ST. PAUL, Minn. - The best boy's high school hockey teams in Minnesota have converged on The Xcel Energy Center for the 68th annual state tournament.
It is one of the nation's premier high school sporting events and it has grown a lot over the years.
"Attendance-wise it's the top for us. TV viewership it is the top for us. It tops every other tournament we do," Media Specialist John Millea with the State High School League explained. "That's a pretty standard bet that you're going to see these top players in this tournament playing in the NHL."
It's happened dozens of times already.
The great hockey play has fans coming in droves.
In 1945, the first ever tournament, 8,434 fans took in the action. By 2011, the four-day event brought in 116,662.
In 2008, fans set a record when totals reached 129,643.
And all told, in almost seven decades, 5.2 million hockey fans have hit the high school finals in the state of hockey.
"We're a smaller school but we fight really hard to come down here and play against the big guys," Little Falls teacher Helen Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer was on one of seven buses that made the trek from the Central Minnesota city Wednesday morning before the team's big game against powerhouse St. Thomas Academy. The loud and energetic fans, dressed in purple, filled three full sections at the Xcel Energy Center.
Deb Holthaus will tell you it's an experience unlike any other. She was carrying a poster with two pictures of her son. One was a shot from 2005 when 11-year-old Michael Holthaus was a fan in the stands cheering on the Flyers in the state tournament. The other photo was taken recently, after a playoff game. "My son's a senior so this is the highlight of his year," the proud mother said.
While Little Falls fell short in their game against the Cadets, the team could hang its collective head high as they played their hearts out until the final buzzer.
"Maybe the smaller the community you're talking about, the bigger it is. We are the state of hockey and I think everyone really holds that close to their heart in Minnesota," Millea concluded.
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