Love in the Time of Coronavirus

21 Mar

My sixth-grade teacher pulled down the United States map. “This is New York, and this is Washington,” she told the class, on what could only have been our second or third week of middle school. “Not to take anything away from any of the other cities, but they’re probably the two most important cities in the country.” Airplanes had hit several buildings in them, she explained, and our lives were about to change.

I was eleven, and it was my first brush with a global crisis. Even for a hyper-aware kid, one who has a strong enough memory to still retain snippets of news clips about Bosnian Serbs while I played with toys on the floor at three or four at our house in Wisconsin, this was the first time the world had come close to me. Roger Angell’s snippet from the New Yorker that week, discovered years later, still rings true. No longer was history something that happened somewhere else.

But was it really, though? In New York, maybe; for an 11-year-old in northern Minnesota, life mostly just went on. Airport lines got longer (not that I can really remember what came before), and I recall a few some stray episodes of hysteria from others around me; 9/11 certainly informed my geopolitical conscience, but not my day-to-day life in any way. After that, there were snippets, mild crises of inconvenience that were mostly just cause for a little shared fun, like the Snowpocalypse that shut down Washington, D.C. my sophomore year, or the stray brush with a hurricane two years later. Any northern Minnesotan is accustomed to the occasional weather-driven shutdown, a snowstorm that pins us down and then brings out a burst of communal activity as we all shovel out together and then get on with our lives. The most recent, this past November’s snowstorm that ruined my Thanksgiving travel plans, is about as extreme as it’s been. I hardly expect much sympathy.

The arrival of the coronavirus, then, is my first direct brush with any sort of collective national crisis. A holding pattern of dread takes hold. Our sprawling and convoluted healthcare apparatus strains to its limits, and in Washington, at least some people seem to grasp the gravity of the moment and look to escape their regular state of sclerosis. But there’s nothing you or I can do besides wash our hands and lock ourselves in our homes. Perhaps the dread has less to do with the virus itself than the sudden reality of that sense of urgency that I preach to myself every week but have always forgotten by Thursday afternoon. We don’t know what we have until we lose it.

If this is to be my generation’s sacrifice, the postponement of a planned vacation down the East Coast next month is a small burden to bear compared to so many who came before, to say nothing of the scores who are now out of work. Still, it’s hard not to dwell, at least a bit: quarantine takes from me so many of the things that give me joy on this earth, sports and travel and dinner parties and game nights and the freedom to rove and revel and delight in the new. It threatens to leave me with more of the things that do not: devotion to screens, an already bad trend exacerbated; phone calls, which I irrationally hate; correspondence that slowly loses meaning over distance. I am among the world’s most incompetent introverts; or, perhaps, to borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe this sliding scale of introversion and extroversion isn’t worth much to us at all. I live for people, and I will interact with precious few of them in a meaningful way over the coming weeks, maybe months.

I’m still left with a few creature comforts in my 740-square-foot cell. I can see if TV has produced anything good since I stopped paying attention to it a few years ago, and I can delve into a stack of books I have at hand. Being stuck at home may force me to cook, an undertaking I always enjoy but am terrible at making time to do. I have a stash of booze and am learning the merits of the virtual happy hour. I may just have timed my entry into the homebuyers’ market perfectly. My athletic pursuits these days are of a solitary sort, and unless we go into total lockdown, I can still enjoy a good run or hike or ski if the snow should return. Color me torn: should I be pleased this has all come about during Duluth’s least pleasant season, a hope of full enjoyment of the summer ahead, or does staring out windows at drab grayness and fresh dustings just make it all worse? Excuse me while I go pop some more Vitamin D.

I become a creature of habit. Get up at the same time every morning, though I have no commute; just read things until eight, then log in and start my day. Meander the apartment and work in different positions. My normal work-related frustrations feel trivial now, especially for one whose job can go along with relatively little disruption. My tea water comes from a kettle instead of a water cooler and the coffee table holds less mess than my desk, and the company is poorer, too. But I can still plow through and learn how to manage a meeting on Zoom. Run, or at least walk, about the neighborhood after it’s time to sign off. If the routine gets stale, try something new, a midday break, maybe just a drive around for the sake of driving around. I switch it up: park in Denfeld and struggle up hills in Lincoln Park one day, head out to Stoney Point later in the week and scoot up to Knife River and back, take a moment to lose my eyes in the deep aquamarine of a Superior lake.

I tour my city at a safe distance to see how it’s coping. Runners and dog-walkers seem more eager to share a greeting, a glimpse of normalcy. Someone could run a good sociological experiment visiting the various Super Ones across town to see what different neighborhoods choose to horde. Downtown Duluth is dead now, though the people who stand on the corners and fight loudly with one another are somehow still there when I raid my office for a second monitor. I guess it’s reassuring that the Duluthians least likely to heed public health warnings are also among the least likely to interact with people who are jetting off to the global cities that have been the points of embarkation for this virus; I’m not sure if our status as an out of the way city might spare us the worst of this or leave us waiting for the damn thing to show up for another month after other places have recovered and moved on.

My reading choice for the first week of confinement has been Joan Didion, an apt muse for an era of societal reckoning, a literary voice infused with a quiet despair who nevertheless dispenses with the easy nihilisms of her era. She undermines the premises of unlimited freedom, whether Californian American Dreamers or a hippie generation and its offshoots in open rebellion against it, all while pushing to it herself with her omniscience. She’s striving toward something as a writer, some unseen truth behind the veneers, some logic that she, with her authorial power, can bring to bear on a world that would otherwise resist it. It is a Sisyphean task.

To be a witness to quarantine is to be a witness to the deeper chambers of one’s own mind. The process takes its toll: for all her blasé scrutiny of her world, Didion struggled mightily with her mental health. My own peaks and valleys are not so severe, though the topography seems a bit more accentuated from this single vantage point I now enjoy from my apartment windows. It’s harder to leave bed when the commute is just ten feet; harder to communicate with people who don’t always express themselves well in writing. I wake with a start at 3 AM one night and struggle from there, endure inconsistent heat and the croak of a lone crow and some inconsequential hockey revelation coupled with some weird childhood dream, a labyrinth of thought whose exit is hidden but still there for me. I retreat to my fictions to lull myself back toward peace.

Crises force us to find new founts of creativity, new ways to take stock of where we are. I was waiting for a bit of deliverance in Georgetown and Savannah and Key West; instead, I may have to find it right here in an apartment I’d thought I’d outgrown. I don’t know what my world will look like after the coronavirus, but I will take one bit of sage advice from those who have seen real disruption before: some things won’t ever be the same. As for what that new beginning looks like, well, that is a story I still have to write.

