Going Home

19 Aug

Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. This, I’m pleased to announce, is the former. After a long, sometimes dismal summer in which pickiness over potential jobs led to a lot of painful waiting, my patience has paid off. I’m going home, back to Duluth to work a job whose description might as well have wandered out of a dream of mine from two years ago when I started my grad school odyssey. I’ll be working for a consultant on business and community development across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. I try to be skeptical of things like destiny, but I’m still prone to strong hunches, and if there ever were such a tale of fate in my life, this was it.

It’s a move 20 years in the making: this very week in 1996, I first came to Duluth in a moving van. The story twists through long formative years and an unexpected two-year return, and culminates in one of the best interviews I’ve ever done, easy because it was so genuinely sincere. It took no act, no conscious airs, to convey how badly I wanted this, and how much I believed in my ability to do it, despite my relative inexperience. I don’t consider myself a great actor, but as a kid well-versed in Minnesota Nice and East Coast gentility and a natural introversion, deep expression can be rare. Here, it all came gushing forth.

I’ve had a number of guides in this trip back; some may be aware of their roles, others less so. First off, there are my parents, ever my supports, even if I’ve never properly expressed my gratitude to them. I think back to some of my Georgetown professors; one who opened my eyes to the full array of options before me, and one who told a moody senior who was scared to go home that, indeed, “Duluth needs people like you.” (I’m not sure if it does, but I’m glad to be of service to it.) There’s my grad school friend P., who, over beers at Acadia, made the comment that “I’m not sure that Minneapolis needs me,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly agreed with: while the Twin Cities need work, I think they are in good hands, and I’m in a position to make more of an impact back home, where I have easier access to levers that can make a difference, and which I still know far more intimately than anywhere on earth. If I have any ideals on how to perform public service, they come through rooting oneself in a community and understanding it from the bottom up, and I now get to do that. I have plenty of other friends to thank for their encouragement along the way, with special credit to a handful of old Duluth colleagues who went to bat for me over the past two weeks.

It is strange, I think, to be wedded to a city in the way I am to Duluth. Sure, I’ve built some contingencies, and try not to idolize earthly things, but the nagging call was always there. It flies in the face of some other forces in my life, and I try to view my attachment to a place with clear-eyed dispassion. I’m leaving behind a tight-knit network of good friends in Minneapolis, and I will miss them. A lot. (For those of you reading this, I’ll be down often, and you are all required to visit. Seriously.) Any good-bye, no matter how brief, makes me lament lost chances to go deeper with people I know in a place. I’m not sure what Duluth will be like for a 26-year-old single kid who is now out of excuses for tarrying and ready to find someone to share in, and make her own contributions to, a vision for the future. Beyond that, I’m going to need to find some partners in crime in a small city where it’s hard to keep secrets or stay in the shadows. And, of course, I will have to reacquaint myself with blankets of fog, vicious winds, driving on snow-covered hills, and the unspeakably gross time of year in Duluth that in other places is called “spring.”

I now have an adult life to put in order, and will face my share of challenges in doing so. On the one hand, my path appears routine: kid goes away for college, goes home, accepts solid job, settles down. On the other hand, it’s a bit countercultural for someone who had a ticket to some exotic position in Washington DC or some other major city, but chose not to board that train. Whatever it was that led me down this road, it has always felt natural, and I’m content with that much. There’s a lot of work to do, too. Duluth and some pockets of northeastern Minnesota are doing better now than they have been for most of my life, but that’s not true of the whole region that my work will now cover, and even the successes to date are only a basic foundation. It’s an exciting time to head back and begin anew on an effort to support a regional economy and the people who are its heart and soul.

To everyone who’s been a part of this journey, thank you: you’ve all fed in, often in ways you may not know. I’ve been blessed, and am more than ready to set out on the next journey, on to new heights. Let the work begin.

Exit Alex Rodriguez

12 Aug

The most complicated of Yankees came to a more-or-less mutual agreement with his team last Sunday, and his career will come to an abrupt end when he plays his final game tonight. The writing was on the wall. Alex Rodriguez has been atrocious since the All-Star Break, seemingly spent as an offensive force. The Yankee front office has launched a long-overdue rebuilding operation in the past weeks, as they became sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in my lifetime. They purged a heap of long-term contracts, and Mark Teixeira, another aging star in an injury-riddled decline, also announced his retirement at the end of the season. Now, they are effectively paying the fading slugger to go away, giving him a cushy parachute with a job as an incredibly highly paid advisor.

