A State Tournament Look Back: 2008

18 Mar

As I round out my hockey coverage this winter, I offer one last piece that I promised my Twitter followers: a recap of the 2008 State Tournament. While I’d been to it as a Greyhound fan before and watched most of the games the previous few years, this was the first time I locked in to all the games, and I dragged my dad down for the AA final. (I haven’t missed a AA Tourney game since.) It’s the first year for which I have a Tourney program, and one of my favorite features of that program, as an 18-year-old Greyhound, was the 10-year look back on the 1998 state champs from my high school. But even before the MSHSL lobotomized the programs two years ago and removed that feature, a blog post along these lines was brewing in my mind, and now that we are ten years out it seems ideal to look. (MSHSL, if you’re out there reading, I’d gladly pay much more than $5 to get the old version back!) All but the most exceptional players who participated in that Tourney have now seen their playing days to come to an end, and I’ve done some mining of HockeyDB to track where all the players listed in the program went on to play.

Class AA

2008 was a memorable Tourney in large part for its big four: the top four seeds were four of the top five teams in the state heading in, and they all advanced to the semifinals to set up a Friday night session that set an attendance record that stood for several years. Top-seeded Roseau, the defending State Champs, were the darlings of the Tourney, as they came in with an undefeated record, presumptive Mr. Hockey winner Aaron Ness, and the top goaltender in the state, Mike Lee. With Jason Fabian, Tyler Landman, and head coach Scott Oliver’s son Nick leading the offense, the Rams had the balance to repeat.

The dream final was to feature the Rams and second-seeded Edina, a matchup that would have brought together the state’s two most decorated programs. The one-loss Hornets had lost in the quarterfinals to Grand Rapids as the top seed in 2007, and their Fab Four junior core of Zach Budish, Marshall Everson, Connor Gaarder, and Brendan Baker had added one Anders Lee, a transfer from St. Thomas Academy who is now in the NHL. Senior Mr. Hockey finalist Joe Gleason led the defense, and a couple of the depth players gave them a full eight future D-I players. The Hornets looked primed to atone for the previous year’s miss.

The third seed was private school Benilde-St. Margaret’s of St. Louis Park. After some success at Minnetonka, Red Knights head coach Ken Pauly was back with the program with which he’ won two Class A titles, and this time around, they had a fighting shot at the big crown. They’d vanquished the only top five team missing from the Tourney, Minnetonka, in the 6AA final, and while they didn’t have the front-end talent of the two favorites, they were deep with a group attuned to Pauly’s up-tempo style. Six Red Knights would go on to Division-I hockey, including Chris Student, Matt Berglund, Tom McCarthy, and Patrick Borer.

And then there was the fourth seed in the field, Hill-Murray. Like Edina, the Pioneers were looking to atone for recent upset losses at State; they’d lost to unseeded Rochester Century in the quarterfinals in 2007, and in 2006, a one-loss team had fallen to Grand Rapids in the semifinals. This team was led by its defense, including Bo Dolan and Dan Sova, who brought the hits all weekend, and its goaltender, Joe Phillippi. Seniors Dan Cecka and Ryan Furne were their leading scorers, and a deep junior class including Isaac Kohls, Nick Widing, and Tyler Zepeda gave them scoring depth. Like Benilde, they didn’t have the draft picks of Roseau and Edina, and came in somewhat unheralded, but in retrospect, this group looks as formidable as any in the field, with six D-I players and excellent depth.

The rest of the field wasn’t devoid of talent, either. Woodbury, appearing in its second consecutive Tourney, had a couple of front-line forwards in David Eddy and future 3rd round pick Max Gaede. Blaine, making its third consecutive Tourney appearance after an upset of Centennial in the 5AA final, had a freshman named Nick Bjugstad on its roster. The surprise entrant was Cloquet-Esko-Carlton out of 7AA; a year after bowing out in sections with a much stronger team on paper, the Lumberjacks advanced to the Tourney on the backs of two D-I players, the giant Justin Jokinen and defenseman David Brown, whose scoring binge in sections stunned favored Duluth East and also eclipsed Anoka. Rounding out the field was a .500 Lakeville South team backstopped by the wonderfully named Hakan Yumusaklar.

Quarterfinal Thursday went according to form. Edina rolled past Cloquet 5-0 in the early game, and while gameplay wasn’t overly lopsided, the Lumberjacks had no answer for the Hornets’ front end talent. Benilde beat Woodbury 4-1 in the second game, and while they outshot the Royals 41-26, Woodbury did stick around the whole time, and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the middle of the 3rd before an empty-netter and a last second goal padded the scoreline for the Red Knights. Roseau put on a show with an 8-2 blitz of Blaine in primetime, with Tyler Landman locking up a hat trick less than a minute into the 2nd and Aaron Ness scoring two of his own. Hill wrapped up a strong day for the top seeds by slipping three past Yumusaklar in a workmanlike 3-0 win.

Semifinal Friday delivered on its promised drama. Edina and Benilde, which had its share of Edina youth players, put together one of the most entertaining games of the decade in the opener. Edina built 3-1 and 4-2 leads, but goals early in the 3rd from Student and Berglund tied the game, and a frantic third period produced no more goals. Everson, Edina’s great sniper, won it in overtime for the Hornets. The nightcap would be hard-pressed to match that drama, but it quickly turned into a shocker. Hill’s heavy hitting set the tone early, and the Pioneers then erupted for three goals late in the first and early in the second. Roseau clawed one back early in the third, but came no closer, and both the perfect season and the dream final ended in a couple of Pioneer empty-netters.

The title game thus matched the favored Hornets and the surging Pioneers in a battle of state powers. (“Cake tastes better on the East Side,” read one sign from the Hill-Murray faithful.) The Pioneers opened the scoring just 2:30 in on a goal from Ryan Furne, but the key came with one second left in the first period, when a seemingly harmless shot from the blue line by Furne bled through Edina goalie Derek Caschetta for a 2-0 Hill lead. From there, Phillippi in goal and the relentless Pioneer defense went to work. Budish rang one along the top of the crossbar on Edina’s best chance, and after Delaney Metcalf put away the third Pioneer goal, the Hill band cranked up “Another One Bites the Dust.” The Pioneers would shut out Edina 3-0 to claim their third state title, and first since 1991.

Elsewhere, Woodbury fought past Cloquet and Benilde for 5th place in a competitive consolation bracket, and Benilde bumped off beleaguered Roseau 5-1 in the third place game on the strength of four third period goals. Aaron Ness took home his Mr. Hockey award, while Budish, the most heralded of the Edina stars at that time, would not play another high school game due to a football injury in the fall of his senior year. Joe Phillippi parlayed his Tourney performance into a cup of coffee at St. Cloud State, and while Hill would return to State in 2009, four members of their vaunted junior class would not be a part of it, as they were removed from the team midseason for disciplinary reasons.

In 2008, though, the Pioneers’ performance at State was one of the most memorable of all time, given the teams they beat and the dominant fashion in which they did it. They allowed just two goals in the Tourney. Their showing ended Roseau’s dream run for back-to-back titles, and while their 2014 team had a fighting shot, as of this writing, this was the 7-time champs’ last great chance. It left a bunch of Edina juniors thinking they had unfinished business, and promising they would come back for another shot a year later. It was a launching point for Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner, who up to that point had not enjoyed a ton of playoff success relative to expectations; that script would flip in the following years. His defensive assistant, Pat Schafhauser, got some much-deserved credit for the force with which the Pioneers bullied the two top-ranked teams in the state out of their way. Hill-Murray was back on top.

The chart below lays out how many players from each grade on each team went on to D-I and post-high school hockey, respectively. While this isn’t a perfect metric of how good they were in 2008—some good players hang up the skates after high school, others peak early or bloom late—it does give some idea of the talent level in this field. A single game is enough to get a mention, and we’re using HockeyDB standards for post-high school careers, so low-level junior leagues like the NA3HL are not included. Anyone who was on the State Tournament roster is counted.

2008 aa

Looking back, it’s pretty clear why the Pioneers won. They had the deepest senior class and were supported by a strong junior class, and while they didn’t have the front-end skill of Edina or Roseau, they were deeper. Edina had a ton of talent, but was perhaps a year away from what should have been their peak; Benilde was senior-heavy but not quite on the same level as Hill, and Roseau’s relative lack of depth comes out here. An observer looking at this table who didn’t know the results might guess all the games correctly based on what’s here.

