There was a time when St. Paul’s East Side was the capital of Minnesota hockey. Or at least one of them.
Over a century of play, the Johnson High Governors won four Minnesota championships, appeared in 22 state tournaments, and sent 80 kids to the college ranks, eight of whom became All-Americans. The grit and passion of Johnson was exemplified by its most famous alum, Herb Brooks, who would go on to coach the Gophers, the U.S. Olympic team, and in the NHL.
That heyday would end in the 1970s and ’80s, when the East Side’s sturdy blue-collar neighborhoods were decimated by factory closings and a new economy that frowned on those who worked with their hands. The East Side began to produce what remain the lowest income levels of anywhere in the Twin Cities.
In the meantime, Johnson welcomed a wave of immigration from Africa and Southeast Asia. Today, the school’s minority population approaches 90 percent.
It’s not easy to maintain a hockey team with a student body unused to the art of sailing across large sheets of ice. But coach Moose Younghans has been shepherding the Governors since 1993, maintaining the only continuous high school program in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
He’s an old-school force of nature, jocular and unassuming on the outside, hyper-determined within. His is an affable, welcoming vibe, a sense that you’re in the presence of good, standup people. It’s easy to see why boys would follow him, and moms and dads would trust them with their children.
Younghans’ life is about giving of himself. He began his coaching career in the late ’70s with younger kids, routinely winning state titles despite the East Side’s less than promising odds. He helped launch youth programs like the Johnson-Como Hockey Association. Even after he jumped to the high school ranks, he’d often moonlight coaching a second youth team.
The beauty of his creation can be seen on game night at Gustafson-Phalen Arena. The Governors draw full houses, a United Nations rainbow of students whose origins stem from points across the globe. In between periods, the lobby is packed with well-wishing adults who seem to be part of some sprawling, extended family.
Johnson is no longer a power. With so few students who play hockey, the Governors are forced to rely on brothers piling aboard from the same families. The Hmong kids haven’t shown much interest in the sport since a Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department youth program was discontinued. But Younghans is happy to gush over his first Somali player, a freshman with three siblings behind him.
If Johnson can’t compete with the larger, wealthier powers of the Minneapolis suburbs, it more than makes up for it with entertaining hockey. The Governors are a reflection of their coach, a rugged, old-school team than never passes up a check. What they lack in numbers and skill, they more than compensate for with fire and spirit.
Besides, says Younghans, some things are more important than wins.
“Our culture is good. Their lives are good. Sports teach them the right work ethic. Teaches them about respect and all the things that are important in life. They’re flourishing.”