Yes, Defense Does Win Championships

11 Jan

“Defense wins championships” is among the older sports clichés out there, but it’s out there because it’s true, and Minnesota high school hockey fits the bill as well as any sport. Whether it’s a team built around tough defensive hockey like last year’s Wayzata Trojans or an overwhelming Edina team that just happens to have three or four D-I defensemen in back, the eventual state champion never has a weakness on the back end. A firm defense is the common denominator for basically every state champion over the past 25 years.

If you want to know if a team has what it takes to win, one of the easiest metrics is its number of Division One defensemen. There have only been four AA state champions with less than two D-I defensemen in the two-class era, and one of those comes with a huge asterisk, as Patrick Finnegan of Duluth East was one of the best defensemen in the state in 1998, but went the Canadian major junior route instead, as did another Hound defenseman on that team, Jon Hedberg. The remaining three are 1997 Edina, 2005 Holy Angels, and 2007 Roseau. The 97 Hornets, who stunned undefeated Duluth East in the title game, were masters of the trap. The 07 Rams’ single D-I d-man was one of the best in the past 15 years, and with Scott Oliver at the helm, they were a tough team that wasn’t going to take anything lying down. That leaves the 05 Stars as the only thing at all resembling an outlier.

Defense is the common denominator to so many state champions, especially when we get outside of the dynastic Bloomington Jefferson, East, Holy Angels, or Edina teams that had boatloads of talent everywhere. The Poehling brothers got all the hype, but I contended all along that the most important piece of the perfect 2015 Lakeville North team was its incredible defensive corps. When we’ve had lower seed state champions (2008 Hill-Murray, 2016 Wayzata), it comes on the strength of defense. 2003 Anoka may have only had three D-I players, but two of them were, you guessed it, defensemen. A solid group in back can cover for weak forward talent by just depressing scores and venturing into the attack at times; a solid group of forwards can’t possibly make up for fundamental defensive lapses.

We also can’t understate the power of a single elite defenseman in the high school game. 2006 Cretin-Derham Hall only had 4 D-I players, the second-lowest total for a champion of the two-class era, but one of them was Ryan McDonagh. 2009 Eden Prairie was very young outside of Nick Leddy, but Nick Leddy was Nick Leddy. Hank Sorensen drove some people nuts in his time with Wayzata, but there’s little doubt his hits were a key difference-maker for last year’s Trojans. Even a truly elite forward with something of a supporting cast, like Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson, never had nearly the influence of a top-tier defenseman like Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu when those two collided. Peterson deserved his Mr. Hockey award, but Beaulieu ran the show when East played Rapids in 2014, and a fairly thin Hounds team (by East standards) had little trouble beating the Thunderhawks. Once at State, they lost to a similar tough Eagan squad carried by one Nick Wolff.

At the same time, a lack of defensive discipline can doom a team that has the talent to win. I’ve leveled the same criticism at St. Thomas Academy in each of their three years in AA, and I’m going to do so again this year. Their aggressive play and deadliness in transition was a good style for making thin Class A teams look silly, but it’s often too fast and loose for AA. There’s a reason they’ve suffered three upset playoff losses (of varying degrees) in three years in AA. If Hermantown were to ever make the jump without any adjustments in style of play, I’d expect a similar result. (It’s exactly what happened when they twice collided with the rare Class A team that could play that tough defensive style, those East Grand Forks 2014 and 2015 teams.) There’s a reason that perennial powers like Duluth East and Hill-Murray always try take care of things on their own end of the ice first, no matter what sort of talent they have up front: their coaches have been around the block, and know what it takes to win.

I’m not saying offense-first teams can’t ever win. If there was an exception in recent memory, it was 2013 Benilde-St. Margaret’s; sure, they had four D-I defensemen, but three of them were very young, and that team was built purely around speed and a prolific offense. They only had one of the two or three best pure snipers of the two-class era in Grant Besse, and an overload of weapons around him. And even then, a very young Edina team had them on the ropes in the first round at State, and the two teams that were well-built stylistically to take them down, Eagan and Duluth East, decided to go and lose in the quarterfinals. Benilde’s inability to make State the following year, when Besse was a senior, and in 2016, when they went undefeated in the regular season, had a lot to do with playing a style that had no Plan B when it ran up against teams that didn’t roll over and make mortal mistakes.

Being defensive-minded alone isn’t going to win a state championship. One does, after all, need goals, and some measure of creativity for that inevitable playoff game when a team doesn’t quite play up to its potential, or gets knocked off its game. Teams of all varieties fall short, and there are plenty of scripts for upsets to follow. But if I need to choose among possible state champions, give me the team that rules the blue line. History doesn’t lie.

Escape to Palisade Valley

9 Jan

There’s a nice coherence in having one’s birthday right up against the new year, even if it did mean enduring a childhood of “Merry Christmas…and Happy Birthday All at Once!” presents. Year-end reflections and any thoughts that come with turning a year older happen all together, and each calendar year lines up nicely with a year in my life. I’ve never been one for resolutions or remaking myself in any fundamental way, but an added year is always a welcome chance to step back to recalibrate some. I’m skeptical of overarching sense of human progress as destiny, but I do think the power of introspection and stopping to learn from the past is one of the things that makes human life worth living.

