The Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament is one of the state's great traditions. For nearly 70 years, fans have gathered to watch the best of the best in the state, and it's always a tournament that just about anyone can win.
People screamed bloody murder when the Minnesota State High School League elected to go to a two-class system for hockey. The tournament was being watered down, after all.
With two classes in place, there were more opportunities for great stories of small towns making it big. As Twin Cities schools became more and more involved in hockey, the metro area started to control the big-school class.
And as it turns out, the Twin Cities have developed a stranglehold on the smaller-school Class A.
Because private schools like Breck and St. Thomas Academy have dominated Class A, which they're eligible to play in because of smaller enrollments. Their practically-blatant acquisition of top hockey talent notwithstanding, these schools come in well under the cutoff for a team to be required to play in Class AA for hockey.
STA is moving up to Class AA next season, which alleviates some of the problem. However, Breck is sticking around in Class A, and there's no reason to think the Mustangs will stop being one of the state's top programs.
Because of the private schools' dominance of the Class A tournament, a new tradition has started for hockey fans in the state, and that's the annual festival of whining about private schools during the state hockey tournament.
Most of it is justified. Class A wasn't created so private schools in the metro area could dominate it, while their hockey peers like Edina and Eden Prairie play in Class AA.
No, Class A was created so schools like St. Cloud Apollo could have a moment in the sun. The Eagles hadn't been to state in the lifetimes of the players on this squad, and earning a spot in the tournament invigorated everyone involved.
Their reward? Outshot 50-3 and outscored 12-0 by a classless St. Thomas Academy team. Not classless because they kept chasing Class A hardware when they had long since proven they had no business in Class A. Classless because of the unnecessary two-man forecheck they were employing in a 12-0 game.
Marshall had never been. The Tigers -- from southwestern Minnesota -- are probably better known for football or wrestling, but the 3A champions earned their way to state, serving as the only of 16 teams in the two classes to make a first state tourney appearance this season.
What was the prize? They got schooled 6-1 by Breck in a game that was only that close because Breck didn't lay everything on the line once it became clear the Tigers were outclassed on the ice. The Mustangs chose to respect their opponent, unlike the top seed in the tournament did a few hours later.
It's the sad reality of what Class A has become. We spend more time talking about how Hermantown or -- in most years -- Warroad should move up, or whining about the presence of dominant Twin Cities private schools in the tournament, than we do enjoying the tournament.
STA and Breck have inherent advantages. They are elite schools where kids get the best of both worlds. They get a top-notch education, along with the chance to play high-level hockey with great players and often against great teams. They are up against community-based programs, where the seeds for greatness are sown in Squirts, PeeWees, and Bantams.
Marshall didn't make a state tournament by taking the best bantam players from Luverne. St. Cloud Apollo's first trip to state since 1984 didn't happen because all the really good players from Sartell decided to transfer for a better opportunity.
(For that matter, Hermantown didn't build a program capable of making three straight state title games by poaching half the roster from Proctor, and the kids that did transfer there did so at such a young age they didn't come close to running afoul of MSHSL rules.)
Yeah, I get it. Breck and STA don't have district boundaries to draw kids from. They have to get kids for the school to make it. This is one vehicle to do that, and I'm not here to deny them the opportunity to play hockey.
But when you clearly have an advantage over everyone, not just Class A schools, and you decide to play in Class A, that's wrong.
What is the solution?
It isn't simple. Requiring all private schools to move up one class in all sports isn't fair. There are plenty of examples of private school programs that can't compete in the level they're playing at based on enrollment. Instead of punishing the majority for the actions of the minority, let's find a different way.
STA doesn't attract kids by offering Class A trophies and tourney appearances, and they also don't use the free publicity they get from the private-public debate. The Cadets get kids by playing elite competition, as evidenced by about half their schedule coming against Class AA opponents. That's how it gets done.
First step toward fixing the problem: A new rule that works for every sport and every class. Any team that plays more than, say, 30-35 percent of their games against teams in a higher class over a rolling five-year period must move up one class for a minimum of four years. Suddenly, any school playing -- as an example -- Class A hockey loses one of its potential advantages over other Class A teams.
You can't balance the schedule so everyone plays everyone, but you can level the playing field a bit. That should be the goal, not screwing schools that are abiding by the rules and trying to do the right thing by the kids they enroll.