DULUTH — In the wee hours of March 9, 1996, a junior defenseman from Apple Valley High School scored on a slap shot from just inside the blue line, finalizing the Eagles’ 5-4 win over Duluth East in the fifth overtime of a semifinal game at the Minnesota Boys Class AA State High School Hockey Tournament at the St. Paul Civic Center.
Aaron Briner of Monticello, Minn., is a sports guy whose own background with hockey leans toward pickup games of the boot variety. He was among the Minnesota hockey heads who stayed up late to watch the finale — just like he did every year.
“I don’t have a magical memory of it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was at home watching it, nothing special. The memory, for me, is just watching all those tournaments.”
Twenty-five years later, Briner, inspired by sports documentaries, including ESPN’s “30 For 30,” turned to the longest state hockey tournament game as his muse. His film “Marathon On Ice” is an hour-long documentary about the game, including old footage and more than 20 interviews with former players, coaches, announcers and other Minnesota hockey minds. It is expected to be available for streaming at avenue18productions.com early this month.
Duluth East (23-2), the defending Class AA champions that year, was the favorite going into the 1996 tournament. Pre-game projections by the Associated Press noted the duo of Dave Spehar, the state’s player of the year, and linemate Chris Locker, who was also an all-state player.
The Greyhounds had outscored opponents 177-39, and goalie Kyle Kolquist had a 1.70 goals against average.
“Still, a Duluth East loss to anyone except Apple Valley would be a major surprise,” according to the AP. “And even an Apple Valley victory in the (semifinal) game would be an upset.”
Apple Valley (24-1) was the third-ranked team in the tourney — backed by senior goalie Karl Goehring.
Throughout regulation play, the Eagles' goals were all matched by Greyhound goals — and Duluth East never led. Longtime sports writer Kevin Pates covered the game for the Duluth News Tribune — and billed the first three periods as “punch-counterpunch.”
Then overtime, after overtime, after overtime, after overtime, after overtime.
Apple Valley’s Aaron Dwyer, a senior defenseman, described the game-winner in an interview that ran in the 2017 edition of the Minnesota Boys High School State Tournament Guide.
“(It) was shot from the right point,” he said. “(Chris) Sikich was down below the net, and I think he was trying to center it. It bounced over a couple guys’ sticks, and it came right to me. I was just inside the blue line above the top of the circle. I took a slapshot, and it went bar down and in.”
After the game, the Eagles' Brad DeFauw reportedly went to the hospital to be treated for dehydration. Locker, of the Greyhounds, was diagnosed as being in the first stages of shock — also from dehydration.
Apple Valley went on to win the tournament; East beat South St. Paul in the third-place game.
The next season, Apple Valley and Duluth East faced each other again during the regular season.
''I get the chills just thinking about it,'' Apple Valley center Erik Westrum, who had three goals in the historic game, told Pates. ''There were 16,000 people, you're playing on adrenaline, and the game just keeps going and going. I think you cherish the moment more now because at the time, the moment went by too quickly.''
But there was more to the story than just an epic-length back-and-forth between two storied squads.
Pates revisited a controversial storyline in a follow-up report.
“The longest tournament game ever — 93 minutes, 12 seconds — will unfortunately not be remembered for its great goaltending, or East’s last minute goal in regulation, or for the revival of the wave by the sellout crowd,” he wrote. “It will be remembered for the goal that wasn’t.”
Duluth East clearly won the game, Pates wrote, on a Dylan Mills slapshot with 3:55 left in the second overtime. Actually, Matt LaTour tipped the puck. Regardless, officials didn’t see it.
Shawn Roed did. Duluth East’s current activities director was a new teacher and coach at his alma mater and had a spot in the stands that night near the goal judge.
“When LaTour scored the goal that wasn’t to be, we stood up; the game was over,” he said.
But the game went on.
“So the rest of the game, in the back of our mind — they didn’t show the replay — ‘did that go in, or did we see anything?’” Roed said.
It was the question of the tournament — and beyond. Pates wrote that an informal poll of spectators unanimously agreed that the puck went into the net.
Spehar said at the time that these bounces are all part of hockey, and Apple Valley deserved credit.
“But they kept showing the replay,” he added. “They must’ve played it 100 times on KMSP. I don’t know what they were trying to show. You only had to see it once to see it was in.”
It’s this goal-no-goal storyline that has added to the lore of the game, Roed said. It comes up whenever the Greyhounds advance to the state tournament.
And it’s something Briner considered in his documentary, though he proceeded with caution in case it was still a raw topic decades later.
“It was a little delicate at first — the goal that was disallowed,” Briner said. “I wouldn’t have (asked about it) five years ago.”
‘Marathon on Ice’
“Marathon on Ice” is Briner’s feature-length debut. He’s a sports hobbyist who has created a few “practice documentaries,” as he calls them. One is about a beer softball league and another about a vacation to San Diego.
About 18 months ago, he decided to try out his skills on a grander scale. His stipulation that it must be local, for ease of access to interviews, aligned with the upcoming 25th anniversary of the hockey game he watched his senior year of high school.
Briner started with the school’s athletic directors and then moved on to players — like East’s Locker, Spehar, Mills, Ryan Coole — and their VHS tapes and scrapbooks. He interviewed six or seven players and a coach from both teams, including Mike Randolph. He got Wally Shaver, the play-by-play announcer, and Anthony LaPanta, who is the voice of the Minnesota Wild.
When Briner got an interview with the color commentator from the game, one of Minnesota’s biggest hockey names, it took on weighted significance.
“We knew it was real,” he said. “You can’t go to Lou Nanne’s house and interview him and not follow through.”
Nanne is a former high-scoring University of Minnesota defenseman-turned U.S. Olympian who played for and later coached the Minnesota North Stars.
Roed, who helped connect Briner with former players, said he has seen bits of the film.
“It was such a special game,” he said. “The players and coaches and officials involved put on such an amazing show. It brings back the passion and the memories.”
If you watch
- What: "Marathon on Ice" documentary
- Where: avenue18productions.com
- When: Available for streaming this week