Twenty-seven feels like a heavy one. Maybe because it’s certifiably “late twenties” now, but more likely because it’s my first birthday as a full-time adult with a career and no diversion from that career in sight. This is life now, and I’m just going to pile up the years as I go on with my working life. Each turn of the calendar page just brings me closer to middle age, puts on a little more pressure to check off the next set of boxes on the list of goals, especially after a year in which there was an awful lot of box-checking. Not everything needs to happen at once, and measuring life only by checked boxes is a poor way to think about things. But I won’t pretend that checking those boxes doesn’t set a strong foundation that allows everything else to flourish, and it’s hard to understate the benefits of finally having things all lined up. Wandering through a portion of one’s twenties is only worthwhile if one learns some necessary lessons. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

Before I get to work on those remaining boxes, though, I need to stop for a moment, and to think about what I’m really aiming for next. This holiday season, rich and rewarding in so many respects, left little time for introversion: this was my first weekend at home without houseguests in over a month, following journeys to Minneapolis and Chicago and Wisconsin, and playing host for New Year’s. I need these moments.

So, this Sunday, I set out to find some solitude on a skiing adventure. It was nothing that would trouble a seasoned skier, but it was still a healthy 15-plus kilometer trek over sometimes shaky trails, from the Northwoods ski area north of Silver Bay to a small camp in the heart of Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s a trip I’ve long wanted to make, and now was as good a time as any. And so I set out with my skis, a lunch, and a bottle of whiskey with a few sips left in it from New Year’s festivities.

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Northwoods is already the prettiest ski area in the region, thanks to its thick stands of balsams along the Beaver River and its beautiful outlet on to the floor of cliff-lined Bean Lake. (Alas: a sign at the parking lot alerts us to an impending, and probably necessary, thinning of the balsams by loggers.) Just as the trail turns away from the Beaver toward the daunting Herringbone Hill, an alluring spur offers a five-ish kilometer connection to Tettegouche. (Signs and maps offer differing distances, but it’s somewhere between 4.8 and 5.5). The trail is ungroomed, but sees enough traffic that there’s a healthy track at the start. Ungroomed trails offer constant undulations, and occasional needs to skirt frozen pools, or to climb or descend hills covered by small plants that resemble barren sticks in winter. It’s slow going. There are no brutal hills on the Tettegouche connector, and it’s little enough used that it’s never fast, but there are a few slopes that require careful negotiation.

Keeping one’s eyes on the tracks, however, can be difficult on this trail. The reason is simple: this is, by several degrees of magnitude, the most beautiful stretch of trail I’ve ever skied. The trail enters the Palisade Valley and snakes between walls of talus, these rugged ridges that score the earth north of Silver Bay. Pictures can’t quite capture the completeness of the beauty as I slide along between snow-covered boulder fields, frozen ponds dotting the route below. I start to climb gently, the leafless trees allowing views far across the valley. I cross a few snowmobile trails, and come to a spot where some furry animal met its demise from the skies. I climb the steepest hill on the trail to a view between looming twin erratics; a sign welcomes me to Tettegouche. Before long, I come to a long, somewhat narrow clearing, and the trail dies completely. But it seems clear enough that I should cross this opening, and I edge forward with some caution, as I suspect Palisade Creek is somewhere beneath me. I stick to the top of drifted snowy ridges, figuring something must hold it all up beneath. At times I sink deep into the drifts, at times I glide along the top without leaving a track. My geography skills haven’t failed me: a faint trail appears on the opposite end of the long clearing, and I immediately encounter an intersection with a map.

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Perhaps the biggest adjustment to working life has been the structure. Suddenly, there is always a map, and little time to explore its less worn trails. While I’m not busier than I was in school, being in an office from 8 to 5 is just a very different lifestyle from a haphazard student schedule. I hardly expect much sympathy if this is one of my greater worries, and it’s driven by my own ridiculous need to be doing something (and maybe multiple things) every single waking moment. But as valuable as structure can be, it can come at the expense of serendipity, and leaves moments of wonder too few and far between. It seems paradoxical to schedule in time to for beauty and wonder, but in these parts, one doesn’t have to travel far to find it.

Beyond the intersection the trail is packed down by snowshoes, and moves quickly up and down through a silent pine grove. Faster than expected, I sail down an easy slope to the Tettegouche camp, a collection of four cabins and a communal lodge in the heart of the state park on Mic Mac Lake, accessible only by trail. It’s empty when I arrive, but an older couple skis into camp from the north just after I break into my lunch in the lodge. We chat as I eat, colder when stationary in this unheated building than we were when skiing along. (For the non-northern Minnesotans who wonder how we do it, cross-country skiing is enough work that it doesn’t require a heavy jacket, even on a single-digit day like this one.) The woman admires the route I’ve taken, wishes that her body could still handle that many kilometers. I only hope that I, like her, can find someone who will still go with me on spontaneous adventures like this when I’m her age. After they leave me, I wander down to the frozen lake, sublime in repose, and then begin my trip back.

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As always, return journeys are faster, with familiar landmarks dotting the route. A number of stretches are a cross-country skier’s greatest delight, those easy, steady, incredibly long downhills. I can lull into thought here, develop a new plan of attack for adult life. I take my last slug of warming beverage in a spot where I can see hills rising up in all directions: a rock-strewn cliff to the right, the walls of Bear Lake up to the left, lonely Round Mountain and hulking Mount Trudee, subject of many a vulgarity on my post-graduation hike this past summer, visible behind. I don’t need the whiskey to feel a warm burn. The sun, stuck behind a grey wintry haze after some moments of morning clarity, sinks toward the top of the ridge that separates me from Bear and Bean Lakes, even at this early afternoon hour. Back on the Northwoods trails, my muscles start to protest; this stretch seems longer than I’d remembered. The trail system is empty, just me and the balsams, though a large crew with young children is just setting out when I finally coast back into the parking lot. I expect I’ll be doing that in the not so distant future, too.

