Together Too Long To Lose
April 7, 2016
The Apple Valley Sports Arena was buzzing on a winter night in 1996–but not in a way you’d normally think.
The third-ranked Apple Valley Eagles hockey team was playing a section quarterfinal game against eighth seeded Minneapolis Southwest. The Eagles, as expected, were dominating–outshooting, outskating, and outscoring the Lakers.
Southwest was hanging on by its teeth, using two breakaway goals to stay within one. With 30 seconds left in the second period, the Lakers coughed up the puck in their own zone, and Apple Valley capitalized, taking a 4-2 lead and all sorts of momentum into the intermission.
The teams headed to their respective dressing rooms: Southwest and coach Jerry Hayes to find a way to get back in the game in the third, Apple Valley and coach Larry Hendrickson to talk over plans to close the game out.
All of a sudden, a sound blasted out of the Eagles’ locker room. Not the sound of chairs being tossed in anger, nor the sound of a gameplan undergoing a fierce revision. No, it was the sound of…music.
The Eagles were rocking out.
“They weren’t like a team we had seen before,” said Hayes, now a teacher at Apple Valley. “They played with a chip on their shoulder…you had to have that edge, and they played with that edge.”
Erik Westrum, a center on that Apple Valley team, agrees.
“We did play with a swagger,” he said. “I think we had so much confidence that it made a huge difference in how we approached the game. We knew we worked so hard and deserved to win.”
That confidence would carry the Eagles to what remains the lone boys’ hockey title in school history, but make no mistake–it wasn’t easy.
Downing A Dynasty
Not only was Apple Valley not favored to win the 1996 state title, a berth in the state tournament was far from guaranteed.
The section 5AA final pitted the Eagles against Bloomington Jefferson, a team which had won three consecutive state titles from 1992-94. The Jaguars of the mid-90s are widely considered one of the best high school hockey dynasties in state history.
Not only had Jefferson succeeded in tournament play, they had succeeded in one other thing as well: keeping Apple Valley out.
“That was always the team that beat us when we were growing up,” said Chris Sikich, a center who now coaches Apple Valley. “When we beat them our senior year, it was kind of a relief that we’d finally done it.”
The tight-knit Eagles, many of whom had played together since elementary school, managed to beat Jefferson in overtime to head to the state tournament at the St. Paul Civic Center.
The Jaguars defeated Apple Valley in the 1995 section final, and would again in 1997, but none of that mattered to the 1996 Eagles.
It was the game that would not end.
Apple Valley and Duluth East were battling for a spot in the state title game–but this was no normal semifinal. No, at 1:30 in the morning, there still was no winner.
Then, a slapshot. Chaos. Apple Valley defenseman Aaron Dwyer had just ended the longest game (in terms of elapsed time–93:12) in state tournament history, and a celebration littered with excitement, relief, and exhaustion ensued.
The Eagles were going to the final.
Hailed by many as the most anticipated game of the year, Apple Valley and Duluth East had no way of knowing the legendary contest that would follow.
The Greyhounds featured Dave Spehar, a University of Minnesota commit whom many consider to be the best goal scorer in state history. Just how good was he? In the three games Spehar played during the 1995 state tournament, he had three hat tricks–and added another in the 1996 quarterfinals, scoring four goals.
“We had a game plan to have Sikich’s line play against Spehar to shut them down, and have my line try and outscore the other lines,” Westrum said.
“The Shadow,” as TV broadcaster Wally Shaver dubbed Sikich, did his job. Spehar’s lone goal came in the second period on a mismatch after the Apple Valley third line failed to change on time. (That line would not see the ice for the rest of the game.)
It was a game that never really seemed like it would be a part of history, at least not for its length. After a scoreless first period, the teams began trading goals–Westrum started the scoring for Apple Valley, and Duluth East answered mere seconds later. Chances were plentiful…but that’s where the goaltenders came in.
“From the drop of the puck it was back and forth action,” Westrum said. “[Eagles goalie Karl] Goehring kept us in the game, and had one of the most dominant state tournament games of all time.”
