Leaving the Garden

18 Jan

This is the next installment in what I’ve been calling a short story collection, but is really coming to resemble more of a serialized novella. I recommend reading the rest first, beginning here.

Mark rises from his bed as quietly as he can. His roommate is already snoring lightly in the next bed, but he can’t sleep. There are too many emotions, too many complicated feelings running laps around his brain. He stands before the window of his hotel room and gazes down on downtown St. Paul, dead at this hour of the night. His jersey lies strewn over the chair in the corner, carefully arranged to show off his school’s name. He’d finally taken it off two hours after the game ended, and even now is half tempted to pull it back on and sleep in it so as not to let it go. So much for all those illusions of his senior year ending in a state championship. He’s failed. But his old impossible standard for himself doesn’t have the same power anymore: he knows he’s fought valiantly, put his team on his back, made 37 saves in a losing effort tonight. He checks his reflection in the window and chances a smile for the first time since the final horn sounded. He’s done alright for himself, all in all, and even he might yet fall for all those clichés about glory days. Now, he just needs one last confirmation of his pride. He checks his phone again. The call comes on time, as it always does.

“Evvy.”

“Marks.”

“God, thanks so much for doing this.”

“Always for you. How’s the team?”

Mark glances at his stirring roommate and pauses. Yes, this conversation is more important than the curfew. He throws on his shoes and heads for the hotel hallway.

“Down, but proud. Exactly how I want them to be,” he says as he slips out the door.

“They know their captain.”

“Did what I could, telling em I was proud of em. Even if I was pissed for all that blown coverage. Should’ve had the second one, too. But, hey, we gave it our all and I think I can accept that.”

“You’re playing for third in the state tomorrow. Hardly any shame there.”

“I know. Course I’m proud of us. And like you said at the start, it was worth coming back to be a leader, pull all those boys along. Even if it wasn’t the same without you.”

“Aww. You gonna miss it?”

“Hard to say, honestly.” Mark gathers his thoughts and finds words he knows Evan will like. “I’m ready to move on. Duluth saved my soul, but it was never entirely me, either.”

“I get that. Didn’t realize how much of a Duluth boy I was until I left.”

“Ha. It was obvious to some of us all along…”

Evan lets out a loud laugh before covering his mouth. He, too, is the only person awake now: his Fargo billet family is sound asleep, including their eleven-year-old who shares a wall with the junior hockey player he worships. Evan is sore from an hour of evening knee hockey on top of the nicks and bruises that bedevil him late in a long season, but the look on the kid’s face makes it all worth it.

“What did you tell them afterwards?” he asks.

“There wasn’t much to say. I just said thanks, said I’ll have my thoughts sorted out a little better by the banquet. I mean…God, you know how much a lot of them drove me insane. I had to learn to hide that. Had to learn your Minnesota Nice shit. But…I love em all for it, even now. It taught me a lot, how to deal with a group. Even when you’re the goalie, you’re not all alone back there. I was telling that to Carson after the game and he just sort of smirked at me like I finally figured something out that I should’ve known years ago. And maybe I did.”

“But it took this to make it real,” says Evan.

“It’s been a strange feeling. I’m just…kind of reflective about it all now. Nostalgic, you know?”

“I know exactly how you feel. It hit me hard toward the end of my senior year.”

“I even behaved myself and didn’t sexile Reuben tonight. No postgame pussy like last year.”

“I take that all back. You’re the worst.”

“I know.” Evan can picture the evil grin on Mark’s face and smiles at the thought. Prior to this year, Mark was the aloof goalie par excellence, and couldn’t be troubled to comment on his teammates’ performance unless they’d hung him out to dry. He had one job, and it was to stop the puck, to the point where he could seem indifferent to wins or losses so long as he performed to the level he expected of himself. He’d never exactly been a model teammate. Now, though, Evan can tell he’s completely invested. He’d particularly enjoyed the sequence caught on camera after the first period when Mark hunted down the referees and looked to have sent them into peals of laughter.

“What did you tell the refs at the first intermission?” he asks.

“That one kid should’ve gotten an embellishment call after Austin bumped him. I said that I could hook them up with someone from the Yale Drama School if they wanna learn how it’s done right.”

“Goddamn.”

“Your chirp game’s never been your forte, Evvy. Gotta know how to work em.”

“There’s nothing worse than a chirpy goalie.”

“Hey, the team loves it, hearing that from me.”

“I don’t doubt it. Maybe that’s what made you all so good this season, just knowing how to stay loose.”

“I wasn’t always great at it, but I learned not be picky. If you can relate, relate, even if it’s on their level.”

Evan marvels at this version of Mark he’s hearing. “Next thing I know you’ll be turning down Yale and playing for UMD so you can stay with your boys,” he cracks.

“Let’s not get too carried away. Some of them didn’t even realize this was the end, you know? Most of em will never get it the way that we do.”

“I don’t think high school’s formative for everyone as it was for me or you. We both went through a little more than most.”

“Me, you, and our daddy issues.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” says Evan. He sighs, unwilling to say more, and Mark waffles on whether to press any further. A door down the hall clicks, and he jumps in shock before recovering his poise. He slips into an alcove next to the ice machine, makes sure the coast is clear, swallows, and asks a question he’s always longed to ask.

“Evs, if you don’t want to answer you don’t have to, but…did you have any idea? Did you get a chance to say goodbye?”

“I didn’t. No.”

“Was there a note?”

“No. I didn’t see any of it coming. There was some stuff here and there maybe, looking back he probably wasn’t himself for a month or two before, but…no. Nothing. No final words. He just said bye to me that morning when I left for school like I always did. I probably didn’t even look at him, it was just…” Evan trails off, but Mark remains silent, and he can’t help but go on.

“It’s stupid. We don’t think these things matter until they suddenly do. Hell, I’m not sure he’d even made up his mind at that point.” Evan cracks, and appreciates the time Mark gives him to collect himself. He’s done everything in his power to pick up the pieces over the past five years, accept the loss of his father and give that loss a place in a well-organized life. He’s made peace as well as he can.

But one nagging worry lingers. Now that he knows loss, he can’t ever fight the sense that he’s wasting time. Every minute is vital, and every moment not spent in full pursuit is just waste on top of waste. He’s nineteen and yet he already feels like he’s let far too much time go by without doing every possible thing there is to do, without telling all the people in his life what he needs to tell them. He lives in eternal fear that his debts will come due before their time.

“Whatever you do, Marky, don’t make that same mistake,” says Evan. He doesn’t say exactly what the mistake was, but the silence on the other end of the line assures him he’s made his point.

Evan’s words weigh on Mark. He knows Evan means this broadly, but in most spheres of life this isn’t much of a concern for him. Mistakes are a rarity in his life. But his mind can’t help but turn to his father’s fortress up the shore from Duluth. He dreads every visit there, and goes only often enough to meet basic obligations. Hockey, at least, gives them something to talk about. His father does push him on colleges, and as a Yale graduate himself, that legacy tie certainly set the table for Mark. In his own way, his father’s terrifying iciness is a necessary antidote to his permissive, weak-willed mother, who only ever aims to give him exactly what he wants. If only there was some middle ground instead of these two polar extremes.