It’s an hour drive back to Duluth. The morning sea smoke has lifted, and Lake Superior is a steely grey; for once, the clouds are welcome, as they blot out the sun that always seems to hang in one’s eyes during winter drives back down the Shore. I may be a little older now, and my knees are a bit cranky, but as I tune in the Packers’ playoff game and accelerate past Split Rock Lighthouse, I feel the youngest I have in months. As long as I can still blend that ambition with that sense of wonder, I can still channel the best of that kid who left Duluth for Georgetown, the best of those instincts that pulled me home, the best of those thrusts outward and journeys back through this endless cycle I live.

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I already knew all of this, of course. It’s no secret. But it’s so incredibly easy to let that slip away. At the very least, a few sore muscles will remind me for the next few days, and with any luck, this latest jolt will pierce through the dragging everydayness that too often grinds down that ambition and wonder. There’s no stopping now. There’s no telling how many kilometers of unbroken snow separate me from home.

The Case for Small Cities

30 Dec

Many talented people around my age or slightly younger are drawn to large cities. It only makes sense: they’re interesting places filled with interesting people, with easy access to cultural amenities and excitement that just don’t come around in suburbia or small towns. I’m skeptical that this supposed millennial “back to the city” movement will endure once my generation (or, rather, the highly educated fraction of my generation) starts having kids en masse, and even now, suburban growth still outpaces urban growth. I’m certainly not going to rain on the progress made in cities in recent years, many of which have enjoyed renewed life after decades of declining populations and disinvestment.

I am, however, going to make a case for the cities that I think are the best for young adults. These are what we might call the second tier cities: metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 people; places that stand alone as their own functioning economies, but will never capture the national imagination of our biggest cities. They may not be as glamorous, but the opportunities they provide young people are second to none. They are also the cities that need injections of smart, talented young people who can carry them forward and keep them thriving. Big cities will have that no matter what, but these smaller cities can face more complicated futures, and their ability to adapt to the 21st century economy could well make or break this country: are its benefits confined to a few scattered enclaves, or can it reach across the country and include these supposed flyover towns that have suddenly become a source of political angst?

And so I will make my case for smaller cities, as someone who has just gone home to a small city after spending six of the past eight in large cities. The target audience here is well-educated white-collar millennials, but I think these can be tweaked to apply to other groups, too. Here are 12 things they have to offer that larger cities don’t:

  1. The cost of living is much lower. Sure, the starting pay also may be lower, but the overall financial picture often works out well. My savings in rent alone since coming to Duluth are probably equal to about $3,000-$5,000 in annual salary compared to Minneapolis; if I were in DC or New York or San Francisco, we might be talking tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Commute time: nonexistent. Do I really need to elaborate? I live a few miles from work, yet it literally takes me longer to walk from my car to the office than it does to drive from home to the place where I park. The savings in time and mental anguish are remarkable.
  3. Access to positions of influence is significantly easier. In a few locations, good old boys’ networks can act as gatekeepers, but for the most part, anyone who wants an in can have it. Most of these cities love seeing fresh young blood come in to serve in leadership positions. For the politically inclined, reasonably talented people can win elections in their 20s, and don’t need to raise tons of money to do it. Provide some basic initiative, and you’ll be well on your way.
  4. As one gets older, those interesting things about cities that drew one in at the start become less important. Good restaurants, cultural opportunities, big dating pools…most people come to have less time or need to explore these things as they age, and as other family-related commitments arise. A small city will still have enough of these to keep most people going, too; don’t underestimate the amount of creativity a small place can produce.
  5. Speaking of family commitments, smaller cities are great places to raise kids. Access to reasonably good schools doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in real estate, and even the bottom end of educational options is probably a lot higher than in most big cities. Sure, the top end might not provide the easy pipeline to elite colleges that you see in wealthy suburbs, but if a kid comes from a strong home environment, the sky is still the limit. Factor in family-friendly neighborhoods, where crime and speeding traffic are negligible concerns, and it all adds up to a pleasant home life without trying very hard. Moreover, these places are small enough that even “wealthy” schools will give kids access to a fairly broad socioeconomic range. There’s much less of a bubble effect when everyone is thrown in together.
  6. Access to nature is so much easier. You need not be a tree-hugging hippie or a backwoodsman to appreciate this: free space means clean air and escapes from crowds and their annoyances, and facilitates everything from an adventure in the wilderness to an easy drive along picturesque country roads. This is refreshing for everyone.
  7. In smaller cities, it’s much easier to escape political or social bubbles. Even if the city itself may be a bit of an island, it’s probably surrounded by something else, and again, things are small enough that you’ll have some interaction with everyone. This may not always be fun, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on in several different swaths of the country. It’s hard to do that in the suburbs, and even in a large city with lots of surface level diversity, it’s very easy to cloister oneself, intentionally or not, and only interact with like-minded people.
  8. You can do more for the place you live, immediately. The utility of adding a talented new person to a small city is much greater than adding a new one to a metropolitan area. Being one of twenty people with an Ivy League degree in your small city provides way more influence than the 1,000th in a large one. Band enough of these people together, and you’ve got yourself a movement. A small core of committed people can completely turn the tide for an entire city. (Sidebar: not every local leader needs to go off to some elite school. It’s valuable to have some who do, so as to provide perspective, but it’s equally valuable to have some lifers who really get all the details. People who have seen the outside world are conversant in a common language and culture that’s useful in dealing with national issues, but credentials from distant schools say nothing about a person’s professional or political talents, or ability to harness them.)
  9. If you start a career in a smaller place, you’re highly unlikely to be pigeon-holed into one task or job function. You’ll probably be in an office that’s small enough that forces you to take on a variety of tasks, some of which will probably get you out of your comfort zone and make for a great learning experience. Jobs are far less likely to be “safe,” and that’s an excellent thing for résumé development, and generally just for enjoying one’s job.
  10. At the same time, though, people in smaller cities value work-life balance. There are no 100-hour-a-week slavish jobs here, unless you enjoy it so much that this is what you actually want to do. And if that is what you want to do, people will probably respect that.
  11. People like stories of converts or prodigal children, and anyone who can make that outsider’s case for a place is going to be compelling to outside audiences. Small cities need this so as to make their appeal clear to people who aren’t already singing along with the choir. Move to one of these places and accept it as it is, and you’ll have a chance to be its champion. Big cities don’t need such champions; inertia provides this on its own. But in choosing to take a different path, you instantly become a leader of sorts.
  12. You get to say you are actually “from” somewhere, instead of pretending that your suburban childhood connects you with a larger center city that you visited only for sports and museums when growing up. Sure, there are some mild quirks that separate most middle-to-upper-end suburbs, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. People may not know what it means when you say you’re from Duluth, but you do, and other people who are also from Duluth get it. If you value a sense of place, that’s huge.

