One of my favorite sub-genres of high-level hockey is the Minnesota state high school circuit. Everyone there wants to rep their school and make final memories with the kids they’ve often already played with for a decade – whether they are fourth-liners or potential NHL first-rounders.
But I’m also fascinated by the rivalries in the state. No matter where you go, no matter how good or bad the teams may be, everyone has a rival or two. It can be local, it can be public school versus private school or it could be North versus South.
With that all in mind, I wanted to get the inside scoop on these rivalries, so I canvassed a bunch of NHL, AHL and college players, all of whom played Minnesota high school hockey before. This is the story of those rivalries – and who gets called a ‘cake-eater.’
Nothing breeds contempt more than familiarity, so many rivals involve the next town over. One of the most famous in the state is also one of the most northern; Warroad versus Roseau, two small towns near the Canadian border, less than a half-hour drive from each other. Both schools have won multiple state titles and produced NHLers. Not only did the Islanders’ Brock Nelson play for Warroad, but he was literally wearing a Warriors shirt when I interviewed him about his alma mater’s battles with the Rams.
“The proximity is a big thing, but it’s also the hockey history of both schools and communities,” he said. “A lot of talent has come out of there. It’s a little more attitude because it’s smaller communities, smaller numbers – you play with the same group for 10, 13 years and it’s the same with them. You’re playing them in hockey, you’re playing them in golf and football; everything. It definitely makes for some heated match-ups.”
Jimmy Snuggerud, the St. Louis Blues first-rounder and University of Minnesota freshman, is one of many high-end players who hails from the suburbs around the Twin Cities and when he played for Chaska, it was the next town over that brought out the fire in the Hawks and their fans.
“Chanhassen is a neighboring city and they have the rivalry to this day,” he said. “Chaska and Chanhassen kids play with each other from squirts through bantams, then for high school you split up. So you’re friends growing up, then on the ice you’re enemies. It’s a good game.”
One of the other big centers for high school hockey is Duluth and its surrounding areas. Minnesota Wild prospect and St. Cloud State defenseman Jack Peart repped the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks in high school and one particular rival was always on their minds.
“Duluth East,” he said. “Ever since I grew up, it was always Duluth East. That was the team we hated and always wanted to beat. We thought they had an arrogance and they probably thought we were arrogant, too. It’s how hockey is and it’s good for the game.”
Sometimes geography can work against a team, however. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Nick Perbix played for the Elk River Elks, a school that didn’t fit into a North or South box.
“It’s funny because Elk River is right in the middle so we’re kinda on neither side of the rivalry in a negative way,” he said. “All the northern teams see us as a city team and the city teams see us as a northern team. So we don’t have anyone to support us.”
But perhaps the most unique high school experience comes from New York Islanders captain Anders Lee, who played at both Saint Thomas Academy, a private military school, and Edina, a public suburban Twin Cities powerhouse with no shortage of rivals.
“When I was at Saint Thomas, Cretin-Derham was a big game, Hill-Murray was a big game,” he said. “For Edina, it was Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and Wayzata – the ones right around the corner who have really strong programs as well.”
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl played in that same suburban area for the Minnetonka Skippers and remembers the strong competition. “Edina was a big one for us, they always had good teams,” he said. “Eden Prairie was another one – we were in the same section, so we had to beat them to get to the state tournament and it was always a battle. Benilde-St. Margaret’s was another one in our section; Wayzata – all pretty good programs when I was there.”
Public vs. Private
When Los Angeles Kings defenseman Mikey Anderson played for the Hill-Murray Pioneers in high school, the big local rival was White Bear Lake – but on top of geography, it was also because Hill-Murray was a private school that would sometimes snag a couple of players from the public-school Bears. Anytime you get a private school and a public school playing, sparks are going to fly – not to mention the trash talk.
“You hear a lot of stuff – everyone always makes fun of ‘daddy’s money,’ getting to go to private school,” Anderson said. “For a lot of the guys, it’s a family affair – their parents had gone there, so they wanted to go. We went because it was a Catholic school, which was a big thing my dad wanted for us, so for us it was a good fit and I enjoyed my time there a lot; it was awesome.”
Kings teammate Blake Lizotte played for Chisago Lakes, a public school that often tangled with Saint Thomas Academy with a lot of pride on the line.
“Anytime you played a private school,” Lizotte said, “It’s like, ‘We gotta beat these rich kids, they’re all stuck-up, they’re all cake-eaters.’ “
We’ll get back to the ‘cake-eaters’ later, but let’s stick with Saint Thomas for a moment. The Islanders’ Lee played for the Cadets and they knew they always had a target on them.
“We didn’t have girls at our school, it was an all-boys school; so we heard chants about that,” he said. “It’s the classic back-and-forth, private and city kids. Probably some chants you’re not allowed to say anymore, that’s for sure.”
North vs. South
With Duluth and the Twin Cities being such hotspots for hockey, you know bragging rights are on the line anytime teams from the two areas clash. AHL Hartford defenseman Andy Welinski played for the powerhouse Duluth East Greyhounds, but even they played with a chip on their shoulder when facing a suburban team from the south.
