Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

21 Mar

Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

For the past twenty years or so, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has been the most prominent scholar studying arguably the most important, and most worrisome, trends in contemporary America: the decline of civil society and the splitting of society along class lines. The point of the title, Putnam argues, is that we’ve stopped thinking of the children all around us as “our” kids; they are now just kids, and the only ones “we” own are the ones we raise ourselves. There is no shared inheritance or duty here, just each of us living out our isolated, atomized lives, caring for no more than our own progeny. For Putnam, the root of this separation in the fates of kids is not exactly income (though that is related, and very important) nor race (still a real issue, but the trends are slowly but steadily equalizing on that front). It’s parents’ education.

I buy this completely. I’ve lived it: I certainly don’t come from money, but I was fortunate to grow up in a very intellectual milieu, and my childhood, while far from idyllic in some respects, has much more in common with that of the privileged kids described in the book than those of the ones who have been left behind. These commonalities cut across race and region and parents’ professions, and they are self-reinforcing. In every case the gap between those who come from “upper-class,” backgrounds and those who do not grows more extreme, illustrated strikingly in “scissors graphs” that show two lines growing further and further apart. Neighborhood integration, most every financial measure, unmarried motherhood, single parenthood, family dinners, parenting time, school class and extracurricular offerings, college degrees, breadth and usefulness of informal networks, obesity rates, religious activity (which traditionally provides a community and a support network), voting…the list goes on and on. We’re splitting apart.

Most of the information here is not really new; the innovation comes in packaging it all together and intertwining the heaps of data with compelling stories. In each chapter, we meet children from well-off backgrounds who illustrate one particular trend (be it in family stability, parenting style, education, or community) and corresponding children with far less happy life stories. Using kids is a superb storytelling innovation, and one designed to draw out readers’ sympathy: we come to realize just how much things are stacked against the less privileged kids in the book, and how powerless we are to stop these trends (if we even accept our roles as that “we”). There is no one root cause, as everything is tied up in knots and feedback loops that are impossible to untangle. Neither the easy liberal narrative (it’s all the economy) nor the easy conservative narrative (it’s all culture and/or individual choices) hold up, though both are certainly true in places. It’s a master class in mixed-methods research for a popular audience, and most everything points toward a coming decline in social mobility: the death of the American Dream.

The book intentionally avoids blaming anyone for these trends, a choice which will no doubt frustrate some commentators, especially those on the left. The portraits of the upper-class people in the book are just as raw, and the fragility of their own lives, while better cushioned than that of some of the less privileged, is all too clear. Our Kids does propose some public policy solutions, most (but not all) trending toward the left: more mentoring, support for community colleges, parent coaching, greater maternal/paternal leave, daycare subsidies, incentives to get good teachers into bad schools, and expansion of the earned-income tax credit or similar programs. There is nothing radically new here, and most of the ideas are possible but not entirely likely in the current political climate. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, in her wide-ranging review of the book, makes a very valid critique when she says its desire to influence policy leads an unwillingness to call out institutional factors at play.

Our Kids even includes a rather daring attempt to make a moral case for action against this widening split, citing both a mildly liberal reading of American history and scripture. I’m not sure it’s robust enough to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe it. This might just be a symptom of my own unfortunate habit of always taking everything to the most existential plane possible, but I think it reflects the ambivalent relationship many Americans have with the American Dream, even as we all claim to believe in it. The most religiously devout among us may like the general ideas, but ultimately have a different endgame in mind, and this is where their loyalties lie. Many on the left like the idea in principle, but think the concept is too deeply caught up in some of the less savory aspects of American history, and place their loyalty in other ideals or groups first. The atomized among us, worn down by the very rat race that Dream creates and tired of the shrill voices around them, don’t really care if other people have it so long as they can guarantee it for their kids. By its very nature, the American Dream makes it hard to have time to care about the fates of others.

What’s the future of the American Dream? For all its troubles I’m still a believer, and may well spend my life fighting to make sure it remains reality, since this is the language most people speak. However, we also need a clear-eyed appreciation of its limits: it will never reach everyone perfectly, proffers no salvation, has historical baggage, and the relentless pursuit it implies grinds people down. It’s a sensible organizing principle for a plural society, but it pulls that off because it’s a base common denominator, not a creed for all to share. Moreover, I’m confident that, in a worst-case scenario, I can still carve out a good life for myself even if it does fail. Instead of lamenting the past Paradise Lost of 1950s Port Clinton or even the 2000s east side of Duluth, perhaps it’s time to come up with a more crisp idea of what “we” want for our kids. The wisdom of the past can be a helpful guide, but the language of the American Dream forgets other bits of wisdom that sometimes provide a more robust idea of what the good life truly entails.

***

As longtime readers know, I think about these questions often in relation to Duluth, because I think its east-west split captures the greater societal split perfectly. And sure enough, Putnam had much the same thought: his research team interviewed people in Duluth for the book. His work on the city got some mention in an August 2013 New York Times column that I blogged about at the time, and used as a basis for some of my points about the east-west tension that will decide Duluth’s fate. Sadly, however, all the Duluth material ended up on the cutting room floor in the final edition.