“My dad sent me a text that said ‘good job’ today. Invited me up to have dinner with him at his place next week.”

“That’s good to hear, I guess.”

“I’m not sure you get how crazy that is. He’s never said anything like that. Ever.”

“Why is it that the things we most mean to say are the hardest things to say?”

“I’m not sure how much he actually means it.”

“He does. Trust me. Whether he knows it, whether you know it…I know it’s there.”

“If you say so.” Mark wants to disbelieve Evan, but he can’t quite do so.

“I do.”

“Sorry to drag you down that road.”

“No. It’s good for me.”

“Seriously, how you doing beyond all that? How’s junior life lately? Wait, hang on.” Mark pokes his head out of his alcove to investigate the footfalls down the hall. One of the assistant coaches makes his way toward him with an ice bucket, stopping by each of the players’ doors to listen as he goes. Mark tenses, poised, and waits until the coach puts his head just far enough into one of the doorways that he can’t see the ice machine. He bolts for the stairwell opposite him in four bounding strides, edges the door open, and slips through. Sneaking around the homes of love interests late at night is a specialty of his, after all. Safe and back in control, he exhales and invites Evan to reply.

“Honestly? It’s been frustrating lately.”

“Why?”

“It’s not my style. And…I just, I don’t know. It’s kind of like what we were just saying. If I learned one thing from the shit with my dad, it’s not to take any day for granted. To always make sure I’m building toward whatever comes next. The other kids, they don’t get that. They think they have all the time in the world. I know I don’t. And too often I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels here. All for what? Just a game?” Evan surprises himself with his own fervor, the ease with which half-formed thoughts start pouring out.

“The things we do for hockey. You know you love it, though. This time we boys all get together…can’t trade that for anything. You taught me that more than anyone.”

“Right, I know. But, juniors isn’t high school…it’s a business now. Not that it wasn’t some there, but we had well-rounded lives. You don’t get that when you’re stranded on a junior team in freaking Fargo. You’re such a lucky bastard, heading straight to Yale next year.”

“You might find some willing takers if you looked east, you know.”

“Nah. I can’t leave. I’m too much of a Midwest boy, and I’m smart enough to know it.”

“You just don’t want to be too far from Bridget.” Mark pauses, expecting a rejoinder, but when none comes, suspicion sets in immediately. “She was at the game tonight, you know.”

“Yeah, we were going back and forth as it went along. Wish I could’ve been there next to her to freak out through it in person.”

“You two are such rocks,” Mark probes. Again, silence.

“Something up?”

“It’s…shit, Mark. I hate this place I’m in. Hate it with a passion.”

“What happened?” Evan has never heard such alarm in Mark’s voice.

“I did something really fucking stupid, that’s what.”

“Oh God. Does Bridget know?”

“Not a clue.”

“You just…”

“Yep. Got drunk, was feeling starved, knew I could find someone…so I did.”

“That’s…that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

Evan sniffs. “I’m a piece of trash!”

“When was this?”

“Yesterday, after watching you win in the quarters.”

“Did you know her?”

“We’d met.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I said. She’s been around the team. We’d made small talk in a group. Nothing more.”

“Talked to her since?”

“That I did. Told her I’d made a horrible mistake and that was it.”

“That’s…well…at least you did that.” Mark cannot ever remember being this lost for words. He feels violated, as if Evan has killed some sacred trust that he’s pushed upon him ever since they first met. Evan is the saint who does not sin, the compass who orients everyone he touches toward some moral pole.

It’s laughable, now that he realizes how much he’s idolized him. Their first meeting had been at a party designed to welcome Mark, the goalie recruit with a conveniently timed divorce in the family, to Duluth. It was a debauched affair that became the subject of legend, and ended with Mark setting the reputation for licentiousness that would follow him through high school. Evan had been complicit in its creation, and was never one to avoid the party. But the morning after, with Mark feeling woozy and for once somewhat regretful of his exploits, Evan had taken him aside and grounded him on a walk through a silent, dewy ribbon of park along a dancing stream. Mark had recognized a kindred spirit instantly, and his sophomore self had the wherewithal to latch on and never let go, even if he couldn’t quite articulate why. That Evan who’d taken him under his wing was far too modest, far too responsible, to ever do what this Evan has just done. His world is broken.

“You think you’ve been bad,” Mark says. His hollow laugh echoes up the stairwell, but he refuses to cut it off. He’s forcing this too much, and he isn’t blind to the irony of a serial philanderer coaxing someone like Evan off the ledge. But he is here in this moment, and he must find a way to fill this emptiness somehow. “Remember when we went for that walk the morning after we met? When you told me relax, to not feel pressured, that you’d always have my back and we’d find a way to map out where we were both going next?”

“I was mostly just in awe of you and how you went for it the night before. I knew I couldn’t live that way, but I wanted to get to know someone with the balls to do that in my life.”

“Goes both ways,” Mark says. “You were my hero, Evs. Seriously, you did so much to ground me here. And this team’s been the world to me for the past three years. Wasn’t the same without you this year, but knowing I could pass on what you gave me on to a few of the other boys…it’s an incredible thing you did there. Don’t forget that.”

“Thanks. I needed to hear that. And I needed to tell someone this. I need to figure out what I’m going to say to Bridget now.”

“You could just…let it go. I know you won’t do this again.”

“No. I’d never live with myself. Hang on, the light just went on down here. I’ll call you back in a few.”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just standing in a freezing stairwell. Call back soon.” Evan hangs up on Mark without responding, and Mark sticks his nose back into the hallway. The coast is clear, and the hotel is silent. He rubs his forehead in shock as he tries to register everything he’s heard in the past ten minutes. If it had to come, though, this was the time. This is a moment for weighty affairs, one of those nights where he can step out of the daily drift and feel the full force of the passage of time.

Mark learned early on not to rely on anyone. His father is a mercurial tyrant, his mother a sycophant. His half-siblings ignore him. As a goaltender, he grooms himself mentally by assuming his teammates will screw up everything in front of him, and that he must rise to every occasion. He’s earned his share of vicious social media detractors over the course of high school, both for his cold dismissal of boys who can’t keep up with him and amid circles of girls for his refusal to commit to anything beyond instant gratification. He tells his friends he doesn’t care what the critics think, even as he hones in on their every critique and plots ways to prove them wrong. He always does.

And yet, through it all, he’s found himself a home here in high school, if only for a little while. More than a few people have earned his gratitude, in spite of his moody swings and high demands. He’s grown over these past three years, and Evan has, too, even if he’s just made a colossal mistake. Evan was there for him in his darkest hours, and now it is his turn to return the favor.

