Doggedness

15 Apr

The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.

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The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

As someone known to paper walls with maps, I’m loath to recognize that these representations of world beyond us can cause serious problems. But some maps have had lasting, serious consequences, perhaps none more so over the past century of American life than the residential 1930s redlining maps preserved by the University of Richmond, a collection that includes the map of Duluth that inspired this piece. (I was routed here by one of the city’s annual Housing Indicator Reports, which often involve fun research digressions beyond the rote reporting of statistics for various planning areas.) The urban planning field has, for some time now, been on a noble quest to educate the world about what these maps have wrought.

These maps come from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC. HOLC drew up these maps to designate the safety of making loans in certain neighborhoods in cities across the country. It was part of a New Deal push to create consistent, predictable, non-predatory lending practices for home sales, thereby avoiding the disastrous wave of foreclosures that came along with the Depression. Its maps were also one of the most effective non-coercive tools for racial and income-based segregation ever devised by any government anywhere.

These maps, which color-coded neighborhoods by their desirability, basically walled off certain areas for development (“redlining,” in planning parlance), all under the guise of a well-intentioned program to help homeowners. They also included brazen designations of neighborhood desirability based on the race or ethnicity of their inhabitants. The HOLC-enabled postwar suburban housing boom was one of the least free markets ever devised, and it had a fascinating jumble of consequences to both lift the wealth of a vast swath of the (white) working class and shut out a portion of the country from ever enjoying those benefits.

Some parts of Duluth’s urban history follow standard narratives on HOLC-age development. The ring around downtown, where significant early construction happened, remains one of the poorest areas of the city today. From there, the east side follows a fairly steady transition up the income ladder into Congdon, a change I can still see every day when I go for runs around my current home in Endion. (It’s amusing to see Endion get labeled “generally…declining, many of the old houses being transformed into small apartments and duplexes.” I’ve heard some people bemoan the neighborhood’s transitional status as if it were a trend brought on by college students in the past 20 years, when in fact it is a stable equilibrium dating back nearly a century.) But at the same time, as the little chart next to the map shows, Duluth’s urban form breaks down from the prescribed theory more than in many other cities. A substantial part of Duluth a certain distance from the core that is supposed to be “in transition” is not actually in transition, and the outlying “residential zone” saw basically no new development at this time, with its only housing being stuff in the lowest tier out in Gary-New Duluth and Fond du Lac.

Some parts of the city have also changed substantially since the New Deal era, and not always in predictable ways. I was fascinated to see that the bit of Lakeside where I grew up in a 1920s mini-foursquare, which now is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, was “definitely declining” at this time. A chunk of Duluth Heights, which now also ranks fairly high on the income scale, was a total no-go zone for HOLC loans, as was Park Point. A number of other red zones on this map are basically non-residential now. The I-35 corridor follows a series of red zones, as interstate highways did in most urban areas; poor people are always the easiest to displace for massive infrastructure projects, and the U.S. became very good at that in the 50s and 60s. There is very little correlation between yellow districts and the current quality of the housing stock; yes, some remain, but just as many have flipped into comfortable middle-income areas, and not just those on the east side. It’s not unfair to conclude that the boundaries drawn on this map, while sometimes predictive, were in no way destiny for Duluth’s ultimate housing development.

As usual with Duluth, the simplest explanation for this is geography. Duluth grew outward along the ridge and lakeshore instead of in concentric rings, with development squeezing out here and there where terrain allowed. The city also absorbed a few older towns such as Fond du Lac and Lakeside, which may explain HOLC’s skepticism of their housing stocks even though those would normally be destinations for the next wave of development. The neighborhoods that had some room to grow outward from their 1930s limits, like Lakeside and Woodland and the Heights, had a chance to diversify their housing stock and evolve. The plodding pace of Duluth’s growth over the 20th century, oddly enough, kept some neighborhoods from filling out too quickly, and also invited updates to the existing stock to keep it viable for a sale. Those complex neighborhoods are a vital part of Duluth’s story, and a reason why this city has not gone down the road of a Flint or a Youngstown, where nearly all of the money fled the city proper.