I’ve contacted Putnam and friends to see if they have any more information on Duluth that I might be able to share, and will pass it along if I do hear back from them. Also, for anyone who notices that line on page 272 that mentions the pseudonymously-named “Tyler in Duluth, whose dad is a college professor and who plays string bass and now studies at a leading Ivy institution” who was interviewed but didn’t make it into the final draft of the book—Georgetown isn’t in the Ivy League, so this is not me, despite the otherwise eerie resemblance. I did reach out to “Tyler” (an acquaintance of mine) for better understanding of the research team’s methods, though, and if the research team ever gets back to me, we can find out if our suspicions about their intent were correct.

A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, As Told by High School Hockey

18 Mar

Want to know the socioeconomic health of a Minnesota town or city? Look no further than its high school hockey teams.

The comparisons are almost too easy to make. The first high school hockey Tourney was in 1945, so the evolution of Minnesota’s sports crown jewel tells the story of postwar American urbanism as well as any economic study. The history of the Tourney and its participants is the same as the history of local economies, from manufacturing collapse to suburban growth to rebirth along economically segregated lines. This is my attempt to tell that story.

Hockey is an expensive sport, and even though Minnesota keeps things relatively cheap with its community-based development model and plethora of municipal rinks, hockey success still tends to follow affluent areas. Wealthy areas with growing populations are typically the places to look for waves of hockey success. The exception to this rule has long been small northern towns—though even here things still more or less line up, with the Iron Range falling off from its early dominance along with the decline in mine employment while towns with more diverse economies (Grand Rapids, Bemidji) or an anchor industry (Polaris in Roseau, Marvin Windows in Warroad) remain relevant despite their size.

To study these trends more properly, I divided all high schools in the state into several categories: (1) Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; (2) First-ring suburbs—that is, suburbs built in the first wave of suburban migration, from the 1940s-1960s; (3) Second-ring suburbs—suburbs that were built up from the 70s-90s; (4) the urban “periphery,” which includes suburbs/exurbs settled in the past 20 years and small towns in that area that have become part of the Metro as it expands; (5) Twin Cities private schools; (6) small Northern towns; (7) northern city schools—that is, schools that are part of small metro areas such as Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks; and (8) the rest of Greater Minnesota, which I realize is a very large catch-all category, but fits together for our purposes due to its relative lack of AA hockey success (with some exceptions) unless given its own weak section.

From there, I looked at the number of State Tournament entrants from each region by decades since the Tournament’s inception in 1945. I ignore the Class A Tournament/Tier II tournaments that began in 1992, as their teams are not necessarily reflective of the strengths of teams in each section relative to the state as a whole. In a perfect world I would have studied teams’ records and ratings over the years—as any sports fan knows, the best team doesn’t win every year, and sometimes a single dominant team can hide the successes of other good teams trapped behind them in their section—but that data just isn’t available for the early years. I’ll present a line graph of each region’s Tourney berths by decade, and then sprinkle in maps of the Twin Cities Metro area by decade.

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Metro Area State Tourney Entrants,1945-1955. Number indicates State Tournament berths; numbers after semicolons indicate State Championships. Click images for enlargements.

In 1950, most of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area population lived in the Twin Cities themselves, though there was a growing ring of suburbs such as Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Roseville, and South St. Paul. Minneapolis’s population peaked in the 1950 Census, with 521,718 residents; St. Paul’s peaked a decade later, at 313,411. At the time, the cities’ hockey conferences were highly competitive; while St. Paul Johnston established itself as the Twin Cities’ preeminent public hockey school and the one Metro team that could go toe-to-toe with the powers of the North, there was relative parity beyond that, and things were always competitive.

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1956-1965

The second half of the twentieth century saw the gradual hollowing out of the inner city. Minneapolis lost 29.39% of its population between its peak year and 1990; St. Paul lost a more modest 13.14%, but the damage was real, and the hockey teams reflected it. By the 1970s, the Minneapolis section had largely devolved into a 2-team race between two of the most affluent schools, Southwest and Roosevelt; similarly, St. Paul was largely ruled by Johnson and Harding. But not even they were safe. Southwest won Minneapolis’s last big-school Tourney berth in 1980; Johnson managed to scrape together two berths in the 1990s, though they came out of weak sections and did nothing once they got to State. All of the Minneapolis public schools now co-op into one middling program; three St. Paul public high schools field hockey teams, with Johnson the only one coming even remotely close to some rare playoff success.

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1966-1975

The first-ring suburbs were the early beneficiaries of the cities’ decline. Edina’s triumph in the famed 1969 title game, the one in which Warroad superstar Henry Boucha limped off hurt following an allegedly dirty hit, was the first title for a suburb, and ushered in an era of superb competition between the suburbs and the North. Alongside mighty Edina, South St. Paul established itself as a Tournament regular; Mounds View, Henry Sibley (of Mendota Heights), Irondale, and the Roseville and Bloomington schools all left their mark on the Tourney in the 70s and 80s.

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1976-1985

By the 1980s, however, things began to shift yet again. While Edina and the Bloomingtons often ruled the scene and the North had fallen off substantially, schools further afield in the Metro began to appear at State: Anoka, Apple Valley, and Minnetonka made multiple appearances, while Burnsville won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade. That trend only accelerated into the 1990s, with Blaine and Eden Prairie joining the fun. There were even some berths for far-flung schools out on the Metro periphery, such as Hastings, Elk River, and Lakeville. Blue-collar South St. Paul, still one of the most decorated programs in state history, made its last Tourney in 1996 before dropping to Class A, where it has done little; Richfield, a title threat behind Darby Hendrickson in 1991, now struggles to field a team.