It was, perhaps, the best way to save face. I’ve always had a nuanced take on A-Rod: I stood up for him when the New York media trashed his early playoff struggles in the Bronx, and said he deserved every boo he heard when the steroid suspension came down in 2013. And so I appreciate his efforts to redeem himself over the past two seasons and atone for the various mistakes of his youth. He came across as humbler; a changed man. Perhaps such an iconic player, just four home runs short of 700, deserved to pick his own time to go. But baseball is a business, and the Yankees are looking to the future. There was no point in wasting a bench spot on him when there are so many young guns to bring along and give a shot at the major league level. Nor is it any fun to watch a former great limp along as a shadow of his former self. It is time to move on.

A-Rod is a fitting face for the post-90s-dynasty Yankees: almost always good, but only able to meet the glare of absurd expectations on rare occasions. Tainted but talented, always hoping there was one good year left in an aging body. His arrival in 2004 marked the end of their run of six World Series berths in eight years, though the drop-off had more to do with the collapse of the pitching staff and the rise of the Red Sox than anything that A-Rod did. He wasn’t a total choke: he got his one ring in 2009, after a superb playoff performance. And after a steroid scandal in which he was nearly disowned by his team, he showed remarkable loyalty. For good and ill, he became the face of the franchise, and his departure, along with Teixeira’s retirement, severs the last remaining ties to those powerful offenses of the 00s. The revolution is at hand, and this Yankees fan is more encouraged about his franchise’s future than at any point this decade.

Once the hysteria fades away, A-Rod should still get some recognition for what he is: the greatest player of a generation. Like Barry Bonds, his predecessor to that title, he took his quest for greatness too far. But instead of rolling with the villain role as Bonds did, A-Rod was always tinkering, trying to make himself even better and manage a tarnished image. He shouldn’t have thought he needed drugs to make himself better, but he paid his dues, and will continue to do so when he doesn’t make it into the Hall of Fame. He had the versatility to switch positions mid-career as he sought out a winning team, and found some contrition in old age. His vanity and ego are part of the package, yes, but he’s hardly alone in such excesses among athletes. At the very least, he won back most Yankees fans, and will wind up with a respectable place in the team pantheon. Just about any judgment of him beyond that, whether scathing or appreciative, is defensible in its own way.

As a baseball fan, A-Rod’s retirement is also a generational marker. One of the final remaining icons of my childhood—and with it, the steroid era that corrupted baseball—is out the door. (It was heartening to see A-Rod’s exit coincide with a milestone for one of the most graceful, awe-inspiring, untainted stars of the past fifteen years: Ichiro’s 3,000th major league hit.) These aren’t my boyhood Yankees, and this is a new Major League Baseball in which the Yankees are sellers and rebuilders. Well, it worked out last time. Bring on the new era.

On Class Divides

9 Aug

Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.

The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.

Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.

The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.

Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.

It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.

Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.

And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.

There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.

I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.

America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.

In Defense of Washington

29 Jul

When I graduated from Georgetown, I made a conscious decision to leave Washington, D.C. I didn’t have a real plan, but I knew one thing. I wanted out. I needed to ground myself somewhere else: preferably back home, where I had some roots. My return to Minnesota, while not always the smoothest of journeys, has largely lived up to my hopes. Two years ago, when I’d attained some distance from DC, I wrote a critique of my time there. I could pick at a few things in that post now—I think I was too uncharitable to many of my Hoya peers, for example—but I still agree with its broad contours.

That post was directed at Georgetown, but Georgetown takes its cues from the city. After all, the university was founded by Jesuits who, in 1789, rushed to create a presence in the newly established American capital. DC, I thought, exemplified what was wrong with American democracy. A giant, distant bureaucratic beast that slowly accumulated more and more power, no matter who was pulling the strings. A city filled with people with more loyalty to ideology or career than family or country or humanity. It was toxic, and while I have plenty of respect for my friends who stayed to fight the good fight (or plan to head back there in the future), I made the right choice for myself.