Another explanation comes in the racial and country of origin stats tucked away to the right of the map. Despite the map text’s frequent concern about “negroes” occupying certain areas, this shows Duluth was over 99 percent white in the 30s and 40s. But in 1930, fully a quarter of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, and while that figure had dropped to 20 percent by 1940, that is still far higher than it is today. Duluth was a city of immigrants. Idle speculation might lead one to suspect that steady decline in the immigrant population over the middle of the 20th century (which correlates with statewide and national trends, as driven by U.S. immigration policy and global economics and politics), coupled with a fairly negligible rise in the population of people of color, would have been an equalizing force in Duluth’s housing market. By the 1970s, there was nowhere in town where there was much of the immigrant stigma that comes out in a few of the HOLC descriptions of west side laborer neighborhoods. Duluth at that time was the perfect all-white control in a national experiment in urban housing markets. And yet, the 2016 Duluth HIR report lays it bare: every one of those neighborhoods that had a description about immigrants or African-Americans in the 1930s remains low-income, even if many others that were in the same class as them back then have now flipped. That legacy, somehow, endures.

I would still, however, venture that the greatest reason for Duluth’s divergent neighborhood paths, one that captures both its old HOLC maps and its current east-west divide, is a structural economic change. Pre-war Duluth wasn’t some bastion of equality, but there were two distinct economies: an immigrant-heavy industrial working port on the west side, and a downtown and east side dominated by a white-collar class and its attendant lower-income service economy. One of these got absolutely decimated in the 1970s and 1980s. The other plugged along, certainly damaged by the trend on the other side, but had much more staying power and adaptability.

Now that it’s unrecognizable from what it was a couple of generations ago, I don’t think many of us moderns fully appreciate the complexity of Duluth’s old blue-collar economy. People with some sense of the history can tell you that Morgan Park (which doesn’t even register a color on the map) was a company town for U.S. Steel, but the map text describes Gary in much the same way. People actually used to live down in the port and industrial areas below the freeway near Denfeld, in a neighborhood known as Oneota. But I was most fascinated by the note in the area around Denfeld, which outranks places like Lakeside and Woodland and Hunter’s Park on the HOLC map. The residents of the Denfeld area, the text explains, are “salaried persons from nearby industrial plants, business and professional men of the west side of the city.”

That line about West Duluth reminded me of the extensive time I spent doing some interviews in Silver Bay, a company town built by what was then the Reserve Mining Company. We have this habit of thinking of blue-collar work as providing stable working-class jobs with modest incomes that allowed a family to get by, but to hear the Silver Bay old-timers tell it, company towns were some of the most rigidly segregated in America, at least in terms of income. Subtle features set apart seemingly identical homes, and management clustered in certain areas. There have been, and continue to be, many very lucrative jobs in industrial work; what set the pre-war era apart was that management was on the ground nearby, not out in relative suburbia (or in some other state or country at a hedge fund or holding company, though even in Duluth, there’s an old line about the city being Pittsburgh’s westernmost suburb). In industrial Duluth, that area for the blue-collar elite was the West Duluth neighborhood surrounding Denfeld High School.

Nowadays, the very notion of a blue-collar elite seems bizarre, and a perfect storm of conditions weighs on the west side housing market. If neighborhoods that age at different rates are far more likely to hold up over time, the more uniform ones—which company towns tend to be—have the misfortune of aging into obsolescence at the same rate. Those west side neighborhoods were also trapped between a river and a ridge, unable to find easy escape valves for steady outward development as in Lakeside or the Heights; instead, it had to leap up the hill to Piedmont (another neighborhood with well-diversified housing that doesn’t register on the HOLC map) or beyond the city limits. Most of those immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, where stigmas apparently lingered in ways they did not for areas occupied by native-born Americans in similar job classes, were toward the west side. It’s also just easier to commute from further away now. Throw in a two-decade crisis of mass layoffs and unemployment and plant closures, and it all starts to come together.

This isn’t all doom and gloom. The area around Denfeld is still comparatively wealthy for West Duluth, with some historic older homes. Eastern Lincoln Park, colored a respectable blue in the times of HOLC, has seen real estate values start to rise again after many decades of stagnation. Some growth along the river corridor has occurred, and room for more remains. As my friends at the Port Authority would ask me to remind the world, Duluth’s blue-collar economy is also far from dead: it may look very different, but the city still moves vast volumes of cargo and has a thriving industrial sector that usually pays a solid salary. The changing nature of industrial work, combined with the attractiveness of well-paying jobs that do not require vast loads of student debt, are starting to change some narratives about a once-stigmatized line of work.