Evan, meanwhile, quietly assures his billet mother that everything is fine, that he’s chatting with one of his old high school teammates after the game, that Mark kid he’s told her all about. She smiles at his loyal friendship and wishes him a good night, and he breathes a sigh of relief to know she hadn’t overheard any of his angst. He can’t let them think he’s anything less than perfect. A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but Evan will never apologize for setting standards for himself. It’s who he is. He really is the decent, reliable one. The one who’s adopted their kid as the younger brother he never had. The one who shovels the stoop for them without being asked. The one who goes to parties only out of a sense of duty to his teammates, who always comes home sober and safe. The one who calls his high school sweetheart every night.

Even though he knows Mark is waiting, he doesn’t call back right away. He needs a moment to collect himself, to get over his instinct to recoil in horror as he again probes the depths of the male sex drive, this crude desire for conquest that can consume even his well-ordered mind. It’s always loomed there, ready to take control of him whether he wants it to or not. Not for the first time, Evan thinks this ethical high ground he’s tried to carve out is a wishful illusion. He was timid with Bridget, careful to do it right, and worried about the consequences, but never on any profound level did he judge his acts as immoral. He wanted to have it all, just as Mark said he should, and now he’s not sure he can ever make it.

Where has he made it? A basement bedroom in a nondescript split-level somewhere out on the prairie, hours from any of the people he values above all else. Maybe he should just hang up his skates and move on with life, scholarship chase be damned. He can go back to his people, back to the cradle in Duluth where everything had been fine before it wasn’t. But that’s all gone now. He has to soldier on. He can already guess what Mark will counsel, but he needs to hear it anyway.

“Okay, I’m back. Host mom didn’t hear any of what I said.”

“Good, good. Now, what are we going to do about you?”

“I don’t know. I just feel like I’ve been…ejected from the womb or something. I’m not a kid anymore, Marks.”

“You don’t think your childhood died with your dad? I always thought mine did when my parents’ marriage fell apart.”

“Maybe it did. I wasn’t exactly innocent…but I felt like there was always this sense of direction to what I was doing. I never felt bad about screwing Bridget because that was genuine. But then that became normal, and the appetite just got bigger, and…”

“You don’t need to tell me that story.”

“Can you really separate that our ambitions out from…that?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“God, humans suck.”

“Well, I don’t know if you can separate it. But you can probably channel it.”

“Like into sports?”

“Exactly. Put all that testosterone to good use.”

“Maybe. I like that. But I also don’t think I would’ve jumped in so quickly if I hadn’t been around all that locker room shit and teammates who were getting it before I was.”

“Maybe not, but you would’ve gotten there eventually. We don’t stay kids forever.”

“I’ve always had this side of me, but I thought I could control it. Turns out I can’t.”

Mark pauses in frustration. This isn’t going the way it needs to go. He paces up and down the stairs and makes a few false starts before he finds the words he wants.

“You sound like you’re drowning in guilt. Guilt and shame. That’s not healthy. There was a lot of that in the world I grew up in. You’ve gotta move past that.”

“Are you trying to say I shouldn’t—”

“No, no. You dug yourself a grave. But it is what it is. We fall, but then fuck it, we get back up and find a way to keep going.”

“I can’t just shrug this off.”

“No, you can’t. You’ve gotta atone or something. But…whatever you do, don’t be a victim. Don’t ever let yourself think you are one, even if you are. Suffering isn’t a virtue. Learning from it is.”

Evan smiles to himself. He can hear the fire in Mark’s voice, and bathes himself the righteousness he preaches. He’s not sure if the voice he hears is some philosopher off of Mark’s reading list or just the unrelenting ego of a kid who knows how to push his mind and body to their utmost limits, but either way, it has set him ablaze. He will make things right. He just needs to settle it all, to ground himself and remember everything he stands for.

“Appreciate that,” he says. “You’re right, of course. But…what do I fall back on? I think I should know how to do things, but I don’t, and when I fail, I can’t even say why I’ve failed, or how I can fix it. My mom spent half her days meditating after my dad died, my aunt tried recommending Bible passages…I don’t have anything like that. I believe in a God, you know that, but not one who gives me easy answers. I just feel alone.”

“Some things you gotta handle alone. As for the Bible, I’ve read the whole damn thing, and you know what I think of it. But you know what the one bit of good advice is in there? The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ part. It’s what we do. We take control. And, know what, the fall has to happen when you say that. And wrecking the garden is fun.”

Evan laughs. “Of course you’d say that. I’ve fallen alright.”

“Let Bridget be the judge of how far. Getting through that would be its own conquest, wouldn’t you think?”

“She deserves better.”

“Lovers are never deserved. They’re earned.”

“It’ll take a while for me to trust myself again. I feel so alone here.”

“You’ve got me anytime you want. And I guess if I’m not good enough, you’ve got your God for shit like this, don’t you?”

“Don’t be too respectful of my faith now.”

“I’m serious, man. Shouldn’t you go to confession or something?”

“I’m not Catholic…”

“You know what I mean. Go sit in a church somewhere and clear it all out. I mean it. It’s what you do.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“All I ask.”

“Love ya, Marky. Thanks so much for this.”

“Likewise. Let’s talk again tomorrow. Night.”

Mark heads back to his room, more awake than ever but certain he’s done his duty in a way that not even his performance in goal tonight could account for. Two-hundred fifty miles away in Fargo, Evan turns off his phone and wanders his bedroom in his billet home as he flows through rapid cycles of despair and anger and resolve and love, over and over again.

He flashes back to a rainy summer day in high school, a moment when he’d wrestled up the courage to admit to his mother that he and Bridget were copulating with some regularity. He’d paced around the house for half an hour before he found the courage to track her down on the front porch. He’d brought them both some tea and for a while they just stood and listened to the tinkling on the wind chimes, a sound forever seared in his mind. He could tell she knew he was about to say something she didn’t want to hear, but she hadn’t forced it. Evan’s confession poured out of him in a few quick lines. He steeled himself for disappointment or anger, but was in no way prepared for the breakdown that followed, his mother lamenting the end of her son’s innocence. She’d cried into his shoulder and he’d stood there and taken it, offered what little hollow consolation he could, and that had been that. She’d conceded his adulthood and welcomed Bridget into her life.

‘Love you,’ he writes in a quick text to his mother. It seems woefully inadequate, perhaps even cause for concern on her part to get this sudden expression of emotion at two in the morning. But he can’t help himself. He can’t go back to the cradle, but so long as he knows this, he needn’t fear the wisdom that comes with the instinct. That woman had moved heaven on earth to protect and guide him after she’d lost her husband. She was the one who’d always ordered him to treat girls with respect, to resist the base instincts that consumed so many of his friends and be the model young man he knew he could be. He can’t fail her again.

He’s tempted to send Bridget the same message, but that’s not nearly enough. He’s going to drive to the Twin Cities tomorrow. He’ll pick her up from their dorm at the University of Minnesota and take her for a walk around the St. Paul Cathedral, say whatever he can say, and if she has some mercy within her, they’ll go watch Mark play in the third place game together. He’ll miss a game, but no matter. He could tell his coach he’s sick, but no, there will be no lies. He will either understand or Evan will pay the price. This is a cross worth dying on.

