Minnesota High School Hockey Legend Grant Besse
St. Louis Park, MN -
Editor’s Note: The MNHockey.Tv is pleased to roll out our Legends of Minnesota High School Hockey series of articles. Each week, we will be highlighting twelve Minnesota High School Hockey Legends, boys and girls, who have become household names,etched in the history of Minnesota High School Hockey. These articles are the player’s stories and we will take you inside their amazing journey and in most instances, how it has shaped the rest of their adult lives.
Photographer Tom Dahline captured a number of images of Besse's four incredible seasons. Click here to view Grant Besse's image gallery. Thank you to the Catholic Spirt and David Wrase for assembling this incredible visual memory.
Our first Legend is Benilde-St. Margaret’s (BSM) Red Knight Grant Besse who was a 2013 graduate and Mr. Hockey winner. The former Wayzata Youth Hockey Association star catapulted himself into the upper echelon of goal scorers and point producers in the history of the Minnesota State High School League through his four years at the varsity level.
Besse will be forever remembered for scoring all five of his team’s goals, of which three were shorthanded, in the State Class AA championship game in a 5-1 win over the Hill-Murray Pioneers on Saturday, March 10th, 2011. The effort was Herculean and as the humble and focused Besse typically does, he deflects the praise to his teammates or band of brothers. The 2012 state championship capped a roller coaster ride of a season for the Red Knights who saw teammate Jack Jablonski suffer a horrible on ice injury that left him quadriplegic. The story of the Red Knights and Jablonski’s 2010-2011 season will forever be linked to Besse and his explosion not only in the state final game but the second half of the season.
While many player’s legend develop over time, Besse is one of the state’s best pure goal scorers of all time and he has earned that honor. He wound up scoring a robust 163 goals in 113 high school games played. His 163 goals was an average of just under 41 a season and places him fifth all time in goals scored. He went on to collect 109 assists for 272 career points placing him ninth all time in points.
Besse went about his business with a demeanor that was like able to all and had an on-ice charisma that all eyes became fixated on. He was the consummate team player and leader that many wish to be, but he is and was. A masterful job of leadership was executed by Besse and his fellow captains, Christian Horn, Jake Horton and TJ Moore, who were put to the test with the tragic life altering injury that surrounding Jablonski. Besse’s leadership and offensive execution puts him in legendary status now.
Besse grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota and was the first member of his family to play hockey. His parents, John and Cheryl, moved to Minnesota from Chicago with his older brother Jack. It was Grant’s fascination with goalie equipment that led him to hockey. “I really liked the goalie equipment,” Besse said. “My original goal was to be a goalie because I really thought the equipment looked cool. Shortly thereafter, I found out I wasn’t any good at goalie so I went the old skater route and progressed from there.”
Many know life can be easier for young players that had a path blazed by a parent or sibling that played hockey. Since his family had not been exposed to hockey, Grant was the first to give the game a shot. “Kids from Minnesota, either their brother played or their dad played and my family is not originally from Minnesota so, my dad moved up here when my brother was three. I was born here but the rest of my family is all from Chicago. He never played hockey growing up, my brother never played and I was kind of the trailblazer for the group. Goaltending equipment was the spark,” Besse said.
It didn’t take long for Besse to transition out of the goal crease and become a skater and became captivated by scoring goals while knowing he liked the feeling of that. Minnesota has long been a ‘pass first’ hockey community and oftentimes goal scorers are frowned upon as selfish, attention seekers, or puck hogs. The pure goal scorer is hard to find in the State of Hockey and is often cherished in other hockey markets but not as much in Minnesota. The concept of pass first fell short on Besse and he can count himself lucky. He is hardly a selfish player and is a gifted, pure goal scorer. Goal scorers are made up of confident players who burn to succeed and want to finish when they get their chances and are vital to winning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who had a bad time scoring a goal,” Besse said “It’s just that excitement you get even at a young age. Once you get a taste of that, I thought maybe I’ll try and do this for as long as I play. That feeling of scoring is what drove me to where I’ve gotten to today.”
The journey to those mind boggling numbers centered around his decision to attend Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Besse attended school at Breck from preschool to eighth grade and watched as his brother Jack switched from Breck to BSM. It was the lead from Besse’s brother that led him a short drive south on Highway 100 from Breck to BSM three years later for his freshman year and his brother had a lot to do with his decision.
“I always looked up to him and, at that point, I just came off a pretty good Bantam A year where we won the state tournament,” Besse recalled. “I had a pretty good year playing with (Grant) Opperman and Mario Lucia. I talked to my parents about it and they gave me the option of what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to stay at Breck with what I knew or follow my brother over to Benilde. They said I could do whatever I felt comfortable with.”