But the ravages of deindustrialization tell a story that HOLC maps alone cannot, and join up with cultural clashes and geographic barriers to explain why cities come to be the way they are. Causes are rarely singular, and momentum did the rest. While real estate agents no longer use maps with explicit racial or immigrant-skeptic language, there’s no shortage of coded ways in which the real estate market designates the desirability of certain neighborhoods. These tools range from practical concerns about returns on investment to the asinine practice of grading everything that goes into public schools on a 1-10 scale, a tool now ubiquitous on any real estate aggregation site. We still live with the consequences of century-old maps, but the ways in which we build our economies and the stories we tell about our towns will decide their futures.

Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.

Yes, This Blog Talks About Things Other Than Hockey Sometimes

18 Mar

Hockey coverage completely hijacked this blog over the past couple months. This change stemmed from a combination of obligation to that ever-enjoyable commitment, life developments that limit my willingness to comment on certain topics, and a good old-fashioned case of writer’s block. (More on that in the next post.) For now, though, I’ll get back into the swing of things by bringing back the feature in which I collect interesting articles and share them.

The news topic du jour is the college admissions scandal that has nailed a number of rich people behaving badly in their efforts to get their undeserving children into certain institutions of higher education, including my own alma mater. This is so terrible on so many levels that I almost left it alone; I try to avoid shooting fish in barrels on this blog. It’s a shameful indictment of the parents, the culture that makes them think they need to do this, and, well…instead of trailing on, I’ll let Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich in the New York Times do it for me. Snowplow parenting is very real, and while I can’t say I knew any non-tennis-playing tennis scholarship kids in my Georgetown days, I’ve certainly seen no shortage of overzealous parents trying to do the heavy lifting for their kids, and not just on the East Coast. It’s a disease, and does no one any good in the long run.

In American Affairs, Jacob Siegel dives into California’s stunning homelessness problem. He explores poverty in Los Angeles in lurid detail, and touches on the factors that drive it, from housing policy to NIMBYism to the role of nonprofits to the decline of mental institutions. The piece also brushes on the perils of a technology-centered economy and a belief that said technology will somehow solve everything. It’s a sobering account of the growing class divides in America’s wealthiest cities, and makes one wonder if the rest of us aren’t that far behind.

A little old now, but excellent: Derek Thompson explores the American culture of “workism” in the Atlantic. Somehow, we’ve developed a cult of work that has made the well-off even more obsessed with results and the bottom line than they were before. The piece spends some time with college-educated millennials, who have been told to chase our passions instead of money or free time, which it turns out is a rather brilliant strategy by our superiors to turn us into workoholics. (I had the good fortune to fall under the spell of several iconoclasts who fought this vision in my Georgetown days, and Duluth, being somewhat out of the way of the march of history, also helped buffer me from it. But even with those influences I’ve felt the push, and given slightly different circumstances I have no doubt I would have been a total victim of this culture of work.) Work can develop meaning and should not be hell, but it is a means, not an end.

Oh, you thought you were going to escape hockey entirely? Nah. The New Yorker has a piece on the ten-year run of Minnesota hockey hair videos created by John King. The videos were a delight every year, though I don’t blame King for bringing it to an end now that his kids are out of high school. The whole thing went a bit overboard in the later years, with kids blatantly pandering to the video instead of just rocking luscious locks. I’m guessing someone, or several someones, will try to pick up the slack, but it’ll be hard to top King’s deadpan delivery and amusing interludes. And if it’s going to end, it might as well be with a Greyhound on top.

State Tournament Look Back: 2009

16 Mar

One last piece to wrap up my hockey coverage this season: after a successful test run a season ago, here’s a second post that looks back on the State Tournament from ten years prior. 2009 was a memorable one: it featured one of the great upsets I’ve seen, a first-time AA champion, and a couple of other games that were just flat-out entertaining. The field was loaded with top-end talent, including three first-round picks and ten future NHLers. A team that featured three of those players would lift a trophy in AA, while a deeper, less heralded squad would edge out the stars for the Class A title.

