The Best-Selling Book about Hockey in the Country!
“Hockey fans everywhere will feel the chills of excitement and pangs of disappointment in a season spent with the Jefferson High Jaguars. The story is gripping, and Rosengren is an all-star writer.”
--MR. HOCKEY ® Gordie Howe
Named amazon.com’s Best Sports Book of 2003:
“An enthralling look inside hockey, populated by real people living real lives. ‘Friday Night Lights’ for the skating set, but you don't have to be a hockey fan to really get into this one.” --amazon.com
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This brutally honest, moving and insightful book about high school sports evokes the tradition of “Friday Night Lights,” H.G. Bissinger’s classic book.
John Rosengren was given unlimited season-long access to the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars, a championship team in Minnesota, where hockey is religion and failing to win is a mortal sin. Under the watchful eye of pro scouts and the weight of massive expectations, the Jaguars rank number one in the country.
Dealing with the classic issues of what happens to boys under enormous pressure to win, “Blades of Glory” draws into sharp focus the challenges of divorce, teen suicide and performance-enhancing drugs. The dramatic narrative follows five of these young men and their coach, showing a rare look inside an elite high school program.
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Table of Contents
Updates on Jefferson hockey and figures from book
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Listen to a webcast of John discussing youth and high school hockey at www.thestitch.us
Chapter 1: King Shit
The following passages were part of the original Blades of Glory manuscript, but, for one reason or another, they wound up on the cutting room floor.
MIKE DAHLBERG: The Best Player You Never Heard Of
From the pros to high school--and even younger--drinking and drugging had claimed many a hockey player's career. That season, the New York Rangers' Theo Fleury enjoyed one of his best seasons ever, but his drug use threw his life out of control and landed him in treatment come February. A good number of talented players you've never heard of faded into immortal oblivion with a belly full of booze or drugs. Mike Dahlberg was one of them.
As a sophomore in 1975, the gifted Dahlberg centered the Jaguars' first line and led the team in scoring. By senior year, he was a blue chip prospect--Mike Ramsey and Neal Broten rolled into one. Even today, Sats calls Mike Dahlberg the best player to have graduated from Jefferson. Everybody could see his star shone brightly. But Dahlberg, an introverted and insecure kid with a good heart, didn't believe in his abilities. He placed his faith in alcohol.
After playing two years of Junior A hockey, he walked on at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He practiced and partied but didn't go to class. When the season started, he was academically ineligible. The team traveled to Eveleth to play an exhibition against the Olympic squad; Mike dropped out.
That broke his parents' hearts. They cut him loose. His father handed Mike his tax returns and told him he was on his own. So long as he kept drinking, they could do no more for him.
A year later, John Mariucci, then a scout for the North Stars, tried to rescue Dahlberg. The Godfather of Minnesota hockey picked up Mike after a night of drinking and drove him across town to Met Center. Maroosh brought the starstruck phenom into the dressing room, introduced him to coach Glen Sonmor and the players. They shook Mike's hand and talked to him like one of the guys. Mariucci took him to see the general manager, Lou Nanne, another Minnesota hockey pedigree--All-American at the University of Minnesota, captain of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, eleven-year North Star, and NHL All-Star.
Imagine getting up so hung over, driving to Met Center with Mariucci--this hockey idol--going into the dressing room with all these North Stars, then Nanne's office. Dahlberg shakes his head. It scared the crap out of me. Sonmor and Nanne invited Dahlberg to skate with the team, said they'd give him a contract to play wherever he seemed to fit. Maroosh took Dahlberg home to get his equipment. Most kids can only dream of such an opportunity. Twenty years later, Dahlberg wonders how it might have turned out, how far he could have ridden his skills. He had been too scared to go back.
The drinking and drugging had wiped out his self esteem.
Mariucci, by then a recovering alcoholic himself, told Dahlberg, "Don't drink so damn much, and everything will be okay." But Mike couldn't help himself. He hung up his skates. Drinking was the priority. And a star fell out of sight.
These days, Mike is sober, happily married twelve years, and father of a boy and girl. He says he wouldn't want his life any different. Normally guarded with his emotions, he chokes up talking about his love for his ten-year-old daughter. He wants nothing more than to spend time with his kids. On a recent autumn night, they had been out scouring the golf course rough for lost balls--and found over a hundred.
Yet he can't help but wonder what might have been, going all the way back to high school, How far could he have gone sober?
Bloomington Ice Garden housed three rinks. In Rink 1, the varsity played on a standard 200' x 85' rectangular ice sheet with rounded corners. Plywood boards coated with a quarter inch of polyurethane ringed the ice, standing three and a half feet tall. Tempered glass, which busts into a million pieces when broken, replaced the original chain link that protected the fans from flying pucks and brandished sticks. The Plexiglas rose five and a half feet above the boards on the side, eight feet behind the nets. A powder blue plastic baseboard--yellow in most rinks--ran along the dashers' bottom edge. The ice itself was painted white, with blue and red symmetrical lines and circles.
Less than an inch thick in places, the ice at BIG was chilled to 16º by 7,000 pounds of freon coursing through a dense network of coils--a giant refrigerator laid below the surface. The game's climate changed when hockey moved indoors. It shifted from a way the rugged survived long, cold winters to a pampered pastime. The preference for artificial ice placed a premium upon availability. There wasn't enough indoor ice for everyone.
Ice became a political issue in Minnesota like logging in Washington or grazing rights in Montana. In the Nineties, when girls and women took up hockey, the limited rink supply couldn't keep pace with the expanding demand. In 1995, the State legislature passed the Mighty Ducks Bill, which provided communities emergency ice relief: $250 million in matching grants to build new rinks and $50K to renovate existing rinks. By the end of the millennium, the state had shelled out $18.5 million to build over sixty-one new ice sheets. The money came too late to help Bloomington.