The Red Knights made the jump to Class AA after winning a pair of Class A state titles in 1999 and 2001 wanting to make the jump to AA hockey. That decision also made BSM an attractive choice for players with the desire to attend a private school yet, wanted to play AA hockey.
Besse continued his thought and said, “The allure of Benilde was definitely the AA program. Obviously, going to the state tournament, the Class A is awesome, they do a great job. But, there is nothing quite like that full Xcel Center for the AA quarterfinals, semifinals, finals. Little did I know that I would be there someday. I would say that, my brother already being there made me feel a lot more comfortable. I had to make the decision of whether or not I was going to play my second year of Bantam or try to play on the varsity team and that was a decision that had to be made.”
Besse was quick to say the decision was his to make the jump to BSM and whether to play varsity as a freshman. He said while parents allowed him to make that.
“Ultimately, the decision was up to me,” Besse said. “I remember my dad sat with him (Coach Ken Pauly) once I decided Benilde was the route that I wanted to go, the only question my dad claims he asked was if he’s good enough will he play? I think some coaches might give out the allure of playing for a high school team as a freshman and you get buried on the third line and what not. It’s not necessarily great for their development when they might have been better off going back for their second year of bantam. Luckily enough for me, I made the decision to try out for the varsity team, made it and found myself in a pretty good spot right away.”
Veteran Red Knight Head Coach Ken Pauly had seen a number of high end players come through his program. There were not a lot like Besse who carried himself in a confident yet humble way. Besse delivered for his team the minute he landed on the BSM campus.
“You had no idea what was going on in that head, just a teenage boy,” Pauly said “He wasn’t verbose and most kids that age aren’t, especially with adults. You could tell he was probably a pretty good poker player because there was a lot going on inside there, but he just ain’t telling ya. I knew him by reputation, I knew he was a good player. You wouldn’t have known that but the good players have a way of carrying themselves a certain way. There is that quiet athletic confidence that they have and you could really see it in him. I knew he was good but, seeing him play for four years, it bore out.”
Besse went on to post an astounding 30 goals with 20 assists for 50 points in 27 games played his freshman year. His production wasn’t just a happy-to-be-here moment, it was big time production with whomever head coach Ken Pauly put on his line.
According to Pauly, “Very few freshmen step in and make an immediate contribution and he was an instant factor. It shows you that his freshman and sophomore year, he was scoring. It did not matter who we played him with.” Besse posted (30g-20a-50pts) his freshman year and 33g-20a-53pts) his sophomore year. Totaling (63g-40a-103pts) his first two seasons and he did it with a confident but quiet flare to his game.
“Honestly, in four years I never heard a peep out of him, not a peep,” Pauly recalled. “I had him on fourth line sometimes, third line, or second line and he kept on playing and kept his mouth shut and played.”
*5th All Time
**9th All time
+133 over four seasons
“My freshman year, I kind of swapped out with Christian Horn, (Patrick) Steinhauser, (Brett) Patterson here and there. I didn't play a whole lot with T.J. (Moore) or Dan (Labosky). The following year is when Buddha (Ken Pauly) decided to make that switch and we joke about it to this day. We remember the game that it happened, it was at Osseo (Jan. 25th 2011) and it was our first game together and I think we all had four points or something ridiculous and never looked back from there.”
Trust can take a team and players a long way. It was that bond that built out one of the most dynamic lines in the history of high school hockey. “It all started with us as freshmen, we were all new to the school so we all knew we played hockey and just kind of huddled into our group of hockey friends,” Besse said. “We developed a really good friendship and I think from that, once that we were put together as a line, our three different styles of play probably meshed pretty well. Going off that, just having that friendship and that trust and that ability to bounce ideas off one another and what we think each other should do without having to worry about any feelings hurt or anything like that was able to help with that.”
That leadership from Besse did not fall short on Pauly and when asked about the star player’s evolution through the four years, it was the approach and communication of Besse’s game that stood out to Pauly.
“If he got frustrated, you never knew it,” Pauly said. “I don’t think I ever saw him once come back to the bench and question a coach, bitch at a teammate, seriously, and if they were having the kind of conversations they did - and I am sure they did - they were conversations. I think he would be a great fighter pilot because I think he is just always working the problem. You are not going to see him come back to the bench and slam his stick on the boards and all of this other stuff. Believe me, it’s not like he isn’t saying anything, he’d chirp like anybody else and do all those other things but when you talk about the evolution of his game, he just loved to shoot the puck and he always did that all practice and you can’t think of his game in high school as always evolving because he was so damn good.”
