When it came to playing a game or watching its heroes take the ice one last time in the 2016-17 season, the choice was easy for the Blaine 10U girls hockey team. The players voted to forfeit their game Saturday to watch the Blaine girls varsity team play in the Class AA state championship at the Xcel Energy Center.
After two dominant wins in the quarterfinals (7-1 over Roseau) and semifinals (5-1 over Hill-Murray), the Bengals, seeded No. 2, advanced to their second state title game in program history. But they ran into a one-loss and top-seeded Edina squad. The Hornets were also eyeing their first championship trophy and had two impressive wins in the first two rounds of state. They continued that trend in the title game, winning 4-0.
Blaine finishes its season 24-4-2 and with its second state runner-up trophy, the first coming in 2001.
But as head coach Steve Guider said, the color of the medals put around the Bengal players’ necks after the game in front a large contingent of Blaine fans was just that, a color. The impact this team has had on the community stretches far beyond the trophy it brought home.
A youth team sacrificing a loss is just one of many examples.
“Their impact, you can’t put a number on it. They’re unbelievable,” Guider said. “When you look at us coming out of the tunnel, those kids are incredible cheering for us. For me, I’m more sad about this being the last time with this group than I am losing this championship. What they have done this year for our program, for our community, is incredible … I’ve said it thousands of times, but this is without question the best group of kids I’ve ever coached in my life. I would go to my grave saying that. I think that highly of them.”
The team developed a slogan this season called “Make a Difference.” It became the team’s goal for each player to make a difference in the lives of another person or in their school every day away from the ice.
Some were done individually, such as picking up a piece of trash in the hallway instead of walking by it or buying Caribou for the person behind them. Some were done as a team, like making cookies for the Blaine Police Department or taking time out of their day to visit residents at White Pine Senior Living.
Players wrote down what they did that day and pinned them on a bulletin board. After practice, the team went through them. One act of kindness that stuck out to Gabby Rosenthal was when Kenzie Wylie drove past a homeless man, pulled over at a nearby Caribou and delivered him a coffee.
“I think it’s made us more close as a team,” Paige Beebe said. “We go out and do this together. It might be individually, but we’re out there actively making a difference in other people’s lives.”
On the ice, the players assembled one of the best teams in Blaine program history. Five players have either signed or committed to Division I teams, including senior captains Wylie, Beebe and Emily Brown. The three were named to the Class AA All-Tournament team. Brown was also named the winner of the Herb Brooks Award, which is given to the most qualified hockey player in the state tournament who strongly represents the values, characteristics and traits that defined Brooks.
Seven other seniors provided the team with depth this season that most opponents couldn’t match.
“The group of seniors we have now, I’ve been playing with them since I’ve been 10 years old,” Beebe, who had the second most points scored in the AA state tournament with six, said. “Growing up with them and being in the state tournament as a senior is definitely an incredible feeling.”
After each state tournament game, the head coach and one or more players are asked to sit at a table on a stage in front of a handful of reporters and a camera or two for a postgame press conference. It’s easy to do when you’re winning. It’s tough to do when you lose, especially when your final high school game ended minutes earlier.
But there sat Brown on Saturday, fielding questions from reporters with poise.
“It’s pretty frustrating, but all throughout the game we were bearing down and never gave up,” she said. “We kept believing that one would come. But yeah, it is frustrating and a tough way to end your senior season. But we’re a great group of girls and we worked hard all season.”
Guider, too, answered whatever questions came his way. But as much as he discussed in-game strategy and adjustments, whether it was after the two wins or after the championship loss, he also offered little nuggets of what this year’s team was like off the ice.
And there was no shortage of praise.
“This group of players is the most incredible group of kids I’ve ever coached,” Guider said. “They’ve been so caring. They’re great hockey players, but they’re far better students and people. We talk about our slogan, you watch these kids interact with these little kids. For me, it’s big how they stand for the national anthem. Little things, they just buy into it. We talk about making a difference in the lives of people. They are just such an unbelievable group of kids. This motto for them in making a difference in the lives of others has been awesome for them. They’ve done such a good job of it and I can’t be more proud of this group.”