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1986-1995

The decline of the first-ring suburbs becomes even more profound when one looks at which first-ring suburban schools have been doing all the winning over the past 25 years. 9 of the 13 berths from 96-05 came from Bloomington Jefferson and Edina, and all 9 from 06-15 belong to Edina. Edina is the exception that proves the rule here, the one first-ring suburb that has used its long-established prestige to maintain economic dominance and continue to attract young, fairly affluent families. In the late 1980s, blue-collar Bloomington Kennedy and Duluth Denfeld were every bit as good as, and often better than, their white-collar counterparts, Bloomington Jefferson and Duluth East. A decade later, Jefferson and East were the state’s premier powers, while Kennedy and Denfeld were struggling to stay relevant. Even the west side of Bloomington, home to Jefferson, has undergone some demographic change in recent years, though the Jaguars remain a relevant program despite the lack of State berths. America’s working class has been hollowed out, and its once-strong hockey teams have felt the strain.

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1996-2005

As populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have started growing again for the first time in 60 years, there have been encouraging signs for the inner city teams; Minneapolis and St. Paul youth programs are climbing toward relevance, and St. Paul Highland Park brought its dead program back to life in 2010. But the most important trend over the past 25 years in these cities and in the first-ring suburbs is the rise of private schools, which tend to be where most of these youth kids wind up playing in high school. (Most, I suspect, have gone to private schools their entire lives.) This might seem to throw off the whole theory, but on the contrary, I’d argue that this only underscores the divisions in 21st-century American cities. While the 1992 two-class split and the story of Greg Trebil (a wildly successful Jefferson youth coach who took over the Academy of Holy Angels in 1996 and brought several top Jefferson youth players with him) may also play roles, the 1990s saw the sudden appearance of the privates (excepting Hill-Murray, which has always been good). This trend fits in with broader narratives of a self-sorting society. Inner cities, while growing, are increasingly divided, with the ultra-rich and the mostly-minority poor split into different neighborhoods, and only a small “middle” class (often involving young people who have yet to start families) serving as a buffer in between. Hockey parents with the means to do so bail on Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and often on schools in Richfield, St. Louis Park, or Brooklyn Park as well. There will be no hockey success for inner-city public schools until inner cities find some way to retain or grow their child-bearing middle class families.

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2006-2015

So, what might we predict for the future? The second-tier suburbs will peak at some point, with greater success in rising exurbs like Stillwater, Orono, Prior Lake, and St. Michael. Inertia and hockey culture will carry on in places like Edina, and perhaps in some other places whose leadership or natural amenities keep property values high. Communities that build a genuine sense of place, as Edina has, will prove more stable in the face of natural cycles of urban growth and decline. Places along lakes or rivers, from Elk River to Stillwater to Minnetonka, seem likely candidates.

Naturally, there are factors that have nothing to do with urbanism that affect who heads to the State Tourney. The manner in which the State High School League draws boundaries, to say nothing of great coaches or freak individual talents, all play a role. (How many more state berths would exurban Elk River have if it hadn’t been stuck in a section with Duluth East over the past decade?) Decisions to open and close schools or youth programs will leave their mark, and there’s some chance that the repopulation of inner cities might eventually manifest itself in some way. We’ll also have to see how private alternatives to community-based youth hockey progress, and how these might eat into the pools that high schools draw from. But the correlation is undeniable, and I don’t think any of the above trends will do anything to undermine this whole picture.

Statewide trends reveal a more straightforward numbers game, as power has shifted from smaller towns to larger metro areas. In most of the North, culture allows teams to stay relevant and even thrive with smaller numbers, so long as the economy is stable. Duluth operates as a microcosm of the Twin Cities, with “inner city” Duluth Central now closed and working-class Duluth Denfeld fighting to stay alive, while exurban Hermantown grows, private Duluth Marshall consciously moves to collect regional talent, and Duluth East, the Edina of the North, looks to ride the considerable power of past prestige to stay on top of the heap.

There is one last elephant in the room here that I haven’t mentioned: race. Due to its cultural origins in Canada and Scandinavia, hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport. And, as recently as half a century ago, Minnesota was an overwhelmingly white state. But that is changing, and hockey has been slow to follow. Minneapolis proper was 98% white in 1950, and is now 63% white; most first-ring suburbs are now following the same demographic shift. On that note, I’ll make a bold claim: whichever suburb, town, or neighborhood manages to get the most minorities on skates is going to be the model for the future of Minnesotan urbanism. It isn’t that hockey is some magical vehicle to social equity, but it does have considerable cultural cachet, and its adoption by new arrivals would imply genuine integration and social cohesion. If anything is going to resist the unending push outward and into greater self-segregation (or even the privatization of hockey training, a story for an entirely different post), it is to be found here, where there is still low-hanging fruit. Any high school that can get a group of talented minority athletes together on a successful hockey team is going to break down any number of barriers, and will almost certainly win the hearts of the state. Inertia can do the rest.

In the meantime, enjoy the continued rise of the urban periphery and the private schools, and the continued relevance of the old powers with enough economic vitality to keep their numbers going. For everyone else, take it as a challenge to buck the trends and prove that other, more subtle factors matter, too.