Class A

In Class A, top-seeded St. Thomas Academy was both very young and very skilled, with six future D-I players: sophomores Christian Isackson, Justin Crandall, and Ryan Walters, plus freshmen Zach Schroeder, A.J. Reid, and Matt McNeely, were all on the roster. Factor in some experienced upperclassmen, and the Cadets were clearly the class of the field. Their greatest threat for the crown, such as they were, was Duluth Marshall, a team that lacked much in the way of star power, but had good depth and the hero of the previous season’s win over St. Thomas, defenseman Dano Jacques. The Cadets had beaten the Hilltoppers in the 2006 title game, while the Toppers clipped St. Thomas in overtime in the semis in 2007, and the top two seeds seemed destined for a title game rubber match. The three next-best teams in Class A all featured an underclassman future NHLer: Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt, and Little Falls with Ben Hanowski. Warroad, the deepest of the bunch, claimed the 3-seed, while Cathedral took the four and Little Falls drew the short straw and was saddled with a first round date with St. Thomas.

In the quarterfinals, Duluth Marshall got something of a fight from Corey Leivermann-led Mankato West, while Warroad brushed aside Litchfield, and Cathedral handled Blake. The highlight of the day was St. Thomas’s win over Little Falls, in which the Flyers twice came from behind to tie the game on Hanowski goals, one of which inspired Hanowski’s salute to the Cadet faithful. Hanowski missed a penalty shot in the second period, and late goals from Ryan Walters and James Saintey earned the Cadets the win. After that, things held to form: Marshall fought past Warroad to earn a third straight trip to the title game, but St. Thomas simply rolled, with a 9-2 win over Cathedral and a 5-1 blitz of Marshall for a second title in three years.

The Class A Tourney made one thing clear: the Cadets now set the bar in Class A, and while they would miss the next two tournaments, they were now reeling top-end talent like no other small school program. Marshall fell off somewhat afterwards, and never could quite claim a title, and Warroad, Cathedral, and Little Falls would all be back as the top three seeds the next season.

2008 a

Looking at this, St. Thomas’s dominance makes all the sense in the world. Marshall, perhaps, overachieved this season, given that they’d run out of Connollys to lead the offense, though this might look different if Jacques had continued playing. The big surprise here is the Blake team that I don’t remember at all, but actually had a pretty good collection of Class A talent (Josh Birkholz is a name I’d completely forgotten.) The Bears went 0-2 and mustered little against Cathedral and Little Falls. Otherwise, this one largely went according to form as well.

Hope you enjoyed this, and I plan to make it a yearly feature.


Tourney Reflection 2018

14 Mar

I’ve been to every AA Tourney game for ten years running, but this one drained me more than any of them. From emotional investment in my alma mater to the rigors of running commentary for Youth Hockey Hub to a simple desire to delight in every possible moment of Tournament finery, this one took its toll. It was worth every second. Even my knees are bruised from wedging into Xcel seats, the battle wounds of a Tourney well-lived.

2018 ended with a Lake Minnetonka boat party in both classes, as two first-timers ascended to their thrones. The Class A quarters did enough to tease us with upsets, though none delivered; the first day of AA saw three methodical wins from the top seeds and the start of a fourth before the Centennial Cougars roared to life, stunned St. Thomas Academy, and broke their section’s decade of despair in St. Paul. After that, it was all nervous tension, with intrigue in every single late-round game.

This Tourney came to its zenith on Semifinal Friday, always my favorite day of the Tourney: the quarterfinals always have something of a carnival atmosphere, with teams just happy to be there and hair on display, and the Championship Saturday has its own mystique that brings in the winner and the loser. Friday, however, is all business, where dreams are either dashed or passed along to primetime. Class A delivered the goods yet again in the afternoon, as Orono burst out to a 4-goal lead before Mahtomedi blew all the way back, only to see the Spartans finish them off in overtime. Next to me in the stands, Chase from Mahtomedi rode the waves of emotion down and up and then into a crash, but bounced back to chat up the Mora girls in front of us for the nightcap. Helping the rebound was the stunner in game two: down went Hermantown. For the first time this decade, the Hawks would miss the Class A final, their streak undone by a hard-hitting core of Cardinals from Alexandria. While the Cards’ parade to the box on Saturday kept them from being able to interrupt Orono’s steady push, they certainly sent the state their message.

The evening session began with a match-up that has become synonymous with the Tourney, the very phrase saying it all: Duluth East-Edina on a Friday Night. East answered the first Edina punch and refused to crumble as the Hornets piled on, and the giants of the north continued their great run against the state’s foremost hockey power. Scrappy Centennial again threatened to upend the Tourney in the second game, but Minnetonka kept churning away, and once they got one, it was no surprise when four more followed. Those Skippers kept the momentum rolling into Saturday. The stars came to play in this Tourney, with Bobby Brink slicing, Sammy Walker dicing, and Garrett Worth sniping. But for my money the difference-maker was the Minnetonka top defensive pair of Josh Luedtke and Grant Docter. They were the fulcrum for the Skippers’ seamless motion machine, their fluid breakouts doing just enough to break through the Duluth East barricades that had turned back the Hornets the night before.

A deep run by one’s alma mater only adds to the drama, and I did my part for the cause when I defended Duluth East pride with a bubble hockey win over some Minnetonka kids before the championship. We’ve been here before in my time as an East fan, but this one had the infectious spirit of a deep run where we loyal Hounds knew we had a very good chance. Out came the former players, the familiar faces among parents, and some alumni I hadn’t seen in years. I met some Red Wing guys with no direct tie to Duluth East who nonetheless proudly sported their Greyhound gear, and shared a couple drinks with the legendary Blackout Todd. I even had brushes with some Hounds in the student section like Tommy and Superfan Sam, who now get to learn how deeply the Hound hockey legacy can linger.

The Tourney mixes and matches us with people from beyond our own little tibes. I spent the Thursday night upset next to a diehard Cadet and directly in front of a box of Centennial moms, their reactions to events a perfect yin and yang. The next night, the box was home to some vicious Edina squirts, while in front of us, a dignified Hornet couple who appeared to have mistaken a hockey game for a night at the opera sniffed at our primal reactions to Greyhound goals. But even the Cake can join the fun: an Edina dad at McGoverns passed along a gift, and I consoled a Hornet alumnus friend who came down to visit for the second AA game on Friday. Toss in a couple of Tourney Virgin friends who fed our motley collection toward the back of Section 108 that night, and we had our own little party under way. “Why so sleepy?” we chanted at the Fairview Health ad when it appeared on the screen for the umpteenth time. Why? Because we’ve given it all in our nonstop hockey carnival, and it’s time for a good, long rest.

Not yet, though: the cast of characters goes on. There was The Lady, a posse of private school coaches at Grand Seven, and the St. Thomas parents. There were the familiar faces down the row playing the quarters game, and the press corps friends who sought out Danny and I in the lower bowl: Randy from Hibbing, Tim from Moorhead, and Zach from White Bear, the only one to bring us cookies. (Perhaps the Hockey Gods will smile upon the Bears in thanks for your kindness, Zach.) Some of the old hands stopped by, too: Dan from Plymouth,  the Bemidji guy who jokingly sought my autograph on his printout of my game previews, the Saturday session break with the Ryans, and Eric and Kara, who snuck away from their newborn for a little while to maintain a tradition. Finally, I owe a shoutout to my normal Thursday dinner date at the St. Paul Grille, whom I missed this year because he was too busy doing his part with a team on its way to a state title. I’m sure I’ve left off someone who should be on this list, and if you’re not here there’s always room for more.

I also spent more of this Tourney brushing shoulders with kids still in school than I ever have. “The Tourney is kind of our thing,” one of our Eveleth friends told us, as true a statement as there ever was. I made my annual Friday night circuit of the 200 Level, a sure way to make oneself feel like a fossil, and found myself googling cell phone games I’d never heard of. The Tourney is a jarring study in emotion that only teenagers can produce, from schoolboy raunchiness in the upper deck to some antics on the ice, from Joe Paradise’s selfie celly to Edina’s Jake Boltmann setting up Centennial goalie Travis Allen for a one-timer as they mucked around during a stoppage in third place game garbage time. And then, on the other side, sheer raw emotion: the remarkable poise amid tears of joy and pain for Joe Molenaar, Minnetonka’s winner of the Herb Brooks Award who lost his father all too soon.

That weight hit me again in the postgame reception area, where the Hounds players emerged from the locker room to meet their families and dedicated fans. I’ve seen kids’ season-ending tears dozens of times now, written of their moments of realization in Tourney Reflections past, but this was one where I needed to repeat certain phrases over and over again to get myself to believe them. Six years ago, I failed to find the right words for a distraught Jake Randolph in the bowels of the X; this year, I found some of that wisdom that hockey has taught me. It’s all over now, and spring is upon us yet again. But yet it isn’t over, and never does really end for those of us who lived it for four days in March. We are the heirs to something transcendent, and we must never forget it.