Tourney Reflection 2020

10 Mar

The sun came out on St. Paul this year, an early arrival of Minnesota spring. It’s Tourney Time, it seemed to say; time to roll through all the normal routines for that first full week of March. Danny’s dinner party Tuesday, Cossetta’s on Wednesday, St. Paul Grille on Thursday, Friday at New Bohemia, Grand Seven between sessions on Saturday. The rotation of familiar faces here and there, the friends I may see just once a year but feel like I’ve known since birth now. It’s all automatic, a vital corrective to a season from hell for a Greyhound, a reminder that there is still order in a chaotic world. I may have the schedule down to clockwork, but no one can ever script the pieces that come in between.

In a year where three powerhouses headlined Class A, a west wind blew in form the east side to steal the show. Mahtomedi, so long the second fiddle program, stormed back from a late deficit against Delano in the quarterfinals and had full belief from there. They snuffed out the glow of Warroad’s return to the Tourney and played the perfect game for 50-plus minutes against Hermantown, only to see a lead slip away. But in a season in which no team could dominate from start to end, the resilient took the spoils. The Zephyrs went back to work in overtime and wrote themselves a Hollywood finish: Colin Hagstrom, broken leg and all, fought his way back to carry his Zephyrs to their first ever crown. He accepted his Herb Brooks Award from his old teammates the Paradise boys, whose agony was among my defining memories from a season ago.

AA’s wide-open field lived up to its billing, from a seesawing thriller between Blake and Maple Grove to an eye-popping upset from a St. Thomas Academy team that bore little resemblance to their star-studded title contenders of the past. Semifinal Friday, ever my favorite night of the Tourney, provided two thoroughly fun affairs, as Eden Prairie did enough to hold down high-flying Blake and Hill-Murray rallied past plucky St. Thomas in overtime. Like their Metro East conference brethren, the Pioneers only doubled down when they coughed up a lead. That set the stage for Hill’s triumph on Saturday, a complete team effort that left no doubt they had earned their crown. The big-game black jerseys came through again for Bill Lechner and his Pioneers, the team that peaked above the parity at the right time.

As always, a few kids played their way into my memory. Warroad’s duo of Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay redefined aesthetic beauty in a quarterfinal against Hutchinson, and Joey Pierce was often an unstoppable force for Hermantown. Ben Steeves of Eden Prairie, new to Minnesota, marveled that the Tourney had lived up to the hype and more. Some years back, when I lived near Lowry Hill, I’d often see a kid up the block in his backyard rink; that kid, it turns out, grew up to be Joe Miller, who gave Blake its first brush with Tourney success. But the headliners in 2020 were the showstopping goaltenders, first Tommy Aitken and then Remington Keopple, but most dramatically in the diminutive form of Ben Dardis, another Zephyr whose tears from a season ago turned to ecstasy on Saturday afternoon.

This Tourney was a homecoming of sorts for me: after three years in exile, I made my way back to the press box, a convenience that spared me the tedium of lines and tickets and fueled me with an endless supply of cookies and popcorn. I’d made peace with watching the Tourney among the fans—how can’t I love the opportunity to climb on bandwagons and brush up with other grassroots lovers of the game?—but I felt a certain vindication in watching from on high once again. For once, they Youth Hockey Hub contributors were all in a row; despite weekly podcasts and calls, Tony Zosel and I had never sat together and watched games together before. I also got to brush shoulders with the grandees of the press box: Harry, who saunters down the row to take names for the press conferences and share his little glimmers of optimism, as he has since probably the very first Tourney in 1945; Fran, the reliable pilot of the elevator; and Julie, our guardian who broke out her pep band bingo card on Friday night. They are the quiet heroes of the Tourney who work behind the scenes to keep it humming along, the necessary antidote to the bureaucracy and painfully repetitive ads that otherwise afflict this event.

Trent Eigner of St. Thomas took time to thank the media in a press conference: high school hockey wouldn’t be what it is without the hype machine, he told us, and needs us to tell its story. If that’s my contribution here, I’ll embrace it, and I find myself in plenty of good company. This writer was delighted to meander through a series of book tours: I attended a signing with Tony at Zamboni’s for his Jersey Project and stopped by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson’s prime location in the hall to the Expo, where they hawked Tourney Time; in the concourse, I met Matt Jasper of Home Ice fame. We live in a golden age of high school hockey coverage, and perhaps, someday, I can throw a cover in front of a collection of my own sprawling work that now spans a decade.

As always, there were some moments of poignance to pierce through the chaos, the flashes that make this essay easy to write. I brought a longtime friend along on Saturday, a Tourney Virgin who ate it all up and let me see it with fresh eyes again. Late on Friday night, Josh from Warroad nursed his sorrows at the Liffey and reminded me how much this game means in those small towns up north. After they won it all, Bill Lechner and his Hill boys lifted their wheelchair-bound assistant, Pat Schafhauser, to the dais so he could share his deserved piece of the glory. And as I packed my bag late Thursday night, I looked down to see Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges, alone, slumped into the boards. He gazed up and around the arena after the rest of the Spuds had made their way up the tunnel in defeat, searing that scene in his memory forever. On the opposite side, a few Moorhead moms took note, waited him out, and offered a loving applause when he finally left the ice.

One man who is no stranger to such reflection is Lechner, the dean of Minnesota high school hockey, now twice a champion in convincing form. Lex has sky-high expectations for his team, yes, but that demand is just as sincere off the ice, and he conveys it with patience and a graceful humor, a pithy wisdom I can only aspire to. If I am ever to be a coach, let me be a Bill Lechner, the steward of a Pioneer tradition that long predates even his lengthy tenure. And for this Hill team, victory truly was an affair that spans generations: Charlie Strobel and Dylan Godbout’s fathers were on the 1991 title-winning team. This is the Tourney’s gift, fathers down to sons, whether on the ice or in the stands, an offering we can make even as we move further and further away from those glory days.