Duluth News Roundup: March 2015

15 Mar

Over the past couple months, this blog has neglected any mention of Duluth affairs unrelated to the exploits of one particular hockey team. Time to fix that. I just spent a weekend back home, and Duluth is basking in sunny repose in mid-March, a rare feat that had everyone out enjoying the brownness of it all. (Why do these nice springs only happen when I’m elsewhere?) So, let’s see what’s been in the headlines over the past couple weeks, shall we?

Surprise! Art Johnston Is Suing ISD 709

Okay, maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and everything has, depressingly, played out according to plan.

I go back and forth on what I think will happen if this does play its way through the courts. Harry Welty, who is the only person providing any insight beyond the most basic talking points, thinks Art has a very strong case in that his freedom of speech has been violated. That said, it’s not hard to see Harry’s biases here, and as the tone of his blog has shown recently, he can’t be trusted to be objective when he has an obvious stake in the outcome. From my very limited perspective, I’m not sure the Johnston camp has a good counterargument to the most salient point against him—that he used his influence as a school board member gave him undue power and a conflict of interest in representing his partner, Ms. Jane Bushey, in discussions with district administration. (Johnston supporters are quick to point out that no police report was ever filed against Johnston’s alleged “assault” of Supt. Gronseth, and I agree that it sounds like a fishy and trumped-up charge, but the “bullying” of Ms. Bushey is just as unsubstantiated at this point.)

I’ll agree with Art and Harry that the state’s law allowing school boards to remove members seems way too loose. I’d support the effort to change that, and bring it in line with the standards used for other elected bodies. But unless his lawyers can prove unconstitutionality, a fight that would involve some very high-level courts, the School Board was within its right to exercise its power of removal so long as it found “proper cause.” The Rice Report as written gave them proper cause, and while Art and Harry have questioned Atty. Rice’s character, they’re going to have a hell of a time proving that. This leaves them with the possibility of questioning some of the testimony she relied on to develop that proper cause. Harry enjoys making dark allusions to the actions of one school administrator, but this would tip the case into a number of accusations in the shadows and he-said, she-saids. Is that really a winning case, especially when the other side actually gets to tell its story? I’m not very convinced. And frankly, if the accused party needs character witnesses, she’ll have some good ones. I could be one of them.

I still think it was dumb of the School Board to go down this road against a mostly powerless Member, as Art will only drag this out in the courts forever and make it an even greater PR nightmare. I don’t know why any sentient voter would support any of the seven incumbents based on their conduct at the moment. But I also don’t think this debacle will prove the vindication that the anti-Red Plan camp seems to hope it will become, either. The whole affair is a pox on everyone’s house.

I should’ve gone into education law. Seems like an awfully lucrative field.

Howie Backs Out

As you might guess, I am crushed, simply crushed, to learn that Howie Hanson has withdrawn from the mayoral race.

It’s actually a pretty shrewd move on Howie’s part, and one that lets him get out of the race with dignity before it gets too heated. His odds were low, and this was not the stage for him. This allows him to dedicate himself to his seat on the City Council. Not having watched much lately I don’t know if he’s getting better or if it’s Same Old Howie, but he means well, cares for his residents, and, as one voice among nine, cannot do too much damage.

This leaves Emily Larson alone in the race at the moment, though we still have eight months before the election. Names like Yvonne Prettner-Solon and Chris Dahlberg continue to drift about, but they’ll need to decide fairly soon if they want to have the resources necessary to mount a successful campaign. In the end, Larson may be the biggest winner from Howie’s very early entry into the race, as her quick answer allowed her to really get ahead of the pack and get her name out there. I still think this election is hers to lose.

Let’s Sell Some Weed…Or Not.

There was some controversy this past week over the creation of marijuana dispensaries in Duluth; the Planning Commission is going full speed ahead here. The City Council, on the other hand, hasn’t been such a big fan in the past. There were a number of proposed sites—near the airpark, Garfield Avenue, Lincoln Park, somewhere in or around Morgan Park. Not coincidentally, these are all on the west side. For the sake of the west side’s image, I hope it ends up in the airpark or on Garfield Avenue.

The defenders of these sites say they’re all heavy-industrial areas anyway, which is true to an extent, but complexities of land use tend not to come into people’s minds when house-shopping. Saying “there is a pot dispensary in Lincoln Park” is probably enough. Granted, that might not be a turn-off for some people…but, let’s be real. Any rehabilitation of Duluth’s west side isn’t going to be led by a rush of people chasing a marijuana dispensary (unless Duluth goes all rogue and tries to become the Boulder of the North, but I don’t think that’s on the table right now). It’s going to need stable families to set down roots and repopulate the schools. Stick it by the airport or on Garfield.

Chartering a School

I’ve talked about this some before, too, but it’s coming to fruition: Duluth’s Edison charter schools are building a high school on the Snowflake Nordic Center site.

My objection isn’t to educational alternatives (which I support in principle, from private and parochial schools to homeschooling), nor necessarily to the idea of charter schools (though there is growing evidence that, in time, they tend to just become destinations for white flight). It’s to the scale of the project. In a metropolitan area the size of Duluth, subtracting 600 students from local high schools is going to cause a fundamental disruption. Of course, the school will draw from numerous districts; ISD 709 Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims most Edison students nowadays go to Marshall, and now seems unconcerned, but I have a sneaking suspicion over who will be the real loser in this new setup: you guessed it, the school that draws from the area of Duluth right by the new school. Denfeld. The poor get poorer.