Bloomington had added Rink 2 in 1975, but by the early Nineties, it was clear two rinks couldn't provide enough ice to sate the community's appetite. Clear to many, but not all. Ice wasn't a hard and fast issue to everyone. In Bloomington, like many communities across the state, the hurdles that needed to be cleared to build another rink divvied up the locals. Opponents clucked their tongues over wetlands, traffic, and strapping an aging population with the expense. Enter Bob Lange, a "cowboy rebel" as one begrudging admirer tagged him. Lange led the charge to build BIG's Rink 3 about the time his son B. J., '00, was getting serious about his hockey career as a Peewee.
One city council member who doubted the demand for ice was as dire as Lange claimed said the resolution to build a third rink would pass only "over my dead body." Fine, said Lange. When the personal injury attorney met with clients in the conference room of his West Bloomington office, a bison skull peered over his shoulder. Lange bagged the buffalo with a bow and arrow on the South Dakota ranch where Kevin Costner filmed Dances with Wolves. With gray hair parted down the middle and a devilish, dimpled grin, he could have been separated at birth from Dudley Moore, but a competitive fire burned in his belly. Bob Lange would have his way.
He mobilized the hockey community against the infidels and enlisted John Bianchi and Greg Trebil as his campaign managers. The two highly respected hockey coaches employed their influence, making impassioned speeches and pulling strings behind the scenes. They circulated a petition that hundreds of parents signed. Sats, too, lobbied on behalf of the new rink to accommodate his team's feeder system. Lange assigned allies to each politician and threatened consequences if they didn't vote yes to more ice. "We let them know there was a price to be paid for one's vote," Lange said.
Back in 1858 when Bloomington first organized as a town and approved a $100 budget, the stickiest issue was whether horse and cattle should be corralled during the summer (the village elders decided to let them roam freely). Rink 3 ranked with the tough issues Bloomington had faced since: whether to approve women firefighters in 1974 and the decision to close Lincoln High in 1982. Single-issue politics once again consumed the suburb in 1992. Homeowners across 98th Street argued additional traffic would disturb their quiet streets. Environmentalists warned that the wetlands surrounding BIG fell under federal protection and could not be encroached.
Rink 3 proponents agreed to jog the drive around the wetlands and dig a skim pond to collect parking lot runoff, but the most difficult question became how to pay for the $4.5 million project. The city financial manager warned the rink would never make money. Eventually, the plan had the city loan BIG the down payment and finance the balance with bonds. But what rankled some critics was that the loan was drawn from the city's general sports fund, padded by the municipal golf course's profits.
When John Bianchi, an avid golfer, walked into the municipal golf course clubhouse for a round that summer, he got an earful from the local duffers. He pointed out that an additional rink was good for the kids and would raise property values, but the critics weren't easily appeased. "I felt like I'd murdered the queen of Bloomington," Bianchi said.
In the end, Lange's troops didn't have to build the rink over the opposing council member's dead body--but they did push the vote through in his body's absence. The member arrived late to the meeting with the vote on the agenda. By the time he arrived, the council had approved Rink 3. A graceful loser, he hoisted a shovel at the ground-breaking for publicity photos. BIG opened its third rink in 1994, the year Bob Lange became Jefferson Hockey Booster Club president.
The Jaguar team managers performed multiple small but significant tasks behind the scenes. Kelly Bergmann and Dave Daly toted the players' extra sticks in large bundles under their arms and arranged them neatly on the bench. They filled and distributed water bottles. They trimmed sticks and replaced blades. They ran errands: buy Bernie a Snickers bar, fetch Bernie's stick from his mother's car, get Bernie's skates sharpened between periods. They carried a black box that looked like a metal doctor's satchel, complete with tape, laces, mouthguards, Band-Aids, gauze, chin strap pieces, scissors, screws, and a screwdriver.
Most importantly, they catered the pucks to home games. While players dressed in the school locker room, Kelly or Dave removed five pucks from the freezer compartment of a hotel-sized refrigerator in the equipment room. They placed another five pucks in the freezer on a bed of frost. They packed the five chilled vulcanized rubber disks weighing almost six ounces each into a blue canvas bag to transport them to the rink. A frozen puck plays better than one at room temperature; cold pucks bounce less.
Five would be enough. Occasionally, a puck wound up stuck in the rafters or lost in the stands, but never all five in one game. Sometimes, the pucks beaned a fan. This happened to the Jefferson principal's wife twice during the same week, which prompted the principal to joke, "I'm not going to sit next to her anymore--it's too dangerous." First thing when they arrived at BIG, Kelly and Dave, proud as ring bearers, delivered the pucks to the penalty box where Seplak packed them into a plastic gallon ice cream pail filled with ice shavings. Nestled in the ice, the pucks looked like cans of Miller Lite waiting to be cracked. The announcer kept the pail at his feet, ready to replace a game puck gone AWOL.
Past Jaguars returned each winter for the annual alumni game to be hailed once again as heroes in their hometown, where the community understood what it meant to wear the Jaguars sweater. You could take the boy out of the jersey, but you could never take the Jaguar out of the boy. Junior varsity coach Scott Hohag, '92, who anchored the alumni defense, had been part of the team that started Jefferson's run of sixty undefeated games. For two years after his graduation, he checked the box scores first thing every Wednesday and Sunday morning to see if the streak was still alive.
Wherever they went, the Jaguar alumni carried the legacy with them. Hohag carried it to St. Cloud State University. When people he met at parties learned where he had attended high school, their first question was, Did you play hockey? His answer granted him instant admiration. Dave Skogland, '77, earned the same respect. Men in their forties who played late night hockey with Skogland still exclaimed, "Wow!" when they found out he lettered at Jefferson. Jim Broz, '89, paired with Hohag on defense for the alumni game, encountered strangers who remembered his name from the state tournament.