I still believe that, but times change, and edges soften, to the point where I’ll now offer up a defense of that muddled city that I got to know so well. There’s been a lot of hate directed at Washington, and the “establishment,” from both the Democrats and the Republicans this election season. Much of it is justified. DC is often an elitist cocoon, filled with people who are ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of large swaths of the country. Power will continue to accrue there, no matter who wins this election; the question is simply one of whether it will be continuation of the gradual liberal march of the past eight years, or…well, God knows what the other guy would do.

Still, there are things to be said for Washington, and all it represents. More than anything, I thank Washington for cultivating a strong dose of realpolitik in me. It’s pretty to dream, and we need a few idealists to help frame the debate. But, whether we like it or not, managing a large, diverse country requires the death of some ideals, lest the perfect become the enemy of the good. Dirty compromises and back-room deals can lead to trouble and inefficiency, but they are also the most effective way of moving things along. This is the art of politics, and statecraft has always been a fine art of skillful maneuvers and occasionally yelling one thing while doing something somewhat different in practice. We don’t have to like it, but we can, at least, tame its excesses and funnel it all along on a slow, often uninspiring lurch.

Washington also stands for order, and an established means of doing business. Yes, there has been gross incompetence there over the course of this century, and probably back to the dawn of time. It is often a town filled with ugly backbiting, and the machinery devoted to tearing down its members—the vast majority of whom do earnestly think they’re doing some good, even if they are at times naïve, ignorant, or making sure that they (or their people) are getting a slice of the pie. Whatever advantages or outside help it might have enjoyed, this government managed to oversee a nation’s astonishing rise, and while the U.S. clearly has problems today, good luck finding places that are doing much better. DC is a world of paradoxes, as the government constrains our freedoms in the name of defending freedom. Yet the people want to blow it all up have no idea what forces they might unleash. Revolution is the dream of a leisure class, of people with enough free time and money that they can philosophize new solutions (or simply sit back and be armchair revolutionaries). Effective politicking in a nation filled with people who disagree with you takes a different set of skills.

I watched much of both of the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past two weeks. (Note to the wise: watch conventions on C-SPAN. No spin, no pundits, no commercials; just the speeches, and plenty of awkward dancing during the gaps.) The most memorable moment for me wasn’t Trump’s stark portrait of America, nor the Obamas’ speeches (masterworks of rhetoric, whatever one may think of their politics), nor the sincere relatives of the fallen that both parties trotted out. It was four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who unleashed a full-throated roar of American exceptionalism with a diverse cast of veterans behind him on the last day of the Democratic Convention. It was a stunning picture of how the parties have realigned themselves—though I’m well-aware that some of the flag-waving was to cover up the boisterous Bernie-or-Bust crowd. Most of the Democrats, however, ate it up, chanting “U.S.A!” as if the clock were winding down on the Soviets in Lake Placid. I normally prefer that idolatry confine itself to sporting events or at least to genuine human triumphs, and I’m a frequent skeptic of American military adventures abroad, whether conceived by Republicans in Iraq or Hillary Clinton and friends in Libya. And yet I found myself pounding the arm of the couch in rhythm.

We all know the U.S. has flaws and ugly histories, some of them glaring. But there’s more to it: it has the capacity to bring about reasonably orderly, careful change when it must, and that is no small victory. Octavio Paz: “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change.” To make it all work, even a localist will admit that there must be an apparatus at the top to keep things more or less in line. That thing is Washington, warts and all, and for all my criticism, it has a human side that the endless spin machine in the media loses in all its yelling. A republic needs some people to hold the levers of power, and by their nature, they’ll get slapped with the “elite” tag.  That machinery deserves some respect, and no matter who gets elected in November, it will continue its inertia-driven muddle through. Who knows; this depressing election cycle may even encourage a few of the D.C. denizens to get out a bit and see why they’re not so popular elsewhere. If so, I’ll welcome them. We’re all stuck with each other, so we might as well see what we can do.