The Power and the Glory: Duluth East 2017-2018 in Review

13 Mar

Those of us who follow Duluth East hockey don’t really know the meaning of an unmemorable season. The storylines always seem to fall into place, and win or lose, the Greyhounds find some way to entertain us. But the 2017-2018 team, runners up in the state of Minnesota, somehow found a way to make themselves to stand out above the rest. It was a remarkable year.

While these Hounds had a few more hiccups against mid-tier teams than the other top teams in the state, they still finished with the second-best regular season since the last championship in 1998, and they rolled into the playoffs with more jump than that one team that was better than them on paper, the 2012 group that lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. They flashed their formidable talent in solid wins over the likes of Wayzata, Andover, Centennial, Elk River, and top-ranked Minnetonka, and the only concerning wobbles came against local rivals like Cloquet and Duluth Marshall. After they slaughtered the Hilltoppers in the section semis and found a way to dig deep and overcome scrappy Andover in the section final, they had all the makings of a team on a championship run.

The Hounds faced a spirited test from the Knights of St. Michael-Albertville in the Tourney quarterfinals, but a sudden detonation of WMD (plus some Logan Anderson for good measure) in the second period put away the Knights. Garrett Worth pulled his best Dave Spehar with a hat trick, and at 5-0 the Hounds had their largest Tourney margin of victory since the days of said Mr. Spehar. Parker Kleive logged a shutout in net to prove East goaltending would be no weakness in this Tourney, and Mike Randolph was able to rotate in some depth players to keep his most dangerous weapons in tune for Friday night.

For the fourth time in eight years, the first game on Friday night had the Hounds matched with Edina, a titanic clash between the two best programs of the two-class era. This war has come to define Tourney semifinals, and this Edina squad, which blasted so many quality opponents into running time, looked every bit the most lethal one in the field in its romp to the semifinals. It all ended there. A Worth snipe, an Ian Mageau power move, a Randolph lockdown defense, a Carson Cochran diving save, and a bit of luck on a fluttering puck off the stick of Frederick Hunter Paine proved the formula for a Greyhound victory. Worth fired one last rocket into the open net to punctuate the night: one of the most skilled Hornet squads in history was history, vanquished yet again by their great nemesis of the North.

The Hounds got off to a slow start and an early deficit against Minnetonka in the state championship game, but with a few in-game adjustments they still found a way to generate their share of ever-so-close chances. The second line in particular was flying, with Austin Jouppi and Ricky Lyle providing the offense for the night. WMD, however, was snakebitten, and the tight defensive corps took a beating as the clock ticked down on their third straight game. None of those close chances went in, and with a little puck luck of their own, the smooth-skating Skippers denied the Hounds the crown.

I’ve been through a lot of East year-end losses now, but save for the unique pain that comes from the end of one’s own senior year, this one hurts the most of all of them. Even if it didn’t have the heartbreak factor of a Kyle Rau triple-overtime dive or the lingering what-ifs of losing to a less skilled opponent in 2009 or 2012, it hurts because this was such an easy team to like, and more than any of them seemed to have both the talent and the heart to win it. The team just felt like a loose, goofy group that knew its mission. It said something Mike Randolph’s first hug after a big win always seemed to be for Worth, a kid who had to aggravate him at times, but remained lovable in spite of it, and certainly showed his share of growth over his years as a Hound. (Garrett listed Randolph as his greatest fear in the team program.) The buy-in was complete, and the right blends of skill and balance, of experience and confidence, of coaching and freedom, were all there.

This team wrote its way into the East record books. Worth’s 47 goals were the most by a Hound not named Spehar, while Ryder Donovan’s 48 assists were the most by any Hound not named Chris Locker. The top line of Worth, Ian Mageau, and Donovan will go down as one of the team’s best, and certainly the one with the best nickname. Ricky Lyle’s gritty second line added the power and a strong dose of offense, the third line kept grinding away, and the four-man defensive corps grew into one that outplayed Edina’s bevy of D-I blue line talent. By the end, there wasn’t a weakness to be found.

And so we say farewell to one of the more special classes of seniors to wear the red and grey. This group lived up to its considerable hype, and its longest tenured members both began and ended their East careers with second place finishes and upsets over Edina. One last roll call: Parker Kleive, who came from somewhere completely off my radar to win the goaltending job this season, and was rock-solid when the pressure was on. Porter Haney and Hunter Hren, who provided valuable depth, and Tommy Higgins, with his state record save percentage. Will Fisher, a captain and a rock in the four-man defensive corps, and Nick Lanigan, the scrappy third liner who was always rocketing around the ice and getting his nose right in the thick of things. Austin Jouppi, who blossomed into a superb power forward and put it all on the line on the state championship game. Ian Mageau, a top line force who set up the dagger to finish Edina in 2015, scored the go-ahead goal this time around, and quietly slid his way up the East all-time scorer ranks. Luke LaMaster, named the top senior defenseman in Minnesota for his two-way play. And the sniper, Garrett Worth, whose goal barrage earned a place in the annals of East history. As always, we wish them well, both in hockey and in life, and hope they learned a bit about the latter while living it up as the former as a Greyhound.

I usually keep some distance from East players. I don’t want to come off as some weird old fanboy, and sometimes I’m probably better off not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. This is about them, not me. But this year, I couldn’t help but throw out some hugs to players as they emerged from the locker room after it was all over. They’d invested everything they had in a game, and I’d invested a healthy amount of the past few months watching their exploits. The boys of winter didn’t disappoint: there is no better, more convenient entertainment than this, and when it’s part of a community that one can call one’s own, all one can do is offer up some appreciation. I’ll miss this group, and after a healthy rest, we can start the countdown to next November.

State Tourney Preview 2018

4 Mar

The annual carnival is about to begin, so here are my annual storylines and quarterfinal previews. Tony Scott, Danny Ryan, and I have preview podcast for your enjoyment, and my Danny and I will also put out our itinerary for the week on Youth Hockey Hub so that our loyal followers may stalk us. As usual, I’ll be tweeting regularly here, though don’t come to me for score updates—there are 583 other people doing that, so I see it more as my role to add scattered insight, along with some inane humor to go along with the Tourney. So, here are some things to watch this Tourney:

Fab Four Final Four? The AA field is one of the strongest ever at the top: the same four teams have stayed ranked somewhere in the top four since December, and those four have all made the State Tournament. (Listen to the podcast to get an idea of just how rare that is.) Edina, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Duluth East are all loaded. All three are very complete teams, with several lines that can score and deep groups on defense; Edina has the most firepower, followed by East, while St. Thomas has the best goaltender, and Minnetonka is probably the most balanced across the board. None exactly have a free pass to the semis—just ask the 2012 field, which was nearly as loaded and saw all the top seeds lose in the first round—but if it is those four, or even three of those four, battling it on out Friday night, it could be one of the most memorable sets of semis in recent memory.

The Class A Mystery Ride Half the (all public school!) Class A entrants have at least 10 losses, and none have fewer than six. After last year’s stunning upsets by usual doormats from 1A and 5A, and a spirited run at an upset by the 3A representative as well, no one should be overly shocked by a big result out of one of those sections this season against someone other than Hermantown. And while the Hawks are the clear favorite for a fourth straight season, even they are more beatable than usual, with an offense reliant on one top line. While the favorites remain clear, the gap between the historically weaker sections and the powers is smaller, especially in a year when Class A lacks teams that are on par with AA’s best.

North vs. Metro, 2018 Edition Normally there are bitter grumblings from everywhere north of St. Cloud when the 7AA and 8AA winners meet in the quarterfinals, but since St. Michael-Albertville isn’t exactly a northern team, there won’t be much of that this season. A year removed from an all-north final, Duluth East is alone in carrying the weight of area code 218. In Class A, barring upsets, the semis could likely feature a Mahtomedi-Orono battle for the metro area championship in the first game, and a contest between Hermantown and Alexandria or Thief River Falls for northern bragging rights thereafter. The winners of those would then collide in a North vs. Metro championship.

Depth of Field A year after Grand Rapids rode one incredible line to a AA championship, we have a Tourney in which most of the top teams are defined by balance. Minnetonka has three excellent lines, Edina has two elite scoring lines, East has three that can score within the machine-like Mike Randolph system, and St. Thomas also has a solid supporting cast behind its top group. Even in Class A, Mahtomedi and Orono exhibit more depth than most usual contenders for the small-school crown. The notable exceptions among the seeded teams: Centennial, who will look to ride Lucas McGregor as far as he can take them, and, surprisingly, Hermantown—though the Hawks’ depth is certainly still respectable by Class A standards.