Mark said he needed a church, but this bedroom seems sufficiently spare to lay himself bare. Whatever deity may be out there, he will hear now from his haunted sinner, and will have to deem whether to offer some counsel or leave him in silence. Evan sinks to his knees at the side of his bed, clasps his hands in front of his forehead, and renews his search.

Mark makes his way back to his room and slips in, but he’s too restless for bed. He has far too many thoughts to ponder, so much of this night to commit to memory. It’s as if his body knows not to waste one second of this day, one of the few when he’s lived to his fullest extent. He brushes his hand over his jersey again, and turns his eyes to his soundly sleeping sophomore roommate. The kid is a Mark disciple, a charmed natural who’s barely known a day of adversity in his life. He’ll learn before long, though. Nothing lasts forever, and all he can do is keep fighting his way forward toward some unseen doom.

Mark grabs a pen and paper from the hotel desk and lets his thoughts flow forth. He writes by the light of the urban glow at the window, and doesn’t bother to re-read any of it. He knows it will all flow out exactly as it should. ‘Open after the last game of your senior year,’ he writes on the outside. He tucks it into the kid’s bag and settles into bed, his normal pride replaced by something much warmer, a gentle tingling sensation that flows through his whole body. Is this what Evan feels when he talks of his god? he wonders. No matter: he’ll milk it for all it’s worth. This sensation can carry him through to the morning, sleep or no sleep, and carry him it will.

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My Professor and My Prose

12 Jan

I’m compelled to write a quick post to acknowledge the publication of a new book by Patrick Deneen, a college-era professor of mine now at Notre Dame. I’ve written approvingly of his take on human nature in the past on here. He was certainly a contributor to the philosophical framework that now roughly guides my worldview, and when he told an uncertain Georgetown senior that Duluth needed people like him, he also may have given a dithering kid a necessary kick in the butt.

His book, which effectively distills many of the topics we covered in a Georgetown seminar named “A Humane Economy,” comes with the provocative title Why Liberalism Failed. (Note here that he is not talking about Democratic Party liberalism, but rather the broader definition that includes not only those liberals, but also most of what we in the United States call conservatives.) Not that it’s failing, or might fail in the future: he thinks it is dead. The thrust of Deneen’s argument, as summarized in a recent interview with Rod Dreher, suggests that liberal society is slowly devouring itself as it chips away at the moral and ethical foundations that propped up early modern societies. The left claims that stronger state support will guide people toward freedom while the right believes open markets will do the same, but those two narrow ideologies only tend to reinforce one another, and leave people with less and less control over their own lives. The Trump administration is merely a late stage symptom of a decline set in motion long ago. The solution, though it will not be easy, lies in a return to local cultures; his overarching philosophical framework will help, but is useless without the necessary work on the ground to cultivate something that can last.

Like Dreher, his interviewer here, Deneen is a religious conservative, and that comes out in places in the interview. They’re both following the same strain of political thought as they try to imagine a post-liberal society, but Deneen, I think, may be a better vessel for that message. He acknowledges the remarkable successes of liberal society, and is not about to pine for some lost past era. Dreher’s Benedict Option had very little to say to people who are not already members of committed religious communities, but Deneen, having spent most of his days trying to impart his worldview to skeptical children of the winners of the liberal system at Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, understands what he’s up against in the broader culture. Of course, he’s also an academic, not a prolific journalist, so we’ll see if this book gets the exposure it deserves beyond a certain corner of the intelligentsia. While I do not share Deneen’s religious views, I think recent events only confirm that he and his fellow travelers have been on to something all along. If people who are honestly trying to grapple with the direction of this country aren’t entertaining this sort of argument in good faith, they’re missing the boat.

The questions Deneen asks are also, believe it or not, the motivating themes behind the collection of short stories that I’m chipping away at on this blog. Sometimes fiction seems a more effective way of making points about the reality we inhabit than writing a philosophical treatise ever could. Ideally, it can also be much more accessible, and much more fun. Grand theory falls away, and we are left only with people, trying to make do. With my characters, who are often gifted but flawed, I seek to give an all-too-human face to the questions that people like Deneen have forced me to ask. They negotiate tensions between self and community, ambition and rootedness, faith and reason, agency and destiny. I tend to write about adolescents and young adults because they, more than anyone, have to confront these questions before they inevitably settle in to the selves they become. My recent arrival into undisputed adulthood has only confirmed this sentiment.

If we’re going to find a guide for how to live in this world, whether we accept Deneen’s post-liberal diagnosis of our current condition or not, we need ways to explore different approaches. Telling people’s stories, real or imagined, is the most effective way to do this. The people in our lives can be superb guides, but humanity’s more impressive achievements often come through imagining an alternate reality, or telling stories of how things could be. These stories can be dangerous; the stakes are higher than we might think. But unless we are perfectly satisfied with what we’ve got, failure to explore different options is a defeat. This is why I write.

Hounds Unleashed

9 Jan

Duluth East hits the halfway point in its 2017-2018 season undefeated, and a tentative #1 in the state. The first half wasn’t without its travails, with a few shaky ties and narrow wins. The Hounds’ crowning moment to date was a 4-2 win over previously undefeated and top-ranked Minnetonka last weekend, a strong effort that, after some rough early moments, allowed them to show off their depth, power, and flashy top line. They followed that with a 13-0 shellacking of rival Duluth Denfeld to roll to a 9-0-3 record through 12 contests, one of the better starts in the history of a program that has had a winning season or 64 over the past 64 years.

The flaws early on varied from game to game. The Hounds put together an incomplete effort against White Bear Lake in their first game, with a fast and furious first period and mediocrity after that, and a rough penalty kill that empowered rival Cloquet into a tie. Struggles to finish kept them from putting away Blaine, and forced a game with Duluth Marshall into overtime. But gradual progress on just about every front has helped clear out most of those cobwebs, and while January is far too early to crown anyone, East can look as complete as anyone when on its game.

The East offense has slowly rounded into form, and the WMD line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan showed its class among the state’s best in the Minnetonka win. Donovan has been the assist machine, playing his center’s role with aplomb and finally finding the back of the net a couple of times against Denfeld on Monday, while Garrett Worth is the sniper par excellence. If he keeps up his current scoring pace, he’ll be in some select company among all-time East goal-scorers by the end of his senior season, which currently looks like it warrants a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination. Mageau, meanwhile, is the bull moose who glues the line together, working hard in corners and always putting himself in the right spot.

East’s second line is picking up the scoring pace and has contributed some memorable moments, such as Brendan Baker’s goal to tie the Cloquet game with 4 seconds left and Austin Jouppi’s penalty shot against Marshall. Ricky Lyle is the team’s highest-scoring forward not on the WMD line, and has slotted in on the top line when necessary. A healthy Nick Lanigan adds some scoring punch to the third line, which hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but has certainly done its job carrying play in the offensive zone. Those two lines play classic East possession hockey, and add some necessary stability when WMD isn’t going coast to coast and lighting the lamp.