Age may or may not bring wisdom, but it does at least bestow knowledge of a somewhat pickier body. I packed my bag with healthy snacks and at one point took a moment to wander off down Seventh Street alone to clear my mind, keep my focus. Over four fifteen-hour days, I need it. I’ve just turned 30, but this week is always a draining swing back through stages of boyhood, from eight-year-olds at the Expo to sixteen-year-olds in the 200 level, my brush with a rash of fantasy drafts and off-color chants. On Friday night I made my annual circuit of the upper deck to fully absorb the inanity and insanity; later, I made my circuit through Eagle Street and McGovern’s to find my people toward the end of each night, a reminder that things don’t really change all that much from one stage of life to the next. The boys are all here for the party, in whatever form it may take, and next year we’ll live once again for those four days in March.

Tourney Preview 2020

1 Mar

Yes, Minnesota, it’s Tourney Time. (Not to be confused with the excellent new book by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson of the same name.) Danny, Tony, and I put together our annual podcast yesterday, which includes an interview with LaVaque, and we’ll be ready for the party. First, though, I present my usual rundown of storylines and quarterfinal game capsules:

The Season of Parity After a chaotic regular season, the AA section tournaments had surprisingly few upsets, with a regular power having a somewhat down season, St. Thomas Academy, being the only real surprise in the field. That leaves us with six of the top eight teams in the final regular season poll at State, plus another (Maple Grove) that spent some time in that neighborhood over the course of the season. This Tourney may not promise any of the heavyweight clashes between 1-3 loss teams that have punctuated some recent affairs, but anyone in this field seems capable of beating anyone.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt To underscore the previous note, the AA quarterfinals include two matchups that took place on the season’s final day and saw the lower seeded team win. Blake is the 2-seed but faces Maple Grove, who beat the Bears in what was a vital win to wake up an offense that had been moribund late in the season. Hill-Murray, meanwhile, knocked off Moorhead in their traditional late season meeting; the rematch is a fun nightcap between two Tourney institutions and the two top goalies in the state. In a different sort of rematch, Eden Prairie and Lakeville South reprise their three-overtime affair from a season ago in the second quarterfinal. Even in Class A, where there is generally less history between teams, we have a Monticello-Hermantown clash for the third time in four years.

Class A’s Big Three It’s worth noting that Monticello has given Hermantown good games in those two previous meetings, and Hutchinson is respectable for a 3A entrant, too. But it’ll be a shock if the first three Class A quarterfinals produce winners not named St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown, and Warroad. The Warriors, by virtue of a win over Cathedral, have the perk of the top seed, though the winner of Delano and Mahtomedi isn’t exactly a free pass to the final. That leaves Cathedral and Hermantown, who tied each other in a regular season thriller, on a collision course in the semis. In a season in which the top Class A teams are loaded with star power and have been atop the rankings all season, we could be headed for a couple of great games.

Fine Lines There’s only one Mr. Hockey finalist forward in the AA field, and while Eden Prairie’s Ben Steeves is a fine player, he’s also not on some different level from the players around him. No AA team can win on the back of one star this year, but a lot of teams do have good top lines who could tip the balance. Gess-Triggs-Johnson for Moorhead, Steeves-Blake-Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie, Miller-Sabre-Best for Blake, and the Pierre-Strobel combo for Hill Murray: if one of these groups can take over a game, they can carry their team a long way. It’s a bit different on the Class A side, where Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi are the stars of their respective shows, but St. Cloud Cathedral also brings the dominant line approach.

Someone New? Six of the eight entrants have never won a AA Tourney, though there’s some range in there between the total newbies like Blake and Andover and the St. Thomases and Moorheads of the world who know their way around St. Paul but don’t know what Saturday night success looks like. One of the old hands, Hill-Murray, hasn’t had a lot of Tourney success in their past few appearances, either. Even Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite and frequent finalist over the past decade, has some recent struggles to overcome. No one comes marching into this tournament with the swagger of a recent champion, so we’ll see who can find that edge in the next week.

Now, capsules for each quarterfinal:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL

11:00 Wednesday

-The Tourney opens with the defending champs taking on the lowest-rated team in the field. Cathedral has won all five meetings between these two dating back to 1997.

Mankato East (14-13-1, Unranked, 4-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section wins: 5-3 over 1-seed Dodge County, 5-3 over 3-seed Mankato West

-The Cougars had an up-and-down season, but the most talented team in 1A put it together at the end and made its way back to State for a second time in three years. Junior Layten Liffrig (22) is their big star, and Matthew Salzle (6) is also plenty productive and carried the goal-scoring load in sections. There’s a gap after that, but Jake Kazenbach (23) is their next highest-scoring forward, and they’ve got a couple of quality junior defensemen in Brett Borchardt (8) and Jake Schreiber (11) who can contribute offensively as well. There are some pieces to work with here and they may be even better next season, but this quarterfinal will be a long shot.

St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1, #4, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2019)

Key section win: 8-1 over #8 Alexandria

-The Crusaders are back to defend their title and loaded with the star talent to achieve it. Blake Perbix (27), Jack Smith (20), and Nate Warner (8) form a lethal top line. Mack Motzko (18), back from his one-year adventure in Minnetonka, works with Cullen Hiltner (6) to provide a supporting cast. The defense, led by Reid Bogenholm (2), Jon Bell (4), and C.J. Zins (15), can also move the puck well and contribute to the cause. That said, this team has coughed up a few goals in recent games against top competition, so the pressure is on for them to lock down and keep the heat off goaltender Grant Martin (35). If they can withstand the Hermantown attack, they’ve shown they have the experience in big moments to pull out the repeat.

MONTICELLO VS. #3 HERMANTOWN

1:00 Wednesday

-The Moose and Hawks meet for the third time in four seasons at State, with the Hawks eking out a 2OT win in the state championship game in 2017 and winning 4-2 in 2018.

Monticello (19-7-2, #12, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section win: 6-4 over 3-seed Pine City

-The Moose return for a third Tourney in four years, this time after being the clear favorite in 5A for much of the season and were competitive in losses to a few top ten Class A teams. Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is their top offensive player, but they’ve had fairly good offensive balance, with Brian Cornelius (11), Wilson Dahlheimer (22), and Gunnar Sibley (21) all putting up quality seasons. Chase Bocken (34) is a scoring threat from the blue line, alongside Jacob Sorensen (10). Nash Wilson (33) will need to be on top of his game for the Moose to give Hermantown another good run. They lost in running time in their game to Cathedral and will need to show a bit more than they did in that game to go anywhere this week.