The Jaguars' allure extended well beyond the metro area. Pete Helberg, dean of students at Jefferson, grew up in Hayfield, a small town in southeastern Minnesota, where he cheered for the Jaguars. "Say Bloomington Jefferson, and it doesn't matter where you're from, the first thing people think of is Jefferson hockey," Helberg said.
Oral tradition preserved that reputation, passed from one generation to the next. Sats, the Jaguars' patriarch, loved to talk about his extended family. He spun yarns about the two players who skated on the same line but hated each other and routinely engaged in fisticuffs off and on the ice. About the short and feisty drug abuser who pledged to stay clean through the season and threatened to whup any teammate that didn't follow his example. About the kid who couldn't find the net all year that became the unlikely Tournament hero with a big goal.
The '01 team quizzed him in the dressing room one day after practice, Who was the best to play for Jefferson?
"Best player to graduate, Mike Dahlberg," Sats said of the '77 alumnus whose bright future had been dimmed by drugs.
"What about Mike Crowley?" "He was the best college player," Sats said. "Mark Parrish and Tom Kurvers are the best in the pros." "Who was the best goalie?" Jeremy wanted to know.
"John Columbo." Columbo's 1.26 goals against average in 1979-80 was the second-best in Jaguar history but probably the hardest won. He received a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
The Jefferson family tree was ripe with favorite sons and crazy cousins.
Columbo's understudy, Chris "Boo" Robideau, '81, who led the Jags to their first state title, was as goofy as goalies get. His seven brothers and sisters saddled him with his nickname. Discovering he spooked easily, they would sneak up on him and shout, "Boo!" In the dressing room, Boo would spontaneously blurt out "Arrgh!" or "Oogha!" He regularly barfed before games. "When he feels sick, we know he'll be sharp," Sats told the Minneapolis Star. Before big games, Boo often had trouble sleeping, so he would spend the night at Coach Bianchi's house. After Jefferson beat Grand Rapids in the '81 overtime classic, Boo's ecstatic teammates knocked the goaltender unconscious underneath the hog pile. He needed help off the ice, then vomited in the dressing room. "I was okay after I "rooped," he told reporters.
Tom Kurvers, '80, an All-State offensive-minded defenseman, carried the Jaguars to their first state tournament his senior year, then, in his final year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he carried the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship game. Although his college team lost in double overtime, Kurvers' 18 goals and 76 points in 43 games won him the Hobey Baker award. He went on to play 659 games over eleven seasons in the NHL, capturing hockey's holiest grail in 1986 with the Montreal Canadiens, the only Jaguar to etch his name onto the Stanley Cup. Kurvers' trademark was his ability to put passes on his teammates' tape. The great Bobby Smith, Kurvers' teammate in Montreal, called the former Jaguar one of the best passers he ever played with.
Matt Jones, '93, the Jaguars' leading scorer his senior year, came from a nontraditional West Bloomington family. His father, a single parent, hustled pool to support the kids. Jonesie's 22 goals and 28 assists in '93 earned him a berth on the StarTribune's All-Metro team. For the writeup, his All-Metro teammates sent in graduation pictures with their hair brushed, ties neatly knotted, and heads tilted just so. Jonesie submitted a casual shot flaunting a Chicago Blackhawks cap (then the archenemies to North Star fans), sporting an earring, and flashing a cocky, squinted smile. Sats claimed hockey had helped keep young Matt out of trouble. Indeed, his teammates still talked about how, following graduation, Jonesie led police on an ill-fated car chase.
Nick Checco, '93, was one of the last true rink rats. As a little shaver, he played extracurricular pickup games every day at the neighborhood park. That love for playing the game, inherited from his Iron Range father, carried over into Nick's high school days. BIG rink manager Denny May would call Checco, the Jaguars' captain his senior year, whenever there was some available ice, and, even at odd hours, Checco rounded up the guys. A perfect summer day for Nick included two hours of advanced skating school, two hours of summer hockey league, and two hours of late-night pickup hockey with friends. That was Mr. Hockey '93's routine the summer before senior year.
A month and a day after Jefferson trounced Kennedy 6-1, the crosstown rivals squared off once again. Kennedy had won only five conference games. At 5-8-2 (8-12-2 overall), the Eagles occupied seventh place among the Lake Conference's ten teams. They no longer played to show in the conference nor even for the chance to finish the season .500. They played to beat Jefferson, their last chance to redeem the season.
Sickness and injury thinned the Jaguars lineup. Duncs was home in bed, stricken by a nasty flu bug, and Bernie watched from the stands, his arm in a sling. Junior Jeff Rysavy-- Shavvy --filled in for Duncs, and Nick Dillon moved up to Bernie's line. Steve Duncan called his son between periods with updates.
Fans once again lined the glass between the bleachers, several rows deep and standing on a bench in the back. Brad Parker, the Olson special education teacher, occupied his usual post behind the home net. Fresh off the slopes, he still wore his snow pants, and a lift ticket dangled from the zipper of his jacket. He was probably the only impartial observer in the building.
The Eagles' navy and gold filled the home side, backed by its modest seventeen-piece brass band. Kennedy students flaunted the "Bling, Bling" sign they'd stolen from the Jefferson side at the last game. A pair of Jefferson boys set out to confiscate Kennedy's "Daddy, can you buy me a car" sign. They wanted to change it to "Daddy, can you steal me a car," but a Jefferson teacher intercepted them and sent them back to the visitors' side.
This time, Kennedy struck first. On the powerplay, senior captain Robbie Kinsella bounced a pass off the boards past Tommy Gilbert's stick to Aaron Forsman, who beat Jeremy Earl over the shoulder. The band played their song.
Minutes later, Kinsella executed a perfect give-and-go, dropping a pass at the blue line and getting it back at the faceoff dot. He slid a pass across the crease, but his wing, staring at a wide expanse of mesh, failed to get good wood on his one-timer attempt.
