John’s Journal: It’s Tournament Time, And It’s Different
Fewer Fans, Quieter Venues … But Good Things Are Happening
Posted: Friday, March 26, 2021 - 3:23 PM
I counted seven people sitting in the press box inside Xcel Energy Center on Friday afternoon as the first game of the girls state hockey tournament was being played. That left about 100 empty seats, some of them marked with signs that read “Seat closed.”
Times are indeed different. The Minnesota Wild have been playing home games without fans. Smatterings of spectators watched Friday’s four Class A quarterfinal games, with the arena seating areas cleared between games. The scene will be much the same for the remainder of the girls and boys state hockey tournaments, which will conclude next week.
There are no pep bands, which is especially different. Bands are such a big part of our state tournaments, especially hockey and basketball in the winter. In normal times, energetic pep bands play the school song as their teams skate out on the ice. Just now, as I write this, the girls teams from Luverne and Proctor/Hermantown came out for pregame introductions, with veteran public-address announcer Dave Wright’s familiar voice echoing across the big arena. But instead of pep bands and school songs, pre-recorded music was played when the teams came out.
For state hockey tournament games, there are two important crews of off-ice people. The arena announcer, scoreboard and clock operators and penalty box supervisors sit at ice level. Up here in the press box, a team of statisticians is connected with the ice-level crew via headsets. Between games today, one of the folks in the press box stood up and simply hollered down to his counterparts at ice level. No headsets are needed when the place is quiet.
This is what a pandemic does, I guess. I’m so very grateful that these state tournaments are taking place. There’s no doubt that we are fortunate. We all remember last year, when the basketball tournaments were halted and spring sports did not happen at all. We are clearly in a better place now, with our winter tournaments happening and spring sports starting practices next week.
One girls hockey team that had qualified for state was unable to compete due to Covid quarantine. The same thing has happened with NCAA basketball and hockey teams, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised when high school programs – which don’t have the testing capabilities that colleges do – are stopped by the virus.
While sitting here at the hockey arena, I’m also watching the state wrestling and state gymnastics championships via online streaming provided by https://prepspotlight.tv/MSHSL. It’s highly professional coverage and is a great service for fans who aren’t able to attend. Those events are being held at venues much different than in recent years. Wrestling has moved from Xcel Energy Center to St. Michael-Albertville High School and gymnastics, which was held last year at Roy Wilkins Auditorium (connected to the Xcel Center), is at Champlin Park High School this year. Both host schools are doing a tremendous job under challenging circumstances.
The scenes at those two tournaments are similar to the hockey setting. Smaller crowds, but athletes who are still competing at the highest level possible. Also similar among the three tournament sites are people doing important tasks that were unknown last winter; they are making sure everything, including wrestling mats and gymnastics equipment, is clean and sanitized. I’ve got a small container of disinfecting wipes with me, and the Xcel Center is populated with hand sanitizer stations and lots of posted reminders about masking and social distancing.
I took the elevator down to the main concourse between periods to do some exploring, and there wasn’t much to see. One of the standard sights once you enter the Xcel Center is an area where tournament merchandise can be purchased. That is absent this winter (although winter state tourney hoodies can be purchased online here: https://www.mshsl.org/2021-winter-tournament-apparel )
The concessions stands were closed, although I did see one spot set up with grab-and-go soft drinks, water, fruit cups and candy. Customers can’t pay with cash, so plastic is the way to go. Drinks and snacks can only be consumed once people have returned to their seats, according to the signage.
I bought a $5 Diet Coke and returned to the press box. I’m pulling my mask down whenever I take a sip. I’m used to doing so. Another thing I’m used to doing is chatting with lots of people. Some of my favorite unplanned moments at state tournaments occur when I run into somebody I know and we catch up. It might be a coach, an administrator, an athlete, a former athlete, you name it.
Sometimes those chats take place in the corridor near the locker rooms at Xcel Energy Center. I love bumping into Xcel Center employees I have known for years, and the corridor also is a good place to talk informally with coaches of competing teams. But again, something is different in Covid times. I’m not wandering down that corridor now, because I respect this virus and the important steps that are being taken to lower everyone’s risks.
This whole experience began when winter tournaments were stopped, followed by no spring sports, then fall sports but no state tournaments, and now winter sports with state tournaments.
We’re on the right track.
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org