Stars in Abundance As usual, there’s no shortage of front-end talent at the Tourney. Edina’s Sammy Walker, the odds-on favorite for Mr. Hockey, will try to become the first player to win that award and a state title in his senior year since Kyle Rau in 2011. His teammate Demetrios Kouzmontzis is also a Mr. Hockey finalist. Duluth East sniper Garrett Worth and assist machine Ryder Donovan will be on hand, as will the aforementioned Lucas McGregor of Centennial and Luke Loheit of Minnetonka, plus his sophomore sidekick, Bobby Brink. It wasn’t a deep year for defensemen in Class AA, but it may not be a coincidence that the three top seniors—Luke LaMaster of Duluth East, Chase Foley of St. Thomas Academy, and Garrett Daly of Lakeville North—are all in this Tournament. Edina’s corps, while all underclassmen, is as loaded as it gets, and Minnetonka’s is no slouch either. In Class A, it’s mostly about balance, save for the Hermantown top line featuring Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and Alexandria’s Ben Doherty. We’ll see if any stars on the less heralded teams can make a name for themselves, as Ben Ward and Nick Zwack did for Monticello last season.

Class A Quarterfinal Capsules:


11:00 Wednesday

-For the second straight season, Mahtomedi faces the Section 1A entrant in a Wednesday morning quarterfinal. These two have no recent history.

Mankato East (16-10-2, unranked, 2-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2006)

Key section wins: 3-1 over 3-seed Minnesota River, 6-1 over 5-seed Rochester Lourdes

-Unlike many unranked Class A entrants, the Cougars are not a team to ride just one great player. No one had more than 23 points in the regular season, but they are balanced, Sam Shulz (16) was the top point-getter, while Matthew Salzle (6) and Layten Liffrig (22) led the way in the goals column. Defenseman Jake Anderson (14) is their second-leading scorer, and a strong defensive game will likely be the key to this first round match-up. Jack Cusey (29) had a strong season in goal. The Cougars are probably the biggest mystery in this field; they did tie Mound-Westonka in their lone game against a top ten Class A team and seemed to get stronger as the season went along, though they have some questionable losses, too.

Mahtomedi (21-6-1, #2, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 6-3 over #16 Simley

-The Zephyrs return to State as a balanced squad with scoring up and down the lineup. Charlie Bartholomew (27), Kory Pilarski (10), and Nikolai Dulak (9) are their most productive forwards, but their top nine forwards were all in double digit points in the regular season against a fairly tough Class A schedule. Noah Skillings (8) and Tommy Broten (14) are the top defensemen. They also have the top goaltender in the field in Bailey Huber (32), who boasts a .939 save percentage. They can match Hermantown’s depth, but must find a way to contain the Hawks’ top line if those two meet, as they can’t match that star front-line talent. And, of course, they have to get there first: for all their Class A success, they’ve never made a final.


1:00 Wednesday

-Two Wright County Conference schools (despite the fact that neither is located in Wright County) collide in the quarterfinals. Orono won both regular season meetings in convincing fashion, with 10-0 and 7-1, and has won 36 straight games in this conference series dating to a Litchfield win in December 2001, including four playoff games when both were in 3A.

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (16-11-1, unranked, 2-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2016)

Key section win: 4-1 over #19 Luverne

-The Dragons return to State after offing Luverne in a mild upset to win 3A. Brandt Pederson (4) is their unquestioned star offensively, while defenseman Orrin Grangroth (18) is their second leading scorer, both in goals and points. Paul Raisanen (27) and Dylan Schutz (10) round out the top line, and also had productive seasons. They’ll need a big performance out of Darby Halonen (30) in goal to have a chance, and he comes in hot off a strong performance over Luverne. Special teams were not a strength, so staying out of the box will be key to their hopes of flipping the script.

Orono (20-7-1, #5, 1-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 9 (first since 2014)

Key section wins: 6-3 over #11 Minneapolis, 2-1 over 6-seed Breck

-The Spartans put together their strongest season in recent memory and came out of one of Class A’s deepest sections. Senior Jack Suchy (16) is their star, and Thomas Walker (23) is next in line on their list of point-getters, but like Mahtomedi, this is a relatively deep Class A group, as they have eight forwards over 15 points. The forwards take care of most of their offensive production, with Daniel Eckerline (37) and Jack Kubitz (22) leading the charge on defense. Evan Babekuhl (33) is one of the stronger netminders in the field. Given the regular season results they should cruise to a date with Mahtomedi for a metro area championship of sorts, but they did lose to a 3A team in Hutchinson this season.


6:00 Wednesday

-The evening session opens with a rematch of last season’s double overtime championship game thriller. That Hawk win was their only recent meeting.

Monticello/Maple Lake (19-7-2, #15, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 2 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 4-1 over #18 North Branch

-The feel-good story of last year’s Tournament returns for an encore, and this time around they didn’t sneak up on anyone. They’re without their two big scorers from a season ago, but they do have the highly productive Troy Dahlheimer (18) leading the way. Nick Foldesi (29) is their second leading scorer, Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is second on the team in goals, and Jack Saunders (15) is a productive defenseman for the Moose. Goalie Tyler Klatt (33) is a veteran of last season’s great run. With Hermantown up first they face a tall task, and their handful of games against top Class A teams have not gone well. But they have won on this ice before, and gave the Hawks all they could handle, so a repeat performance isn’t out of the question.

Hermantown (20-6-2, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 15 (9 in a row)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 5-4 (2OT) vs. #3 Greenway

-The goliaths of Class A return as the favorite yet again after escaping against Greenway in 7A. This time they’re led by senior Tyler Watkins (18), who seems to rise to the occasion in big gaems, and sophomore star-in-the-making Blake Biondi (27), who is the lone D-I committed player in the Class A field. Jacob Herter (7) rounds out the top line, and while the scoring depth isn’t what it has been in recent seasons, the Hawks’ lineup can still hold its own with any other Class A team, and Elliott Peterson (22) adds a physical presence to lead the second line. The Hawks are strong in back, where Darian Gotz (14) is the leader, and Sam High (21) is a Tournament veteran as well. Cole Manahan (33) had a strong season in goal. This Hawks team is more beatable than the past two, but they also have a knack for pulling out the tight ones.


8:00 Wednesday

-North meets west in the Class A nightcap. Their only two recent meetings came in the past three years, with Alexandria winning a 2015 meeting and Thief River returning the favor in 2016.

Thief River Falls (16-10-2, #20, 4-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 14 (9 in one-class tournament, 4 in Class A; first since 2016)

Championships: 2 (one-class tournament, 1954 and 1956)

Key section wins: 6-4 over #13 Warroad, 4-0 over #10 East Grand Forks

-The Prowlers, after a steady but unremarkable regular season, found their way to St. Paul with upsets over Warroad and East Grand Forks in sections. Aaron Myers (16) is a goal machine, while Tucker Skime (2) provides the assists on the top line, and Jace Jorde (17) rounds out the top group. While the forward corps is not deep, they do have one of the most productive blue lines in the state, with Brady Anderson (12), Keaden Kempert (19), and an emerging star in sophomore Evan Bushy (6). If that group can hold its own in front of star goalie Nick Corneliusen (35), the Prowlers could make their way to a Friday afternoon game.

Alexandria (17-10-1, #12, 3-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 4 (1 in AA; first since 2011)

Key section wins: 4-0 over #7 Sartell, 3-2 (2 OT) over #4 St. Cloud Cathedral

-Their run through sections might look like a surprise on paper, but the Cardinals were an early season favorite, and have now delivered on that promise. Ben Doherty (7), who missed some time this season due to injury, is their star, and Jack Westlund (10) and Caleb Strong (3) round out an all-junior top unit. Jack Powell (21) and Andrew Revering (2) make for a productive defense as well. Their depth isn’t exceptional, but freshman Jakob Stender (27) also did put up double-digit goals. Jackson Boline (30) emerged as the starting goaltender and was strong in sections. This is a young group and their success in a deep section shows their potential, so now it’s time to learn if they can deliver on it on a big stage.

AA capsules:


11:00 Thursday

-Two powers collide in a rematch of the 2014 championship game, and the 2015 championship game that wasn’t. This will be their first meeting since North’s 2015 regular season win.

