Nick Reichert of WoodStars reaches in an attempt to block a shot by Wright Homes Almost 40's Geno Parrish. Photo by Isaac Johnson
Nick Reichert took a stick to the left eye in the game’s opening minute and tumbled to the ice.
“I just couldn’t see for a second,” Reichert said at the completion of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Sunday at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. “I was a little worried. But the vision came back.
“I was fine."
WoodStars defenseman Nick Reichert recovers after taking a stick to the eye in the opening minutes of WoodStars' 4-3 triumph over Wright Homes. Photo by Isaac Johnson
Late in the second half Reichert took a hard shot squarely off his ankle. He winced in pain and hobbled around the ice for a few seconds. But he never considered heading to the bench for a breather.
Finally, after Reichert and WoodStars had knocked off defending champion Wright Homes Almost 40 4-3 in a thrilling Open Division championship game, he discovered white blotches of skin at the ends of his toes on both feet.
“I guess I better get that looked at,” Reichert said reluctantly, looking down at his battered toes.
A test of skill and endurance that goes beyond grueling and well into the excruciating range, the Open Division requires the championship team to win five 30-minute games in a span of eight hours.
Temperatures on Sunday out on the lake were in the single digits and dipped below zero when factoring in the brisk wind.
Reichert, a Minneapolis Southwest graduate, is the sort of player who would drink battery acid and chew railroad spikes if it meant the WoodStars could wrestle the prestigious Golden Shovel out of four-time champion Wright Homes’ hockey mitts.
Instead he only had to endure the stick to the eye (there was a nasty black-and-blue welt just to the right of his eyebrow), frozen puck to the ankle and frigid temperatures seeping deep into his toes.
“Nick wants to win worse than anybody on our team,” said WoodStars’ Mike Taylor, who played at Harvard, about the shot-blocking, defensive stalwart Reichert. “Obviously he shows it. He doesn’t come off the ice.”
Taylor isn’t kidding. Reichert played every minute of every game for WoodStars, which went 9-0 over the tournament’s three days and allowed a total of 27 goals.
The teams also met in last year’s championship game, with Wright Homes winning 5-2. The previous year, Wright Homes knocked WoodStars out of the championship bracket with a 3-1 triumph in the Round of 16.
“They ended our run the last two years,” Taylor said. “So it was nice to kind of get rid of some of those demons. To do it at the end, in the championship game, that was awesome.”
Reichert was his usual goal-protecting, puck-hounding self against Wright Homes, and it was only fitting that he connected on a final swat at the puck in the closing seconds, sending it the length of the ice and clinching the victory for the group of longtime Holy Angels buddies (Reichert and Ross Cooney are the lone WoodStars members who didn’t play for the Stars’ 2002 state Class 2A championship team).
“For the last three years he’s been the MVP of our team,” said Taylor, a 2004 Mr. Hockey finalist. “He’s unbelievable.”
Nick Reichert (16) is a Minneapolis Southwest graduate and one of the two remaining founding members of WoodStars. Photo by Isaac Johnson
Reichert and Erik Heltne are the lone original members of the team, which started as the Toolers, later became Westwood Sports and took on the WoodStars name about five years ago. Heltne missed last season’s Pond Hockey Championships to attend a wedding, so that leaves Reichert as the only team member who has played in every event.
Through all the name changes, there has been a change in playing style, too. Reichert watched as all the top teams made airtight defense their priority. So WoodStars did the same.
“We just play more defense than we used to,” Reichert said. “Like in this game, the goals will come. The worst thing you can do is get caught with nobody back.
“We always keep a couple guys back. It’s usually Doug Nelson and I that stay back the whole time.”
Nelson, it should be noted, did leave the ice from time to time unlike the ironman Reichert.
Dave Bakken of Wright Homes, which played in its sixth Open Division title game, said there was no use in comparing WoodStars to any of the other teams in the tournament.
“WoodStars are much better than other teams,” said Bakken, the boys’ hockey coach at St. Paul Como Park who is one of Wright Homes’ co-founders. “Their team defense is spectacular. We got a lot of shots. They blocked a lot of shots.
“It was a pretty even game.”
Wright Homes took an early 1-0 lead, but WoodStars scored the next three goals on an array of long-range shots. Speedster Kevin Rollwagen, Taylor and Heltne all found the back of the wooden box that serves as the goal from at least 30-feet out.
Rollwagen’s how-did-he-do-that snipe, which made it 4-2 at halftime, was scored from near center ice. He had a defender draped all over him as he unloaded the hard shot.
“You gotta have to those go in to win, I think,” Reichert said. “You’ve gotta have some bounces. I think that was the deal last year. They got some bounces.
"And we got some bounces this year.”
Wright Homes closed to within 4-3 in the final minutes on a snipe by Don Donnette, and veteran sharpshooter and team co-founder Curt Wright hit the right edge of the box on a miss of the narrowest margins in the final minute, eliciting a roar from the elbow-to-elbow crowd surrounding the rink.
“I just think the hungrier people end up winning it,” Bakken said just as a huge celebratory roar came from the far end of the warming tent as WoodStars players mingled with their fans. “I tell you, WoodStars were hungry. They wanted it bad.
“They played extremely well. That was probably our best game of the tournament, and we still lost.”
From left, Nick Reichert, Doug Nelson, Erik Heltne, Ross Cooney, Kevin Rollwagen and Mike Taylor of WoodStars strike a pose with the coveted Golden Shovel after winning the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships Open Division title. Photo by Isaac Johnson
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