I won’t pretend it’s all easy. Moving to a smaller city takes a conscious rejection of the easy trends for most young people, which push them to familiar networks and the largest paychecks. If you’re not from a place, it can take a little while to break in. And yes, the dating pool really is smaller. (Sigh.) But there is so much wealth to be found here, and these cities are practically begging for ambitious young people to sweep in and leave their mark. Take the jump. It’s worth it.

Hounds for the Holidays

23 Dec

Eight games into Duluth East’s hockey season, the defining feature so far is, perhaps, a blissful lack of drama. The past two seasons have been tumultuous in so many ways, with deeply frustrating valleys in December of each year. A large group of seniors that carried East to great heights and some frustrating lows graduated in 2016, leaving us with some very young Hounds with a different look and a different attitude. While this season has had its high points and low points, the Hounds are more or less where we might have expected them to be: 5-3 and in the 10-15 range of rankings, showing flashes of great potential but with plenty of work to do if they hope to come out of a loaded section.

The Hounds have played the three teams that should wind up ranked 4-6 in Section 7AA, all of whom have beaten or tied them over the past two years. This time around, they handled all three, winning by a combined 16-2 score. Two of their losses were by one goal (one with an empty-netter) to top ten teams, and the third was the season opener to a surprise White Bear Lake team that is now making its own bit for a top ten ranking. They also have wins against a struggling but dangerous defending state champion, Wayzata, and a stout Bemidji team. There’s room for improvement; the Centennial loss in particular stung, as they went from looking like world-beaters with a 2-0 lead in the first period to melting into ineptitude later on. But on the whole, the team looks respectable and steady, which is not always the case in December, even with highly skilled East teams.

There have been some pleasant surprises to date. Coming in, I worried the scoring might be top-heavy, and over-reliant on the top line; they have been anything but. East is rolling four lines, all generating offensive zone time and putting up some points. The second line of Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Nick Lanigan has been a real bright spot, with quality production and excellent puck control. Despite their inexperience, this team’s forwards are already playing that classic Mike Randolph cycle with more precision than they mustered in the past two seasons.

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The young defense is largely living up to its promise, avoiding stupid mistakes outside of a few ill-advised penalties. Perhaps most encouragingly, the healthy competition between returning senior Kirk Meierhoff and sophomore Lukan Hanson seems to have produced the intended results. Hanson put in some strong performances before a struggle against Centennial last week, but Meierhoff has elevated his game, and boasts a .968 save percentage and just three goals allowed in four and a half games. The job, I suspect, is his until further notice.

If there’s one thing that could make the Hounds more dangerous, it’s more offensive production out of the top line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan. They’re leading the team in points and certainly look like the top line, but the numbers aren’t anything awe-inspiring, and with the star power that the other contenders in 7AA feature, they need their top forwards to step into leading roles and carry the load when necessary. An obvious way to improve: fix up that power play, which lately has spent most of its time retrieving the puck from its own end. So often here, less is more, and they can lead if they avoid forcing things and take it all naturally.

It could also behoove the team to have some sort of Plan B. Randolph’s cycling master classes are fun to watch, and can beat teams into submission. But at times the opponent diagnoses it and throws East off its game, and the team needs to be able to respond in positive ways when they do lose that control. Whether that involves something tactical or simply turning a few top players loose and letting them do their thing, another course of attack makes them that much more lethal.

They will need that lethal touch to do much of anything in the playoffs. This isn’t one of those years where East can just lock down defensively and expect to get out of 7AA: Elk River and Grand Rapids currently sit ranked #2 and #3 in the state, respectively. The Elks may be the deepest team in the state, while the Thunderhawks have one of the most dangerous collections of top-end talent in recent years. This is the peak year for both, their best chance at glory in decades (for Rapids) or since the early 00s (for Elk River). Both teams lurk on the schedule later in the year, and the Hounds have some work to do if they want to be more than a possible spoiler. There will be a talent gap, and coaching can only go so far to bridge it; work ethic and leadership, those staples of the 2015 run, must do the rest. Convincing wins over some amped-up rivals are a good start; now, they need to take that to the next level, and not get frustrated when other top teams throw them off their game.

Whatever comes next, I’m happy to be home to watch them regularly after a couple years away, and to know that I’ll be doing this for a long time to come. As today’s News Tribune story shows, this is something that spans generations and endures, not just some passing fancy of convenient demographic growth. The crowds at the Heritage Center (and at Mars for the Marshall game on Thursday) are the best they’ve been in years, and people just seem to get what an enjoyable ride this is, and why this culture can help pull back kids like me who’ve gone to see everything the world has to offer and decide we belong right back here. With that kind of legacy, how can this not be fun?