Jefferson had its share of chances but shot wide and failed to capitalize on rebounds. Between periods, the Jags remained loose. They figured if they kept skating, the puck would eventually go in for them.
Sure enough, even though the powerplay was weakened by Bernie's and Duncs' absences, Nick Dillon evened the score on a one-man advantage.
They started the third tied 1-1. Emotions soared. Nick Coffman tackled Kinsella behind the Jags' net; Kinsella wanted a call but didn't get it. Tommy mucked it up with a Kennedy defenseman along the boards in front of the Jefferson student section. The students stood and roared, shouting unpleasantries. The Kennedy defender blew them a kiss. An Eagle crunched Nick Dillon in the corner and separated the small winger's shoulder. At 6:19, B. J. Johnson and an Eagle tumbled to the ice together. B. J. punched his head to the ice. The refs called B. J. for roughing. At 6:55, Forsman pitchforked Jimmy Humbert to the ice. The refs called him for hooking.
At 7:16, skating four-on-four, Kinsella scored to give Kennedy a 2-1 lead. Forsman, standing in the penalty box on the visitors' side, raised his arms and turned to the Jefferson fans. "How do you like that?" he shouted.
"Yeah, you were a big part of that goal, weren't you?" they shot back.
"Go to hell, you poor Eastsider!" another shouted.
"Fuck you!" Forsman yelled.
Art Seplak, manning the penalty box and the public address, implored Forsman to sit down and the fans to chill.
Safe to say, the "Fundamentals of Good Sportsmanship" (e.g., "Show respect for the opponent at all times" and "Think before you shout") printed on the backside of the roster sheets hadn't exactly sparked a behavior revolution inside BIG when the crosstown rivals clashed.
Jefferson stepped up its play. At 10:17, B. J. took a pass from Kory Stark off the faceoff, worked his way around the goalie, and inserted the puck to tie the game. B. J. slammed into the boards in front of the Jefferson student section and touched off a frenzied celebration on and above the ice. His teammates circled him, and the students pounded the glass happily.
The students remained on their feet for the final five minutes. The action raced up and down the ice, shots fired each way, with Kennedy scrapping for a slight edge.
A Kennedy defenseman tossed the puck out of his end to center ice. At first, it seemed an errant pass, eluding everyone in the zone, but when the puck found Jesse Murray alone at center ice, having slipped behind the Jaguars' defense, Jefferson fans gasped. Murray had a clear breakaway. He bore down on Jeremy, the game distilled to this moment, one-on-one.
The Kennedy side roared. Murray, a first-line forward who had set up Kennedy's earlier two tallies, was the team's leading scorer and the coach's choice for just such a situation. If anyone on the Eagles would put the puck in the net going in alone on Jeremy, Murray would.
On the other side of the ice, Jefferson fans held their breath. With each stride Murray took toward the net, the memory of last year's unexpected loss to Kennedy loomed larger in their collective memory. They checked the clock above Jeremy to see if there was enough time for Jefferson to come back--only 2:16 remained.
Time stood still. With the score tied, East and West balanced on that moment. The puck on the BIG ice at the city's center was the fulcrum point. Everything after would come from this moment. Kennedy could reverse its fortunes, pauper could crown himself king, poverty could laugh in the face of affluence. Or, everything could drift back into its place, like snow settling in a paperweight globe. Players on both benches stood and strained to follow the play.
Murray crossed the blue line. Jeremy waited. Murray skated in, deked left, and Jeremy fell for it, dropping to his knees. Murray pulled the puck to his backhand and shot low. Jeremy dived in desperation, his left arm extended across the goal mouth. A sullen hush fell over the Jefferson fans. Three-two, Kennedy. The teeter-totter crashed against their nuts.
Wait! Murray didn't raise his stick. Jeremy popped up with the puck in his catching glove. Somehow, he had managed to jab it in front of Murray's shot and rob him. Jefferson fans howled. Jeremy's teammates mobbed him, as though he'd won the game, but there were still more than two minutes to play.
Jefferson struggled with its breakout, and Kennedy pressed hard, but Jeremy came up big twice more before regulation time ran out. The two teams rested three minutes, then launched into an eight-minute sudden death overtime period.
At home, Duncs was bummed he couldn't be there. When his dad called to tell him the game had gone into overtime, he was "shitting bricks" to hear the outcome.
The two sides tried to drown out one another with the noise they made. Navy and gold fans banged on the glass. Powder blue stomped their feet.
The Jags buzzed the Eagle net. Nick Coffman set up Shavvy in front, but Duncs' understudy fanned on the shot. The crowd groaned.
Shavvy's father, Mark Rysavy, shook his head. Wow! That would've been the overtime winner against Kennedy. He turned to his wife, "That was his chance." Mark was already miffed at his son. Earlier that afternoon, Mark had asked Jeff for a ride to the j.v. game before Shavvy drove up to school to get ready for his game. Shavvy had loaded a tape of the heavy metal band Taproot--whom he was still excited about having seen in concert the week before--yanked the car into reverse, and backed into a snowbank. Mark got out, slammed the door, and walked five blocks in the bitter cold to the rink.
He was still thinking about Shavvy's missed chance his son's next shift, when the scrappy wing fought for the puck in the corner. Shavvy fed a centering pass to Jimmy on top of the crease. The goalie tried to block the pass, but the puck caromed off his stick into the net. Game over.
The Kennedy goalie leaned on his pads, stunned. Did that just happen?
Shavvy thrust his arms in the air. Jimmy and Nick hugged him, their sticks raised. The Jefferson bench emptied, and the Jaguars rejoiced with their fans in the corner. After the celebration subsided and the two teams shook hands, after heads down and Sats' congratulations, Shavvy still quivered with adrenaline and delight. "That's the shit you think about in dreams," he said. "I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight." Steve Duncan placed one final call to his son.