The defense, after a few shaky moments toward the start of the season, has largely locked in. Luke LaMaster quarterbacks this team from the blue line, while Hunter Paine’s thunderous hits provide him with the ideal partner. The second pair of Will Fisher and Carson Cochran has held firm, and Mike Randolph has rotated a healthy cast through the third pair as well. Between that group and a fourth line that gets semi-regular ice time even against other teams’ best players, East is rolling as deep a lineup as anyone in the state, which should help with freshness down the stretch.

Goaltending was a question mark coming in, and while Lukan Hanson and Parker Kleive had both bright and forgettable moments in the first month of the season, Randolph isn’t one to keep a rotation going deep into the second half. Hanson got consecutive starts over the weekend against Stillwater and Minnetonka, and for now seems to have won the job with his performance against the Skippers, in which he made several key saves when East was down 1-0 early.

The Hounds’ second half schedule is somewhat easier than the first: they’ve played eight top 20 teams to date, but have just four such games in their final 13.  A lot of their other opponents are lurking somewhere just beyond there, able to cause some trouble if they have an off night, so nothing will be easy. This Saturday’s date with Eden Prairie is one of the biggest, along with the Cloquet rematch and an important home game with 7AA foe Elk River. Before they get that far, though, they have a date (weather permitting) this Thursday with the Grand Rapids team that ended their season a year ago.

Statewide, the Hounds are in a tier of four teams that has separated itself from everyone else. East, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Edina have separated themselves from the pack, with losses only to each other. The Hornets have the most talent here, but haven’t really played like a cohesive unit in the three times I’ve seen them; St. Thomas and Minnetonka don’t have the front-end firepower of the Hornets or Hounds, but are plenty deep and balanced, and have reliable goaltenders. That would make for an exceptional final four in St. Paul, though these things rarely go according to plan.

First things first: 7AA is its usual interesting self this season, and while the Hounds are a clear frontrunner, nothing much is obvious after that. Elk River is probably the next-deepest team in the section, and has shown some improvement in its weak defense of late. Andover struggled with East and the Elks but pounded Cloquet, and is looking good in the QRF rating system the section is using for seeds this year. Duluth Marshall was off to a fine start, but fell to Cloquet just before I published this post, and the Lumberjacks have brought a complete Jekyll and Hyde act to the table so far. Based on QRF, defending section champion Grand Rapids may get saddled with the 8-seed and a potential first round collision with the Hounds unless it improves markedly over the second half. If ever there were a 1-vs.-8 7AA game worth watching, it would be that.

*    *    *

High school hockey punditry can be a tiring line of work. It takes a lot of time on a weak pay grade, and includes its share of dealings with people who come out of the woodwork and force one to develop some thick skin. The kids are what keep it fun, both the ones who entertain us on the ice and the ones in the stands who give high school sports an incomparable atmosphere. And, over time, a community builds. This past weekend’s road trip to Minnetonka encapsulated that perfectly, from brunch before the game at Ike’s to dinner afterwards at Maynard’s on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. During the game I had the chance to talk with an unending rotation of friends and acquaintances, old and new: loyal readers, podcast listeners, hockey enthusiasts, and loyalists of both teams on the ice. It’s a pleasure to meet genuine people with the same diversion, and I have to thank all of you for your passion and commitment. You make it all worth it.

Now, here’s to a second half with an even bigger helping of Worth (Garrett, that is) and his teammates.

An Increasingly Impatient Cycle

29 Dec

I sat down to reflect on my year a few weeks back, and the first words that went down on paper were “well, that was frustrating.” I’m not sure this is entirely fair to 2017, as a lot of good or at least necessary things happened, personally and professionally. But if I’m frank about it, there were also slow moments, as if I were a hockey team running aesthetically pleasing but ultimately mindless cycles in the corner without ever generating any shots on net. There should be more.

Whatever 2017 was, it was not a year for venturing outward. My longer trips were to places I’ve been before. It involved weddings and funerals and reunions and a lot of valuable extended family time, often filled with explorations of the past. 2017 was my first full year in the working world, and it often left me marveling over how easy it is to slip into a humdrum routine, and how rebellion against that instinct has to be a conscious effort every day, even in a field of relative freedom and flexibility. The struggle is real, and it is endless.

These life changes are probably evident in the content on A Patient Cycle. Over the past few months, this blog has boiled down to my core writing commitments, hockey and fiction. This is in some measure a sign of satisfaction: I’m on the road or out being social fairly often, and I don’t lament the loss of some of this time that might have gone to writing in the past. I try to keep family life out of here, for the most part. Hockey remains my release, a sort of second career that doesn’t feel like one. And the fiction bug remains my most effective method for making sense of my world and just letting my mind go, a tortured and exacting process that tries to make art out of timeless human struggles. The hockey posts are by far my most read, and often spur great dialogue; the fiction is the least read, and often met by vague praise or crickets. It is what it is. Neither of those two is going to stop anytime soon, especially in the middle of a season and now that I’ve generated some fictional momentum in recent months.

But beyond those two topics, A Patient Cycle, much like its author, has now left its adolescence and is trying to make its way in the working world. After four and a half years, I’m not sure there’s much to say about my own theories on the world that I haven’t already said at some point or another. One of the founding principles of this blog was that it should never fall into a routine where it bludgeons the same tired themes over and over again. I’ve tried to honor that pledge of late, and the dearth of philosophy or national politics is a reflection of that. It’s been a pretty tumultuous year, but nothing that happened in it really shook up my worldview in any major way. I have an argument to make here, but I’m also at the point where results feel much more useful than words.

I’m also still deciding what sort of local political voice, if any, A Patient Cycle should offer nowadays. I may drop by here or there, but I’m not going to start attending Duluth meetings religiously like I did a few years back. When it comes to local reporting, I think my friends at the News Tribune continue to do a pretty solid job with the resources they have, and a couple of muckrakers at the Reader and its ilk fill a niche, too. I could turn this blog into more of an opinion mouthpiece, but in many cases I think I have more effective levers at my disposal than yelling these opinions out into the internet, and I’d prefer to use those when I can. I can see some situations when said yelling would be counterproductive, too.

To some extent here, I’m looking for ideas from my readership: is there something that needs covering from a perspective you think I can offer that no one else is currently covering? Where can I still add new thoughts, given my own background and interests? Prompts are always welcome. Lately, they haven’t been coming to me naturally.

I’m not saying it was a lost year, or that I’m in some sort of unpleasant funk. 2017 had its peaks, and I am mostly a contented person. I cultivated a lot of valuable old ties, and will continue to tend to many of them. I have settled into a place at work that is rarely stressful and usually recognizes my contributions. I had some lovely opportunities for reflection, usually in the midst of physical exertion up and down and around the hills and lakes that I love. I visited most of my usual haunts in the Upper Midwest, and a few new ones, too. I was about as fit as I’ve ever been, though that tailed off some toward the end, and I did a better job of taking control of some things that required some control as well. Sometimes this foundation-building work, slow and uneventful as it may seem, can wear down the opposition and create some openings to seize at a later date.