2016 Braemar Summer Scrimmage Notes

24 Jul

This weekend, Edina hosted a summer scrimmage series with a deep cast of teams worth watching. (The city, that is; the team was conspicuously absent.) I jumped at the opportunity to escape the heat and thunderstorms and join a herd of people wandering around Braemar Arena in shorts and jackets on Saturday. Player identification was not always an easy task; some teams had last year’s players wearing the same numbers, but others didn’t, and of course there are plenty of new kids cycling in. With no rosters available, it was often a guessing game. The teams played scrimmages of two 22:30 halves, with shootouts if the teams remained tied. (I, fortunately, did not have to witness any such atrocities.)

Summer tournaments are never great predictors of the future, and anyone who tries to hype these things up is missing the point. Still, they can offer some insights, and in this particular case, showed how little some things change. In the words of the late Denny Green, many of these teams are who we thought they were.

Wayzata 2, Holy Family 0

The first game I saw was also the most competitive, as the teams went scoreless through the first half. The Fire controlled a bit more of the play throughout, though it wasn’t lopsided in any way, and as we have seen over the years, Pat O’Leary’s Wayzata teams are perfectly content to play defense. The defending state champs claimed the lead in the second half courtesy of Griffin Ness, one of the cogs who will have to step up and lead the new-look offense. While Holy Family pressed forward from there in search of the equalizer, Wayzata began to pick them apart with 2-on-1s as the game wound down. Reid Waszczenko was excellent in net, and after the late second goal, the Trojans were safely on their way to victory. Matt Anderson missed a couple of quality chances when he jumped into the rush, including a gaping open net early in the second half; get either one of those right, and this was an entirely different game. Holy Family’s two Edina additions were immediately recognizable by their white helmets and green gloves, and Peter Tabor looked sound on the Fire back line.

For the most part, this was Wayzata being Wayzata and taking care of business. One important note on the Trojans, though: Hank Sorensen, their blue line hammer, was not present, and will play in the USHL this winter. Their defense is still pretty solid, but it’s a big hole to fill, and the guy I saw in the next game will be pleased to escape another encounter with him. One the Fire’s side, it also looked pretty familiar: there were a lot of good players there, and the Edina acquisitions do show just how high they’ve climbed in the west side private school pecking order. But, still, they’re in a section with arguably two of the top three teams in the state (Eden Prairie and Minnetonka), and they’ll need something extra to avoid yet another section semifinal exit.

Eden Prairie 4, St. Paul Academy 1

Casey Mittelstadt and friends were up next, and their battle with Class A 4th place finisher St. Paul Academy was a tale of four separate quarters. In the opening stanza, the Eagles looked like they would blow the Spartans out of the water, scoring three quick ones as Mittelstadt flew around the ice with ease. After that, however, SPA settled in, and kept things reasonably even for the remainder of the first half. Penalties marred the first ten minutes of the second half; the Eagles in particular were on the receiving end, to the point that an eventual penalty on SPA earned a sarcastic pounding of the boards from the entire EP bench. Mittelstadt joined the penalty parade as he voiced his displeasure to the referees. But the Eagles withstood the penalty barrage and then unleashed a barrage of their own, and only a heroic performance from Andy Beran kept it 3-1 through most of the period. Nick Leivermann finally put the cherry on top just inside the final minute.

Devlin McCabe scored the lone SPA goal, a top shelf water bottle juggler (though it didn’t look like he broke the bottle, as he did in a Tourney game last March). I didn’t devote a whole ton of attention to the Spartans, but they looked like they were a solid Class A team simply outgunned by AA power. As for the Eagles, there’s plenty to like beyond the obvious Mittelstadt-Leivermann combo: the pair wearing numbers 43 and 44 teamed up with Nolan Sullivan (I think) to make for a very solid second line, the defense is pretty steady, and Nick Wiencek is probably an upgrade in goal. Like last year, I think they’re probably preseason #1; like last year, they still have that non-quite-controlled emotional edge and the occasional lapses in play that make one suspect they’re beatable.