They had all the elements of a rock band. Moore was the dependable and necessary drummer. The player willing to pay the price as a defensive hard working player without seeking accolades. “With the three styles of play, T.J. probably was the rock of our line. He was the defensive rock that got to play with us when Dan and I were usually a little more worried about looking for breakaways and what not,” Besse joked.
Labosky was more of the lead guitarist of the line. He was the guy that liked to get to the open ice and go and eventually find Besse at the right time with pin-point passes. The vision of the guitarist playing the crazy licks while maybe jumping in the camera shot when the lead singer wasn’t singing, yet is a key component to the song is what comes to mind when illustrating Labosky’s contribution to the line. He was like a technician.
Besse was the lead singer who received all the attention because one could not help but notice him while he was vital to the sound or in this case, the line’s production. “Dan is a great passer and I found my way to finish on a lot of those passes. I think the dynamic of having those three separate styles of play benefited us in the long run,” Besse opined, making for a complete band or line.
Pauly put the line together and saw something in the trio. “Obviously, Buddha tried it but I don’t know how long he thought it was last, putting three sophomores together on a line, varsity hockey, with the schedule that we played at certain times. I think that speaks to T.J. a lot to hold it down back there while me and Dan were doing whatever it was that we did,” Besse said.
Pauly’s hunch paid off as his team captured the Minnesota Class AA state championship the next season. Besse finished the season with 52 goals and 41 assists for 93 points in 31 games, a sizzling 3 point per game production. Moore collected 67 points (29g-38a) while Labosky had 64 points (19g-45a) to collect 100 of their team's 213 goals. The state tournament was made possible by the entire team who stepped up when needed in the section playoffs and the state tournament. No goal was bigger in Red Knight history than Christian Horn’s game winner with :24 remaining in the third period of the state quarterfinals to top Edina 3-2.
The Red Knights crushed Lakeville South 10-1 in the semifinals setting the stage for Besse’s five goal outburst. When asked about it, Besse shrugged it off recalling the game and said. “I don’t know man, looking back on it, it was pretty crazy and even more crazy that people still bring it up to this day. People still like to talk about it. A lot of things had to go right for that game to happen. Three out of the five, I think they probably wish they could have back with two breakaways being another story. But, I would say the first one was kind of seeing-eye shot that found its way through traffic and beat the goalie. The second one, it was kind of an errant pass that I ended up with a wide open net. The first breakaway I made a pretty good move and went to the backhand. The shot on the fourth one I got some pretty good steam on it. The fifth one…” tailed off as he could not recall how that was scored. He has a sharp memory of the game that defined his hockey playing days in Minnesota forever.
“Not only the team too, but Jack being there, the whole story behind that,” Besse reflected. “When you mention it like that, five different ways you could take those five exact shots on any other day and they don’t go in, who knows, maybe I go oh-for-five. The stars just kind of aligned and they all went in. It was definitely a time as a 17-year old kid in that arena in that kind of game in front of that many people, there is that feeling of holy shit, for a lack of better words.
“Championships follow great players,” Pauly said of Besse. “Championships don’t follow great coaches, they follow great players and that’s the bottom line, say what you want but that’s just what it is.”
The win was bigger than just a team capturing their third state title in school history. So much more went into the season. The Red Knights had plenty of high expectations which brings along a lot of attention as is. A day that will never be forgotten in the hockey world was when Jablonski suffered his life altering injury in a game on Dec. 30th, 2011. What the Red Knights and Jablonski were about to endure from an emotional standpoint was immeasurable. The national and even international media crush that followed turned the Red Knights and their coaching staff into the statesmen for the state of the game, something they didn’t sign up for.
“Afterwards, you know you had a great game and after that celebration, you throw off your helmet and your gloves throw your stick in the air, and you look at everyone else on that team who also did so much to get us to that point that yea, I had a good game, that championship game, but you look at some of the performances that got us there. Whether it was Christian (Horn) scoring with :24 left against Edina or some of the games those guys had against Minnetonka in the section final. The Minnetonka game, people probably won’t remember that but I didn’t do jack shit in that game and was invisible the whole time. Without other guys on that team, we would never have the opportunity to do what we did and I would have had the opportunity to shine in the biggest spotlight in Minnesota hockey. Just to look around at your teammates and know that each individual on that team played a part whether it was me scoring five goals in the championship or just being a good locker room guy and picking up a guy when he is down. Everyone had a part to play and without that, who knows if we would have gotten to the places that we got.”