I know a lot of people laugh at me when I lament how I’m getting old. In my professional circles I’m almost always the youngest person in the room, and these self-deprecating jabs are mostly meant in irony. But I also don’t want to wake up and find that I’m 30 or 35 or really any age and not on a path toward making my dreams into reality. I learned early on not to take any day for granted, and it can be way too easy to do that. I have little use for any state of affairs, personal or professional, that fails to move things in that direction. Time is wasting away, and even if I have a lot in front of me, that just means there’s so much more I can do with that time.

2018 will therefore, I think, be a watershed year. Within it, I will learn a lot about what my future in Duluth holds for me, for good or ill. Time to crash the net.

Always Running

10 Dec

This is Part 3 in a short story collection. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

“Alright, this is pretty simple. You’ve got the tent. If you need more water, catch up with me. I’ve got a filter pump in my pack. It’s thirteen miles to the campsite. Whoever gets there first wins.” Mark chances a half-smile to his charge as he deftly lifts a large pack to his knees, swings it on to his back, and snaps a belt buckle into place.

“Why do I have the tent? It’s heavy,” Austin gripes, stumbling as he tries to haul his own pack to his shoulders in one graceless motion.

“Weigh your pack against mine if you want. We’re even, unless you threw in anything else back home.”

“Nah, just some Cope.”

“No, dump the chew. None of that shit.”

“Mrs. Johnson said the Mexicans chew it to keep them going when they’re hiking.”

Mark suppresses a violent groan. “That would be the Incas, bro. And they chew coca, not tobacco.”

“Goddamn, you’re lucky you’re a goalie. I’d pound you so hard in practice if I could.”

“This is what you wanted, right? You wanna get your life back in line? This is how we’re gonna do it.”

“Didn’t realize you were a torturer. Can’t I at least take the water pump?”

“Guess you might need it more than I do. Should be right in that outside pocket.” Mark turns so Austin can reach the zipper and cringes when he hears Austin’s pack go crashing to the gravel parking lot. “I’m keeping the bourbon bottle, though.”

“You brought booze? Thought you were trying to clean me up.”

“I am. Never said I was trying to clean myself up.”

“Fuck you.”

Mark shrugs. “Hey, I’ve got my vices. But they haven’t kept me from getting anywhere I want to go.” He makes a show of taking off his Yale snapback to throw back his hair, the one flourish he’s added to his otherwise spartan trail running attire.

“Some help you are.”

“You said you wanted help, I’m giving it to you my way. You’re in deep now. Hope you can keep up, cuz I don’t let up.”

“You think I can’t keep up? You know how much ice time I was getting last year?”

“You smoke shit and you don’t work out, Breyer. I’m gonna kick your ass.”

Without another word, Mark sets off up the hiking trail at a brisk trot. After a few yells, he hears Austin hoist up his pack and come stumbling after him. Mark decides to toy with him and lets him barrel on ahead. He hangs back for the first two miles, just close enough to hear Austin trundling up the path ahead of him. He closes the gap around the muddy stretches so as to watch in amusement, and tries not to laugh too loudly as he watches Austin stumble through the slop with all the elegance of an obese walrus. For the most part, though, he hangs back, lest he become too distracted by the kid lumbering through the woods in his bulky boots and wife-beater. He should enjoy this, after all. Mark drinks in these woods he’d hiked in his younger years, even takes some time to admire the lowland stands of aspen in a way he doesn’t when he careens down trails. He should have brought along that tree ID book he’d picked up to annoy his ex. He’s forgotten how fun this can be, but another instinct sets in before long.

Mark waits until he gets to the first serious climb up a ridge, and then turns on the burners. He flies past Austin in no time, and while he hears a string vulgar yells and the loud footfalls of an inexperienced trail runner trying to keep pace, he blocks out his feeble follower with a passive smirk and pushes harder. No matter if flying up the first hill is bad trail running form: it’s all a psychological game, and this is where he can destroy the competition. He always does.

Not only that, Mark muses, but he has home ice advantage. He is back in his element, back in his home along Lake Superior’s North Shore, and he could shut out everything else and keep on like this until the end of time. When the trees fade into scrub on the upper reaches of a ridge, he chances a glance backward. He can see Austin laboring a quarter of a mile below him, and the gap widens with each step. But this is no time for cruise control.

He comes to an overlook over a pair of inland lakes, mildly regretting that he can’t linger if he wants to humiliate Austin as thoroughly as he does. Middle school Mark wandered these hills when he found himself desperately out of place in Silver Bay, snuck up to this very spot to steal a first kiss with the ever-so-eager Emma. They didn’t have much in common, but at least she had some understanding of how alien an East Coast blueblood felt in a mining company town. That lost kid seems so far removed from this cynical bastard who now inflicts pain on Austin for his own pleasure, so innocent compared to this craven and compulsive high achiever who simply can’t restrain himself.

But no, he tells himself as he barrels down the next slope as quickly as he dares: he was always like this. He was just as troubled as a fourteen-year-old, grumbling his way through dark and bitter thoughts. Above all, the bitterness: a function of his pride, he supposes, his insatiable ego that even now has him humiliating someone out of some noble quest to save him. Austin is as skilled a defenseman as his high school has ever produced, but with lackluster grades and a fondness for illicit substances, he’s failing to live up to his hype. Mark had lashed out at him in front of the entire team in a summer captains’ practice, and Austin replied by calling Mark a spoiled daddy’s boy who hadn’t had to work for anything. In response, Mark offered to teach him a lesson on what a work ethic could do, and to his shock, Austin took him up on it. That was all the spark he needed to know there’s something worth saving beneath a kid who otherwise struggled with anything beyond monosyllables. He’d like to think he’s in a different league from this bumbling hick with his souped-up truck littered with empty cans of chew, but in the end they’re both vain, horny boys whose athletic exploits are their claim to fame. This, of course, is too close for Mark’s comfort.

And so he’s hatched this ridiculous trail run to make his power clear. Not that it won’t tax him some, too. The next descent is so filled with choppy rocks that he doesn’t move any faster than he would if he’d been hiking. He stumbles, and scrapes his hand as he catches himself on the trunk of a birch tree. A few more mornings at the gym and a few less wine-and-deep-thoughts nights with Evan would probably have made his dominance that much more thorough. A slight price to pay, he supposes, to steal a few final nights with his departing best friend to confront life’s great worries. Evan may have left Duluth, but he still has a question to debate with him the next time they talk: is he leading Austin on this run because he truly cares about the kid, or is it just to prove to himself that he can capture anyone, make them bow down before him as he shows off his control? Mark Brennan: egomaniac, his every maneuver a ruse to win at another slice of life.