Grand Rapids 7, Chanhassen 1

I watched the first half of this one, in which the Thunderhawks marched out to a 3-0 lead. There are no secrets in Rapids this coming season: it all revolves around the top line. Gavin Hain had two of the goals I saw, while Blake McLaughlin had the other; I was later told that those two plus Micah Miller accounted for 5 of the 7 goals. Hain, I’d add, just seems to get better and better. On defense, John Stampohar was a force, and jumped into the play often. The difference between this Rapids team and last year’s, however, is the lack of depth: even as that top line steps up its game, they’re not going to have that dual threat they had when they could roll out two lethal lines. Strong goaltending and a somewhat more experienced D can make up for some of that, but Rapids looked pretty pedestrian against a less-than-stellar opponent when the lower lines were on the ice. How far can those big guns carry them? The early answer, after a later win over Elk River to win the group, is “pretty far.”

Elk River 4, Prior Lake 1

Prior Lake was up 1-0 when I walked in at the half of this one, and after watching the first few minutes of the second period, I was trying to figure out how on earth they’d managed that. Before long, the floodgates opened. The Elks’ top line of Jax Murray, Jack Perbix, and Kyle Bouten pulled off a lot of pretty passing sequences, as Murray and Bouten tallied twice each. The second line gave the Elks one of the best one-two punches of the teams I saw on the day. The defense didn’t seem particularly deep, but Nick Perbix was out there mixing it up as usual, and they turned back Prior Lake without much stress throughout the half. While they coughed up a bunch of goals in the second half of their later game with Rapids, the potential for a section title is there. Of note: unless he had a different number on, Jensen Zerban was nowhere to be found in the lineup, and Max Michaelis was out hurt.

I’d like to be able to say something about the Lakers, but all of three players on the team had jerseys, one of which was #71. I presume the one forward who jumped out at me was Jackson Jutting, but the Lakers made it difficult on us in this one. In general, they have a lot to replace, and I think they’ll slide a bit behind Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Holy Family in 2AA this year.

Duluth East 6, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1

That looks impressive, but it comes with an asterisk: this was far from a complete Benilde team, and they got blown out by their other two opponents in this comparatively weak pool (Delano and Lakeville South), too. Still, there’s cause for some optimism in Greyhound-land. The top unit may not be quite Rapids’, but it’s still pretty solid: Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan each had a goal (and their collective nickname, the WMD line, is excellent), while defenseman Luke LaMaster might have been the best player on the ice, and has plenty of chemistry with longtime partner Reid Hill. With only one really experienced skater beyond that, though, this game saw a whole heap of Hounds rotated through. While the newbies didn’t flash any stunning skill, they were all high-energy (at times a little too much so), and consistently took the play to the Red Knights, leading to goals up and down the lineup. The defense was poised and largely avoided the mistakes that often plagued the last two East D corps. The goaltending, which apparently had been the big red flag in East’s shootout loss to Delano and narrow defeat against Lakeville South, held firm in this one, as incumbent Kirk Meierhoff and a rising sophomore split time in net. That situation will be one to watch for the Hounds.

It’s hard to say much about this Benilde edition. They too were rotating lots of bodies, but without the benefit of an established top unit, with most of their players wearing jerseys with offensive lineman numbers. Ryan Bischel was in goal, and made some important saves, though he probably wants one or two of those East goals back, too. Adding Connor Mayer back into the mix will make a big difference. Still, there are a lot of holes to fill from last year’s regular season #1, and that fun-and-gun Benilde style is dangerous enough when there are good, experienced defensemen back on the blue line. There will likely be some growing pains for the Red Knights this season.

Stray Notes

The winners of the four groups at Braemar were Delano, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, and Grand Rapids, meaning the top three teams in AA last season will square off for the crown Sunday. (Teams may be further depleted due to Elite League tryouts, though.) One of those teams is obviously not like the others, so all credit to Delano. They’re going to revolve heavily around Ben Meyers, but one player can take a team a long way in Class A; we’ll see if they can give Breck a run in Section 2A. Reports had both Lakevilles looking pretty good, and probably both preseason top 15, meaning over half of the top 15 might have been in Edina on one day. Not bad for a dose of summer hockey.

Summer 2016 Hockey Headlines

19 Jul

As I sit here wilting in some sweltering summer heat, a hockey arena sounds like a pleasant escape. Fortunately, I’ll have that opportunity on Saturday, when a number of the state’s top teams take the ice at Braemar Arena in Edina for some scrimmages. I’ll have some notes on the games I catch, but in the meantime, here are some of the high school hockey headlines since I last sat down to write.