Lakeville North (16-10-2, #17, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 7 (first since 2015)

Championships: 1 (2015)

Key section win: 4-3 over #21 Lakeville South

-The Panthers haven’t had a dominant season, but they stayed competitive with top teams most of the time, including a tie with Minnetonka and a one-goal loss to Duluth East in December. Blake Brandt (7) and Spencer Schneider (14) are their big guns offensively, with Shane Griffin (25) rounding out the top line. Garrett Daly (16) is one of the top senior defensemen in the state, and they also enjoy the services of a very solid goaltender in Will Johnson (31). The top line can match up with a number of the others in the state, but their depth is where they will be tested, especially against a team like Edina. The list of things that need to go right to avoid Mariucci is long, but not impossible to achieve.

Edina (26-2, #2, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 38 (6 as Edina East/West in 70s and 80s; first since 2015)

Championships: 12 (1969, 1971, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1997, 2010, 2013, and 2014 as Edina; 1974, 1978, and 1979 as Edina East)

Key section win: 8-1 over #11 Wayzata

-The Hornets may be the second seed, but they’re the force to be reckoned with in this Tournament, as they’ve made some good teams look bad this season, and have lost only to Minnetonka. They have the most explosive top two lines in the state, with presumptive Mr. Hockey Sammy Walker (10) and his linemates Jett Jungels (22) and Mason Nevers (18) are front-line talents in their own right. Their second Mr. Hockey contender, Demetrios Koumontzis (23), leads the second line, and is joined by Lewis Crosby (11). Ben Brinkman (17) has some of the best high-end potential on defense in the state, and combines with Jake Boltmann (2), Mike Vorlicky (20), and Mason Reiners (21) to form an elite blue line club. There are some questions in goal, where Garrett Mackay (30) is their man, and the young defense can get thrown off some at times. But if they play up to their potential, they are the prohibitive favorite.


1:00 Thursday

-A Tourney regular faces this year’s lone AA upstart. East leads the series 5-1, including a 15-0 playoff win just five years ago; the Knights did beat East in their most recent meeting, in 2015.

St. Michael-Albertville (23-5, #19, 2-seed in 8AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 4-2 over #13 Brainerd, 6-5 over #9 Moorhead

-The Knights pulled the biggest upset of the AA playoffs when they took down Moorhead in the 8AA final, and ride season surge into their first ever Tournament. Sophomores Luc Laylin (9) and Adam Flammang (11) are their top offensive threats, along with senior Blake Spetz (2). They also had a productive second line, and will need a good performance from those depth players to advance in this tournament. Garrett Sandberg (12) and Cole Lehmann (4) are their top defensemen, along with Val Popowski (8). Justin Damon (1) will man the net. If they can hold up under the East assault, this team can move the puck well enough to produce some goals and have a shot at the upset.

Duluth East (23-2-3, #4, 1-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 23 (first since 2015)

Championships: 3 (1960, 1995, 1998)

Key section wins: 9-1 over #14 Duluth Marshall, 3-2 (OT) over #8 Andover

-Like Edina, the Hounds return to State after a two-year absence. East’s top line of Ian Mageau (23), Ryder Donovan (22), and sniper Garrett Worth (5) leads their assault, but this team’s top three lines are all learned in the ways of the Mike Randolph puck control system. Ricky Lyle (15) leads the way on the second line, which was as productive as the first late in the season. Luke LaMaster (25) is the two-way star of a mobile defense and the only defenseman Mr. Hockey finalist, and is joined by his partner, Hunter Paine (20), on a strong top pair. Parker Kleive (41) came on to win the goaltending job down the stretch. When at their peak the Hounds’ game is probably second only to Edina’s, but they need to avoid the periodic lapses of mediocrity that plagued them more than the other top four this season.


6:00 Thursday

-Another battle of two heavy hitters in Minnesota hockey, and a rematch of a 2010 4-overtime classic won by the Skippers; Hill also beat Tonka in the 2006 quarters. Minnetonka won a regular season game 4-2 in December, while Hill leads the all-time series 11-7-1.

Hill-Murray (13-11-4, #20, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 29 (2 in a row)

Championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-1 over #6 White Bear Lake

-Despite a losing regular season, the Pioneers came on strong toward the end, and their upset of White Bear Lake was no stunner. The late season call-up of eighth grader Nick Pierre (11) catalyzed the offense, but he’s just one of a number of very young players with bright futures here. Junior Ben Helgeson (9) and senior Michael Fleischhacker (15) are the veteran leaders, and sophomore Charlie Strobel (27) brings a familiar Hill-Murray name. Like most good Hill teams, they have a couple of veterans leading the way on the blue line in Brett Oberle (19) and Joey Petronack (12), while Matthew Fleischhacker (14) is a freshman standout. If this group continues to play the disciplined hockey we’ve come to expect out of Bill Lechner-coached teams in the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out. They come in with a five-game losing streak in Tourney play.

Minnetonka (24-2-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 6 (first since 2010)

Key section wins: 4-1 over #23 Chaska, 5-4 (2OT) vs #6 Holy Family

-The Skippers claim the top seed with two wins in three games against Edina, and put forth a team with no real weaknesses as they pursue their first state title. They roll three quality lines, and distribute their top forwards to create balance. Sophomore Bobby Brink (9) and junior Jack Bayless (29) pace the offense, while Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Loheit (8) brings a heavy game and will be matched against other teams’ top lines. Joe Molenaar (10) and Teddy Lagerback (34) round out the leading scorers. Josh Luedtke (3) and Grant Docter (2) are both dynamic defensemen, while Charlie Glockner (1) is one of the stronger goalies in the state when he’s on his game. This group won back-to-back Bantam state titles, and will now aim to deliver on its promise under first-year head coach Sean Goldsworthy.


8:00 Thursday

-Two quality programs in search of a first round breakthrough wrap up the quarterfinals. St. Thomas has won their only two recent contests, including a 4-1 Schwan Cup meeting last season.

Centennial (19-6-3, #10, 1-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2014)

Championships: 1 (2004)

Key section win: 6-4 over 2-seed Maple Grove

-The Cougars roll into the State Tournament as a team that sits somewhere below the big four top seeds, but clearly ahead of the three unseeded teams. Mr. Hockey finalist Lucas McGregor (11), who carries the offense, is as important to his team’s success as any one player in the field. Three additional forwards, Hayden Brickner (14), Carter Wagner (8), and Jack Menne (10) were also highly productive, and Will Francis (7) is their clear leader on defense. They don’t have exceptional depth beyond that, but generally play tight, trapping hockey. Travis Allen (1) is an experienced, solid goaltender. If they can lock in to their defensive style and spring their top forwards a few times, 5AA will have a shot at its first quarterfinal win since 2009.

St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1, #3, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 3 in AA (2 in a row); 8 in Class A

Championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Key section win: 4-1 over #12 Eastview

-A year after a quarterfinal upset loss, the Cadets are back at it in search of their first AA quarterfinal win. They didn’t lose in regulation this season, though the schedule was somewhat easier than the other top four. Payton Matsui (14) joins brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11) Christy in leading the offense, while Brendan McFadden (21) has also emerged as a serious threat. Chase Foley (17) is one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the state, and Blake Holmes (5) also anchors the blue line. The one edge they do have over the other top four seeds is goaltender Atticus Kelly (30), who is a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award. They boast a lethal power play, but will need to avoid the looseness that has plagued them in some big games in recent seasons.

Let the fun begin!

The Greyhound Restoration

3 Mar

The Heart Attack Hounds struck again in the 7AA final. For a sixth straight year, this affair delivered playoff hockey at its absolute best, with late drama and overtime again winning the day. This section final invariably sends those of us in the stands through about as polarizing swing of emotions a team can inspire, but East found a way yet again.

The Hounds opened their playoff run looking like a team on a mission. Despite Grand Rapids’ struggles this season, there was a bit of intrigue in opening with a game against a team that had vanquished them the two previous seasons and an elite goalie. No such worries, as Garrett Worth scored 23 seconds in, Logan Anderson piled on two minutes later, and East was off to the races with a 6-0 win. The section semifinal performance was even more clinical, as they humiliated a Duluth Marshall team that had taken them to overtime in the regular season, 9-1. After five straight nervy section finals, this finally seemed like one in which the Hounds were comfortable favorites.

But if the East faithful expected an easier path, they were soon set straight. The final matched the Hounds with Andover, a young, speedy finesse team that arrived a season early under the diligent work of head coach Mark Manney. The Huskies withstood East’s early barrage, and their confidence began to build. East was a mess throughout much of the second period, with Andover springing an endless series of odd-man rushes. The deficit was two after the period, but it could easily have been more, despite what the shots read on the scoreboard. Uncharacteristic mistakes began to mount, from sloppy defense to selfish offense to fluky swings and misses and collisions among teammates. The game set off bad memories of the 2012 Lakeville South loss, in which East slowly but surely lost control against a speedy team that outworked them and created chance after chance in the other direction.