Mark begins to mount the largest hill on the route, a gradual but unending 700-foot climb, and shuts out his meandering mind to focus on his ascent. He surges with energy and finds another gear, even as his lungs struggle to keep up with his legs. Finally, he summits the hill. He comes to a rocky outcropping over a complete panorama, both inland lakes nestled among the hills to the north and Superior, lost in a light haze, to the south. The fog will come rolling in before long, he expects; hopefully Austin doesn’t do something stupid and wander off the trail, or, worse yet, bail on him when he gets to the state park and hitch a ride back to his truck, which they’ve stationed at the tail end of the hike.

He does some rudimentary math, decides he has some time. He nibbles on a granola bar and cracks open the bourbon, sips lightly. The fog rolls in even faster than he’d expected, and suddenly even the inland lakes begin to fade. He’s caught in a cloud. Symbolic of something, he figures, laughing to himself. His younger self had loved the metaphor of running up hills, always in pursuit; it had become sort of a credo for him and his closest friends, all Type A athletes who push themselves to the brink in every aspect of life. Even now, he still gets that runner’s high. But it doesn’t take long now for it to lapse into frustration. All this running, but for what?

He hypes the chase, but he’s not sure when he’s ever done much that wasn’t expected of him. He’s been an utterly conventional all-American boy, a straight-A student and a hockey star who’s always had his choice of girls. His one failure, he figures, was with Jackie, the unrequited lover in Evan’s grade who’d strung him along for a couple of years when he always knew he was merely a Plan B. He’d come away hardened, content to view love as a cynical pact between himself and anyone who would open up her legs for him. This past week, that meant a college-age friend of some ex-teammates, one willing to take a ride with the smooth high school senior who knows just how much he can drink before going over the edge. She’ll blur in with the rest before long.

And where has it all left him? Alone in his monumental solitude, and for all the culture and knowledge he’s accumulated, for all of the accolades, he is still no better than anyone else at controlling the impulses that flow through him. He should be able to pause and think clear thoughts like this at will, to step back and play a long game, master tactician that he is. Instead, he just pushes harder. His meeting of goals has only grown more relentless and the thrill he gets from them only shrinks, perhaps because they all seem so instrumental, merely another line on a résumé that cannot be anything less than perfect.

Is he just an achievement machine, incapable of intimacy? No: he’s had it, both in fleeting moments with Jackie and of course with some of his boys through those male bonds he cherishes. But that’s all disappearing now. Jackie is going to college in Chicago, and Evan is off to junior hockey in Fargo. Mark, meanwhile, is left behind in a dead end Rust Belt town where all the girls seem to fall short somewhere on the three-legged stool of ambition, attractiveness, and brains. And despite his seeming status as the big man on campus, his list of close male friends left is also vanishingly small, a frustrating collection of sexually desperate and dim jocks, insufferable self-seekers who think they’re cultured because they own guitars or read Kerouac, and decent people whose idea of fun somehow involves sitting in the cold for endless hours with fishing rods or guns. His family, forever trapped in its infighting, is no fallback, either.

Mark hates himself for how uncharitable this all sounds. All his urges to diagnose and analyze leave him estranged from anything resembling intimacy. He scolds Austin for being an addict, but sometimes he thinks his own addictions are far worse. He has that insatiable hunger, the same desperate search for everything that led his father to make millions and dump both his first wife and Mark’s mother. He doesn’t want that life. How he’d like to build something of his own, find some way to resist all the entropy around him and marvel at something beautiful for more than a few fleeting seconds.

Tears well up in Mark’s eyes. It’s an alien sensation, one he can’t remember happening since some preschool playground injury. His parents’ protracted divorce, those crushing season-ending losses, the end of the affair with Jackie: they had all inspired bitterness, self-flagellation, wistful wishes of what could have been. But never this. Is this really sadness? he wonders. These are spontaneous tears, and he’s not sure quite exactly why they come. He sinks to his knees on the hard rock, shivers slightly now that he is fully swathed in this blanket of fog. He reaches up to wipe his eye, but decides he should just let the tears flow. Evan would be proud of him; he’s been trying for years to draw this sort of raw sincerity out of his best friend. Mark won’t say a word about this to him, knowing he’ll get a full lecture on the power of the world beyond him or some such nonsense. And yet, here he is: he can still break through the cynical shell when he pushes himself to the limit in some new way. Half a laugh escapes his lips, and a smile forces its way across his face to divert the tears sideward.

Now, finally, Mark reminds himself who he is. The Yale-bound renaissance man, the most formidable goalie in the state. The Platinum Curtain, a nickname for the rich kid with sweeping blonde hair that he must outwardly disdain but secretly loves. He may not have a girlfriend, but he knows what he wants in one, and he’s had no trouble finding mutual pleasure in the interim to satisfy his cravings. And above all, he knows he has the wisdom to continue a search for meaning through all of this, that his dithering and dwelling on his past need not be a weakness. He runs to cleanse his soul, to bring new clarity to his many pursuits, and the aches in his knees just purge his pent-up frustration. There you go, Evan, he thinks to himself: he’s a believer after all, even if that belief never quite goes beyond his own self. He hops to his feet and careens down the next slope faster than ever before.

Mark feels a pang when Austin stumbles into camp two hours after nightfall. He is a disheveled wreck, leaves caught up in his shoulder-length hair and one leg dragging behind him and in obvious pain. Doing his best to keep up a businesslike front, Mark offers him a first aid kit, a hairbrush, and a few sips from the bottle. Austin is so drained he cannot even muster up any anger at Mark for his death march, even though Mark suspects he would deserve it. Proof he isn’t as soulless as he pretends he is: he feels guilty, not only because he knows how vicious he’s been, but because he’s known it all along, and never done a thing to change it. He must repent now, somehow, even if his audience is a woeful meathead who won’t understand a word. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t kick that Christian instinct.

“Goddamn, you can run.”

“Been running all my life, one way or another,” the sinner confesses.

“Huh.”

“I’ve been running from losing. Afraid to lose. Afraid of losing more than I already have…which is plenty.”

“You, lose? You’re the golden boy.”

“You don’t know…no. I’m not going to rant about that.”

“Shit, I’m sure you’ve had it rough.”

“Fine, you wanna know why I did this to you? It was cuz you called me a daddy’s boy. Well, try having a dad who tells you that having you was a mistake. That he wishes he’d never slept with my mom. Wanted her to get an abortion. Who can’t manage one word of praise for his kid who’s only ever done everything right. Or try having a mom who’s sweet to you but who’s so fucking clueless cuz she doesn’t get your dad’s world or any of this drive he’s infected me with to never lose. Or maybe try watching your brothers and your sister never answer you cuz they hate you for ruining their family. Try getting forced to move to a place that feels like the end of the earth filled with shits like you.

“And you know what I did? I made myself a home. Home in a dead end city in a fracturing world…but, god, I love it to death. It was the only place I could do it. The golden boy figured out what he meant to do. And you wanna tell me I’ve never worked?”

“Shit.”

Mark laughs.

“You think you’ve got something you’re meant to do?”

“Yeah. A destiny.” The words sound almost hollow to Mark; it’s the sort of thing Evan or some of those athletes who slap Bible verses in their social media profiles would say. But he loves the taste of them as they roll from his lips, and figures he could get used to them.