Class AA

The 2008-2009 season opened with Hill-Murray looking to follow up on its powerful run to a title the previous season. For half the season that appeared likely, but after coach Bill Lechner dismissed four veteran players for rules violations, the Pioneers floundered down the stretch before recovering to reclaim a Tournament berth. Edina, stung by its title game loss the season before, saw its Fab Five golden generation return for their senior seasons, though the five became four when Zach Budish lost his season to a football injury. The Hornets appeared to have a stiff challenger in 2AA in Bloomington Jefferson, but the Jags’ schedule was misleading, and the Hornets put the state on notice with a 5-0 demolition in the section final. They would be the top seed entering the Tournament.

The only other team to beat Jefferson that season was Eden Prairie, which lurked at #3 heading into sections. The Eagles had future first round pick Nick Leddy and the state’s next great single class, a group of sophomores headlined by Kyle Rau and Nick Seeler. Right behind them were a Blaine team with some quality senior talent and its own great sophomore class headlined by Nick Bjugstad and Jonny Brodzinski. Up north, a Duluth East team led by Mr. Hockey finalist Max Tardy and four D-I defensemen, including future NHLers Derek Forbort and Andy Welinski, overcame some recent playoff demons in 7AA. Those three teams all advanced to the Tournament, setting up an entertaining top four.

The final four entrants were a mixed bag. There was Hill-Murray, the wounded powerhouse looking to prove it could still win with a much younger core. Out of 1AA, Rochester Century was a 4-seed with little in the way of front-line talent. Moorhead’s 2009 edition, while deep and steady, likewise had zero D-I skaters, and was a far cry from its dominant teams of the mid-00s. Cretin-Derham Hall, state champs with a very different group three years earlier, also made its way across St. Paul to the Xcel Center.

In the morning session, things went according to plan, but not without some trepidation for second-seeded Eden Prairie. The Eagles drew the short straw and got Hill-Murray in the quarterfinals, and while they staked themselves to an early 2-0 lead, two goals by Hill’s young guns in less than a minute early in the second knotted the game at two. The game was tight through the remainder of regulation, but when the game moved into overtime, the Eagles finally began to carry the play. Mike Erickson pumped in the game-winner in the third minute of the extra frame, though it took an interminable replay review to confirm Eden Prairie’s place in the semifinals. There was no such drama in the second quarterfinal, as Blaine blasted its way past Rochester Century 5-0 on the strength of two Nick Bjugstad goals.

The enduring memory of the 2009 Tourney, however, came in the Thursday night session. On paper, the top-ranked Hornets had little to fear from Moorhead. As the game unfolded, though, it quickly became clear that everything was amiss. Unlike some upsets in which the lower-seeded team clings to life and gets 40 saves out of its goalie, the Spuds took the game to the surprisingly listless Hornets. Moorhead came out of the first period with a 2-1 lead, and while Edina pressed in as the game went along, they only mustered a pair of Brendan Baker power play goals, while Trent Johnson and Tyler Larson both collected two goals for the Spuds. Two scores midway through the third sealed a 5-2 Moorhead win. The much-hyped Hornets were headed to Mariucci, dispatched by a team whose lone D-I player was a freshman backup goalie.

That upset was a difficult act to follow, but Cretin-Derham Hall gave it a good run in the nightcap against Duluth East. Despite being outshot 15-4 in the first period, Cretin sprung a couple of odd-man rushes to go up 2-0 after one and then 3-0 early in the second, and just when it seemed like East had found its groove and stormed back to within 3-2, another breakaway goal took the life out of the Hounds. Unheralded Cretin would go on to win 5-2 despite being outshot 39-15, a result that ranks behind only the 1997 championship game loss to Edina and a 2012 upset at the hands of Lakeville South on the list of Mike Randolph era Tourney tragedies at East. Just as Edina’s bevy of front-line talent couldn’t muster anything 5-on-5 against Moorhead, East’s vaunted defense got carved up by the opportunistic Raiders.

The two remaining seeds battled in the first semifinal. Blaine jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first period, but the game slowly began to tip Eden Prairie’s way as the clock ticked away. Down 2-1 heading into the third, Kyle Rau performed his first—though hardly his last—Tourney heroics. His unassisted tally at 6:29 of the third period tied the game, and a second goal with just under four minutes left in regulation gave the Eagles the lead. Leddy collected an empty-netter, and the Eagles were on to their first ever title game appearance.