Get Well Soon, Andrew Kerr

First, an update on some less than happy news: Andrew Kerr, the Duluth East defenseman who graduated in 2013, remains hospitalized after a freak water trampoline accident on Saturday. He was found unresponsive by friends, given CPR by a former teammate, and airlifted to a Duluth hospital. He has been responsive since his arrival, but the extent of his injuries is unclear following a broken bone in his neck.

Kerr immediately established himself as a fan favorite in the East lineup. In December of his sophomore year, he grabbed attention when he led the defense of several teammates in an on-ice skirmish after a win in Cloquet. He put himself on the statewide radar with his highlight reel of crushing hits on Kyle Rau in the state championship game. He wasn’t big and didn’t amass the points of some of his fellow D-men on those great East teams from 2010-2013, but he was an absolute rock defensively, and one of the most reliable pieces for what was, arguably, East’s most successful class this century. Kerr spent the past three years in the NAHL and USHL, and was set to play at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this coming winter. Off the ice, he had a reputation as a mild-mannered, quiet individual, so unlike the enforcer he became for the Hounds.

Kerr’s CaringBridge site is available here, and his GoFundMe page is here. Every bit helps.

Trouble in Cakeville

After missing its first state tournament since 2006 this past March, Edina has had an adventurous offseason. It all started when coach Curt Giles named Ben Brinkman, a rising sophomore, captain for the coming season. I can’t think of another instance in which a sophomore was named a captain, and the move, predictably, riled up some of the Hornet faithful. Now, we have a mild Edina exodus on our hands, with at least two players headed for Holy Family. If some of their stronger talents make USHL teams, their departure could be imminent as well.

None of this is to question Brinkman’s talent or leadership abilities; he is going to be a great player. But he’s also only played a handful of high school games, and in this case, Giles may not have thought about the optics for the rest of his team. Edina is deep enough to withstand some losses, but they can’t go on losing people forever. Two years ago, this program looked ready to continue its dominance for a generation, and while there’s still plenty of reason for optimism, there are also a few more questions now. Stay tuned for any further fallout.

The Elks Go Back to Basics

Elk River’s choice to replace outgoing coach Gordie Roberts is a familiar face: Ben Gustafson, a fixture in the Elks program who also replaced legend Tony Sarsland for a few games following his midseason ouster in 2012. He isn’t the flashy name that Roberts was, but he’s a well-respected local institution, and the Elk River crowd appears to be behind him.

In retrospect, that 2012 team now looks pretty good. It had three D-I defensemen and some talented young forwards, went 3-0 to close out the regular season after Gustafson took over, and won a first-round playoff game before running into top-ranked Duluth East in the semifinals. While the Hounds took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the first minute of that game, the Elks did a good job of hanging around, and East won 4-2 with an empty-netter. Compared to the agony of recent seasons, that’s a result in which the Elks can take resolute pride.

It’s become common to poke fun at the Elks for their playoff failures, and after the agonizing defeats of the Roberts years, I understand why people think they might never win 7AA at Amsoil Arena. Still, new blood can change things in a hurry (just ask Grand Rapids), and there’s no doubting the depth of talent coming back to Elktown this winter. Right now, I’d snap up the Elks at the low odds some others are giving them in 7AA. They’re going to be very good.

Stay or Go?

As usual, summer is a time to watch many of the state’s top players to see if they’ll stay in the high school system or try out other routes. This spring, Casey Mittelstadt provided high school hockey fans with some cause for excitement: the Eden Prairie wunderkind, fresh off a loss in the state championship game, will return for his senior year. He’s one of the highest-profile players to stick around in recent memory, and now has a chance to follow the other two great Eden Prairie megastars, Nick Leddy and Kyle Rau, in winning a state title his senior year. The Mr. Hockey race is a foregone conclusion, but he should put on a few shows for us this winter, and as someone who tries to predict what will happen, I also appreciate the very early announcement on his intentions.