During the season, Pauly would take on the media scrums after the games and allow his kids to be kids and not only process the game that was but the emotions that surrounded them on a daily basis. The communicative head coach was expected to be a voice for hockey and rule changes while he just was coaching and didn’t know any more than anyone else when it came to that. Nonetheless, the coach liberated his kids from what was an intense media push.
True to the point was each day the players stepped on the ice, in the back of their mind was the idea that could have been them. It was on their parents minds and on the minds of not only high school hockey fans but for all of hockey. As a reporter and play-by-play journalist, this writer can suggest it was a full fledged array of constant reminders of the difficult things the Red Knights went through. Most would have crumbled but the Red Knights and Besse found a way to fight through it.
“It was really difficult,” Besse recalled of the experience. “I don’t think a single one of us ever had been through a traumatic experience as that before in our lives. I was there when Jack got hit and then we had to finish out the holiday tournament. That next week after practice, Buddha called us all into the chapel at Benilde and we all drove over there after practice and all of our parents were there so right then and there we kind of knew something was up. Buddha went up there and I remember him giving us the news. At that point there was still hope that you know, there was still swelling around the spinal cord and then technically it might not be severed and there was a chance. He broke the news that Jack’s spinal cord was severed and that he was quadriplegic and gave us the whole low down on the diagnosis.
Once that news came out the reporters and journalists and everybody wanted a sound bit or quote from our team. The way that Buddha took all of it on by himself, more or less, and let us focus on being with Jack and then also returning to playing shortly thereafter was I think very beneficial for us, not only as a team but 15 to 17-year old kids who had never had to deal with something like that. Obviously, he had never had to deal with something like that either but he rightfully so thought him as our leader would be able to better sift through all the different stuff that came along with it rather than us trying to deal with it on our own.”
The intensity around the outside of the locker room was tangible and Pauly was masterful in deflecting the worldwide media attention off his team. What mattered most is what was going on inside the locker room during the swirl of two worlds that were surrounding the group of young high school student athletes.
“Everything at that point had to be compartmentalized,” Pauly said. “When you are in an emergency type of situation, you just have to always say what’s our overall goal here and what needs to be done right now? Is what we are doing right now fitting in with that? One thing I was very intentional about, and I haven’t talked much to people about this, I’ve never liked the idea of oh, they won it for Jablonski, because we never embraced that, we never said let’s go win it for Jack. Other people did but we didn’t. We were very very intentional about not hanging the jersey on the bench or anything like that because you can only fail a situation like that. The only question to me is, ok so you win, now what? You win but what does that do for Jack and it doesn't change a thing where Jack is at.”
Besse and the captains, two seniors (Horn and Horton) and fellow junior Moore provided the necessary leadership and execution for their teammates while keeping their attention focused on their buddy Jack. Things that most adults would crumble over, this group overcame with their leadership and it was tangible. This writer saw it first hand while covering and live streaming the Red Knights games.
Pauly pointed to Besse and his captains when discussing their collective leadership and said, “The key to winning and the key to success is leadership. If you have it, you can win anything and if you don’t have it, you can’t win a thing. The incredible leadership in that group. I think they handled it well. We all handled it well together but, when I look at the kids, the leadership of Christian Horn, and Jake Horton was extraordinary. The leadership of T.J. Moore and Grant Besse were assistant captains, extraordinary. They were special, they were special to the group. They had the leadership of our captains and our seniors. When it was on the line, our captains came through at the most important times.
All the seniors on that team, we had a really good foundation as a team and as a school. I don’t think there is a community better suited to deal with a situation like that than Benilde-St. Margaret’s. We have very talented parents, financial resources, and the spiritual element that you wouldn’t have at other places.
“We actually paused the season. We didn’t play for a week and it was all about Jack and then there as a point where we said now we have to get back to worrying about the team,” Pauly said in reference to managing the emotions of Jablonski’s situation. A call from University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was taken by Besse on his way to school one morning during the pause. Eaves told Besse he was offering him a scholarship to attend school and play hockey at Wisconsin. Besse had wanted to play at Wisconsin and jumped at the opportunity and took the offer. What happened after that was one of the most explosive Class AA offensive explosions in recent time by Besse.
He entered the pause with a solid (8g-8a-16pts) in 10 games played, on pace for roughly a (24g-24a-48pt) season. He wound up posting (44g-33a-77pts) in 21 games played that ranged from January 7th through March 10th, 2011. All while there were incredible distractions coming from every angle.