Full Range of Possibility

15 Dec

The Iron Range is a land of legend for Duluth kids like myself, a realm of blue-collar grit that makes our east side homes feel like the last bastion of civilization in the frozen north. Its history is no older than the rest of Minnesota, but it is much more aware of that history than anywhere else, perhaps because that past too often seems brighter than its future. The Range is no Appalachia, but in an otherwise well-off state, it has become emblematic of the struggles of the white working class, a group that once dug up America’s building blocks but now suffers from stagnant incomes, crumbling families, and a sudden surge in drug overdose deaths. The Range only needs a third of the workers it did in the 70s to mine the same amount of ore, and imports have risen as well; even when steel prices are high, blue-collar work is no longer seen as the engine of the national economy, but instead an afterthought in an age of information. Small wonder that this longtime bastion of labor politics suddenly broke for Donald Trump.

But even as the mines rise and fall, hockey remains a constant on the Range. These northern towns steamrolled the rest of the state for several decades after the birth of Minnesota hockey, and nearly every small town in the region has taken its turn at dominance. Their legacy lingers, both in the banners of the historic rinks and in the present day big city powerhouses, whose rosters littered with names that have their roots on the Range a generation or two earlier. I grew up in an era of dwindling Range hockey success, and am young enough that I remember more State Tournaments without Range teams than those with them; only if we count Grand Rapids as a Range city—a subject of eternal debate—is there are still anything more than a prayerful hope of present glory. But there is still talent here, still are flirtations with greatness, and now that I’m back in Duluth, it’s time to go see Range hockey as it is today.

The site of the game I attend on a Tuesday in mid-December is the town of Hibbing, home to the mine that won two World Wars and, as of last week, a Nobel Laureate in literature. Hibbing is still the largest city on the Range, its high school a stunning monument to early 20th century industry, and a time when the Iron Range quite literally created the foundations of American growth.  Its hockey program lacks any one dominant era, but has been remarkably consistent across the years, and has two titles to its name. As recently as the late 90s they were there with the best; the 1997 final at Hibbing Memorial between the Bluejackets and Duluth East might have offered the absolute pinnacle of section hockey atmosphere in my lifetime. Lately, however, the Jackets have worn thin; they’re frequent visitors to the late rounds of the Section 7A playoffs, but only bust through as a serious threat when carried by an Adam Johnson or a Scott Perunovich. Last year’s dream team behind Perunovich crumbled in the 7A final, whipped by a Hermantown program whose depth has come to overwhelm the Range teams, year after year. Amid a hushed-up scandal that drove head coach Todd Versich from his job, Perunovich and star goaltender Ryan Ullan left for junior hockey over the offseason, leaving the Jackets with an uncertain future. Still, enough talent remained, and the Jackets got off to a solid 3-1 start in the young season.

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Hibbing’s opponent on Tuesday night, Greenway, collects kids from two high schools and a smattering of towns across eastern Itasca County. Perhaps no part of the Range endured more uncertainty during the most recent mining downturn than these hamlets between Grand Rapids and Hibbing. Keetac in Keewatin remains idled, its future murky; Magnetation out of Grand Rapids went belly-up; and the Essar direct reduced iron project in Nashwauk, once touted as the future of Range mining, sits unfinished and mired in debt left by an incompetent management group from India. (New investors emerged in the past week to offer new hope on the last two, but it’s all still speculative, and the towns’ fates remain chained to the fortunes of the mines.) The Greenway hockey program, twice state champions in the late 60s and darlings of the AA tournament as recently as 2001, stood on the brink of demise toward the end of the 00s. Hope, however, springs eternal: the Raiders rebuilt from the ground up and returned to prominence last season, going 22-5 and making the section semifinals for the first time since 2003. Life returned to the Snakepit in Coleraine, and the Raiders entered Tuesday night a perfect 6-0.

I head to Hibbing right after work and arrive an hour early to secure my perch for the game. I needn’t have worried too much: the crowd is respectable, perhaps just under 2,000, but there’s plenty of space at cavernous Hibbing Memorial. Still, I’m glad for my early arrival, as it gives me time to meander up and down its aisles and gaze up at those old pictures, banners, and majestic arched ceiling. It’s the oldest artificial ice on the Range, dating to 1935, but the upkeep is impeccable, a perfect blend of new paint and a few historic touches to remind us we’re on hallowed hockey ground. A reverent silence grips the arena long after the anthem ends, as the local VFW chapter retires the colors; finally, a kid in the Hibbing student section shatters it. “It’s gonna be a long night, Raiders!” he bellows. On cue, the arena erupts into life, just as it has for eighty years.

The Bluejackets are true to the words of their instigator in the stands. Greenway may come in as the higher-ranked team, but Hibbing strikes immediately on a goal by Tristan Birdsall, the lone sophomore skater on a veteran-laden squad. Hibbing’s puck movement is superior; the Raiders, their top two talents inexplicably separated on different lines, fail to generate much punch beyond individual moments of flashy stickhandling from Taylor Lantz or pure power moves by Grant Troumbly. Greenway assumes the mantel of powerful northern hockey and unloads the hits, but Hibbing does just enough to hold serve. Late in the first period, Lantz and Troumbly momentarily join forces, and Greenway instantaneously has its best shift of the period. But when the second period opens, they’re apart again, and won’t be back on the same line until the game is out of reach. Maybe coach Grant Clafton is trying to wear Hibbing down in an ill-fated search for depth; maybe he’s being coy or experimental, waiting to unleash his finest talents later in the season. For now, however, it fails to generate much.