Hermantown (21-3-4, #3, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 16 (last in 2018)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 6-0 over #9 Duluth Denfeld

-The behemoths of Class A return after a one-year absence. They’ve done it with star power, with Blake Biondi (27) among the Mr. Hockey frontrunners up front and junior Joey Pierce (18) one of the most complete blueliners in the state. They have good depth up front, with Zach Kilen (10) and Ethan Lund (24) serving as Biondi’s sidekicks on the top line and an all-junior line of Aaron Pionk (11), Aydyn Dowd (6), and Cole Antcliff (14) providing the secondary punch. Jacob Backstrom (32) is the goalie. The Hawks did blow a 3-goal third period lead in a regular season tie with Cathedral and lost their last two games against AA competition, so there’s some question about their ability to respond when caught up in the moment of a big game. But there’s no doubt this group has the talent to bring back its third title in five years.

HUTCHINSON VS. #1 WARROAD

6:00 Wednesday

-Warroad makes its return to the X and faces a team with whom they have a surprising amount of Tourney history. The Warriors won a 2009 quarterfinal 7-1 and a 1997 quarterfinal 7-3.

Hutchinson (19-8-1, #17, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (last in 2009)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato

-The Tigers head to State with one of the stronger resumes of a 3A champion in recent memory. Like many southern teams, they rely on the star power of a few players. Austin Jozwick (9) is far and away their leading scorer, and Hayden Jensen (11) is a clear number two; after that, they have a jumble of players with point totals in the teens. Austin Hagen (33) has had a strong season in goal. This team gave Delano and Orono reasonably competitive games in their Wright County clashes and rolled through 3A, so it’s not out of the question that they keep it close with the rather unknown Warriors, but it will be a tall order.

Warroad (26-2, #1, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 21 (8 one-class, 13 in Class A; last in 2010)

State championships: 4 (1994, 1996, 2003, 2005)

Key section win: 4-0 over #2 East Grand Forks

-One of the Minnesota’s most iconic programs returns to State after a 10-year absence, and they’ve done it in style, losing only to rival Roseau during the regular season and controlling a very good East Grand Forks team in the 8A final. Grant Slukynsky (27) had an electric senior season, while freshman wunderkind Jayson Shaugabay (17) combines with him to create one of the top lines in Class A. Anthony Foster (19) and Owen Meeker (23) also put up plenty of points, though this team lacks the top-to-bottom offensive depth of Hermantown and Cathedral. Their defense, led by Blake Norris (5) and Carson Reed (37), has been rock-solid, while Zach Foster (35) has been reliable in goal. If their lower lines can hold up against some of the deeper teams in this field, they have the front-end flair to claim their first title in 15 years.

#5 DELANO VS. #4 MAHTOMEDI

8:00 Wednesday

-Two fairly regular recent faces in the Tourney meet in what should be a quality quarterfinal following three games with heavy favorites. Delano won an 8-1 consolation round game between these two in 2017.

Delano (22-6, #5, 2-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 3 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #19 Armstrong/Cooper, 4-2 over #18 Breck

-The Tigers once again went on a second half run and are making something of a habit of these Tourney appearances; this is the second straight season they’ve been the 5-seed. They can roll out three decent lines; Adam Brown (13) was their leading goal-scorer over the course of the season, and Gunnar Paulson (12) and Jesse Peterson (11), Michael Weber (17), and Trevor Oja (18) round out the list of scoring leaders. No one on the defense is a huge offensive force, but Jack Keranen (3) has been a reliable presence. Cade Lommel (35) was solid in goal in sections. Can they break through and win their first quarterfinal?

Mahtomedi (20-8, #7, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 12 (4 in a row)

Key section win: 5-1 over 6-seed South St. Paul, 2-0 over 4-seed Tartan

-The Zephyrs head to a fourth straight Tourney after cruising through Section 4A. Nikolai Dulak (9) is probably the most dangerous goal-scorer they’ve had through this run, while Adam Johnson (10) led the team in points. Ethan Peterson (6) and Ryan Berglund (7) are also steady contributors offensively, while J.D. Metz (11) is their defensive leader. They also enjoy the services of arguably the strongest goalie in the A field, sophomore Ben Dardis (32). A healthy Colin Hagstrom (4) could be a difference-maker here. Expectations this season aren’t what they were the past few seasons; can that help them break their seemingly eternal fate to be a semifinalist and nothing more?

MAPLE GROVE VS. #2 BLAKE

11:00 Thursday

-Blake makes its AA Tourney debut against a deep west metro team that pulled a mild upset to make this game. Maple Grove won a late regular season meeting 5-4 and leads the all-time series 2-0.

Maple Grove (20-8, #17, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2017)

Key section win: 3-0 over #14 Blaine

-Call it a study in perseverance: with an entire unit of elite players in juniors or at the NTDP and their biggest current star out hurt for the year, the Crimson found a way to avenge two regular season losses to Blaine and secure a Tourney berth. They’re one of the strongest skating teams in the state, but even strength offense has been a deficiency at times. Their leading scorer is defenseman Henry Nelson (12), a Notre Dame commit, and Cal Thomas (22) also put up good points as a D. The forward production comes by committee, with Sam Jacobs (21), Tyler Oakland (15), and Chris Kernan (27) leading that group. They’ve rotated goalies between senior Parker Slotsve (32) and junior Jack Wienecke (1), who had a 45-save shutout in the section final. This team did find a vital scoring touch in the season’s final week when they knocked off Blake; we’ll see if they can repeat that performance.

Blake (22-6, #5, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: First in AA (5 in Class A)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1 over #13 Edina

-The Bears make their AA Tourney debut on the heels of a dramatic overtime penalty shot from Gavin Best (8). Best’s linemates, Joe Miller (20) and Jack Sabre (9), form one of the more dynamic combinations in the state, and they get some scoring depth from the likes of Will Matzke (27) and Brett Witzke (6). Their mobile defense has plenty of talent as well, most notably via Ben Dexheimer (4) and Will Svenddal (19). Aksel Reid (30) mans the net. They can skate with anyone, so if they can get some scoring depth and find some consistency, the path is certainly there to make a final. They’ve already beaten Eden Prairie once this season.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #3 EDEN PRAIRIE

1:00 Thursday

-The Cougars and Eagles collide in a rematch of this very same quarterfinal a season ago, a triple-overtime thriller won by Eden Prairie. This will be their third Tourney meeting in the past four years, as the Eagles also won the 2017 third place game in overtime. They lead the all-time series 16-1, with much of that damage coming in the early days of South when they shared a conference.