And so the Hounds began to chip away, and resigned themselves to dumping and chasing to break a trap. All three goals were of the dirty variety, with two tips off of Luke LaMaster shots, and a bank shot from behind the net by Ryder Donovan. The team just kept grinding and denying losing, to use an old phrase of Mike Randolph’s. As so often seems the case, an upset-minded team crumbled when the favorite began to surge. Once they tied it up, any doubt went away. The Hounds were going to rewrite a well-worn script, as they tied a section final with under two minutes to go for the third time in eight years, and finished off their opponent in the first overtime. This was the most excruciating of the bunch, thanks both to their heavy favorite status and the length of the overtime, but the Greyhounds were back on their game, and found a way yet again.

Mike Randolph, meanwhile, added to his legend as he locked up his 17th State Tournament berth. This was a season in which a head coach could have just taken off the leash and turned his team loose, and relative to some other good East teams, he did that with this group. But there were still some of those subtle tweaks he makes that help make a good team great. Of note: the late season flip of the second and third line centers, Logan Anderson and Brendan Baker. On paper it looked like a minor flip, but with Anderson on the second line, that group practically outpaced the top line in production in the late stages of the season, and Baker’s net-front presence on the gritty third line was a bonus, too. In the section final, Baker was credited with the goal that began the comeback, and Anderson took home the game-winner. East fans will know the Hounds work traffic in front of the net and tips more than anyone so that the team is ready to break down a packed-in defense in a playoff game, and sure enough, those two goals both came on tips.

As Baker and Anderson exemplify, the defining trait of this East team remains its depth. Two-thirds of the top line was held to zero points on Thursday night, but East won anyway. The one-loss 2012 Hounds probably had as much talent across three lines, but they didn’t achieve the balance of this group, especially late this season. Thursday night’s struggles notwithstanding, the defense also became far more solid as the season went on, and if they can revert to February form in St. Paul, the Hounds will stand a good chance. In goal, the Hounds just ask Parker Kleive not to lose things for them, and to date he has delivered, as he takes no chances and does what he needs to do. He was certainly not at fault for the closeness of the Andover game, and has earned his place among East State Tournament starters.

The Hounds now head to St. Paul, where they’ve landed the 3-seed and will face Tournament debutant St. Michael-Albertville. If the Hounds get past the Knights, that most epic of tournament matchups, East against Edina, looms for Friday night. If things go according to form, the last two rounds could be as good as ever, but history tells us to expect the unexpected here.

For now, though, Duluth East can bask in its restoration to the 7AA throne, and a 23rd State Tournament trip. A skilled senior class bookends its time at East with a second Tourney trip, and gets a chance to show how far it has come since 2015’s magical ride, when Worth beat Elk River in double overtime to win the section and Ian Mageau fed Ash Altmann for the goal that slew Edina’s dynasty. We’ll see what they can do for an encore.

Panache amid the Ruins

28 Feb

This fictional collection begins here.

Evan tosses his backpack on his bed and exhales, drained after a long day. “Can we spend a night in? Just me, you, and a bottle of wine?”

Mark stares at him with narrowed eyes. “But, bro. Roman girls.”

“Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night?”

“Fine. Know how hard this is for a married man.”

“Tied down or not, I don’t know why you’ve gotta go chase it every single place we go.”

“Because it’s my birthright?”

“God you’re awful sometimes.”

Mark grins, goading Evan into further critique, but Evan knows not to take the bait. He leads Mark up to the rooftop of the hostel, which gazes out down a narrow Roman street throbbing with nightlife. They exchange pleasantries with some festive Germans at the rooftop bar and settle in at a small plastic table in the corner where they have some space to themselves. Evan pulls out a Swiss army knife with a corkscrew and goes to work on the cork in a bottle of wine while Mark idly plays with the two plastic cups he’d gotten from the Canadian kid they’d been traveling with for the past three days. Their Quebecois companion schooled them in Tuscan wines and they’d schooled him on the top nightclubs in Rome, though he left his regrets that afternoon and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to Monte Cassino, where some ancestor had served in a Canadian armored division in the Second World War.

“Think Jean-Claude managed to hike all the way to the top?” Mark asks as the cork crumbles amid Evan’s efforts.

“He’s got the energy to do it, that’s for sure.”

“For a fat kid, he sure knows how to keep moving.”

“Oh, come on. He’s just kinda bulky. A lot of that’s muscle.”

“Sure, sure. I just gotta say, we’ve met people from like 20 different countries on this trip, and his English is hands down the worst of anyone’s.”

Evan concedes, punches what remains of the cork down into the bottle, and doles out the drinks. “Maybe,” he says, “but he was still the most fun of any of them.”

“Damn right. He gets it. To Jean-Claude,” Mark toasts. “To the pursuit.”

“To tracking down history.” The boys both sip and share a synchronized frown as they down the cork-filled Chianti.

“Good thing I don’t have standards when it comes to booze,” Mark muses. “Chasing history, though? Never thought of you as someone who dwells on the past.”

“Me either really, till we came here…seeing a city like this, it’s just something I never got as an American.”

“Maybe they’re all about the past cuz they suck at the present. Can’t believe how much trash and shit there is all over this city.”

“Well, they did peak a couple thousand years ago. But, guess we Americans have something to learn from them.”

“Oh, here you go again.”

Evan beams at Mark and sets his cup down on the table. Since the start of this trip, Mark has endured several attempts by Evan to explain a series of convoluted theories on how human adolescence and the American Dream somehow coincide. Despite his high tolerance for pop intellectual debate, Mark finds this version of his friend grating: Evan, he thinks, is much more effective as a witness for a way of life than as a lecturer. Evan knows who he is and where he comes from, and no number of days in Paris or Barcelona can change that. Why are people compelled to be more than they are? But that, he supposes, is why he was drawn to Evan in the first place. He knows Evan’s humility is a convenient lie, and he plans to expose it.

The very same thought has troubled Evan since the previous morning, when he woke in a tangle of sheets in a Tuscan villa and basked in the birdsong and sun. This was what it meant to drink the milk of paradise. He wishes he’d spent a semester abroad in undergrad instead of chasing hockey pucks, wishes he could stay here and come to know it in a meaningful way, instead of breezing through and snapping pictures. Maybe he could talk Bridget into some sort of post-grad adventure before they settle into real jobs, though he knows as soon as he begins to ponder it that she’s far too staid to ever make that leap.

Perhaps she’d just need a taste to get sucked in. Evan is still marveling at how the Forum had drawn out Mark’s inner nerdy kid. Away went the blasé dismissals of his theories, and out came a buried knowledge of emperors and classical battles that bubbled up before each temple. For Evan’s part, the most moving part of Rome had been St. Peter’s, where he stood before the Pieta for a good ten minutes and lit an offertory candle, a wishful prayer to both his father and his Father. Nothing much had come to him then, but he knows the memory won’t fade, and who is he to deserve some immediate answer from above? Nothing should be easy, and his freedom to take this trip is just another reminder of what a blessed life he leads. What right does he have to ask for anything more?

“It’s funny, I almost feel sad, looking at all the ruins,” says Mark. His words jolt Evan to life. “Really? Sad?”

“Yeah. I guess it’s good that something’s left for us to think about. But all the people who built that, the most powerful empire in the world…all that’s just, well, gone now.”

“Why does that have to be sad? Things come, things go, time goes on.”

“That’s just how the world works, you mean?”

“Right. Empires rise and fall, people are born and die, the world keeps moving. We get used to it.”

“Or do we just get so beaten down that we get used by it?”

Evan pauses. “Sometimes you do just have to make peace with things.”

“I’ve never been very good at that.”

“Oh, I know.” The boys laugh, and Evan turns his gaze up toward the stars that manage to fight through Rome’s urban haze. He feels small, dwarfed both by the world around him and by his best friend’s ambition. Mark, meanwhile, senses an opening.

“I’m serious, though. If we wanna build things that last, build something real, we can’t just sit here making peace.”

“Fair enough,” Evan concedes. He registers Mark’s disappointment, and knows Mark wants him to argue back. Instead, his mind turns closer to home.

“You think America’s gonna look like this someday? The ruins and all? Are people gonna wander around our hockey rinks someday the same way we wandered around the Colosseum today?”

“Shoulda come to visit me in Detroit, bro. It’s already here.”