In front of me, the Hibbing students, scattered into friend groups at the start, congeal into a unified mass. In the Metro, students bounce beach balls around to annoy the ushers; here, they are purists, and keep a hockey puck aloft for a spell. They are all choreographed, sit as one when a Hibbing player goes down hurt midway through the first period, and repeat the ritual when a top Greenway defenseman’s leg crumples in the third. When the Greenway cheerleaders take the ice between periods, they turn their backs on them; these harmless antics that have been beaten out of student sections elsewhere still live on the Range. Later, “Rapids Rejects” joins the usual arsenal of victorious chants as the clock winds down. These kids are engaged, locked in on the game, having fun: a pleasure to see. One sees me taking notes, and asks if I’m a scout. No, kid, just a traveler from afar, drinking it all in.

Shots on goal read 4-3 Hibbing after the first period, a deathly low total that reflects the physical pacing of the game. In the second, however, the Bluejackets begin to open it up, and their sharp power play creates quality chances. Finally, late in the period, they’re rewarded, as Zach DeBoom’s bullet gets lost behind the Greenway goalie, and Riley Versich collects the garbage goal. Troumbly claws one back for the Raiders early in the third, but DeBoom unloads again shortly thereafter, and this time he doesn’t need a tip to reclaim a two-goal lead. From there, the Jackets settle into control and pop in two more goals for a 5-1 victory. For now, at least, the Iron Range’s steadiest power retains its crown in a longtime rivalry, and states its case for a little more respect in the rankings.

The best player on the ice is Jarrett Lee, a Hibbing junior winger who’d lived in Scott Perunovich’s shadow his entire career. This team is his now, though, and in the absence of a superstar, several Hibbing players had a chance to share in the load. A small but gritty player, Lee takes control when he sees the ice, running the Bluejacket power play from the point and darting about the offensive zone. Like many who have endured the ups and downs of local industry, Lee is also a survivor: he overcame a cancer scare in eighth grade.

Boom cycles will come through the Range, just as Perunovich-caliber players will roll through from time to time. When they do, Rangers will delight in the riches and artistry they create. But the lean times will come as well, and there will be times when players across the Range need to wear those sweaters with pride and go into corners to dig out pucks, no matter the odds. The Range I saw on Tuesday still has its sense of history, still has its sense of community, and it has a future, so long as the loyalty in the stands and the work ethic on the ice still prevail. No one offers a better window into its struggles and its promise than these high school kids.

There will be easy scapegoats, from Hermantown to China, and they may indeed play by different sets of rules. But easy fixes aren’t always there in hockey or in life, and there are things to learn from the resilience of a Jarrett Lee or a Greenway program that brought itself back from the brink. Lord knows the Range faces its challenges, but no one can really understand it from a heap of data or an elegiac piece of journalism. To do that, one must go to the Range and live it, if only for a little while.

Trekking

9 Dec

Evan’s legs, their movements all mechanical by this point, come to a halt. Since the last village it’s been absence and silence save for the reassuring footsteps behind him, the dull clank of a cooking pot against a water bottle in another backpack. Now, the silence is total.

“Don’t tell me you want to stop now,” he grumbles.

“You gave me the heavy pack again. What do you think I am, a goddamn Sherpa?”

“You really need to be more sensitive to the local people.”

“Their own damn fault for playing into that stereotype.” Evan sighs and stakes out the tent, while Mark slumps into a rocky seat with a groan and nurses his aching knee, wrestles off his hiking boots and rubs his fingers over his blossoming blisters. He only joined Evan here three days ago, and yet this lifelong athlete has never felt so physically drained. He sucks down some thin Himalayan air, toys with the fake jade Buddha trinket he’d bought at a market in Kathmandu. He’s never had much use for gods or faith since he’d first learned of his ever-so-pious parents’ affairs back in middle school, but now, as darkness falls and they hurry to make camp on a cleft in the side of a ridge, he could use some otherworldly strength, or at the very least some indifference to pain.

“Sorry I’m out of your favorite medicine,” says Evan as he assembles tent poles with deliberate smoothness.

Mark grumbles as sits back up. “I brought ya something. Knew your stock would be gone by now, so…” He perks up and produces a bottle of bourbon from deep inside his pack.

“Now if you’d just mentioned you had that, I never would’ve given you shit about stopping.” Evan uncorks the bottle, throws back his head, and takes a deep swig. He sinks next to his friend on a barren patch of grass. After a month of trekking, he melts right into the rock, immune to any discomfort.

“You look like a straight-up mountain man,” Mark laughs. “What’s Bridget gonna say when she sees that beard?”

“I probably should shave it as soon as we’re back in civilization…or, at least, before we go up to her parents’ cabin next Saturday. When we get back to Kathmandu, well…I’m buying a ring.”

“Took you long enough.” Mark’s wide smile belies his sarcasm. “You’ve only been dating her since before we even met. I’d say she’s a saint for sticking with you for all these years, but nah, I know how much effort you’ve made to get all the little things right.”

“Not that I haven’t wavered some, done some stupid shit…”

“Shut it. You’re as steady as they come. Wish I had your discipline, instead of just being this fuckboy that I am.”

Evan snorts. “If that’s really what you want to call scoring some of the hottest chicks in the Ivy League…”

Mark shrugs, concedes the point. “Great times, don’t get me wrong. But even if you made a mistake or two, you knew what you had to do to get her back. You weren’t going to lose her, not for all the lamas in Lhasa.”

“Hah. Or what’s left of them once the Chinese have had their way, anyway.”

“You always were a little bit of a hippie, and now you’re starting to look like one, too.”

“Sorry I care about people getting their culture totally bulldozed.”

“We’re all Nietzscheans now.”

“Easy there, Yale.”

“Nice try pretending you’re not a nerd, too.”

“Fine, explain it.”

“Means we can’t go two seconds without thinking about the politics of something. Without thinking of the power relations between us all and how it affects everything, oppressors and oppressed. No gods, no tradition…unless we can use them for power.”

“You’re good, even if you are just a chunk of raw red meat.”