Lakeville South (21-7, #8, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 (OT) over 3-seed Hastings

-The Cougars had to scrape their way out of 1AA, but have shown flashes of front-line quality over the course of the season. Zack Oelrich (7) leads the team in points, while Cade Ahrenholz (16) is the leading goal-scorer. Cam Boche (4) also had a productive season, while Jack Novak (14) is an assist machine. Griffin Ludtke (3) and Jack Malinski (21) are their top defensemen, but this group has reasonably good balance across the board. Cody Ticen (30) came on strong in goal this season. This junior-heavy group has some Tourney experience and isn’t some run-of-the-mill mediocre Lakeville entrant, but we’ll see if they have the horses to stick with the most talented team in the state.

Eden Prairie (21-5-1, #2, 2-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 12 (3 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #21 Minnetonka, 3-2 over #23 Chaska

-In a season when some of the state’s top recent teams dropped off, the defending runners-up are back for a sixth Tourney in seven years and a chance to atone for recent near-misses, from the blown lead against Edina a season ago to the failure to finish out a championship in the Casey Mittelstadt days. No team can match their six D-I commits, who include Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Steeves (6) and John Mittelstadt (9) on the top line. Junior duo Drew Holt (8) and Carter Batchelder (11) lead the second line. On defense, Luke Mittelstadt (27) and Mason Langenbrunner (22) will need to lead the way in front of Axel Rosenlund (30) in goal. The difference-maker down the stretch, however, was sophomore Jackson Blake (10), who gave their offense another dimension; if the chemistry is intact and they can score the way they should, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Their depth, while fine, is not quite on the level of an Andover or perhaps even a Maple Grove.

ST. THOMAS ACADEMY VS. #1 ANDOVER

6:00 Thursday

-The Thursday primetime bill features a first-time favorite against a Tourney regular who wasn’t supposed to be here. These two have never met.

St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2, #18, 5-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 5 in AA (4 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section wins: 2-0 over #16 Burnsville, 3-1 over #11 Rosemount

-The Cadets had their weakest regular season in years but went on a run at the right time, winning 13 of their last 14 to win 3AA as a 5-seed. First year coach Trent Eigner’s adoption of the Mike Randolph 2-3 has given more talented teams fits. Jackson Hallum (15) is their one legitimate front-line star. Jarod Wright (16) and Riley O’Brien (19) are next in line in productivity. Andrew Boemer (17) is their top scorer on defense, and McClain Beaudette (5) is a steady defensive presence. Senior Tommy Aitken (30) came on strong down the stretch and will be vital to their chances at an upset in their tough quarterfinal draw. Is a unique system and one player’s star power enough to break down the Huskies’ relentless attack?

Andover (24-3-1, #1, 1-seed in 7AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 8-1 over 6-seed Elk River

-The Huskies waltzed through the 7AA tournament with three straight shutouts and have barely been tested over the past month and a half. In some respects, that’s a testament to their quality: this is a team with excellent depth and skating ability top to bottom, and they were the most consistent team in AA this season. Wyatt Kaiser (5) is the top senior defenseman in the state, and Mitchell Wolfe (4) gives them a duo that is as reliable as they come in back. Up front they have no true superstars but the most depth in the state, with two interchangeable top lines and a quality third group. Luke Kron (7) may be the most complete of the bunch, Hunter Jones (11) is their leading scorer, Gunnar Thoreson (12) had a productive year, and Garrett Schifsky (17) is the leading goal-scorer and the rare junior star on this senior-laden squad. Will Larson (35) has done the job in goal when tested. Now, how will they hold up in their first trip to St. Paul, and against quality competition for the first time in a while?

# 5 HILL-MURRAY VS. #4 MOORHEAD

8:00 Thursday

-Two Tourney bluebloods meet in the nightcap in a battle that includes solid defenses and the state’s two best goaltenders. Hill won a late regular season meeting 4-3. They’ve split their four previous Tourney meetings, with the Spuds taking a 2017 quarterfinal 4-2. Hill leads the all-time series 17-11.

Hill-Murray (19-6-3, #7, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 30 (last in 2018)

Championships: 3 (1993, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-2 over #23 White Bear Lake

-The Pioneers weren’t always the most consistent team this season, but they come in with plenty of talent and boast a strong record against Tourney entrants. Sophomore Nick Pierre (7) is their star up front, and Charlie Strobel (27) also helps carry the load; Matthew Fleishhacker (14), Henry Eischen (6), and Dylan Godbout (17) give them some scoring depth across two lines. Their biggest strengths are in back, where Joe Palodichuk (2) had a very productive season and is supported by a deep, steady defensive corps. Brimsek finalist Remington Keopple (1) has the best numbers of any goalie in the Tourney. Their key will be generating enough offense to break a 7-game Tourney losing streak that dates back to the 2013 title game.

Moorhead (21-5-1, #3, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over 3-seed Roseau

-The steady Spuds may not have the depth of Andover or the star power of Eden Prairie, but they are a well-built team across the board. They continue their recent tradition of dominant top lines with the trio of Cullen Gess (14), Caden Triggs (27) and Carter Johnson (10), while Michael Overbo (19) gives their goal-scoring punch some depth. The Spuds do have some star power in back: Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Gramer (3) runs things from the blue line and Hudson Hodges (31) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. They’re liable to get outshot by some of the deeper, better-skating teams in this field, but they’re built to withstand some of that, and if they can impose their style on opponents, they have a shot at a deep run.

See you in St. Paul!

The Art of the Duluth Winter

29 Feb

I have enjoyed this winter. Of course, it has (knock on wood) cooperated more than most so far; after we took a beatdown from a snowstorm over Thanksgiving, it’s been relatively balmy, with a welcome lack of polar vortexes or repeat snow events. The addition of a remote starter to my driving life has also added a new dose of luxury. A pile of blankets and a good book gets me through the routine nights; visitors from afar, so common in and a round the holidays, help the cause as well. But in my fourth year back in this city, I’m coming to perfect the art of the Duluth winter, a necessary challenge for anyone who wants to make this city a true home.

As the absence of most other topics from this blog this time of year shows, much of that free time is devoted to hockey. I average of two games in person a week, plus a few more evenings where I’m home but have a game streaming in the background, and a few hours of podcast work every Sunday. The hockey life also means frequent phone calls with co-conspirators, periodic drinks with the parents before or after games, and the occasional trek to Eveleth or Grand Rapids to see one of the state’s grand old arenas and rub my shoulders against some new friends. From Thanksgiving to the first full week of March, I have a diversion that can get me through any amount of cold, and make myself a part of a sprawling, squabbling, loving community.