The other top junior forward in the state, meanwhile, is taking a unique path: Ryan Poehling accelerated and graduated from Lakeville North a year early so that he can join his twin brothers in starting at St. Cloud State his freshman year. This one made too much sense, really: the three Poehlings have incredible chemistry, and putting them together again will make up for any inexperience on Ryan’s part. We’ll see how he handles the NCHC gauntlet.

One other elite player hasn’t made any sort of public statement. For now, I’ll assume that Scott Perunovich, the silky Hibbing defenseman, will be back, but that isn’t based on anything other than speculation. It has been a weird offseason in Hibbing, as an investigation into coach Todd Versich led to his dismissal. There’s no public record of what went wrong, but based on the unseemly rumors coming down from the Range, a clean house was probably necessary. Star goaltender Ryan Ullan has already bolted for Ann Arbor, so we’ll see what Perunovich makes of an evolving situation. Hibbing’s slim chances at knocking off Hermantown all come down to him.

A Grand Rapids Exit

If you’ve had any interest in Grand Rapids hockey over the past few years, you’ve probably encountered GRHS Hockey Online, a website that provided heaps of information on every game, and kept close tabs on players and alumni. It was never officially affiliated with the program, though the information was good enough and the sources close enough that it might as well have been. No team site put in more effort, and its curators were unfailingly loyal to their alma mater. That site is gone now, however, as the Rapids program has created its own official website.

Coach Trent Klatt’s rationale for the new site makes sense: the team wants to make money off the ad revenue. Still, the apparent lack of communication between the people setting up the new site and the GRHS people is unfortunate. I interacted with the GRHS people some, and had the pleasure of doing a couple of podcast segments with Tim How, its founder, where we sparred amiably about section 7AA. Even if we didn’t always agree on things, they’ll be missed. I appreciate all the time they put in, and the new official site will have a high bar to meet.

Up Next…

In addition to summer tournaments in the upcoming weeks, Elite League tryouts will occur on Sunday. As USHL rosters come out, we should get a more definitive answer as to who’s staying in high school and who’s leaving. Meanwhile, I’ve been messing around with some side projects on historical rosters, one of which is several years in the making. With any luck, I’ll be able to share part of it before long. Stay tuned.

A Bland Euro

10 Jul

The European Championship is usually my favorite soccer competition. As great as the World Cup is, the Euro’s limited field almost guarantees good soccer throughout. Everyone deserves to be there, and there is no need to watch some team from Oceania struggle before making its inevitable exit in the group stage. These teams know each other well, have deep histories, and the best usually play enjoyable brands of the game. The 2008 and 2012 Euros both gave us some of soccer at its finest, with the titans all battling it out and a clear winner emerging ahead of the pack.

I was, therefore, skeptical of this summer’s expanded Euro format, with the field adding eight teams for a total of 24. There were some fine moments out of teams that aren’t Euro regulars, most obviously Iceland’s stunning upset of England, and Wales’ run to the semifinals was an added bit of fun. But on the whole, my worries were well-placed. With 24 teams fighting for 16 spots in the knockout rounds, the group stage is mostly just a formality for the good teams. Scoring, predictably, was also down: the additional teams’ only hope comes from that boring, park-the-bus style of play that plagued so many of the games. The bracket also shook out so that basically all of the traditional powers (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, England) were on the same side of the bracket while Switzerland and Poland piddled around on the other side. In the old Euros, every team in the knockout stages was either a superpower or had rightfully earned its berth. This time around, there were only a handful of compelling games in the first two rounds.

I’m not the only person who noticed the underwhelming product. ESPN’s studio show immediately after Portugal’s triumph was more devoted to trashing Portugal’s style of play and the tournament in general than it was to honoring Portugal. (Only in soccer does style take absolute precedence over who actually wins.) They weren’t wrong: Portugal was boring, basically incapable of winning a game within 90 minutes, and wouldn’t have gotten out of the group stage in the old format. The final was an appropriate end to the whole tournament, and while this was Portugal’s first major title, it’s not like they’re the new kids on the block in European soccer. It took some human drama in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo to keep it from being totally blah.