“Just trying to save the world from all you self-obsessed lefties.”

“Says the kid who follows his lefty bud to the end of the earth.”

Mark peels off into laughter, too delirious for a deeper discourse on Ubermenschen. Evan grins and starts up his camp stove. He could go on if he wished, lecture Mark on the troubles in Tibet, but Mark probably knows all of this already, simply trolls him for his own pleasure. And why shouldn’t he? They’re two college grads on their final night on a Himalayan trek, all alone and powerless up here, and whether it’s conscious or not, he knows what Mark is driving at. Here, even the weightiest of world affairs seem small.

“When did you decide to buy the ring?” Mark asks. “All those monks droning about suffering make you want to give marriage a try?”

“Something like that. I’ve always known it was coming. And, corny, I know, but when I looked up and saw Everest, I just knew it was time. I’ve been building to that for years.”

“Ugh. But, I’m proud of you, I really am. Gonna have to take you and her to dinner once we’re back in Duluth.”

“You’ll have a couple weeks back home before you head back east, right?”

“I will,” Mark says. “Last time I’ll call it home, at least for a little while.”

“Any grand plans?”

“Nothing really…just hang with you and anyone else who’s in town. And visit my dad, I think. He’s getting a lot less mobile.”

“Still living in his lonely palace on top of that hill up the shore?”

“Of course.” Mark laughs as he pats the wall of his tent and sweeps his gaze across a valley touched by the last lingering tinges of dusk. “Lonely palace atop a hill, single after a life of sleeping around…I’m my father’s son, alright.”

“Father’s son,” Evan muses, reminding Mark why his friend took this trip in the first place. Evan’s father died before Mark ever met Evan, and his friends had pulled him through that adolescent grief. This trip was to be a long-delayed memorial for Evan’s late father, his chance to reckon with it all on his own, at least before Mark showed up at the end to lead him home.

Evan, however, has failed in his task. The ashes are still with him, and while he’s been a good Buddhist student throughout the trek, he feels no closer to nirvana than before. As he’s plodded along, his mind has spent far more time on wedding planning and the potential of the future than lingering in the past, least of all on a stolid Minnesota hockey dad who’d probably never recognize his scruffy globetrotting son, wouldn’t have known the first thing about finding noble truths or eightfold paths.

Evan has worried all along this journey was just a flight of vanity, and Mark has been all too willing to judge him for it. He’s a cultural tourist, and he knows it. Part of him begrudges Mark for clouding his spiritual seeking, but he’s needed someone to keep him grounded. And, by and large, Mark is right: he’ll head home refreshed and full of stories, but fundamentally unchanged. He’s been in these Nepalese passes for three weeks longer than Mark now, yet aside from his scruffy hair and beard, he’s displayed his singular talent for making a Himalayan trek no less stressful than a meander up the beach. If only the rest of the world knew the work it took to maintain this flawless act: simply Evan in his equanimity, ever the model that leaves even Mark slightly jealous.

It is a marvel, Mark thinks, how little of that there’s been since he moved to Minnesota nine years earlier. It survived all those seasons of agony and ecstasy as hockey teammates, four years as they went to college a thousand miles apart, two cross-country road trips, and a summer of hostel-hopping across Europe. Not that Evan hasn’t been on the receiving end of some of Mark’s more hotheaded lashes, and even Evan lapsed into bitter frustration after Mark lost their passports in Prague. Each has acknowledged his debt to the other before, but only here, clean on the opposite side of the globe, can Mark truly appreciate how lucky they are to have found each other. At times he’d worried Evan would dither too much and never buy his girlfriend that ring, but now that he’s declared his plans, a small part of him feels a pang: he won’t be his alone anymore.

“Yak steak?” Evan asks as he flips a slab of meat on his tiny griddle.

“I’ll pass,” Mark sighs, reaching for the trail mix and the bourbon at once.

“You should eat more than that.”

“Call it a simple diet. A purge. Getting in touch with those parts of your mind you don’t normally find. Your Buddhists would appreciate that, right?”

“Hardly, I’d think,” Evan frowns. “Just as long as you don’t push yourself to puke the way you did in practice sometimes. I’m not cleaning up your shit up here.”

Yes, Mark admits, he’s being reckless; perhaps it’s the thin air, or perhaps it’s all of these adult life questions weighing on his mind. But he’s no stranger to pushing the limits of his body.  He’s undertaken so many brutal workouts that they all blur together, though one rears up in his mind now: that high school death march up and down the ridges of Lake Superior’s North Shore. Ostensibly he’d done it whip an old hockey teammate into shape, to turn around that big defenseman’s life before he wasted all his talent. He’d done it as a senior captain, acting the sage veteran who knew a thing or two. But in reality that thirty-mile trek was just as much for him, and he stayed far enough ahead of his charge to have his breakdown atop a rocky knob all alone, Lake Superior lost in the fog beneath him and his mind equally lost in that fog. That purge carried him through for a while, not that there weren’t peaks and valleys nearly every day, and now he’s joined Evan here at the tail end of his journey to the roof of the world, here where the towering peaks make laughingstocks of those old shoreline bluffs he knows so well. Their wildness seems intimate when set against these infinite heights, heights he’s delighted in conquering but that will never be home.

“You know what I’ve missed the most, being out here? The water. I need the water,” says Mark.

“You always say you need all these things, man. I’m not really Buddhist, but if I can take something away from all these monasteries, it’s that ability to release yourself, achieve that indifferent state.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve got it all lined up so smoothly. I’m just…drifting.”

“The kid who says he needs the water is drifting. Maybe what you’re looking for is right beneath you.”

“Or maybe I’m just doomed to wander.”

“You sound dark, Marky.”

“Look up, look around you, Evs…it’s all darkness. And us, just looking for little moments of light here in the middle of it all.”

