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Long-awaited comeback has Minneapolis hockey back at state

For the first time since Bill Clinton was the new guy in the White House and Ace of Base was atop the pop charts, a public school team from Minneapolis will play in the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament this week, led by a city hockey legend.

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Junior defenseman Drew Pitts said it is special to wear the 'M' on their sweaters and play for the entire city of Minneapolis heading into the 2022 Minnesota State Hockey Tournament.
Chris Martin / Minneapolis Boys Hockey Boosters

MINNEAPOLIS — The question in a recent poll of meeting planners from around the nation was “What one word comes to mind when you think of Minneapolis?” Not surprisingly, “cold” was far and away the most common response. Other words that came to mind among those describing Minnesota’s largest city were: riots, convenient, expensive, protests, Target, Prince, north, crime and accessible.

“Hockey” was not a word that initially popped into the heads of many who thought of Minneapolis, but that may be changing this week. For the first time since 1994, a public school team from the City of Lakes is headed to St. Paul to compete in the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament.

When Minneapolis’ lone public school team (which draws most of its players from three high schools in the southern half of the city) faces Alexandria in the final quarterfinal game of the Class A tournament on Wednesday, it will mark a highly-visible comeback for the game in this city of more than 400,000.

A legend comes home

The coach of Minneapolis (the team has no nickname, and wears sharp black and white uniforms with an iconic ‘M’ on the front) knows a little about hockey in the larger of the Twin Cities. Joe Dziedzic was the 1990 Mr. Hockey winner at Minneapolis Edison, in the northeast part of the city, back when most of the public schools fielded their own teams.

He went on to play four years for the Minnesota Gophers, then skated more than 100 games in the NHL before making his way back to the city where his family’s name is iconic.

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Walt Dziedzic, Joe’s father, was a Minneapolis police officer and served on the city council for more than two decades. Joe’s sister, Kari, has represented the city in the Minnesota Senate since 2012.

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Before returning to his hometown to coach the Minneapolis boys high school hockey team, Joe Dziedzic won the 1990 Mr. Hockey Award at Minneapolis Edison, skated four years for the Minnesota Gophers and played more than 100 games in the NHL.
Chris Martin / Minneapolis Boys Hockey Boosters

“My dad always talked about knowing where you come from and taking care of the people who take care of you,” Joe said of his decision to come back to his hometown and take on the challenge of coaching public school hockey where enrollment and participation numbers were declining. “That kind of sunk in with me, and 10 years ago when this job presented itself, I knew it was going to be an uphill battle with some tough times. There definitely were, but that makes it even more special to finally break through and get to St. Paul.”

It was not a fluke, as Minneapolis has gone 21-6-1 this season while playing an independent schedule and is seeded fourth in the state tournament. Senior forward Jack Hanson has led the way offensively with 24 goals and 28 assists, while junior defenseman Drew Pitts has chipped in with 12 goals and 22 assists. In goal, senior Alex Lamont is 21-6-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .899 save percentage on a team where many players attend different schools during the day, then meet at the rink for practice or games.

“But we get in the locker room and we’re all brothers,” said Pitts, who attends Minneapolis Southwest, and said there are fun text message threads in the fall during football games among his hockey teammates who go to Washburn or South. “We know that we’re on the outside. Every other team, they go to school together all day and see each other in classes. We try to embrace that we’re the oddballs. We don’t look at it as a negative thing.”

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Known for his poise on defense, junior Drew Pitts had 12 goals and 22 assists for Minneapolis from his post on the blue line heading into the 2022 Minnesota State Tournament.
Chris Martin / Minneapolis Boys Hockey Boosters

Public school prowess

For Dziedzic, just having them in the city, in the public school system, is a big thing. There are plenty of hockey-playing kids in Minneapolis, but not all of them stay in the city for high school sports.

“People that have the money and are into hockey are usually sending their kids to Blake or Benilde or even Holy Angels,” Dziedzic said. “We’re obviously not the only program that happens to. If we’d kept all those kids, we’d probably have had a couple tourney teams in the past few years.”

It is worth noting that Blake, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Holy Angels are done for the season, while Minneapolis will be playing on statewide TV Wednesday night.

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In 1970, Southwest claimed the city's only state title, beating Edina 1-0 in overtime at Met Center for the championship. Dziedzic is the most recent NHLer from Minneapolis, but players like Mike Ramsey and Reed Larson both played at Minneapolis Roosevelt, and Tom Chorske won the first Mr. Hockey award in 1985 as a senior at Southwest. Dziedzic has recently heard from those three and countless others, offering congratulations on the 4-1 win over Delano in last week’s Section 2A title game, and wishes of good luck in the tourney.

Two years ago, Minneapolis hosted Hockey Day Minnesota, and Dziedzic’s team was one of those in the spotlight at an outdoor rink near Parade Ice Garden, where they play home games. Minneapolis fell 5-1 to Warroad that day, but may benefit from the experience come Wednesday.

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Warroad forward Anthony Foster (19) and Minneapolis forward Frank Lindgren (10) collide near mid ice in the second period in a boys hockey game during Hockey Day Minnesota at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis on Jan. 18, 2020. Warroad beat Minneapolis, 5-1. (John Autey / The Rink Live)

“We learned how to deal with all the distractions that come with it, tune it out, and just play hockey,” Pitts said. “Once you hit the ice, it’s just another hockey game you have to win.”

Redemption on the rink

Words like “crime” and “riots” are prominently included on that list of terms that people associate with Minneapolis, which is a reflection of recent highly-visible challenges in the community. For the kids in the black-and-white hockey jerseys, the tournament is not only the fulfillment of a long-held dream, but a chance to show a different side of their city than the one people might have seen on the news in the past few years.

“It means a lot to us,” Pitts said of the chance to represent their entire community. “We’re proud to wear the ‘M’ on our chest every day, and definitely proud to be the group that brought it back. It started a long time ago with guys before us and we were fortunate enough to be able to make it happen this year.”

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Senior goaltender Alex Lamont backstopped 21 wins for the Minneapolis boys high school hockey team, which advanced to the 2022 Minnesota State Hockey Tournament.
Chris Martin / Minneapolis Boys Hockey Boosters

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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