Time will tell, of course. But the supporters of the Edison project are, in my mind, far too blithe and/or naïve over the likely effects of their new high school. This area is too small, and we are all interconnected. You do not live in a vacuum.

St. Louis River Corridor

Lest this post get too down on the west side, here’s cause for some potential excitement: we have some nice plans for the St. Louis River corridor redevelopment, most of them involving trails. In fact, if there’s a criticism, it’s pretty much all trails; the question becomes one of how to integrate all of these trails with the existing built environment, and how to capitalize on the new attractions. Still, there’s lots of encouraging stuff here, from skiing to rock climbing to horses to river access. There is plenty of ongoing investment in west side amenities. The question is, will genuine economic opportunity follow? Or is this just a cosmetic repair on the surface, one that ignores a collapsed economic base and a declining housing stock? I don’t have the answer there. Time will tell.

For all my grumbling, it was good to be back. Nothing quite matches a Minnesotan’s delight as the coming of spring after the long, cold tunnel of winter. Enjoy your spring, Duluth. I hope to be back again before long.

The Hounds’ Run for the Ages: 2014-2015 in Review

9 Mar

The Duluth East season is at an end, though Greyounds young and old are still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the past two weeks. The Hounds took us on a ride for the ages, as a mediocre season culminated in a second place trophy. The streak included one of the greatest comebacks in State Tournament history and one of the greatest upsets in State Tournament history on back-to-back nights, to say nothing of one heroic goaltending performance and yet another crazy comeback in sections. Much of the praise for the run, some of mine included, has been directed at Mike Randolph, and he certainly deserves the credit for devising a system that turned a defensive sieve into a trapping machine that shut down Edina’s bevy of forward talent. The old Hound found new tricks, even in retirement.

Importantly, though, Randolph gave all of his praise to the players, and it was those players who made it happen. It was largely forgotten after the first half struggles, but East was ranked in or around the top ten by most people in the preseason, and while there may not have been any can’t-miss D-I upperclassmen, over half of the players on this team will have the chance to play some hockey after high school if they so choose, some of them at a fairly high level. This team was deeper than many, including all of 7AA; by the end of the season they had three competent lines that could score, and rolled six defensemen for the first time in several years. As Edina so often shows the rest of the state, depth kills, and any team with confidence in its full bench is in a position to outlast teams that may have a few more front-end stars.

East didn’t score much this season, but the numbers there are a bit misleading. Thirteen different skaters recorded a point in the State Tournament, and while it was only ever a Plan B, they did show some genuine offensive talent when they had to, rallying back against teams like Blaine, Minnetonka, Elk River, and St. Thomas Academy. Luke Dow and the Altmann brothers are high-quality high school forwards, while Ryan Peterson was one of the stars of the Tourney, and Brian Bunten was a consistent presence. Garrett Worth has the potential to become the next in a line of great East snipers, and Ian Mageau and Ryder Donovan will likely join him in some offensive prowess in the coming years.

This East team had its issues, though, with only one returning defenseman who played defense last year. There were signs of promise from the whole corps, but sloppy or boneheaded moments often did them in; a number of East’s losses involved two reasonably good periods that were undone by one abysmal one. In net, Gunnar Howg hit enough speedbumps to see two other goalies cycled through the job before winning it back with a stellar performance against Lakeville North. A young group including three freshmen and a sophomore slowly found its way against that typically brutal schedule. The first half was a laundry list of can-you-top-this frustrating games: a narrow escape against St. Michael-Albertville, a blown lead in Centennial, a 7-1 shellacking (despite nine power plays!) at the hands of Edina, a loss to Eastview in a winless holiday tournament, and then rock-bottom, a 5-1 home loss to rival Grand Rapids.

It is hard to pin down any one turning point in East’s season. Nick Altmann pointed to a narrow loss to Eden Prairie in January, a solid effort in a bounce back from the Grand Rapids game two days prior; immediately after that came Howg’s performance against North. But there were still bumps. A loss to Anoka led to the adoption of the radical 2-3 forecheck that was the star of East’s best regular season game, a tie at Elk River that proved they had a shot at the section. But even though that scheme played a huge role in some of the Hounds’ wins down the stretch, there were other games where they never really got it going or had to drop it to make up for big deficits.

To pull off this run, this team needed to have something else going for it, some intangible quality that takes all of those clichés about sports and makes them real. Grit, heart, character, determination, belief: whichever word you like. Randolph’s line from the 2014 section final reappeared: “deny losing.” They played each of their six playoff opponents during the regular season, and didn’t beat a single one of them. But yet they got it done. They took down a goalie with a bright future who’d flustered them in a regular season tie, an archrival out for their blood that threw everything they had at them, the Mr. Hockey winner and his team of section destiny, high-powered St. Thomas Academy in its AA Tourney debut, and then the two-time defending champions, a team that had lost just once in its previous 37 games.

The heroes were different every night: Howg against Grand Rapids, a couple of third-liners against Elk River, Ryan Peterson against St. Thomas, the Altmann brothers against Edina. A big hit from Bryton Lutzka here, or desperate goal line clearances from back-checkers there; Alex Spencer throwing it down with Parker Mismash, showing Edina that East wasn’t going to take his agitation lying down. It was a total team effort, and while they exceeded my wildest expectations, after each win, the next one didn’t seem like it would be so implausible. They’d done it before, so why not do it again?