“You’re fucking crazy.”

Mark purses his lips, manages to hide any sense that he’s been struck dumb. He casually stretches out his legs, knowing Austin has no such dexterity left after his run.

“Crazy enough that you’re here with me cuz you know I know something you don’t.”

Austin looks at him in incomprehension, but Mark doesn’t care: he pulses with power, and loves every second of it. But he has to bring Austin along. What good is his power if he doesn’t use it? Everyone in his life has a lesson for him, if only he can unlock it. Those cruel dismissals of other people in his life? That’s his father talking, not him. He is not that man. That isn’t what Mark Brennan does. He rises above.

“Sit back and relax, man, let me cook ya some food and tell ya what I know. I can’t guarantee I’ve got answers, but at least I know I’m asking the right questions.” For once, Mark even believes it.

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.

The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.

The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.

The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.

The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.

In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.

While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.

The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.

Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.

Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.

The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.

2017-2018 Preseason Notebook

19 Nov

After 255 high school hockey-free days, the puck drops on the 2017-2018 regular season the day before Thanksgiving. The fun starts early, as the opening weekend includes two excellent tournaments featuring some of the state’s finest, and just about everyone else will be under way over the next two weeks, too. I’ll devote a full post next week to a Duluth East season preview, but here’s a heap of things I’ll be looking at right off the bat this season.

You can find additional coverage from me here: Preseason AA Rankings | Preseason Podcast

Early Season Storylines

Can anyone catch the Hornets and Hawks?

Edina’s assemblage of talent is up there with the best teams they’ve ever produced, and that is, of course, saying something. They were already in contention for preseason favorite before they added Demetrios Kouzmontzis, who tore up the fall Elite League, and now that Blake McLaughlin has defected to the USHL, Sammy Walker is the favorite for Mr. Hockey. The sky is the limit for the defense, and if they live up to their potential, this team won’t be giving up more than 15 shots on goal most nights. If they can get respectable goaltending and Curt Giles can instill enough physicality in a somewhat small forward group, they’ll be hard to stop.

In Class A, meanwhile, two-time defending champion and eight-time defending finalist Hermantown is number one yet again. But, for what it’s worth, they do look more beatable this season: they lost a ton of talent, and these next few classes, while still elite by A standards, aren’t quite on the level of the past couple. They’ve got two top-end forwards in Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and the defense is rock-solid, but they don’t quite have the overwhelming depth of the past two seasons. That leaves a couple of other teams with some genuine front-end talent and deep defenses within striking distance, most notably St. Cloud Cathedral—though they’ll have a battle to get past Alexandria in a tough 6A.

The 2AA Free-for-All. There’s a lot to like about Minnetonka’s depth and talent, but they’re no sure thing in 2AA, which is once again the most loaded in the state at the top. Four-time defending section champ Eden Prairie is right there behind them with a deep offense and a coach who can usually get his team to lock down. Holy Family, after falling a goal short in last season’s section final and enduring an offseason filled with comings and goings, still boasts a potent top line and a strong defense. The second tier in the west metro is also very strong, so we’ll be set for an entertaining run here.

The Hill-White Bear War. Stillwater has interrupted one of the state’s great rivalries these past few seasons, but with Ponies in a reload year, White Bear and Hill-Murray have a chance to collide in 4AA again. Both combine a few veteran talents with exciting youth at their core, and if these two make it through to the 4AA final, Aldrich Arena will be a zoo. On paper they’re both maybe a year away from state title contention, but if the kids grow up quickly enough, both could be in the equation. Which of them will show the most potential early on?

Last year’s Class A Tournament: fluke or new reality? Fans were treated to the most entertaining Class A tournament in years, if not ever, last season, as the entrants from 1A, 3A, and 5A, long punching bags for the favorites, were all highly competitive. 1A is wide open after defending section champ Northfield got shifted to 4A, while Luverne is the prohibitive favorite to repeat in 3A. 5A features a North Branch team that has a chance to be this season’s MAML behind Brady Meyer, so long as a high-scoring top line can get some support; Pine City, which returns a deep group, may be their most serious obstacle. The metro area, meanwhile, will have to prove it has a real Tournament contender: Orono has some good talent but didn’t make it out of a section quarterfinal a year ago, and Mahtomedi is deep but needs some players to take the next step. There might be a gap for a rare surprise in 2A or 4A.

Chasing the Northern Frontrunners. Hermantown, Duluth East, and Moorhead are all clear favorites to make their way back to St. Paul, but nothing is guaranteed, as there are large chase packs in both AA sections.  In 7A, Greenway and Virginia may be somewhere in the equation if there are any cracks in the Hawks, though the odds remain long. 8A, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a decent two-team race. East Grand Forks is another top-end Class A team with a rock-solid defense, and Warroad, led by another Marvin, brings back a lot and will look for its first trip to St. Paul since 2010.

Games to Watch in the First Few Weeks

Youth Hockey Hub opener. Outside of Edina’s Lake Conference games with Minnetonka, there are only three regular season games among the top five. Two of those come in the first weekend of the season, as St. Thomas Academy collides with Moorhead and those Skippers. Games against Tonka could well decide the top five, as they’re the only ones who play all of them. It’s a great four-team showcase, as the Spuds look to pick up where they left off last March and take care of some unfinished business, the Skippers look to join the state’s elite under a new coach, and the Cadets try to prove they can overcome their recent playoff upsets. Lakeville North is also in here to play spoiler.

Grand Rapids vs. Greenway. This classic Itasca County rivalry figures to be the first game I attend this season. The Thunderhawks are, of course, the defending AA state champs, but will look nothing like the group that won a title a year ago. They return a number of their depth players at forward and they’ve got a goalie who can steal one in Gabe Holum, but there are a lot of question marks beyond that. They head into the Snakepit to face an interesting young Greenway team that has two D-I commits on its roster. Both have a lot to prove, and should come into this one hungry.

Wayzata’s early run. As usual, the Trojans host the Turkey Trot on the season’s opening weekend, which features a toss-up game with Maple Grove and a follow-up with either Holy Family or Edina, the top-ranked team they’ve eliminated from the playoffs the past two seasons. After that, they take a road trip north to face Hermantown and Duluth East. The 2016 champs have their usual remarkable depth, but we’ll see how their two top-end forwards jell with their defensive style, and if they’ll spend a portion of this season wandering in the wilderness as they did a year ago.

Blaine vs. Centennial and Maple Grove in mid-December. The first round of 5AA battles comes fairly early, and the Bengals, with a strong leading duo of Bryce Brodzinski and Will Hillman, will get a chance to prove they belong up there with preseason section favorite Centennial and defending champ Maple Grove.

East Grand Forks at Orono. An early collision between hyped teams that will have implications for the Class A top 5. The Green Wave doesn’t have a ton of returning scoring, but does have a stout defense, while Orono is deep and had a lot of success at the youth level.

The wait is finally over. Let’s play some hockey.