“For us at that point, they had so many more students in general,” he said. “The dynamic was, we were the bigger school in the northern area and those were the bigger schools in the suburban areas. You set your sights on the biggest opponent. It was the city versus the out-of-the-city. We thought we were the biggest school from the north and wanted to challenge the biggest from the south.”
For Grand Rapids’ Peart, taking on the masses from the southern suburbs was also crucial.
“They’re always good so we always want to beat them,” he said. “They have more kids in their system than we do, so it’s always a good rivalry.”
And that rivalry can get nasty, even when the teams don’t know each other that well.
“We played an exhibition game against Grand Rapids when I was a freshman and two guys got kicked out – and that was only pre-season,” said Chaska’s Snuggerud. “High school hockey, you’re always giving it your all.”
If the South has the numbers, at least the North countered with an aura of toughness.
“You just wanted to represent your area,” Edina’s Lee said. “Growing up, the northern kids were always bigger and seemed to be stronger. So it was always a tougher game that you had to battle in. I’m sure they saw us as more of a skill group at times.”
Of course, in Minnesota even the concept of ‘North’ can be controversial. Sure, Duluth is more north than the Twin Cities, but Warroad is another few hours north from there.
“It kinda felt like Northern versus the world,” said Warroad’s Nelson. “Duluth would label themselves as North, but we classify ourselves as even further North. For us, being the small schools playing a bigger city, it felt like David vs. Goliath where you wanted to prove you had what it takes.”
If there’s one put-down you cannot escape in Minnesota high school, it’s ‘cake-eater.’ And when it comes to that epithet, one school reigns supreme: The Edina Hornets of the Minneapolis suburbs.
“They have the image of being the rich kids and pretty boys,” Holl said. “Coming from Minnetonka, we’re kinda the same so we can’t really say much – but we still applied that label to them.”
Adds Lizotte: “To Justin Holl’s point, Edina was definitely the biggest cake-eater for sure.”
Nelson piled on his Islanders teammate’s alma mater: “Edina is the prototype, the gold standard for cake-eaters. But being from the North, we said that about a lot of the big-city teams. It felt like they had a little more than other teams.”
OK, so just to play fair, we have to give Lee a chance to speak on behalf of his Edina crew.
“Geez, (cake-eater) it’s an old term,” Lee said. “I guess the town – it’s a good community – people probably think we’re all well off, but once you get in there, you understand all the good people there and it’s not always like that.”
Undoubtedly, Lee agreed that there is probably a degree of jealousy that goes into the whole thing. For the record, Edina has won four state titles since 2010, most recently in 2019. There’s even a bit of a hierarchy of who can call who a cake-eater, as Holl alluded to.
“It’s funny looking back at it,” said Duluth East’s Welinski. “Duluth East was the cake-eaters, but from our perspective, we thought some of the city teams were the cake-eaters.”
The State Tournament
Of course, the best rivalries involve high stakes and in Minnesota, nothing is bigger than the state tournament. Held every year at the Minnesota Wild’s Xcel Energy Center, the event sells out (and has also inspired the viral ‘Minnesota Hockey Hair’ YouTube series), with the building packed to the rafters with fans. There are actually two winners now, with a small-school bracket (where Warroad will likely be a favorite this year) and a big-school bracket (home to the Edinas and Duluth Easts of the state). Even just getting to State can be major for some programs, like Lizotte’s Chisago Lakes Wildcats.
“That was special,” he said. “Every Minnesota guy that gets a chance to play in that tournament remembers it and it’s a fond memory for me at an early age.”
Anderson, his Los Angeles teammate, got to the quarterfinal with Hill-Murray.
“You grow up watching high school hockey so it’s what you dream to do at that age,” he said. “The whole school rallies around you; you get the pep rally and the send-off, you get to stay at a hotel – when you’re that age, you’re on a different planet you’re so excited. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
But it also makes losing that much harder if you don’t go all the way. Before you can even get to state, you have to go through sectionals – which can often be a gauntlet itself.
“I’d say our biggest rivals in my years were Duluth East and Grand Rapids,” said Elk River’s Perbix. “They were the teams that just barely beat us out to get to State. I lost to Duluth East twice in overtime in the section finals, then my senior year we were favorites and Grand Rapids beat us, then went on to win the state championship.”
And not to keep harping on it, but losing to the cake-eaters? Almost too much to bear.
“We lost in the final of the state tournament my senior year to Edina,” Minnetonka’s Holl said. “Worst-case scenario. But I think we lost one game all year, so we had a good team. About 12 guys went NCAA D1.”
And in the end, it’s much more about the positive memories than the negative ones. There’s a reason certain NHL prospects will play only parts of their draft years in the USHL – it’s because in the middle, they want one more kick at the can with their Minnesota high school team. It’s usually the last time they ever get to play with a group they’ve been with, in most cases, for most of their lives at that point. It’s a special and unique part of the hockey landscape. And whether you’re a cake-eater or not, that’s something everyone in Minnesota can agree on.
- Minnesota High School Hockey – The Land of 10,000 Hates
- Check all news and articles from the latest NHL updates.