Meanwhile, Robbie Kinsella and the rest of Kennedy's varsity filed out of the dressing room, walked the length of the empty bleachers, and passed through the lobby, where the Jefferson parents and friends waited. Their eyes were red. Their bags weighed heavy on their shoulders. The goalie--the catcher on Shavvy's baseball team that summer--shuffled out to his car, tossed his bag in the back, and slumped over the steering wheel. It wasn't supposed to end like that, a sloppy move, a sudden regret. To have come so close--that was worse than getting wiped off the ice. They had dared to hope they could beat them once more, tempted to believe only to be denied. Once again. On the bottom. Again. All in the blink of one stupid mistake.
Shavvy pushed open the glass door from the rink to the lobby, and those waiting cheered. He stopped to talk to his girlfriend, Dana, one of the cheerleaders. She hugged him proudly. Dana had been standing in the front row along the glass with a perfect view of the goal and celebration. "That was so cool!" she squealed. She was almost as pumped as her boyfriend. The couple had planned to go bowling after the game, but Shavvy wanted to be with his teammates to savor the moment as fully as he could. He wouldn't get to sleep until 3 a.m.
All was forgiven with his father. Later, at Billabong, Mark was happy to tell the story of his son's winning goal. Buy him a drink, and he would tell it again.
The original manuscript ran too long. The editor suggested cutting the last chapter on the state tournament. Here it is.
Chapter Twenty-One: The Tournament
Ryan Hopkins was shaking. The article in that morning’s StarTribune hit too close to home. Stirred too many painful memories. His teammates went out for breakfast. He stayed back at the hotel. Called his mother, Bobbi.
Ryan had been a Peewee five years ago when his half-brother Dougie Stansberry hanged himself with his shoelace in the gray hallway of that Minneapolis apartment building. Ryan remembered the day the kid they used to call “Tigger” for the bounce in his step ripped apart the Hopkins family. When your brother kills himself and you see the grief mutilate your mother’s face, you don’t pause to think that your brother had a different father. The pain rips you, too, like being gut shot.
They say your body forgets pain. Wrong. That sort of pain never goes away. It stays. It stays and shreds your psyche. You try to piece yourself back together. Slowly. And if you’re lucky, you’ve got something to keep you going. Hockey was the glue that helped Ryan paste the pieces back in place.
In Bantam A’s, he played on the Magic Line with Tommy and Bernie, then decided to go to Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the Catholic prep school that won the Class A state tournament his sophomore year. His other half-brother, Mike Stansberry, had gone to Jefferson, been in the nets for the 1998 semifinal overtime loss to Duluth East, but Ryan didn’t want to play for Saterdalen. Ryan and brother Ricky, a year younger, opted for Benilde.
And now Benilde was in the state tournament while Bernie and Tommy watched at home. Didn’t matter that the Red Knights played single A, they didn’t asterisk their enthusiasm. They were There. Ryan wished Dougie could be there to watch him senior year. The night before Ryan woke up to the haunting article in the newspaper, he and Ricky had led their team to a first round win.
The victory felt so good, Ryan thought no one could take that away. It might get even better, if they could win the next two and celebrate as champions.
Then, bam, a shoulder to the solar plexus--the article caught Ryan with his head down. The headline ran on the front page of the sports section alongside a large photo from Benilde’s Wednesday night win: “A season of pain, pleasure: Trevor Stewart of Elk River has tried to overcome the death of his stepbrother.”
To read the rest of the chapter, which is not included in Blades of Glory click here.
Q. How'd you come up with the idea for this book?
A. I was watching the 1997 Minnesota state high school hockey tournament on TV. I saw these kids introduced before the game--trying to look cool before the cameras in their face--and knew they were nervous as hell. Growing up, I thought the tournament was the greatest thing in the world and idolized the guys who played in it. Suddenly, as an adult, I wondered, what are we doing to these kids? That's the question I set out to address in Blades of Glory.
Q. How'd you pick Bloomington Jefferson as the team to follow?
A. I figured I would find answers in the stories of the boys and coach of one team. There are many storied programs in Minnesota, but I picked Bloomington Jefferson because it had the winningest active coach at the time in Tom Saterdalen. He was about to retire but still had something to prove. Also, the program was at a sort of crossroads amidst the changing times of high school sports in general and of Minnesota high school hockey in particular.
Q. Were you surprised by what you found?
A. I knew I would find kids--and adults--with lots at stake personally. I didn't know the particulars of how their stories would play out. For a couple of the kids--Matt Duncan and Nick Coffman--the season was sweet. For a couple of others--Michael Bernhagen and Tom Gilbert--it was sad. For Timm Lorenz, it was bittersweet. As for some of the issues I encountered, that was sad for me. I saw that the expectations placed upon these kids--by their families, by their coaches and by themselves--robbed them of the joy of the game.
Q. Sounds like this book's about a lot more than hockey.
A. Just as Seabiscuit wasn't about the horse, Blades of Glory isn't about hockey. There's plenty there to satisfy the hockey fan, but the personal stories of what's at stake for these kids and their families transcends sports. What they go through in chasing their dreams happens in soccer and basketball, even in ballet and piano.
Q. What conclusions did you draw?
A. I'm still asking questions. As a parent of two small children, I haven't had to face some of the issues the parents I met have faced. But I have empathy for them, and I don't pretend to be an expert, not having been there myself. What do you do if your kid shows a strong interest and talent in a particular sport or activity? How do you provide them with opportunities to develop without pushing them unnecessarily? How do you nurture their passion without squashing it? I don't know, but I hope by raising some of these questions, we can talk about ways to do it better than many are now.