Hockey is just one element of my attack on winter, though, and the second these days is my continued progression into a reasonably capable cross-country skier. I’m out twice a week, gliding about the local trail systems: that usually means one evening on the lit course at Lester Park, plus a longer excursion to some other ski area on a weekend. Lester is a home course of sorts for me, as I grew up within walking distance of it, and my younger self would indeed sometimes just pick up his skis and hike over to plow around its lit loop, one of those delights of a Duluth childhood one can only appreciate after losing it. I’ve done the initial loops from the playground up through the first few cutoffs countless times, and I know the unlit Lester River loop so well that I now run it in the dark, its rises and falls encoded in my muscles, and I can pause to gaze down the moonlit slopes to the river below.

Still, I try to get out to different areas. Hartley’s circuits can grow a bit inane for someone seeking to do eight-plus kilometers, but the part of trail that rises up into the pines is magnificent near sunset, and I attempted it with a headlamp once this year and found I was far from alone. Out west, Piedmont provides a reliable loop, while the constant ups and downs of Magney-Snively afford magnificent views of the St. Louis River estuary. To the north is Boulder Lake, an old favorite of my dad’s; for the first time this year I did the entire system, including the prisoner’s dilemma forced by two trails at the end of an esker on the Ridge Runner trail. Up the shore, the Finns have left their mark: Korkki offers some adventurous hill work, while Erkki Harju in Two Harbors allows for some of the smoothest long, coasting downhills. Every course offers some different challenge, some new diversion that can vary with the conditions each week.

My special place remains the Northwoods system in Silver Bay, with its outlet on to Bean Lake and the ever-alluring Tettegouche connector through Palisade Valley, a trek that has become an annual tradition. Palisade Valley feels like a journey in a way no looping trail system can, a quest outward and back through winter in perfect repose. I made the trip in record time this year, even with the trail crumbling in places due to warmth. I pause briefly in the camp on Mic Mac Lake to gaze skyward and breathe in winter as deeply as I can, and linger a while longer on Bean Lake to reclaim life without that breakneck instinct, negotiate the peace between two competing but necessary forces. My furnace burns up all of my calories, and a stop at Cedar Coffee in Two Harbors is in order once again.

After that, it’s back to the blur. Mountain Iron on Monday, Aurora on Tuesday, Eveleth Wednesday, North Branch Friday. Two hockey games where I’ll make my circuit, have five people stop me to chat and fifteen tweets to answer. Board games on Saturday night; hearty meals, wine or stouts or a steaming tea. As February wears on, my reading turns to travelogues, and I might drift off on my couch on a sunny afternoon following some traveler through Delhi or Samarkand, a dose of escapism to feed my wanderlust. I plan a real-world escape sometime in April, in that grotesque Minnesota season when the hockey is done and the ski trails are slop but the weather has yet to release us for summer activities. That, for me, is the only truly challenging season in this city.

We all have our own coping mechanisms, and no doubt this city tries me at times. But I don’t live in Duluth to endure it. I live here because I want to love it.

How the Other Half Lives

21 Feb

Duluth East’s 2019-2020 season came to an ignominious end on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss at Forest Lake in the 7AA quarterfinals. I could go through the litany of “first X since Y year” milestones that this season gave us, but I think that’s been hashed out enough elsewhere. Safe to say it was not an end result that left anyone very happy in the Duluth East camp, and we now have a longer than usual wait to see Hounds on skates again.

The first half of the season had its peaks and valleys, but the Hounds looked basically like what I thought they would be at the start: a borderline top twenty team, capable of some nice wins over teams like Blaine and Minnetonka but also blown out by Andover and Lakeville South. After a quality tie with Prior Lake in mid-January, the Hounds sat at 7-8-1, and I ranked them #24; hardly world-beaters, but respectable, and probably reflective of their talent level. I can work with this, I thought; get everyone on the same page behind a game plan and the Hounds could at least extend all of their historic streaks and take a crack at Andover at Amsoil with confidence in their roles and nothing to lose.

Things mostly went off the rails from there. First a snowstorm hit, and then a vicious bout of the flu; the team played just one game between January 14 and February 1, then finished with a marathon of seven games in 11 days. Tactically, East doubled down on the world’s most passive forecheck, and games became slow, plodding affairs. There were still some glimmers—a beatdown of Cloquet, an upset of Maple Grove, a late comeback to salvage a tie against Brainerd—but the hard-to-watch moments far outnumbered them and left East on the road against a Forest Lake team that had just beaten them for the first time ever.

The Hounds’ trap made its way down I-35 Tuesday night, and while the Great Wall of Greyhounds across the blue line held up, they generated nothing offensively. Even the greatest of schemes can still be vulnerable to the occasional display of star talent or the efforts of a stray forechecker to force a defenseman into a turnover. The latter was exactly what happened on Forest Lake’s lone goal on Tuesday night. When the Hounds failed to score on a five-minute major, I knew the season was over. An embarrassing scrum at the end was only a cherry on top.

This team was depleted from the start. Two players left before the season for juniors, and a third, who barely played a season ago but would have been a top nine forward this year, also bolted. Between one midseason departure from the team and a couple of late season injuries, I calculated at one point that six of East’s top eight underclassman forwards from a season ago were not on the roster. Even with those injured players back, the theater of the absurd continued, with one player forgetting his gear in Duluth for the quarterfinal and Ryan Cummings, their rock on the blue line, going off hurt in that game’s first period. (How different could that major penalty have looked with him bombing away from up top?) In a season when the Hounds would have needed the stars to align even at full strength, they clearly did not. The magic of a 2014-2015-style run would not strike twice.

As always, I thank the seniors for their efforts: Michael Sutherland, Isaac Schweiger, Nolan Haney, Jack Fellman, Finn Hoops. I give a special shout to Cummings, who blossomed as a leader in a season where he could have stepped up; to Charlie Erickson, the one who had the talent to leave but stuck it out to be the leader of this team; and to Konrad Kausch, the goalie who played every minute of the season and made many valiant efforts, sometimes singlehandedly keeping East in games. I’d say they deserved better fates, but hockey has no regard for such deserts, and it is what it is.

I could wrap up this post here, but I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t offer up a comment or two on the civil war that plagued East hockey this season. Every team has its parent-coach tension, whether justified or not. This season, however, reached a whole new level. I know I can’t say much that will change many minds; what I have to say probably won’t make anyone happy. But, from my unique perch in the middle of all of this, I present a few offerings.