Luck played its part, as it must in every miracle run. There were so many pipes, trickling pucks, and convenient bounces. Dylan Malmquist’s injury will forever be an asterisk on the Edina game. Even so, the Hornets had more than enough firepower to win, and the Hounds made Edina’s other stars look ordinary with their discipline. Their reward was, hands down, the best sports memory I have ever had: 21,000 people in a record-breaking crowd, rising to applaud the darlings of the north. (Call it the East fan’s paradox: we spend the entire regular season as the Evil Empire of 7AA, only to come down to St. Paul to adoration.) It helped that they took down two of the most hated teams in the state, but it was a run that reminded many why it is we love this Tournament so much, and why Minnesota high school hockey has no equal.

The final against Lakeville North wasn’t to be: the Panthers were too good, too precise, and too smart to fall into some of the same traps that others before them had. East lost to one of the all-time great teams to come through the state, and did a decent job of hanging in there, giving some faint hope for yet another comeback. There was no shame in the effort, and while the fourth title remains elusive, another big-time trophy is on its way back to Duluth, none more improbable than this one.

And so we bid farewell to our seniors: Nick Funk, Matt Lyttle, and Evan Little, all of whom came into their own as regular forwards down the stretch, and chipped in big plays in the playoffs. Backup goalie Lucas Hedin, who gave a delicious salute to St. Thomas Academy after East finished them off. Bryton Lutzka, whose experience and big hits led the way on an otherwise green defense. Gunnar Howg, a two-time Tournament goalie who found his niche as a Hound. And the captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, two hardworking longtime linemates who drew their coach’s highest praise: “you see those two guys right there? They drive the bus.” We wish them all the best, whether in hockey or in life beyond dear old East. Together, they made some memories to cherish.

For the rest of the team, meanwhile, it’s back to work: time to hit the weights, plan an offseason regimen, and probably enjoy some free time away from the rink, too. This was a pretty young team, and there will be a lot of talent coming back next year. Grand Rapids will be loaded, Elk River will be out for revenge, Cloquet is still there, and Marshall is joining the AA party. Seven in a row is nice and all, but eight has a pretty good ring to it, don’t you think?

My annual State Tournament reflection essay (which also, unsurprisingly, includes some stuff about East) is available here.

Karl’s 2015 State Hockey Tournament Coverage

2 Mar

Happy State Tournament week! Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know for four days of nonstop hockey.

I’ve posted game capsules on each of the quarterfinals, complete with players to watch, to mnhockeyprospects.com. Here they are: Class A | Class AA

Brackets are available from the MSHSL here: Class A | Class AA

Throughout the Tournament, I’ll be tweeting from @KarlEastHockey, and will give longer updates on the Forum, including notes from most of the press conferences. Life has conspired so that I may miss a handful of games this Tourney for the first time in eight years, but I’ll try to give some forewarning if and when that happens. As usual, there will be some sort of reflection essay at the end.

To whet your appetite, here are five of the better storylines heading into this Tournament:

Chasing the Jags

Bloomington Jefferson won three straight titles from 1992-1994, and the 1993 champions went undefeated. No AA team has achieved either of those feats since, but there’s a very large possibility of one of them happening this season. Smart money is on Edina, despite being the two-seed, to win a third straight championship, while the one team to beat them this season, Lakeville North, enters the Tourney 28-0. This sets up the possibility of a mouth-watering final, a rematch of last season’s convincing Hornet win. If it’s those two on Saturday night, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.

Northern Hope?

Bemidji and Duluth East are this season’s two northern AA entrants, and they open up against two teams that are not exactly Tourney fan favorites—Edina and St. Thomas Academy, respectively. The arena will be behind them, but they both face very long odds; Edina is the cruelest first round opponent imaginable for Bemidji in their first visit to State since 1985, and East is the surprise team in the field—if East can ever really be a surprise—and will have its hands full with STA’s skilled forwards. Still, both are playing well right now, with Bemidji shutting out everyone in their path through 8AA and East showing sizeable improvement over the season and a knack for pulling out the close ones. We’ll see if either one can carry the 218 pride this season.

Is This Finally Hermantown’s Year?

Five straight second place finishes will strain anyone, and Hermantown coach Bruce Plante might just go ballistic if the Hawks fail to clinch the Class A crown this season. This is the best team they’ve had over this stretch, and there’s reason to suspect they could roll through the field in a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas Academy at its best. Still, there are plenty of possible roadblocks, from the East Grand Forks team that took them apart last season to surging Mahtomedi to one of those dreaded private schools, Breck. Still, this is a golden opportunity for the Hawks to put all those demons to rest.

Star Power

If you want to see many of the top talents in the state, this is a good year for you. The six Metro AA teams have 19 combined D-I committed players, with plenty more to come. Seven Mr. Hockey finalists will be on hand, along with a handful of others who could have easily made the cut. Edina and Lakeville North are about as deep with stars as it gets these days, while it’s no surprise to see Hill and St. Thomas putting out a bunch; the AA quarterfinal nightcap matches two of the best, Blaine behemoth Riley Tufte and Eden Prairie wunderkind Casey Mittelstadt. Mahtomedi junior Jack Becker and Breck junior Chase Ellingson should finally get some recognition this weekend, too. I could go on and on.