Q. What was the most surprising revelation you found while researching and writing the book?
A. I was amazed to see half a dozen players on the team popping ephedrine in the dressing room. They kept their bottles of Ripped Fuel (containing ephedrine and caffeine--a potentially lethal mix) in the school locker room and in their hockey bags. When Sats exhorted them to put forth more effort, they turned to a performance-enhancement for help. Ephedrine is banned by the NCAA, U.S. Olympic Committee, International Olympic Committee--and since the deaths of Korey Stringer, Rashidi Wheeler and Steve Bechler--by the NFL and MLB in the minor leagues, because it is dangerous and believed to give an unfair competitive advantage to those who take it. Most recently, the FDA has said it would make ephedrine illegal. Yet the Minnesota State High School League tacitly endorses the use of ephedrine by its participants. It has not banned the substance nor educated coaches, parents and participants about the dangers of using it.
Q. What was Coach Saterdalen's reaction? Is it what you anticipated?
A. Before the season started, Sats scoffed at my question about the possibility of his players using performance-enhancing substances. He taught health classes for over 20 years. The posters on his classroom walls warned about the dangers of methamphetamine use (ephedrine is similar in its chemical makeup to methamphetamine). When I told him at the end of the season how I’d observed his players popping ephedrine, he claimed to be surprised. Now, the kids weren’t flaunting these pills under his nose, but the signs of their use were there to see for someone looking for them. Given his reaction before the season began, I’m not surprised he missed those signs. He didn’t want to see them.
Q. What's been the most critical feedback you've received to the book?
A. Sports Illustrated gave Blades of Glory a favorable review on its website but said Blades didn’t belong in the same class with Friday Night Lights because not as many people care about hockey. The StarTribune gave Blades a decent write-up and mentioned that I was “never much of a hockey player himself.” Those keep me humble. Otherwise, the hundreds of e-mails, letters and calls I’ve received from readers around the country have been overwhelmingly positive. I especially appreciate those that begin, “I don’t like hockey but I loved your book.”
Q. You chronicle well in the book the success of teams like Bloomington Jefferson and other schools with rich hockey traditions. Which teams, in your opinion, stand the best chance to start their own dynasties in the next few years if they haven't begun already?
A. Everyone seems surprised by Centennial’s success this year but those guys have won state championships at the Peewee and Bantam levels, so they seem the most likely new kid on the block to stick around and perhaps establish a dynasty. Holy Angels, I think, has already established itself as a power and has developed a young tradition likely to age. Of course, Trebil’s methods in getting there are suspect, something I detail in the “Fallen Angel” chapter of Blades. And my alma mater, Wayzata, has fielded strong teams over the past decade. If the Trojans can make that final leap to the state tournament, they might have some staying power as a strong program.
Q. What are your thoughts on a two-class tournament for Boys hockey in Minnesota? Overall has it been successful or should there be serious consideration to returning to a one class format?
A. I’d like to see a return to a one-class tournament. Seems no one but the participants cares about the single A tournament--the arena’s empty for the A title game. If the purpose of a tournament is to determine the best team, put them all together and let the last one standing take home the trophy as the true champion. Also, even though you didn’t ask, I like the idea of putting all of the private schools into one section so that the tournament isn’t dominated by private schools who have the advantage of fielding metro all-star teams. And, if we’re talking about preserving the integrity of teams, I wish the MSHSL would toughen its stance on transfers and make kids open enrolling or transferring schools sit out half the season the FIRST time they transfer instead of waiting until the second time to do so.
From the Sports Illustrated review that appeared on its website, www.SI.com. (November 2003)
Minnesota native John Rosengren grew up a fan of high school hockey, which is nearly unavoidable in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. While watching the 1997 state tournament on television, Rosengren decided it would make an interesting subject for his next book. He was granted unlimited access to the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars for the 2000-01 season, getting the chance to follow legendary head coach Tom Saterdalen and his players as they pursued their sixth state title in 21 seasons. That turned into Blades of Glory, Rosengren's fantastic new book about the Jaguars' pressure to uphold the school's impressive legacy on ice.
Jefferson is a hockey factory in suburban south Minneapolis. The school has produced notable hockey alumni like Islanders right wing Mark Parrish, Penguins minor league center Toby Petersen, 1984 Hobey Baker Award winner and 10-year NHL veteran Tom Kurvers, two-time Hobey finalist and NHL washout Mike Crowley and Wisconsin sophomore and Avs 2002 fourth-round pick Tom Gilbert.
Rosengren is a veteran freelance journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest, Men's Health and numerous other publications. But the opportunity to pen a book about the greatest love of his home-state residents is clearly in his wheelhouse, as his passion and love for the sport of hockey jumps off every page.
Blades of Glory goes beyond just the hockey played by the Jefferson Jaguars and delves into their personal lives and family issues. While the story of goaltender Timm Lorenz and his mother moving to Minnesota from Colorado after his father's death is touching, most of the other family stories are only mildly interesting. But the hockey action is engrossing and Rosengren's impressive narrative brings out emotions that any former high school athlete is sure to recall.
While Rosengren's book is entertaining, it's tough to compare it to a classic like Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book about Odessa (Texas) Permian High School's football team was named the fourth-best sports book of all-time by SI last December. Rosengren's subject matter of Minnesota high school hockey is much more limited in its appeal to the masses than Texas high school football. But Blades of Glory is a breezy and enjoyable read for hockey fans, and it would be especially enjoyable for high school hockey players and parents who are likely to relate to the pressures and drama of balancing school work, dating and high-level athletics.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.
From Publisher's Weekly Online (February 10, 2004)
There's something about high school kids playing contact sports that charges up the inhabitants of small towns and cities all over
While football may be the sport that binds a community together in Texas, in Minnesota hockey is king. Kids in the Upper Midwest learn how to swing a hockey stick almost as soon as they learn to walk. The highest aspiration for any Upper Midwest teenager--male or female--seems to be making the hockey team. Hockey is regarded as much more than simply a winter sport around these parts--it's a religion.
In Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win (Sourcebooks, $22.95), John Rosengren follows the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars, the leading high school hockey team in the state of Minnesota for the past 20 years. Rosengren spent a year attending each team meeting, practice, and game. He also rode the team bus, hung out in the locker room, worked out with the team on the ice and watched games in the stands alongside players' families and friends--he even hung out at the bar with the parents after games. The result is a comprehensive portrait of Bloomington, Minn., as well as a snapshot of American society, as reflected in the experiences of teenage athletes battling it out on the ice.
Like the best hockey players, sales of Blades of Glory, which has a first printing of 25,000, are starting out slowly but picking up steam as the hockey season reaches its culmination--the Minnesota State Boys High School Hockey Tournament, held in St. Paul March 10-13. Besides receiving attention in the Upper Midwest, including a feature article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the book has been reviewed in Pages magazine, on Sportsillustrated.com, ESPN's Cold Pizza program and on an NPR affiliate in New York City.
According to Lance Fensterman, general manager of Bound to Be Read Books in St. Paul, Blades of Glory has been selling well, although, he told PW Daily, "Hockey is so provincial. The book is about a 'local' team, yes--but the team's home is on the other side of the [Mississippi] River. St. Paul has its own hockey dynasties." Bound to Be Read has sold 25 copies of the book so far. "It's surprising it's done as well as it has, considering it's such a niche book," he commented. "But then it has a broader appeal; it says so much about how we raise our kids."--Claire Kirch
From Nancy Jacobson McCracken, “Bostonia,” Fall 2004
From Catholic Reader
So you want to be a star? Read about this high-school hockey program and you may re-evaluate.
Author John Rosengren spent the entire 2000-01 season with the Jefferson High School team near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., gaining unlimited access to the Jaguars. Blades of Glory shows how a single defeat can overshadow numerous victories -- wins that are treated as small, expected steps toward a state title.
The author, a Minnesota native, examines hockey mania in a region where arenas fill up for games involving 5-year-olds. He also details the violence, substance abuse, divorce and suicide that mark the high-schoolers' lives. Compared to the movie "Fargo," this depiction of Minnesota lifestyles is less humorous and more subtly disturbing.
Rosengren follows a soon-to-retire coach and his team's one last big run for a title. The coach extols his program's proud tradition in demanding a commitment to excellence, spewing profanities as he goads his players to perfection. Buying into this intensity are the parents, whose expectations for success are enormously high. Many parents are divorced, leading one to wonder if hockey also helps fill a personal void.
Through Rosengren's lens, success is seen as both a blessing and a curse. Team members come off not as invincible jocks strutting down the hallway, but as startlingly fragile adolescents petrified of failing on the ice and then having to show up at school. The opening chapter is titled "King S--t", based on a player's perception of the Jaguars' reputation should they lose a single game.
Rosengren forces any family with child athletes to reflect on their value systems. Few parents in the book are quoted as saying they feel all the sacrifices were worth it. Rather, they seemingly fall victim to a syndrome where winning breeds an intense desire for more wins, much like an alcoholic who needs one more drink or a compulsive gambler in pursuit of a jackpot. Some have a vague knowledge that they're in too deep, but can't seem to change.
For all these intimate glimpses, we learn little about the principal characters' daily lives outside of hockey. Perhaps this is Rosengren's way of asking the million-dollar question: Do such lives even exist?
From Ken Pauly, head coach, Benilde-St. Margaret's
From Booklist 11/15/03:
From Pages magazine
Coach Tom Saterdalen, who has read the book, said he liked most of it but felt it sometimes made him and the Jefferson program look bad. "It's very revealing," Saterdalen said. "I'm wondering if some parents are going to be really ticked off."
Rosengren said he left some details out of the book to protect players. For the most part, he said, the feedback from players and parents has been positive. The book has several upbeat and touching moments that illustrated the positive aspects of both the Jefferson program and high school hockey in general."
Minnesota author John Rosengren discovered, no high-school sport is immune to the hypnotic lure of a winning season. In his new release, Blades of Glory (Sourcebooks), Rosengren takes readers into the locker rooms and living rooms of the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars, a championship high-school hockey team in suburban Minneapolis.
To most of the country, Bloomington is the home of the Mall of America. But for Minnesotans, Bloomington is the unofficial capital of high-school hockey. "The community's stake in hockey is huge," Rosengren says. "Winter dominates the climate, so hockey is what we do. The say, 'If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.' Well, here, if the weather gives you winter, you play hockey."
Rosengren didn't write Blades of Glory as an expose of teenage drug use or a trek through the dark side of high-school sports. But he couldn't help exploring the unique pressures at play in high-school athletics.
"There's the glory and honor and drama and beauty and grace that play out on the ice," he says. "There's also the sadness and heartbreak of misplaced priorities. From what I saw-at their homes, parties, social events-I believe the parents involved started with good intentions, but somehow along the way they lost perspective. It's the same thing with the coaches. They get so close to it, so wrapped up in it, that they can't see what's happening."
Former Jefferson Jaguar Ben Clymer spends a day with Lord Stanley
The Stanley Cup landed in Minneapolis the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 10 and was met by Lightning winger Ben Clymer (JHS '96), who took the trophy to his condominium, hung out and had a few pictures taken. Then, it was over to Chino Latino, an exceptional restaurant. Ben's mother and father and other members of the family met him there, as did a few NHLers who live in the Minneapolis area, including the Islanders' Mark Parrish (JHS '95).
The food at Chino Latino was amazing -- Lamma Island salty squid, crispy fried calamari, jerk chicken served with fried plantain -- all eaten with rainbow-colored chopsticks. Ben's guests drank champagne out of the Cup, while others spent time reading the names of previous champions who have played on a Stanley Cup champion.
See full article here.
After a second season with the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) Bandits in the obscure Eastern Junior Hockey League, Timm Lorenz returned to Minnesota to play for Division III St. John’s University. Jefferson forward Justin Wild joined him on the 2003-04 team. Timm couldn’t crack the varsity lineup, so after a discouraging season on the bench, he decided to transfer to the University of Denver. He plans to try out for the hockey team even though he knows his chances are slim to none. After five years of playing hockey elsewhere, he wants to be closer to home.