First, I like and respect Mike Randolph. I will never buy the claim that he’s just been in the right place and the right time and isn’t a formidable hockey mind. I can point to specific instances over the years where strategic or tactical changes were directly behind big wins. As the keeper of a massive heap of data and no real dog in the fight (I want this program to win no matter who coaches, and expect Randolph will be long gone if and when I ever have a personal stake), I don’t think the preponderance of evidence suggests his style systematically undermines post-high school careers, whatever ulterior motives may be pushing other narratives. The likes of Ricky Lyle, Hunter Paine, and Austin Jouppi are just the latest examples. I watch enough other teams that I know the things so many people in the East fishbowl think are unique to East and Randolph are not all that unique to East and Randolph.

Randolph and I don’t talk often, but when we do, he’s only ever been cordial and humble, and the two of us could trade stories long into the night. He loves what he does and his broad legacy for high school hockey has a reach that has extended beyond Duluth East; some of it will likely only come out after he retires. I’ve watched in disgust as other heap abuse (a word I do not use lightly; I’m not talking about grumbling at the bar or along the rail) directly on him and others in his family. There was time when it seemed like most past critiques had faded away; that he had adapted and found a way to thrive even as the world changed around him, and I was happy for him.

But, then, I also like and respect a number of Randolph’s detractors, past and present. I scratched my head at some of the personnel changes and the nonexistent forecheck, failing to see the design I had in the past. (At least the 2015 2-3 had an attacking impulse to it!) Things just seemed unsettled this season (and to a large extent last season too), and that trickled down and left a sour taste. I watched as people who had defended him in the past struggled to hide their frustrations as the losses mounted, and I had no counterargument for their gripes. As some of the most sober-minded observers I chatted with this season noted, in the end, so much of coaching comes down to communication: the ability to press the right buttons, to make decisive changes seem purposeful, to make kids believe in the mystique that has in the past surrounded this program. Despite rumors to the contrary, Randolph will be back next season, and mending this bridge is vital to the program’s near-term future.

This season did not bring out the best in East hockey. The old Greyhound exceptionalism was gone, and normalcy did not suit anyone well. It’s time to flush out the system and start anew; time to remember the singular dedication that made this program great before. It’s also time to manage a balance between hockey and life, and to put this joyous but silly game in perspective. Let’s try to have some fun again, and while we’re at it, let’s have both the school and the people in the program rekindle the fire and make some effort to get some people back into what was often a depressingly empty Heritage Center this past season. This, too, shall pass; this program’s fundamentals are too strong to let a few gripes do long-term damage. Time to enjoy some playoff hockey and look ahead to a fresh start next winter.

Sick as Dogs

5 Feb

It’s been a season unlike any other for Duluth East. We knew coming in that the talent level wasn’t on par with previous seasons, and that this team would need to work more than any other to get the results it wanted. But the issues compounded from there. A blizzard in November disrupted the schedule from the start, and as vicious an attack of the flu as I’ve ever seen left basically the entire team and coaching staff in bed sick for over a week. The roster has bled a few players whose other priorities in life proved too much. Only a strong 4-1 finish in their last five will keep them from the program’s first losing record since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing has come easily for this group.

I’ve started and stopped this post about five times now, largely because any time I want to start to say something sweeping about this team, their next game immediately disproves it. After a sluggish start, they picked up some respectable wins against teams like Blaine and Lakeville North; after a brutal loss to Lakeville South, they upset Minnetonka. When the season seemed to be teetering on the brink this past week, they responded with a 5-0 shutout of rival Cloquet. Somehow, in spite of it all, they could yet go on a run in the playoffs, or they could be done in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

In previous seasons Mike Randolph has tended to settle on a lineup by late January, but as with last season, the rotations have continued right into the season’s final weeks. The team still feels unsettled, and every time I get the sense I’m on to Randolph’s plan, it all crumbles and he throws in some other wrinkle. The one recent season that was somewhat comparable to this one, 2014-2015, involved a radical and successful tactical innovation that turned the corner; this group to date lacks such a defining shift. There has been some modest success with a 1-1-3 forecheck this season, but whereas the 2-3 in 2014-2015 could actually produce some serious offense, the 1-1-3 felt more like a Hail Mary to hang on for dear life. For now, the experimentation goes on.

The Greyhounds’ great challenge this season has been their poor showing in section play. There was no real surprise in a loss to Andover; and narrow defeats to Grand Rapids and the first Cloquet game, in which the team played relatively well, are defensible. Less so are the more recent losses to Forest Lake, a team largely carried by its goaltender, and an Elk River squad that is also at its lowest point in decades. In a year when 7AA is not among the better sections in the state, the Hounds have, curiously enough, found more success outside the section than in it. The Cloquet win was a sudden break from this trend; time will tell if it was too little, too late.

Through it all, the Hounds still have some pieces that can make a run. Charlie Erickson has put the offense on his back at times, and Zarley Ziemski can be a weapon. They found some December success behind a potent power play and offense from the points, and after the opposition caught on, there now appear to be some adjustments that are making it look threatening again. Konrad Kausch is capable of stealing a game when he is on form, and from a raw talent standpoint is the best East goalie in years. One of the rare glimmers in a season that often has me shaking my head is the play of freshman Cole Christian, whose shiftiness and vision portends a strong Hounds career, even if he could stand to double his weight and grow a few feet. Randolph’s decision to give a couple of freshmen top six forward minutes has its detractors, but as I think back to Keegan Flaherty stunning White Bear Lake in 2005 or Ian Mageau setting up Ash Altmann’s dagger to Edina in 2015, I have to recognize it’s worked before. I’ll never critique the search for answers; there just need to be clear answers at some point.

One gets the sense that, regardless of the talent level, half of this team’s challenge is mental. If they get off to a strong start, this team can roll past other decent teams and compete with the very best; if they fall behind early, things often snowball into unwatchable ugliness. Maybe their ever-scheming coach can press the right buttons to get them to believe in these last few weeks; maybe it’s all been overthought to death and has left us only with frustration. Teams like the 2014-2015 edition don’t come along every day, but at least there is a model, and for all the deserved credit we give the 2-3, that group twice had to come back from three-goal deficits to make its great run, which is something no coach can plan for. That group, riding some exemplary senior leadership and some star turns from younger kids, found the heart to win four straight games they had no right to win. This team will need to dig just as deep, if not further, to find its own measure of success over the next month.

