14-1 record, and even though they were 8-1-2 in their last 11 games, the reception they received at the banquet was less than desirable.
“We got laughed at at the banquet,” Trenberth said. “St. Cloud Cathedral was 25-4, with a power-play percentage of 30-percent. That didn’t matter. Our coaches were good when it came to playoff time.
“They scouted them, so we knew what they were going to do.”
In their hotel rooms during the first session of the tourney, the team was watching the broadcast, and they heard something that added a little more fuel to the fire.
“Jim Rich said, ‘Hibbing doesn’t deserve to be here,’” Trenberth said. “We thought, ‘Did he just say that?’ We used that as bulletin-board material. We wrote that on the whiteboard.”
Waseleski confirmed that statement.
“Oren Bottoms said that if that doesn’t get you mad, then you’re not in the game,” Waseleski said. “I guarantee you that everybody was mad. We knew we didn’t have the best record, and that we weren’t the best team, but we played through sections like we deserved to be at state.”
Hibbing was inspired enough to beat Cathedral 5-1, proving it belonged with the best teams at state.
“We played well,” Shea said. “We were coming off of beating Hermantown, so we were on cloud nine. We carried that momentum into the state and buried them.”
Shea had a chance for the hat trick, but he gave up the puck to his brother for an empty-net tally.
Game two didn’t work out so well for the Bluejackets.
Hibbing/Chisholm had a 2-0 lead over Orono, but the Spartans scored five-straight goals to advance into the finals.
“Clearly, we got out-played,” Waseleski said. “Maybe we ran out of juice. We got beat by a better team.”
In the third-place game, the Bluejackets played South St. Paul.
The Packers were led by goaltender Alex Stalock, who went on to play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He is currently playing for the Minnesota Wild.
“Alex was coming into his own at that time,” Shea said. “We had played together, so I knew how good he was. Everybody knew about him. He had the best hands on the team, and he was a goalie.
“We beat them, which was awesome coming home in third place. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Hibbing was up 3-0 in that game, with Shea netting one of those goals.
“He bounced that one off Stalock’s back from behind the goal,” Drew said. “He said, ‘Ha, ha, gotcha.’”
Any momentum the Bluejackets had was taken away in the second period due to an injury.
“Ben Sartori got hit and broke his femur,” Trenberth said. “He yelled so loud. I had a direct view of his leg, and it didn’t look good. The whole Xcel Energy Center went silent.
“They took him off on a stretcher, so we said, ‘We have to win this one for Ben.’”
The game went to overtime, and Hibbing would prevail 4-3, to once again, bring home some hardware. Grahek scored the game-winning goal.
“We got to go to the hospital and give Ben his medal,” Trenberth said. “He got to see the trophy. That was cool.”
Everyone knew what kind of stickhandler Stalock was, and Trenberth tried to emulate him, but it backfired on him.
“We’re on the power play, and the puck was in the left-hand corner,” Trenberth said. “I go behind the net to sweep it around the boards. It hit the Zamboni door and slid out to the slot.
“One of their guys was there for a tap-in. I tried to play the puck one time, and that’s what happened, against Stalock. Fortunately, it all worked out fine.”
Orono lost to Breck 7-2 in the finals.
Hibbing finished with a combined record of 28-26-5 over those two seasons, but the Bluejackets had a consolation trophy and third-place trophy to their credit.
“It goes to show that the regular season doesn’t matter,” Drew said. “It’s a matter of persevering and pushing throughout the year. Every week, you try to get better.”
Waseleski knew those teams had good players, but he said the coaching is what separated them from the other teams.
“We had good leadership as far as the seniors go, but it all stemmed from coaching,” Waseleski said. “They were the brains behind everything. We knew we were better than a .500 team, and they told us that all year.
“Both Mark and Pede had their own hockey experiences, and Oren was a huge part of it for the guys my age. I don’t think he got nearly enough credit. He had a hand in teaching us what we needed to know, scheming game plans. We had a lot of good hockey minds.”