By Bill Hudson

BLAINE, Minn. (WCCO) —  It’s a big reason Minnesota is known as the “state of hockey.”

Holiday hockey tournaments are a rich tradition this time of year.

And one of the most prestigious is also the nation’s largest, where 128 boys and girls teams are playing for much more than bragging rights.

Of all the holiday hockey tournaments vying for teams and fans, one clearly stands out.

“The number of teams is a huge thing. There’s 64 boys and 64 girls teams, all coming together to play in one location,” Spencer Arvold, ice sports program manager, said.

For 16 years, the Schwan Cup has been a hockey player’s post-Christmas present — the gift of a gold cup.

“It’s near the holidays so you have that extra excitement and it’s also really fun because there’s a lot of people here compared to normal,” Centennial junior forward Anneke Linser said.

Tournament organizers offer four separate divisions for both boys and girls.

“We offer multiple divisions so that everybody has the opportunity to play in the tournament. You’re going to get some good competition at your skill level,” Arvold said.

The Centennial girls team is ranked in the state’s top ten, proving it with ten goals in the opening game. Forward Gabby Hughes likes the added stakes.

“It’s super exciting to be around the atmosphere, because there are so many teams and you see other teams watching in the stands,” Hughes said. “And it’s just a different atmosphere than just a regular hockey game.”

The Salter family just moved to Minnesota from Chicago and says it’s tournaments like this which define the state of hockey.

“She’s just excited to be playing hockey. She really likes it. We just moved here recently, so just to be in this atmosphere, et cetera, is really good for her,” Scott Salter said.

Playing with talent like Hughes and Linser — who soon fly to Czechoslovakia to represent team USA in the U-18 world tournament. But first there’s a cup to win, to prove they’re among the state’s best.

“For the boys, really, the entire division is up for grabs. The great thing is watching these teams go from the Schwan Cup into the state tournament,” Arvold said.

The girls will crown champions on Wednesday and the boys’ tournament starts on Thursday.

Among the state’s current top ranked boys teams, half of them will be playing in the Schwan Cup’s gold division.

There’s a good chance you’ll see many of those same teams in the state tourney in March.

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