“There you go again.”

“I’ve always been a bit…haunted. Not that you haven’t, I guess. But some things linger.”

Evan nods, but turns away from his old friend and searches the gathering darkness for an adequate response. It doesn’t come. Through all their time together he’s always looked up to Mark as the more brilliant half of the pair, the restless achiever who’d gone to Yale, always an object of mild awe. But some part of him has always known he’s the more stable one, and this point of pride now seems like something he’s failed to share, some secret he could have imparted. But he has no such power, and that makes him somehow inadequate. Mark’s demons play out every time he goes home, while his had the convenience, the closure of a death that made the what ifs far more speculative.

“I came to join you to try to find that glimmer,” says Mark. “And I did, when I tracked you down up at Tengboche, and I’m getting there tonight…but it seems like it gets harder and harder every year.”

“We’re not kids anymore,” Evan shrugs. “We don’t get that rush every time we do something new now. We’ve settled on our vices”—he hoists up the bourbon bottle—“and we know we can’t do too much else. I don’t know that it’s a loss. You focus in on what really does make you happy…nah, not what makes you happy, not exactly. What make you live in line with the life you believe in. That slow, satisfied burn instead of the occasional rush.”

“Guess those monks taught you something useful.” Mark takes a long slug from the bottle and grits his teeth in relish. “Just as long as I can still get those rushes sometimes Wouldn’t trade those for the world.”

“Course,” says Evan. “There are times when it only makes sense to grab them. Just don’t force it when it’s not there.”

“Fair enough.” Mark hands Evan the bourbon and moves from one rocky seat to another in a hopeless search for comfort. “Just need to figure out when those moments are…it’s stupid. I’ve put in all this time and effort, Yale degree, did everything the way we’re supposed to…and I don’t regret any of it, it’s set me up better than any other way could have. But in the end, it just comes down to instincts. Knowing when to make a move.”

Evan stops mid-drink, and a dawning look plays across his face. “Right. Yeah.” He stares into the darkness at nothing, and Mark tracks his gaze intently. Evan pitches the bottle back to Mark, reaches into his pack, and pulls out a small bag. He wanders over to the edge of the cliff, opens it, takes a handful of ashes, and sticks his closed fist out over the chasm before him. He’s come to this point four times on this trip already, and each time he’s pulled his hand back. Is it really right, to scatter his father so far from anything he knew, to leave what little trace he has left in some unnamed gorge he’ll never see again?

“Do it,” Mark orders him. “Let go.”

Evan turns his hand over and slowly lets the ashes sift out from between his fingers. When half his burden is gone, he throws his hand open and casts the rest down into the abyss. It is done. He’s not sure he feels any better for completing the task; maybe he doesn’t completely believe what he just told Mark, that this lack of feeling is in some way natural. But it is done now, and for the first time on his journey, he feels tired. He slinks back to his friend’s side and blinks away the gathering tears.

“More booze?”

“Nah…not now. Just water.”

Mark smiles. “Always the water.” He fishes a bottle out of his pack. “Wash it down, clear it out, whatever you need to do. You’ve got needs, too.”

“Glad I’ve got you and Bridget in my life to remind me of that.”

“How does it feel? You get what you wanted?”

Evan shrugs. “I was hoping for closure. But now I realize that it never really happens. And that’s okay.”

Gateways, Past and Future

7 Dec

Now that I am the proud owner of my very own fake Christmas tree, I’ve inherited some of the old ornaments that used to decorate the trees of my childhood. Amid the collection of silver balls, apples, eight-year-old Karl’s favorite cartoon characters, and Oscar the Grouch in a trashcan made out of a film canister (remember those things?) sits this ornament, with its rather bold claim:

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Gateway to the world? I guess we do have a big port and all, but this sounds like it’s straight out of that 1800s copy that called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas” or whatever delightful hyperbole this city’s founders used. I couldn’t tell you where the ornament came from, or how long we’ve had it. And in spite of that, it’s still my favorite.  For me, it’s true. This city was my gateway to the world, and now I’m back here to make sure it remains a gateway to the world for generations to come.

The routines of Christmas always help to recall the past, and this history makes otherwise inane tasks warm and fuzzy. The music often tires me by mid-December, yet I’ll crank a recording of the Duluth East rendition of “Little Drummer Boy”—it somehow becomes tolerable when there are 800 people playing and singing it at once—any number of times this month. I find gaudy light displays tacky, yet I trim my own apartment with a bunch of strings of lights. I’m not much of a shopper and am now at a point where there are few affordable material things that I wouldn’t just go out and buy myself if I really wanted them, yet I feel duty-bound to participate in that side of things, at least to some extent. I’d add long car trips to the list, though I’ve learned over the past year that I actually enjoy long car trips on their own merits.

It’s easy to tire of all of this, and there’s an understandable instinct to withdraw from it at times. As an introvert, I’ll certainly have my moments this season. But participation in Christmas requires recognition that this holiday, whether in its religious form or even its secularized variants, is bigger than oneself, and as such requires surrender of oneself at times. We should always value in carrying something forward from the past, and perhaps—perhaps—losing touch with that past has played no small part in creating our present political moment. Credit Dickens for understanding how those Christmas ghosts past and future can loom over us, make us stop and think about what where we’ve come from, and where we’re going to end up. The opportunities to gain perspective on events great and small never end, and some of the more important revelations I’ve ever had have been somehow tied up in this holiday.

This blog has become politics-heavy over the past month, and it’s time to shake that up a bit. All these worries about affairs of state that matter so much distract us from things that endure; things that matter not just now, but mattered for our ancestors, and will matter again for our descendants. Also, it’s hockey season. It’s time to start another cycle.