A Stacked Field

When Hill-Murray has a strong regular season and still gets stuck playing the top-ranked team in the state in the first round, you know we’re in for some good hockey. Six of the top seven teams, according to nearly every AA ranking, are in the Tournament, and the two northern teams have some intrigue around them as well. The top four in Class A are also there, and St. Cloud Apollo isn’t a pushover, either. It doesn’t get much better than that; the 2012 AA Tourney is about as close as it’s come. That year, in case you’ve forgotten, saw the four seeded teams all go down in the quarterfinals. That seems a longshot this season given the strength of Edina and Lakeville North, but the potential is there for an awful lot of good hockey.

I hope you’ll join me for part of the way, either virtually or in person at the Xcel Center. There will also be a Forum meet-up at McGoverns on Saturday afternoon after the conclusion of the Class A title game and any Bruce Plante press conferences. Enjoy the games.

The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

26 Feb

Three years ago, one of the most loaded teams in Duluth East history finished off a 4-1 win over Eagan on a Saturday in early March. That game, however, was not at the Xcel Center in St. Paul; it was at a consolation final in front of a half-empty Mariucci Arena. Their pride was intact, but Greyhounds Nation was left wondering what could have been. Mike Randolph, the Hounds’ longtime coach, made his way across the ice to salute the East fan base, as he always does at the end of the season.

I made sure to preserve that sight in my memory. At the time, there was good reason to think Randolph would call it quits after 23 seasons; his son was about to graduate, and he had just hit 60. Had he left then, his legacy might have been a somewhat complicated one. Yes, any reasonable observer would acknowledge his work in building up the program in the 1990s, and his two state titles with those loaded teams back then. But after that came a wacky saga that saw Randolph dismissed for a year before getting his job back, a series of section playoff upsets, and two bad upset losses once they did get back to State, the most glaring of those the 2012 affair that had wrecked his best season in over a decade. Every year, there was some grumbling from the stands, and while I had plenty of respect for Randolph, I would have been fine starting off a new era, too.

Randolph, however, came back. The results since have been nothing short of golden. Tonight’s 5-4, 3-goal comeback, double-overtime win over heavily-favored Elk River is the crowning moment of one of the all-time great runs in Minnesota high school hockey history, a streak of seven straight tournament berths, each more impressive than the last.

Sure, he still has plenty of talent to work with—though it’s gone down some each year. And yes, whiny southern fans, the section final is in Duluth. But anyone who thinks for a moment that this is at all a fluke or a function of game location isn’t paying close enough attention. In watching this team closely over the past three years, I’ve picked up on so many of the little things he does, so many of the little strengths he brings to the table that no other coach in the state does.  It helped that I had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while during that stretch, but it took careful observation to realize the totality of his control, and just how unique it is. Minnesota high school hockey fans are in the presence of a master at his craft.

Did anything change over time, to turn those disappointments into three straight thrilling Tourney berths, each more improbable than the last? Probably. Randolph sure thought so, saying “everything” had changed in how he handled his players over the course of his career. After the 2013 run, a few players joked about his wry sense of humor, a side of him I don’t ever recall hearing about when I was in high school. I told friends that he was going soft in his old age; I don’t know if the current players would agree with that after one of his famed bag skates, but whatever it was, he found a way to strike the perfect balance between pushing his players to give all they could without going overboard. This is the essence of good coaching, and performance in any sphere of life: to know how to push things to the limit and stay there, getting the most out of one’s own unique strengths.

He’s pulled just about every lever imaginable over the past three years, though I don’t doubt that there’s something else left in the bag of tricks. The 25 regular season games are merely a training ground for those three in late February that decide East’s fate. He preaches his systems, and makes his players believers, even when down 3 goals in the first period to a more talented team. 2013 and 2014 saw the creation of the most lethal power plays in the state, using East’s handful of top players in perfect positions to make up for a relative lack of scoring depth. Defense always comes first, and yet East never falls too far back into its shell, and by season’s end he’ll turn them loose on the attack when need be. This current season tested the limits of his ingenuity, with the radical adoption of a 2-3 forecheck after the defense was repeatedly shredded early in the season—only to abandon it at times in the section final against Elk River, when necessity demanded that they throw players forward. They hold back until they know they have the other team doubting themselves a little bit, smell blood, then strike.

Randolph will ride his top players at times, but everyone on the team has a role, knows it, and it’s no surprise to see some of them coming up big in the clutch. The second and third lines each scoring twice in this year’s section final against Elk River, and in each of the past two seasons, players who I would have benched, being my impatient self, have made key contributions. It’s a complete cast of characters, from lunch-pail senior Nick Funk scoring the tying goal to freshman phenom Garrett Worth popping in the game-winner. He’s even played goalie psychology perfectly, benching both Dylan Parker and Gunnar Howg after struggles in their senior seasons, only to give them back the starting job with something to prove down the stretch. Both have taken the Hounds to the Promised Land, with Howg’s heroics in the semifinal against Grand Rapids the latest testament to that success.

The Hounds head to the State Tournament greater underdogs than they’ve ever been, and with an otherwise loaded field taking shape, it would be easy to shrug and say that this is enough of an accomplishment this year. And yet Randolph will surely demand that his team “deny losing” once again, and nothing is assured as they head into a first-round matchup with one of the state’s three elite teams. And even if the favorites advance, no matter what happens, a legacy is intact. It is one of brilliance, and we East fans are spoiled to enjoy it once again.