Title game appearances were familiar territory for Moorhead, who used a Jordan Doschadis goal late in the second to slip past Cretin 2-1 in an otherwise plodding second semifinal. The Spuds were 0-6 on Saturday night, and as impressive as their run had been, this was not the group to bust through. Eden Prairie jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, with the second goal coming on a laser of a shot by Leddy. While the Spuds poured 16 shots on Eden Prairie sophomore goalie Andrew Ford in the final frame, the Eagle defense held firm, and a Dan Molenaar tally gave the western suburb its first state title.

The win was a watershed moment for the Eagle program, which to that date had been more defined by playoff losses than wins. It began a tradition of star players sticking around through their senior years, a trend that would net them a second title behind Rau and friends two years later. Elsewhere, Edina, left with only a runner-up trophy and two consolation titles from its Fab Five years, would look to regroup under less of a spotlight the following season. Hill-Murray, too, would be in reload mode, and the amount of young talent that jumped in when their upperclassmen went down went to show the incredible depth of the program at the time. Century’s Tourney trip was, as of this writing, the last by a AA Rochester school. Trent Johnson and the Spuds became the stars of a Sports Illustrated piece that was originally supposed to be about the Hornets, and their run to the title game belongs on a short list with Duluth East’s run in 2015 for sheer improbability in recent memory.

Class A

If the AA field featured a bunch of great teams, the A field was much more of a free-for-all. St. Thomas Academy, by far the most talented team in the state, was upset in the 4A final by Mahtomedi. The Zephyrs boasted a high school star in Ben Marshall, and a number of other teams—Little Falls with Ben Hanowski (recently minted as the state’s all-time leading scorer), Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt—featured a single superstar who would go on to an illustrious career. As is so often the case, though, star power would be trumped by depth. Breck, with a deep roster led by a stellar junior class, would emerge as the champion.

There was no drama to speak of in the quarterfinals, where the top seeds won by three goals or more in each game. In retrospect, only Mahtomedi’s struggles are any real surprise; they were heavily outshot by 2-seed Cathedral despite being tied for the most D-I players of anyone in the field, and also lost to lowly Hutchinson in the consolation round. Warroad put Hutchinson in running time, while Virginia drew undefeated Little Falls and suffered a Hanowski five-goal blitz. Breck, meanwhile, methodically took care of Rochester Lourdes.

Class A’s best drama came in the semifinals, where Warroad and St. Cloud Cathedral traded goals back and forth until Warroad put in a pair in the third period to pull away for a 5-3 win. Hanowski’s dream team hit a final roadblock against Breck, which again plugged away in the early periods and built up a 2-0 lead before erupting for three more in the early stages of the third period en route to a 6-1 win. The final between the two deepest teams in Class A featured a frenetic first period that ended at 2-2, but Breck’s strong second period gave the Mustangs a 4-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. While Warroad brought the pressure from there, they wouldn’t score again until after Breck had grabbed another late in the third. Two empty-netters sealed a 7-3 Breck win and a third state title for the Golden Valley private school.

Fourth-seeded Breck’s state title bore some resemblance to Hill-Murray’s win in AA the season before. The Mustangs’ depth and defense held firm over the undefeated, top-seeded darlings of the Tourney and a Warroad team that was deep and offensively gifted, but bled more goals. With a strong junior class leading the way, they’d be back to defend their title, and Warroad would also return in search of revenge. Little Falls closed out its run of five straight Tourneys with its best finish ever and a third place trophy, but a title eluded the Flyers.

The 2009 Tournament was a memorable one for me, too. I was a freshman in college on the East Coast, my spring break conveniently timed for Tourney week, and I started a tradition of staying with friends at the U of M. I attended every AA game, plus the Duluth East-Edina consolation battle at Mariucci, drifting about the arena to wherever stray friends and random tickets purchased from the long lines at the X’s box office took me. As soon as it ended, I knew I’d be back again for the whole thing in 2010. I haven’t missed a AA game since.

The Ryder of a Lifetime: Duluth East 2018-2019 in Review

14 Mar

After the end of the 2018 state championship game, I joined the parents and fans in waiting for the Duluth East players to emerge from the bowels of the Xcel Center. I commiserated with the other loyalists and gave a few players some hugs. But a brief moment with Ryder Donovan, the then-junior forward, became my iconic memory of that Tourney. He told me in no uncertain terms that he had unfinished business, and promised he would do what he could to bring the Hounds back.