“For me, I was having a pretty good year up until that point and then I remember one day, I got a call from Mike Eaves on my way to school and he asked me to come down and they were ready to offer me a scholarship,” Besse recounted. “It ended up committing that weekend. We ended up playing St. Louis Park, the first game back after Jack got hurt. Playing against St. Louis Park which was Jack’s old team, it was pretty wild. For me, my goal at that time was to play Division I hockey and Wisconsin was the school I wanted to go to so, to have that weight lifted off my shoulders and just not having to worry about it, I think that kind of spring boarded me into the next half of the season where I think I went on a pretty good tear and I was able to put up some serious numbers.”
The pause of the season not only helped the team and Besse sort through things and recharge their game but it also gave them an opportunity to manage their emotions as well. “There was a time we were supposed to play Wayzata, which was ironically the team that Jack got hurt against, that we were to play shortly thereafter and that game was postponed,” Besse said “I think a little extra time for not only myself but others on the team to just kind of digest everything that we had just been told about Jack and be able to go see him and talk to him and see how he is doing.”
After the dust settled on an emotional season, Besse moved on to play college hockey at the University of Wisconsin where he jumped right in as a true freshman. It is a move that Besse himself would have done differently and opted to play a year of junior hockey after his senior year to grow and develop especially, physically.
“To be honest, I would have done it differently if I could do it over again,” Besse said. “I don’t think I was ready to play as a true freshman. I think I was capable of playing. If I could do it over again I would have liked to play a year of juniors just to see what it’s like to play against bigger stronger players. Going from playing against 17-18 year old kids who are your age to going and playing against a 25-year old who was drafted in the NHL, played three years of juniors and his in his senior year of college, that is like me right now playing against a kid coming out of high school. It’s a completely different ballgame.”
There were no regrets in his decision and he is confident in his life path. “I don’t have any regrets of going to Wisconsin or anything like that. If I could do it over again, knowing what I know now, would have gone and played a year of juniors. Playing at Wisconsin was awesome. You get some of those games, I remember in my freshman year, we played the Gophers, beat them the first night and were going for the sweep. We hadn’t swept the Gophers in the Kohl Center in like 15 years. There were 16,000 people there, it was a crazy atmosphere and it was awesome to be a part of,” Besse said.
He has gone on to play professionally and put up point per game numbers in the East Coast League and moved on to play in Europe. He completed a successful campaign doing what he does, scoring goals. His 20 goals tied for the team lead playing for the Krefeld Penguins. Professionally, Besse has notched 92 goals in three professional seasons.
It doesn’t take long for those who run into or meet Besse to recall his superhero moment during the state championship game. A young man with plenty of depth, Besse would shrug off the attention and would rather be known for the man he is and not the efforts of a 17-year old kid.
“It is what it is,” Besse said. “Now, being 25-years old, knowing that people really care about what you did 8 years ago when you were 17 you are like, I don’t get it. Immediately after, I loved it. It was one of the coolest things ever. Now, I’ll talk about it, I don’t really care but if that’s something the only thing somebody wants to talk about, there is more to me as a person than a game I had when I was 17-years old.”
The most important part of Besse’s story is the friendships he has made. While at home in the Twin Cities, he lives with Moore who also plays professionally in Europe. Most high school hockey teams stay close for years after graduation and the Red Knights of 2010-2011 have a deeper bond and relationship that rallies around the incredible ebb and flows life brought them as impressionable teenagers. Besse was a leader among a team steeped with leadership and was their point producing machine that helped lead the way. His subtle swag and confidence on and off the ice is infectious and a pleasure to watch.
When recalling his time at Benilde St. Margaret’s, Besse didn’t hesitate and said, “The lasting friendships. I played with a lot of guys over my 22 years I have been playing or whatever it is. I made a lot of different friends. But every year, I come back home, I go back to my high school buddies. Those are my guys, Dan, TJ, Stieny, Christian, that core group, Jack, even though he’s out in LA now. Without that, I don’t know that I would ever have found a group of friends like that, I’m not sure I would have. I might have, but who knows? Just that camaraderie we had on that team and Benilde as a school is something I have not been a part of since then. Wisconsin was great, I loved it. Obviously, there is a great alumni structure where we all give back and hang out and stuff. Going pro you can play with 25 different guys every year so that’s not really the same. Having those high school buddies you see eight hours a day at school, go to the rink, two hours of practice and then have no intention of leaving the rink anytime soon after practice was over, just hanging out, that is something I will be ever thankful for, that I was a part of.”
Pauly summed up Besse directly and said, “Clearly, in my thirty years of coaching, he’s the greatest talent I have ever had the privilege of being associated with. He is the most talented player I ever coached, period. In terms of pure goal scorers, if he’s not in the top five of all time high school hockey scorers, I would like to know who is and I put him on the short list of the top three of the greatest of whoever played.”