Tom Gilbert scored the winning goal for the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2006 NCAA championship game. Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round in 2002, he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for goaltender Tommy Salo and a sixth-round pick in March 2004. He has been a regular on the Oilers blue line since the 2007-08 season.
Nick Coffman pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon, declared an economics major and returned junior year for another season of intramural hockey. Nick has returned to the University of Wisconsin.
Matt Duncan scored nine points (one goal, eight assists) and had a +4 rating in 19 games for Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school in St. Peter, Minnesota. He returned to play a second season with the Gusties but left the team midway through the '04-05 season.
Michael Bernhagen - Bernie transferred to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore year. He enrolled in the Carlson School of Management, declared a business major, and made the Dean’s List. The Bloomington-based Buck’s Furniture team enlisted Bernie to play on a line with Jeff Saterdalen. In April 2004, the unlikely matched pair led Buck’s Furniture to its 11th Senior Elite men’s national championship. Bernie planned to walk on at the University of Wisconsin, but decided not to after the coaches told him he was a long shot to make the team. He returned to the University of Minnesota and Buck’s Furniture for his junior year.
Tom Saterdalen’s replacement, Jeff Lindquist, led the 2002-2003 Jaguars to second place in the Lake Conference (13-4-1 conference, 18-5-2 overall) in his first season at Jefferson. The Minnetonka Skippers ended the Jaguars’s season in the ‘03 Section 6AA quarterfinal, exacting revenge for their section quarterfinal loss a year earlier.
Holt Bennington graduated from Brown Institute this fall with a radio broadcasting degree. He's interning at a recording studio and hoping to get his rich bass voice on the air.
Brad Peterson was the leading scorer on the 2002-2003 Jaguars. He received several D-III offers, but opted to play with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL in hopes of securing an offer to a Division I school. He quit the team and returned home in October. After leaving Green Bay, Brad hooked up with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League. As he puts it, he's "chasing that D-I dream." Follow his progress at ushl.com.
Ryan Van Bockel gave up his Air Force Division I hockey scholarship and transferred to the University of Saint Thomas, where he joined former Jefferson teammates Adam Dirlam and Jeremy Earl on the varsity hockey team. Follow their progress at www.stthomas.edu/tommies/mh/.
Larissa Luther, whose selfless volunteer stint in goal resulted in the Jaguar girls championship run in 2001, celebrated another championship with the University of Minnesota Duluth the following year, when she was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team as a defender. She missed half of her sophomore season because she was academically ineligible. She missed much of her junior year because of a broken leg and a bruised wrist. In late August 2004, the senior found out she was pregnant, due in mid-April, so she plans to redshirt this season.
Mike Erickson, the Eden Prairie star who was the first Minnesota high school player in 2000-2001 to sign with a college and was drafted that summer in the third round by the Minnesota Wild, played nine games with the University of Minnesota his freshman year and hurt his foot. He was still on crutches in April when the Gophers won the 2002 NCAA national title. The following season, Erickson was demoted to the juniors. He finished the season with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League. The week after the Gophers won their second consecutive national title, Erickson asked the school for his release. He’s playing this season once again for Des Moines. Follow his progress at www.ushl.com. Mike signed a commitment to play next season at Western Michigan.
Jimmy Humbert hung up his skates last year. After losing my job in the post-9/11 aftermath only one month after Jim started at Augsburg, and struggling through that year, I had finally landed in a good spot again at the beginning of October '02, Jim's sophomore year. He had worked 50 hours/week all summer, skated when he could, and had just finished his pre-season training. I got a call at work on Friday (I had only worked there a week, at that time). "Mom, are you planning on coming to my 3:30 JV game?"
Jim had landed on the JV again. By this time, we had figured out that his size was going to be an issue, the coach loved having him at all the varsity practices (he "paced their asses", as he said), and there was a strong tradition in place that someone who put in the time would be a varsity player his senior year, if not before. Jim isn't an "A" student by any means, and college work was tough. He is forced to take four classes per semester to receive the maximum student aid for which he is eligible (most Augsburg kids and certainly the athletes, take 3). I responded, "Well, honey, I just started this job and I hate to ask to take off early my first week. There'll be lots of other games."
The response: "Well, mom, that's just it. I'm going to hang 'em up."
His voice was thick. I'm tearing up in my office the first week on the job. "OK, I'll be there."
"Can you see if Dad and (brother) Jeff can make it too?"
"Will do." By this time, we're both crying.
When he came flying out onto the ice, he waved at me. The one and only time he had done that ever (not even in Mites). The kids always laugh at me, because the warmup is and always has been my most favorite part of the game. It's all pure joy then. He loves to move, he loves to be there (and for me, no one's chasing after him with a stick). He played a heck of a game, he and B.J. hugged at center ice for a long time, and I told Sandy and Bruce Johnson the news. There were tears on both parts, again a first for Jim.
He said, "It's just time. I've got other things I've got to do, and I just can't spare the time, and I can't play the game the way I want to against these bruisers."
Peter Mueller, the Chaska transfer who led the Jefferson Peewee A team to the 2001 state championship, played one season for the Jefferson Bantam A team. The next season, Mueller, an eighth-grader, enrolled at Breck, a private high school, where he posted 18 goals and 24 assists in 25 games and was an all-Tri-Metro Conference selection. For his ninth grade season, Mueller moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play with the U.S. Under-17 National Development Team. He made headlines in the fall of 2003 by committing to play hockey at the University of Minnesota in 2006. He’s 15 years old.
"Be Not Afraid: Ben Payton's Story" by Peter Rennebohm. The true story of a seventeen-year-old hockey player's courageous fight to overcome a devastating injury. www.prennebohm.com