It wasn’t always clear that East would finish that business. The team ran out to a strong start, but things began to unravel with a loss to Champlin Park that kicked off a spotty 4-5-2 run in the middle of the season. The offense went cold for long stretches, and the team pressed when down. Mike Randolph continued his endless search for answers to life’s persistent line-building questions and cycled through countless options in search of a winning combination. More so than at any point in recent memory, this East team teetered on the edge: would they all pull together and make one more run, or would they come apart at the seams? But by the end of the season things seemed to fall back into line, and by the grace of a reinforced defense, a Ricky Lyle barrage, and Donovan’s delivery on his promise, they made their way back to St. Paul. The section final upset of Andover was a triumph of steady determination and unflinching belief, even as events over the course of the year gave reason for doubt.

A state championship was always going to be a reach for this group. These Hounds did not have the across-the-board front-end skill that several of the other top-end teams did. Their great demon over the course of the season, an inability to finish the chances they had, reared its head in the state quarterfinals. The Hounds carried play and out-chanced St. Thomas Academy over the course of the game, but could only slip one goal past Muzzy Donohue in net, and several golden chances went by the wayside. The gameplan was there, but the execution was not. The question will linger as to what this team could have done if given a crack at Edina on Friday night, but it wasn’t to be.

The Hounds defended their pride in the consolation bracket at Mariucci, where they avenged an ugly January loss to Moorhead and rolled past Lakeville South to add another trophy to the case. Showings at Mariucci say something about the mindset of a team after a dream comes to an end, and these Hounds found ways to produce. Donovan and his fellow seniors went out with some style, and some of the underclassmen began to pick up the scoring load and gave a glimpse of the future. The last few games were a fitting sendoff for a group that was deep, skilled, and just plain fun.

We now bid farewell to a deep senior class that also had an excellent cast of characters. Carson Cochran provided steady defense and the greatest save of East’s 2018 semifinal win over Edina, while E.J. Hietala and Jayson Hagen blossomed into quality defensemen as seniors. Brody Rabold and Lukan Hanson were a steady tandem in goal, and it was a shame there was room for only one of them in the lineup. David Holliday provided valuable depth, while Jonathan Jones combined his giant frame with some subtle skill, and should get a shot at higher-level hockey somewhere. Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker were steady producers over long varsity careers. Ricky Lyle combined his tenacious hits with a flair for the dramatic, and put the team on his back in sections. Frederick Hunter Paine, or whatever name he goes by these days, shared Lyle’s physical edge and was the two-way star on the blue line.

Ryder Donovan’s graduation, meanwhile, feels like the end of an era for Duluth East hockey. He was a central player in so many moments over his five years on the roster, a run that included three Tourney berths and two second place finishes. His senior year came freighted with immense pressure and a change in college plans, yet the future NHL draft pick made it clear he left with no regrets. The narrow losses leave questions of what might have been, but those wistful what-ifs of our adolescent lives define high school for all but the most charmed among us. The true test comes in developing the ability to learn from that unavoidable adversity, and in building a community of people that one can look back on fondly, no matter how far one may wander. On that count, Ryder was far ahead of his years from the start, and understood exactly what he was a part of. He is an example to the East program for years to come.

We wish Ryder and his teammates the best in hockey and in life, and thank them for their time in this brotherhood of Greyhound hockey. From early morning bag skates to section championship celebrations, they built memories that will last a lifetime, and those who will be back next season now get some well-earned time off before the excitement starts to build again. I’ll sign off in my role as the scribe for this program until any offseason intrigue or preseason previews bring me back. The adventure never ends.

Tourney Reflection 2019

13 Mar

Less than a week after it all comes to an end, it seems like some other life left behind. I’ve recovered some sleep and escaped the comedown, but my mind is still caught up in my annual reunion with good friends and those once-a-year acquaintances who make their way to St. Paul for four days. From Eveleth to Mahtomedi, from Pine City to Plymouth, from the old Duluth crew to people who come from across the country for just this week, we all unite for our annual revival. Sleepless nights and marathon days, the rhythm of the commute to and from the X, the circuits around the concourse to bring life back to sleeping legs, to say nothing of the revelations that come late at night at Eagle Street. A few moments of wonder pierce through the mad blur and endure beyond those 96 hours, and as always, I look to collect a few of them before my memory fails me.