In part, the 2016 Euros were flat because (unlike the past two Euros) there really wasn’t a great team in it. Aging Spain’s reign has come to an end. Italy too was down, though they still looked like one of the top two or three teams in the tournament, and were stuck playing a good team early in the knockout stages. The Dutch didn’t even make it, despite the 24-team field. Belgium, who appeared poised to fill the power vacuum, underwhelmed, and still have nothing to show for their golden generation. The English, despite having one of their more promising sides in recent memory, choked royally, as the English do. Their flop provided the rest of the continent with some excellent schadenfreude post-Brexit, and probably infected a generation of good young players with the English soccer virus.

The closest team to greatness in France this summer was Germany, but the reigning world champions didn’t quite have the same edge as they did two years ago. They were still suffocating in their control, and somewhat terrifyingly were the youngest team in the field; the ease with which they plug in rising stars like Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler is remarkable. What they lacked this time around was the finishing touch. World Cup heroes Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze were out of form, and while Joachim Low found a temporary solution in Mario Gomez, he was unavailable for the semifinal with France. The German attack was reduced to cross after useless cross, and they folded surprisingly quickly after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s inexcusable hand ball in the box.

The French were steady and good, and seemed nearly inevitable heading into that final in the Stade de France. Then, however, they pulled a vanishing act in the final, either lulled into a false sense of security by Ronaldo’s injury or undone by the pressure of the moment. Antoine Griezmann was brilliant in the tournament, but seemed to run out of gas at the end, and could use some time off after a long and draining year that saw him burnish his credentials as a top-flight star, miss a penalty in the Champions League final, and endure the horror of his sister being trapped in the Bataclan nightclub when terrorists attacked Paris last November. Paul Pogba ghosted for long periods of time, leaving me once again wondering what all the hype is about. There was no shortage of collective talent to go along with the brilliant renditions of La Marseillaise, but the French whole never seemed to exceed the sum of the parts.

That left us with Portugal, another country that has had much more talented teams in recent memory. They went into the Stade de France having beaten no one of real consequence to make the final—their toughest opponent was probably Croatia—and for the first ten minutes looked very much out of place. All they needed was an injury to their world class superstar. After that, the defense locked into place, with Pepe clearing ball after ball and Rui Patricio on top of his game in goal, and once France started to press, the Portuguese decided that they might try their hand at that whole goal-scoring thing and indeed did so in extra time.

It’s been a strange year for Cristiano Ronaldo. He was fairly useless in the Champions League final before popping in the winning penalty for Real Madrid, scored a few goals but did nothing otherworldly in the Euros, and both his teams had remarkably easy paths to their respective finals. And yet, here he is, leader of two European champions in one summer. As a Barcelona fan I’m somewhat obligated to hate him, but this was a humanizing moment for the Madeiran magician, and a game that will, weirdly, improve his legacy. His raw emotion and attempt to play on that wrecked knee, followed  by cheerleading and coaching from the technical area later on, are, in a way, far more impressive than his endless highlight reel of goals. We saw a different side of Ronaldo in this one, with a player often critiqued for his diva tendencies coming into his own as a passionate leader.

It’s also befitting of Ronaldo that, in an otherwise less-than-inspiring tournament, he became the story. That’s the Ronaldo way: he is the center of attention, and this game was a reminder that sheer power of ego can be a good thing, too. And while he may never have Lionel Messi’s humility and ball-sharing skills, he can be a powerful force for a team just by being Ronaldo. (Though Ronaldo is better at paying his taxes, apparently.) Even though his actual role was minimal, it’s hard not to think he’s earned the right to claim a major international trophy. I don’t mind cocky athletes if they can back it up, and Ronaldo most certainly has throughout his career.

This redeemed Ronaldo will be my takeaway from Euro 2016, along with yet another sense that international soccer has grown too fat off its money grabs. We’re stuck with 24 teams in the 2020 Euros too, and UEFA is going with a gimmicky tournament with no single host country, with teams jetting everywhere from Baku to Glasgow to play their games. The final is even in a country that is no longer part of Europe. With Portugal’s success, I wouldn’t count on an attacking revolution in the next few years: expect more parked buses and sterile offensive outputs, and no number of washed-up pleading ex-player pundits can change that. True change would probably have to come from FIFA, which reassures no one. Oh well. Hey, we’ve got some summer hockey tournaments coming up.

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