“Dominant” may even be an understatement. Goehring, all 5-foot-6 of him, stopped 65 shots–a state tournament single game record which still stands today.
“Usually you tend to stay on defense and wait for an opportunity,” Hendrickson said of the overtime flurry. “Neither team did that. We just tried to create them.
Duluth East head coach Mike Randolph said the puck stoppers stand out most to him from that game.
“As the players got tired, the game opened up,” Randolph said. “Without the goaltending, the game would have ended much sooner.
Offensively, Westrum starred for the Eagles. The senior recorded a hat trick of his own, with numerous other shots and key plays.
“I focused on taking advantage of the turnovers, and relied on my linemates–[Brad] DeFauw and [Jonas] Hedberg–to create opportunities,” he said. “As [TV broadcaster] Lou Nanne said that night, ‘This kid is having the time of his life.’ And that I was.”
Westrum’s third goal gave Apple Valley a 4-3 lead late in the third period, and as the hats rained onto the ice, it looked like the Eagles were on their way to upsetting the defending champs.
Not so fast.
With their own net empty, the Greyhounds scored with 38 seconds left in regulation to send the game to its first overtime.
“I think we were disappointed to let them back into the game, because we felt we had played a great game and deserved to go on,” Westrum said. “But at the same time, if they hadn’t scored we wouldn’t even be talking about this year after year. Winning the game and eventually winning the final was a blessing in disguise.”
As overtime progressed, the game continued as before–just with no pucks finding the back of the net.
Well, maybe not according to the Greyhounds.
In the second overtime, a Hounds’ defenseman fired a shot from the point that ricocheted off a portion of the net and back into play. Many from Duluth East believed the puck went in the net and bounced out, and thus the Greyhounds were victorious.
The officials disagreed.
“At the time and from my vantage point there was no way of knowing [if the puck went in]. I remember the player who redirected it coming to the bench and saying ‘Coach that went in !’” Randolph said. “After seeing it a number of times [on television], in my mind there is no question that it went in.”
Naturally, the Eagles weren’t so sure.
“It was a game that was fun to be a part of,” Sikich said. “It was exhausting, playing five overtimes, but it’s something that I’ll obviously never forget.”
Taking the Title
Perhaps the most forgotten part of the 1996 Apple Valley hockey season is the actual state championship game.
Playing later on the same day their semifinal against Duluth East ended, the Eagles would face Edina for an attempt to complete their season with glory.
The Hornets had comfortably defeated South St. Paul the night before, and were particularly well rested in comparison to the Eagles.
Although they had just played until 1:39 that morning, Hendrickson says the key to the title was, somewhat ironically, the Apple Valley third line.
“They came through,” he said. “They were a little more rested, and they played great.”
Yes, you read that right. The same line that was benched for six periods the night before was essential to the state title.
Sikich added a third goal, and Apple Valley won its first boys’ hockey championship, beating Edina 3-2.
“We appreciate what we accomplished and understand how hard it was to do in a time where Jefferson and Duluth East were the powerhouses in Class AA,” Westrum said. “It was an honor to represent Apple Valley High School and win the only championship.”
A lot has happened in the 20 years since that championship. A handful of players continued their hockey careers at a high level: Westrum played collegiately at Minnesota, DeFauw and Goehring at North Dakota, Dwyer at St. Cloud State, and Sikich at Alaska Anchorage. Westrum, DeFauw, and Goehring would go on to play professional hockey as well.
Nowadays, the team has scattered, but they still keep in touch. In fact, a large group recently got together for a 20-year reunion at the 2016 state tournament.
“I hope we can continue to do that in the future, and make it a yearly event,” said Westrum.
Of course, obligations with jobs and families make reunions hard. But for this team, who’s to say it can’t happen?
One thing is certain: the 1996 Apple Valley boys’ hockey team will continue to live on in school and state lore.
As the slogan proclaimed, that team truly was “Together Too Long To Lose”.
*Special thanks to Jeff Groves for his assistance with this story