Mark had spent the first half of his summer working an internship for an investment bank with a branch in Detroit. It was strange venture for a Yalie; most of his classmates are down the road on Wall Street, but his dad’s old ties had led to connections in the Detroit office, and Mark, saddled with his unending fascination for dying lost causes, had gone along to the Motor City. He’d taken more than a little pride at being the primly dressed white boy with perfectly coiffed blonde hair who’d work later than anyone to prove his worth and then venture in to the all-black bar down the block. He did it more to unnerve his peers, and perhaps above all his father, than out of any commitment to bridging divides. But how he’d lived for those few months, slamming shots with the 40-year regulars and spitting some rap to the delight of the younger crowd. He’d won them all over.

Forget these travels through past ruin: that was what it meant to be alive. He’d never felt a rush like that, not even that one time he’d tried snorting a line. But it also isn’t a life he can sustain. By the end of the night he was always exhausted, too foreign-feeling to ever ask a girl back to his place, his debonair front hiding his terror that he might get jumped on his way home. He never was.

“True, I don’t have to go far even in Minneapolis or Duluth to find ruins,” says Evan. He stares off at the laughing Germans at the other end of the rooftop, oblivious to the weighty ruminations at this table in the corner. “It’s amazing just how shaky it all feels sometimes.”

“That’s because it is. Takes special talent to break through that.”

“Ego much?”

“I’m not saying it’s easy, even when you mostly get things right,” says Mark. “I mean, sometimes it even feels like that path I just took for granted for so long is just falling apart. Dominate in school, get into a great college, set yourself up for a great job, and it turns out over half the country actually thinks you’re an elitist asshole for achieving goals in life.”

“To be fair, you do sometimes sound like one, and if anything I think you’re proud of it.”

“Why shouldn’t I be proud of my life?”

“You should be. But that doesn’t entitle you to more than other people.”

Mark stews for a moment. “I didn’t say that.”

“Not in so many words.”

“But…dammit, Evs, if you’re scared of how shaky our world can be, if you want to do what you can to keep it all alive and out of the ruins, you need people who get that to take charge. Not many people do. Even at Yale, not many people get how it all fits together…we need grand strategy. We need to play the long game. We need to get how economics and politics and culture all work, and how you pull all the right strings to get to where we need to go.”

“I mean, yes. Of course. But history’s just a graveyard of people who thought they could do that. A lot of them couldn’t. Just because you know more than most people doesn’t mean you can make decisions about other people’s lives.”

“I thought you liberals liked making decisions about other people’s lives.”

Evan stares Mark down as he gathers himself. He’s surprising himself with his own honesty. He’d learned to just shake his head at Mark’s self-confidence long ago, but as life after college becomes less and less certain, he has less and less faith in any well-worn path through life.

“The more I see, the less faith I have in anything big, government or business. Too big to fail is too big to exist.”

“Alright, I’ll just give up on all my big plans now.” Mark downs a deep sip of wine, pushes back his chair, and climbs to his feet. His eyes follow a crowd of revelers down on the street, and the bar across the way cranks up its thumping dance music. There are no signs of ruin here. He doesn’t need to care about the moral case for his life, or aspire to any grand strategy beyond his own happiness. He could simply take the Wall Street job waiting for him, make heaps of money, enjoy the finer things in life, and build himself a world free from inquiring Evans. He has the power to cut that cord, and has the belief in his own righteousness to do it. And yet he doesn’t.

“I’m not saying you’re not qualified,” Evan says in measured tones. “I’m just saying…maybe you’re not as special as you think you are. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but…intelligence shouldn’t necessarily mean power over other people. You know there’s a lot about life you don’t know, and never will. And for everything your path did right—I mean, I agree with you about education and I admire your chase, agree you need that ambition—at some point, you gotta ground it in something, or somewhere, or someone.”

“Like what?” Mark asks, though he keeps his back to Evan.

“Like a place, like a family, like a faith in power beyond you…because the second you think you’re in control, the second you set aside the things closest to you because you believe in some ridiculous destiny…that’s the moment you lose. You can’t let that happen.”

“So that would be what you’re doing, I suppose?”

“Well, yeah,” says Evan, warming to Mark’s interpretation after a moment’s thought. “I do kinda like my life choices.”

“I dunno, Evan. You’re a smart kid, and you’ve got some restlessness deep in there. We wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. And you’re trying to tell me that you just wanna go settle down and pump out some kids with Bridget back in Duluth? You’ll be happy with some social services job that pays you tens of thousands less than what you’d get somewhere else, just cuz you think that’s the right thing to do instead of using all your potential? I know you too well. You’ll go insane.”

“When have you ever seen me crack like that?”

“So what are these trips we take, then? Your little freaking rumspringa?”

Once again, Evan is left marveling at how swiftly Mark diagnoses him. He grabs on to his defensive reflex lest he show any signs of fading. “My personality’s allowed to have more than one side. I’ve got my outlets. Maybe that’s enough?”

Mark snorts in derision.

“Well, you got things figured out any better?”

“I think you know I’m still working on that. But you can’t cut that side of yourself off. You’ve got the disease, man. Can’t separate the angels from the demons.” Mark swings around and paces up and down the roof while Evan swirls his glass and averts his eyes.

“Maybe you’re right. It’s hurt me sometimes, though, so I’m trying to pull it in. But as much as I love living it up with you…what’s the endgame here? Honestly. Best you can say right now, what’s your goal in life?” Evan turns his gaze back to Mark, who stops in his tracks.

“Kicking ass.”

“For someone as smart as you, man, that just sounds so fucking crude.”

“Maybe it is. But, what else do I got? I spent just as long staring at that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel as you did, but it’s not gonna make me believe. Respect for other people, all that decent shit, going through the motions? That really gonna give your life meaning?”

“I don’t know if it’s meaning, but it’s grounding. Seeing what other people did, motivated by faith…”

“That’s just so…weak. Where’s the power in that? You’re denying yourself, and you know it. You gotta go get it. Like I did in Paris.” Mark folds his arms and smirks as he recalls the look on Evan’s face when he’d asked him for an hour in their room so he could enjoy his ménage a tois in proper Parisian style. It wasn’t a look of annoyance. Evan is a loyal friend, and wanted some time to himself for journaling anyway. It was a look of regret, an admission he couldn’t join in on the fun himself. He stares Evan down and waits for the chance to drop the hammer he’s held since he started them on this debate.

“So what are you even saying? This world is so wrecked that all you can do is just chase after…what?”

“Panache amid the ruins.”

Evan stops short.

“You always could turn a phrase.”

“I am kind of proud of that one.”

Mark drains his cup. He’s in his element in this intellectual battle with Evan, and pours himself a second helping to keep the neurons firing. He picks out the largest chunks of cork and smiles to himself. He’s found a healthy number of sparring partners in his travels; those capable of debating the merits of late-stage capitalism or the most effective ways to influence government or the virtues of the neutral zone trap straight through the night until dawn. And yet good old Evan still does more to help him make sense of all this mess than anyone he knows. Struggles like this, probing toward a truth they cannot see yet seek out anyway: yes, this is how to live, and the answer to Evan’s question lies somewhere in here.

Evan, meanwhile, stares at Mark, and feels a sudden surge of fear. It strikes him how eerily it sounds like Mark is tempting him into a life of delightful sin, of brash self-love that ignores any higher calling. Could his best friend on earth be the one who derails him?

“God, I love this,” Mark says with a grin. He throws his arms wide open and drinks in the full sweep of Rome at night.

Evan gazes upward at his friend. The fault, dear Evan, is not in the stars, but in our hearts, he muses. He cracks a grin in spite of himself.

“There you go, using his name in vain again. Maybe Rome’s gonna make a believer out of you.”

“Old habits die hard. And you saying it every other sentence doesn’t help the cause, either,” Mark sniffs.

“I know, I know. It’s just never far from my mind…even if I forget it in the moment all the time.”

“You know you can’t escape my world.”

“Just like you can’t escape mine.”

“Aw, fuck off.”

“Screw you, too!”

“All good? May I help?” an Italian asks them in broken English from across the rooftop. The dance music thumps on, but the hostel’s other guests have all stopped to stare at the loud Americans in the corner. Evan blinks at the surreal scene for a moment, then doubles over in laughter.

“Todo bien,” Mark replies with perfect poise. “Simplemente dos amigos, llenos del amor mundi.”

“Wasn’t that Spanish?” Evan asks as the other rooftop revelers roll their eyes at them and return to their previous pursuits.

Mark shrugs. “With a dash of Latin. Close enough that she got the picture. It’s all in the act, Evvy.”

