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Grand Rapids boys hockey team heads to first state tourney since 2017

Hockey players in black, blue, orange a teal jerseys kneel on the ice in front of their coach
Megan Buffington
Grand Rapids hockey players listen to their coach during practice at Yanmar Arena in Grand Rapids on March 1, 2024.

The Thunderhawks play their first game of the Minnesota State High School League state hockey tournament 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7, 2024, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

GRAND RAPIDS — Many Minnesotans recognize the echos of a hockey arena.

Yanmar Arena was full of familiar sounds Friday, March 1, as the Grand Rapids boy hockey varsity team practiced — the gliding of skates on ice, of course, but also shouts, cheers and sticks hitting the ice in celebration.

Hockey players in multi-colored jerseys throw up their arms and sticks in celebration
Megan Buffington
Grand Rapids players celebrate at practice at Yanmar Arena in Grand Rapids on March 1, 2024.

This practice was lowkey, as the players recovered from a late-night victory against Andover in the Section 7AA Championship in Duluth the night before. Winning a section championship and qualifying for the state tournament is always exciting, but this win was extra special. The Thunderhawks beat the team who ended their last three seasons in double overtime, sending Grand Rapids to state for the first time since they won it all in 2017.

Senior forward Xander Sheiman said the team was pumped up for the game, and it was nice to get another shot at Andover after a frustrating end to his last two seasons. As for beating them?

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt any higher joy than that,” Sheiman said.

Watch the game on 45TV/Prep45.

Senior defenseman and team captain Bauer Murphy said they’ve been a good team the last few years, but this season is different.

“This year, it kinda seemed like we came together more as a team, and everybody understood what they had to do to get it done,” he said.

Senior forward Nate Langlois, Murphy and Sheiman all credited their success to the same thing: buying in.

Hockey players in black, blue, orange a teal jerseys kneel on the ice in front of their coach
Megan Buffington
Grand Rapids hockey State tournament banners hang in Yanmar Arena in Grand Rapids on March 1, 2024.

“We’re playing for each other,” Sheiman said. “We all know our roles and what we have to do to be successful as a team, and nobody’s selfish. We don’t care who scores that big goal, as long as it goes in.”

High school hockey players don’t have the best reputation, Sheiman and Murphy said. People think they’re cocky, Sheiman said, and Murphy’s own teachers have told him hockey boys are entitled.

The team’s selfless mentality contradicts the stereotypes the players have encountered. Sheiman, Langlois and Murphy’s responses when asked what they’re most proud of from this season further bucks the idea. It wasn’t a goal they’d scored or even a team victory — it was how they’d become a family and truly believed they could succeed together.

Langlois said even with their big win, nothing has really changed.

“It’s still the same hard work, same intensity of practices and the same amount of commitment,” he said. “But these few days before we take off is a little bit special, because now we have the whole town behind our back, and it’s pretty special to see everyone cheering you on, and it gives you that extra motivation.”

A male hockey player in an orange jersey prepares to shoot a puck
Megan Buffington
Senior forward Xander Sheiman practices at Yanmar Arena in Grand Rapids on March 1, 2024.

Sheiman said there are obviously some nerves, but having what he calls the best fans in the state will only help the team.

“I think our town’s going to be pretty quiet on Thursday,” Sheiman said. “I think a lot of people will be down there, and I think a lot of Northern Minnesota, if not all of Northern Minnesota, will be behind us.”

The players know they’re the only 218 team in the State AA tournament, and Langlois said there’s a lot of history and pride riding on them.

“I would say it’s a big weight to carry on your shoulders, representing northern hockey,” he said. “But [we’re] trying to go down there, do some damage, show them what northern hockey’s like, and it’s pretty special to the one representing that.”

It’s quite a way to end a season — the only team in the bracket from Northern Minnesota and the first state tournament appearance for a historic hockey program since a championship. For some players, it’s also the end of their hockey careers.

All three boys have been playing hockey for as long as they can remember. It’s been a lifelong dream to play on the same ice as the Minnesota Wild.

Langlois said going to state is already its own memory, and he can’t wait to make more when they get to St. Paul to play White Bear Lake Thursday night.

“The last time to ever do it, and it’s on the biggest stage you could ask for?” he said. “I mean, how could you not give it your all?”

Hockey boys in tan and blue jerseys smile with their helmets on
Megan Buffington
Grand Rapids boys hockey players smile during practice at Yanmar Arena in Grand Rapids on March 1, 2024.

Looking back, the boys’ favorite memories of course include big games, but the time they’ve spent together is what they remember most. Murphy fondly recalled the time a hotel had bedbugs, and he and some teammates hauled a mattress into the hall and stayed there until the early hours of the morning. Sheiman remembers hanging out in the locker room, bus rides and playing many games of pingpong on the table at Yanmar.

Langlois also thinks of locker-room pingpong and post-game celebrations. He said there have been a lot of fun times, but the best memories are from this season.

“The varsity hockey program is just something so special here in Rapids,” he said.

Langlois couldn’t remember the name of the Thunderhawks post-game song this season, but he could remember the tune.

“I know how it goes, but I don’t want to sing it to you,” he said, laughing.

He later passed along the name of the song — not a classic rock anthem or newer rap beat, but a Celtic folk song usually sung by children’s choirs or around a campfire.

So, Rapids fans, here’s what you can hope to hear echoing from the halls of the Xcel Energy Center after a Grand Rapids win Thursday night.

Grand Rapids plays White Bear Lake Thursday at 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast by 45TV/Prep45.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.