A steady exodus of old powers and one colossal section final upset left Class A as fresh as it has ever felt. Debutants came in from North Branch and a stretch along the Minnesota River to show their newfound puck pride; Mahtomedi found itself in a new favorite status, while Delano suddenly looks like a program on the rise. The small school division crowned a first-time champion, a ruthlessly efficient St. Cloud Cathedral team that left little doubt over three days that they had the formula down right. Derrick Brown and his merry band set a new standard for Class A, and we can expect them at noon on Saturday again in the near future.

In AA, an old guard that has ruled this past decade took home most of the hardware. The Lake Conference guaranteed its eight title in eleven years before the title game even began. St. Thomas Academy’s Vannellis, in their final season, finally broke through to a semifinal, their Cadets bringing a physical and defensive edge that had eluded them in AA quarterfinals past. The Cadets in the stands brought a refreshing energy to their student section and livened up an unusually straightforward Friday night. Lakeville South made a valiant push for a third stunning upset in a decade behind Henry Welsch, whose performance in net pushed toward the record books and came close to derailing Eden Prairie before their run began. But Jack Jensen spared us the chaos of a morning restart with a game-winner late in the third overtime, and the Eagles took flight the next night against Blaine as they stormed back to topple the powerful Bengals.

For a stretch on Saturday night, it looked as if Eden Prairie’s depth would lift the Eagles to a state title. But Edina, ever the gold standard for Minnesota high school hockey, lived up to their legacy yet again. The Hornets stung twice in the third to take the lead, but the Eagles had an answer. Seize the moment, Peter Colby: the unsung senior buried a feed from Jett Jungels and added his name to a list that includes just one other in the two-class era, that of Kyle Rau. Beneath a blanket of snow on championship Saturday, the Hornet revelers took to the icy streets to celebrate a thirteenth crown in fifty-one years.

As always, a handful of players rose to the occasion. Greenway’s Casadonte Lawson dazzled against the background of his brother’s kidney transplant, and his pairing with Ben Troumbly gave the Tourney its most dynamic duo since perhaps Locker and Spehar. Jon Bell recovered from his introduction adventure to claim a spot on the All-Tournament Team. For the AA finalists, glory fell to the less famed names: Clayton Shultz, Louden Hogg, and Colby all took their turns stealing the spotlight from their teams’ established stars. In its swan song, the All-Hockey Hair Team video captured a full range of flow that has become a full-on sideshow. And sometimes, the most jarring sights are not those of glory: Joe Paradise, heir to Herb Brooks’s legacy, lingered in the arena long after everyone else had left the ice after his Mahtomedi team lost to Greenway, gutted by a final defeat at the X.

The truly exceptional combatants in this Tourney came down from Itasca County, where Greenway showed championship resolve in a second-place run. Coleraine, Bovey, Taconite, Marble, Calumet, Pengilly, Nashwauk, and Keewatin relocated themselves to St. Paul for a week. The support came from down the generations, an array of letter jackets dating to the dawn of Iron Range hockey littering the stands across one half of the arena. Already the darlings of the Tourney after an upset of mighty Hermantown, the Raiders made up a two-goal deficit to Delano and then gave us the finest game of the Tourney, a thrilling semifinal against Mahtomedi in which Ben Troumbly’s heroics unleashed a wave of green on St. Paul. The Raiders’ two lines, their legs beaten to mush, somehow kept on coming nearly all the way through the final against St. Cloud Cathedral. Greenway lost a hockey game but won in everything else.

Only two seasons ago, when Monticello showed us the raw excitement of a newcomer, have I seen anything that approached this level of commitment. Greenway in 2019, however, had a different feel, that of a giant from the past roaring back to life. This was a collective identity that left eyes wet and bars dry, a show of support so profound that it took any cliché about tradition or community and made it real. Greenway’s return to greatness was a celebration of everything that high school sports can be, and a reminder that, in some places, it is far more than just a game. To join that nation in the stands and drink it in, if only vicariously, is the Tourney at its best.

Now, though, that great Greenway run is nothing more than a memory. A brutal winter that took out too many games is starting to melt away into Minnesota spring. We add their exploits to the record books, write down what we remember, and stash away recordings to pull out at some distant date when we want to remember what it meant to dive straight into the pursuit of glory for one’s friends, to sacrifice one’s mind and body for a game, to care only about the results on the ice and where the party might be afterward. It goes by all too quickly, though we can always pass it along to that next group to descend on St. Paul for four days in March. We’ll do it all again next year.