Some Artistic License

18 Feb

Lest this blog turn into a hockey-only affair here in the midst of the playoffs, I’ll inject some art to liven things up a bit. The four works that follow are four of my favorites. I can think of plenty of good ones that aren’t here, and a few of my favorite painters don’t have any one single work that really stands above the rest like these do. But these four have captivated me in one way or another over the past four years or so, so they make the cut. Here they are.

I. Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens)

Rafael, 1511

schoolofathens

Anyone who’s bothered to read all of my philosophical ramblings won’t be surprised to see this one leading off the list. It is a fresco in the Vatican, and it pays homage to the philosophical roots of the Western tradition, of which Christianity is also a part. The great minds of the ancient world debate questions great and small. It’s not always entirely clear who is who, but the central subjects of the fresco are obvious enough: Aristotle and Plato, forever in a friendly tension, the real and the ideal juxtaposed against one another. Basically every philosophical debate ever since has its roots in this one, and even the rejection of this debate can be found sitting a few steps below them in the form of Diogenes.

It’s become fashionable in some circles to dismiss Greek philosophy as an anachronism, or a narrow Western imposition. But in many ways, the Greeks had the human condition measured better than anyone who came after, and they can be valuable guides. Of course the Western Canon has its flaws; all who contributed to it were a product of their times. Instead of trashing this self-evident truth, it’s much more useful to see what they got right, and how those simple early thoughts endure far more meaningfully for lived experience than anything in the arsenal of postmodern jargon. In a rare occurrence, I side with Plato over Aristotle: this is the ideal of how debate should look, with respect and camaraderie and deeper search for the truth.

II. La condition humaine (The Human Condition)

René Magritte, 1933

laconditionhumaine

At one point while I was in Washington DC, I wandered through the modern wing of the National Gallery on my own, drifting along from one picture to the next with no particular enthusiasm. Then I came to this one. I stood there, transfixed, for at least a few minutes. It was hard to put into words exactly what it meant, but I got it immediately, and it couldn’t be any more right. From Sara Whitfield’s Magritte (1992):

“This is how we see the world,” René Magritte argued in a 1938 lecture explaining his version of La condition humaine in which a painting has been superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable. “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” What lies beyond the windowpane of apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can properly discuss its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception. And it is culture, convention, and cognition that makes that design; that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty.

The point here, I suppose, is not wildly different from the one I was making with The School of Athens: we all come from a certain context, and view things through a certain lens. We are our histories; we embody the people and places we come from, and cannot shake them off as we gaze out upon the world.

III. Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park)

Diego Rivera, 1947

dreamofasundayafternoon(Click image for enlargement)

A high school Spanish teacher showed me this mural long before I’d considered studying abroad in Mexico, and while I probably rolled my eyes at her gushing like most high school kids do, something lingered. By the time I headed south, it had become an essential stop, and on my first free weekend, I hiked up Paseo de la Reforma alone to stand before the mural, which occupies an entire wall in its own museum. It didn’t disappoint. I was riveted.

It tells the story of Mexican history from left to right, from the first conquistadors to the Revolution of the 1910s. The heroes and villains all mingle in the park, strolling down its promenades, forever tied up in a contradiction of a nation. At the center is Rivera as a boy, standing next to the calavera, that reminder that death levels all the differences between these many people, arm-in-arm with its creator, José Guadalupe Posada. National myth, fantasy, and harsh reality all blend together in vibrant color, a crowd that captures the soul of a contradictory nation.

Once I’d drunk my fill, I then spent my own Sunday afternoon wandering the Alameda of 2010 Mexico. It was a chaotic mix of vendors and protesters and pleasure-seekers; none as famous as those portrayed by Rivera, but even if they had been, they would have been lost in the crowd. I sat down on a bench and wrote for a bit, happy to have arrived, but slowly realizing that this fleeting glimpse was only the beginning. I had more work to do. I set out to find a nation and wound up finding myself instead, in large part by coming to understand that wild cast of characters that had wandered through my own life.

IV. Et in Arcadia ego

Nicolas Poussin, 1638

etinarcadiaego

Even in Arcadia, there am I. The speaker of these words, of course, is Death, and the shepherds of Arcadia have just discovered death in the form of a mysterious tomb. The pastoral lives they live are but a dream, and no one can hide from it forever.  My fatalist impulse comes through here, Posada’s calavera once again underscored: it is all so fleeting, and even in paradise, nothing is eternal.

It’s a somber note to sound, perhaps, but this isn’t to cast a pall over it all. Instead, it shows just how precious those moments of bliss can be, and how we must adapt to their lack of permanence: we must treasure them, and never lose sight of how little time we have to do whatever it is we’re setting out to do. That awareness is at the root of my hunger to figure things out, and to get as much right as I can. We all need our occasional retreats to Arcadia, but we cannot linger: the world calls.

It is no coincidence that two of these four works are filled with people, attempting to sort out their roles within a society or some other social environment. Another looks out from within, at how the individual sees the world; another steps out, while reminding us that we can only do so for a little while. It’s all part of the cycle.

Photo sources:

http://uploads5.wikiart.org/images/raphael/school-of-athens-detail-from-right-hand-side-showing-diogenes-on-the-steps-and-euclid-1511.jpg

http://www.ket.org/painting/images/humaine.jpg

http://www.oh-wie-scha.de/homepage_cipa001.jpg

http://www.parnasse.com/etinarc.jpg

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