“You’ve never had any trouble with that act.”

“Maybe too little.”

Evan nods and gives Mark a wry smile. Mark certainly knows how to diagnose his own ills without ever letting his self-criticism rise to a level that requires action. Evan laughs to himself, knowing he is much the same way. But his willingness to ask these questions shows the possibility of something, and that, for Evan, is enough.

“What?” Mark demands, trying to parse Evan’s serene smile.

“Ah well. Let’s toast.”

“Damn right. To my bro for life, wherever I wander.”

“To the smartest damn kid I know.”

“To us.”

“To life well lived.”

“To God and country.”

“To panache amid the ruins!”

“To the freedom to live out our dreams.”

“To death!” They finish their cups.

“To death? There’s a downer.” Mark doles out the last of the bottle and narrows his eyes at Evan.

“Only if you make it be that way. Death, well, it’s an old friend of mine,” Evan says.

“You creep me out when you talk that way.”

“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. What more can I do?”

“You telling me you’re not scared of it? That you know about what’s gonna happen when you go?”

“Not exactly. That’s not what I mean. It’s more…we don’t think about death. Not really. We talk around it, talk about people who have died, sometimes. But when it comes to leaving a legacy, figuring out how you’ll be remembered yourself…”

Mark frowns and pushes his hair off his forehead. “I dunno. I’d like to think my life’s kind of been a middle finger to death, no? You know it’s there, but you go and live life to the fullest anyway. You know you don’t have much time, so you might as well go for it.”

“Sure. But that just seems like such a, I don’t know, juvenile response. It’s what you say when you think you know what death is, but you really don’t. It’s what you say when you don’t respect it. That’s what I mean when I say I know death. I’ve met him in battle and I know what he can do. I wouldn’t say he scares me, but he does make me stop and think about what he means, how he touches us all.”

Evan takes another cork-filled sip and swells with a strange pride at the authority he conveys. For once, he sounds like the learned one. Mark has no words, so he settles for gazing into Evan’s eyes, searching his soul for some of that wisdom in the face of unreason that remains so foreign to him. The music and revelry all fade away into oblivion.

“All these statues, all these memorials…sometimes I think all we build is a monument to resist death,” says Evan. “To keep it off, to remember it, to build things that make us forget it. Fly in the face of it.”

“I guess it’s like you say. Gotta find the beauty in what we’ve got. I know I do.”

“You are a beauty, Marky. You’re already there.”

“Hah, preciate it. And, know what? I’m starting to feel it, even when it’s in ruins. It’s everywhere. I am surrounded by beauty. Especially on that beach in Barcelona.”

“Leave it to you to reduce beauty to girls…”

“I mean, what’s beauty if not that?”

“There has to be something more to it. Something more…transcendent. Something—”

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to be a pedant about this.”

“A what?”

“Oh, just keep going.”

“Seriously, though. Beauty in the service of a higher power. Beauty that makes you believe that all of the muck we slog through is all worth it. Beauty that kills any doubt that there’s a purpose here.”

“Yep, you’re a pedant.”

“God, shut up.”

“Fine, fine. But I finally buy in and you just give me…this?”

It’s not that easy. You’ve got to build something strong that can last.” Evan flashes back to his waking thoughts in the villa the previous morning. “A fortress, you know? Those monasteries we saw in Tuscany, they’ve stood the test of time. They’ve endured, even as everything else rose and fell around them…some things can guide us through all the ruins and death.”

“Unless it’s Monte Cassino, cuz we blew that to hell in World War Two.”

“They rebuilt it, didn’t they?”

Mark stops short, and smiles at Evan. “Did they?”

“They did.”

Pyeongchang Pursuits

25 Feb

Another Olympics has come and gone. As usual, it began with stupid political talking points, which this year took the form of lurid fascination with Kim Jong Un’s sister, who represented North Korea at the games. All the geopolitics, as usual, came to nothing. The Games themselves, on the other hand, had their ups and downs amid drama and intolerable talk show-style coverage. Through it all, though, there were still plenty of golden moments in which I could appreciate people attaining greatness in whatever pursuit they’ve chosen.

This was not a banner year for American Olympians, but by the end it proved a respectable one, thanks to a surge in a couple of sports the country has not medaled in much in the past: Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins’ rush to the finish in the cross-country team sprint, immortalized by the call of Duluth’s Chad Salmela, was the U.S.’s first Nordic medal in over 40 years, and a ragtag group of curlers, all but one of whom calls the Duluth area home, set off a night of revelry at the Duluth Curling Club when they stunned the curling world en route to gold. The women’s hockey team’s upset of longtime rival Canada in the gold medal game was backstopped by Maddie Rooney, the former Andover High School star now at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. (Are you sensing a theme here? You’re welcome, America: we Minnesotans, and Duluthians in particular, are your saving grace.)

The one sport where Americans did clean up as expected was snowboarding, where Shaun White cemented his Olympic legacy in the half pipe, and Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim also took home the top prize on the women’s side. Red Gerard, who seemed every bit a 17-year-old boy as he claimed gold in slopestyle, rounded out the American domination. Gerard’s performance was impressive but a little jarring: he’s a decade younger than me, and for the first time, it seemed like the vast majority of the Olympians are younger than I am. I guess I’m doomed to never be an Olympian, unless I up and move to some Pacific island nation that wants to send a mediocre cross-country skier to some future Games.

The skiing hero of the games was Johannes Klaebo, Norway’s 21-year-old wunderkind who will be its next in a long line of Olympic superstars. (How awesome is a country where cross-country skiers become superstars?) Klaebo won golds in the classic and team sprints, and put on perhaps his most stunning performance in the 4×10 relay, one of the more storied events in cross-country skiing. He played with his food for a spell as he skied the anchor leg, and let an Olympic Athlete from Russia hang around, gliding along effortlessly while the Russian poured out all his effort to keep up. With a few kilometers to go, though, he left his trailer in a powdery dust, flying up a hill that had been named after him before he ever even skied it. He pulled into the viewing area with enough time to grab a Norwegian flag on his way by the stands and cruise across the line towing it behind him. It was a statement of national pride in a nation that usually eschews such pageantry: Norway restored order in the 4×10 after a three-Olympics drought, cleaned up the medals in cross-country, and set a new record for total medals in a single winter games. In Pyeongchang, a nation about the size of Minnesota put the rest of the world to shame.

If Klaebo brought the youthful power, the grace came in the form of German Aliona Savchenko, who, as a figure skater in her fifth Olympics, defied the march of time to deliver perfection. I’m usually a halfhearted skating follower, but every now and then, a performance is so obviously a gold medal that I can forget the vagaries of the judging system and Johnny Weir’s efforts to look like a Hunger Games character and admire sheer artistry. This time around, it was Savchenko and her pairs partner, Bruno Massot, who made me drop everything and watch in awe, and the commentators had the good sense to go quiet when it became clear just what we were watching some ways into their performance. In a year in which the Olympics allowed songs with lyrics and had us drowning in Coldplay and “Hallelujah,” Savchenko and Massot’s performance to La terre vue du ciel, a mesmerizing classical score, fit perfectly with the moment. It was the best-judged pairs free skate in history, and erased a deficit from the short program to earn the pair of immigrant Germans a gold. Savchenko fell to the ice, heaving and spent, after her performance; as the scores of their rivals rolled in she seemed nonplussed, but the emotion finally poured forth when she learned she’d finally claimed a prize that long eluded her. It was as golden a moment as you’ll ever see.

While the U.S. women’s hockey team took home the hardware, the men weren’t much to write home about, with a loss to lowly Slovenia in group play and an ultimate defeat at the hands of the Czechs. I liked the idea of going back to amateurs, but let’s stick with the kids, please: washed-up ex-stars do nothing for me. It’s back to the drawing board for the American men in Olympic hockey, who need to do a lot more to garner the attention the women earned in Pyeongchang.

And so the curtain comes down on another year of Olympic glory, from Klaebo’s power on skis to Savchenko’s sublime skating to a bunch of Duluth guys who can throw rocks and sweep ice better than anyone on earth. And sometimes glory comes in several forms for one person, as in the case of Ester Ledecká, the Czech athlete who seemed genuinely surprised when she won a gold in the downhill Super-G: she is, after all, a snowboarder who also won gold in that sport’s parallel giant slalom. We have an entertaining world, though the closing ceremony could probably survive without a painful rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, as we heard back when we started two weeks ago. Cross-cultural sharing at its finest, I suppose. Thanks for the fun, PyeongChang, and let’s do it again in another four years in Beijing.