Drawing the Lines

27 Jan

The Duluth school district, which has not changed school boundaries since the completion of its major school restructuring Red Plan a decade ago, has embarked on an effort to redraw boundaries. While ostensibly an effort to re-balance enrollments between some schools that are overcrowded and some that are underutilized, it has also invited some serious, difficult discussion about socioeconomic inequities and Duluth’s east-west divide. It also comes at a distinct point in time, as we have a superintendent on his way out the door and the most heterodox school board in recent memory. For professional reasons, I will not comment on the decision-making process or the work of the boundary-drawing consultant, Cooperative Strategies; this post look only at what they have produced and its implications for the future of Duluth’s schools and neighborhoods. (The two are, after all, deeply intertwined.)

At this stage, Cooperative Strategies has developed three scenarios for public consumption, though the firm and district have also noted that none of them are necessarily the final plan. The plans don’t do much to change the socioeconomic composition of any elementary schools, mostly because it is very, very hard to do so given Duluth’s orientation along a lakeshore and the location of its most affluent neighborhoods. The changes largely hinge on two considerations: the fate of Lowell Elementary and the question of where to draw the line between east and west side middle and high schools.

First, the Lowell question: Lowell has become home to the district’s two growing language immersion programs in Spanish and Ojibwe and no longer pulls many students from nearby neighborhoods. Scenario 1 turns it entirely into a language magnet and sends its remaining neighborhood students to either Homecroft or Piedmont or Myers-Wilkins; Scenario 3 keeps the language programs but also retains a few neighborhood students, and Scenario 2 splits the difference and moves the Ojibwe program to Stowe while leaving Spanish at Lowell. Scenario 3 has the added wrinkle of splitting the Lowell elementary population between the two middle and high schools, a situation the other scenarios avoid. The Lowell scenarios invite questions over the future of where Duluth Heights and Kenwood (and even bits of Hunters Park and Chester Park) fit into the picture and where to house the language programs. The former one is a complicated one that I won’t delve into here, and I’d need data on where the participating students come from to have an opinion on the latter.

Second, and more controversial, is the middle and high school boundary. Right now, enrollments are significantly higher in the east side schools than those on the west, a result of a decision made in the Red Plan days that somewhat balanced socioeconomics. All three proposed plans now seek to equalize enrollments. Scenario 2 is effectively what the Red Plan could have been with more equal overall enrollments: all Myers-Wilkins students (who currently split between east and west) head west, all Homecroft kids (now including the rural bits that currently feed into Lowell) head east, and the socioeconomic split becomes slightly more pronounced than it currently is. Scenarios 1 and 3 take a step toward equalizing socioeconomics by sending Homecroft kids, including the entirety of the Woodland neighborhood, west, while sending all of Myers-Wilkins to the east. The potential Woodland shift has, predictably, been the most explosive piece of the proposals.

Equity, Equality, and Outcomes

The question of the different demographics in schools sparks a debate about equity and equality, two words that get thrown around a lot in school boundary debates but mean very different things. The easiest way to sum up the difference: equality gives people the same resources regardless of where they all, while equity recognizes inherent differences in where people start and tries to balance them by giving more to those who need more, and (potentially) less to those who start with more. The recent debate about compensatory education dollars doled out by the state to help correct differences between socioeconomic groups, which had previously been divided equally among schools (the same amount per pupil per school) but are now divided more equitably by school (higher amounts to schools with more students are in disadvantaged groups and lower amounts to schools with less) is a good illustration of this divide.

In graduate school, I took a class from Myron Orfield, one of the foremost scholarly proponents of court-ordered integration in public schools. Predictably, Orfield has his share of critics from the right, who question things like anti-segregation busing or creative line drawing in the name of equality as overwrought social engineering. By the time I was in his classroom, however, the most vocal of Orfield’s opponents were coming from the left, and they usually framed their beef in a racial lens. These critics questioned whether mixing people together in the name of integration was a good in and of itself, and argued that shipping kids of color to more white schools in the belief that exposure to kids at such schools would somehow lift their performance was actually rather insulting to students of color. Instead, these critics argue, districts should invest more resources in neighborhood schools that acknowledge and lift up the culture of the people of color. In oversimplified terms, Orfield was a proponent for equality; his new critics wanted equity.

There’s a key difference in the Duluth proposals: by sending Woodland kids on a bus journey across the city to Lincoln Park and Denfeld, ISD 709 wouldn’t be busing kids from low-income families to more affluent schools; it would be doing the reverse. Several people in my circles who I’d generally describe as relatively well-off liberals really like this: they recognize their kids enjoy advantages that won’t fade away if they go to Lincoln Park instead of Ordean East, and they want to send them to mixed schools that reflect the general makeup of the country (or, at least, the area) that they will encounter when they complete their K-12 educations. The loud, angry reactions from Woodland were certainly predictable, though, as were the more practical concerns about logistics and drive times. As the Star Tribune pithily noted, the one thing the attendees at a workshop at Duluth East could agree on was that they didn’t like any of the options.

Fundamentally, these debates run directly along the most pronounced fissures in American society and asks a profound question: can an increasingly diverse school district in an increasingly economically divided metro area find some way to draw lines to mend the fences? Without launching into a discourse on Robert Putnam’s findings on diversity and social trust or the various competing contact and conflict theories of diverse societies, I’ll just say this: diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic, is complicated. And it should be if we acknowledge the full range of human possibility, and that complication deserves respect. In cases like this, I think it’s helpful to strip away the overarching theory for a moment and look at the incentives that changes might create.

What Incentives Do Boundaries Create?

School boundaries are, of course, one tool that communities can control that can shape their divides. But is drawing lines in ways that aim toward balance the best way to achieve that? (When court-ordered across a metropolitan area Orfield’s evidence would say yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here: people have a lot of other choices.) And is there merit in working to have a critical mass of kids from certain backgrounds in the same place so that they can build a community and so that it becomes easier to deliver any additional support they may need? (If so, what exactly is this “group” we’re talking about?) For that matter, how would the various scenarios affect things such as compensatory education dollars? Redrawing boundaries could reshape the district in myriad ways.

If I sound more cautionary about district-driven integration than one might assume given some of my past writings, part of the reason has to be lived experience: when the Red Plan went into place, it too sought to equalize elementary school enrollments, but trends have not gone the way its architects expected. Some of this is only natural; it’s hard to predict the future, and as many in and around the district have noted, boundaries are something schools should revisit periodically.

But Duluth’s trends over the past ten years were not particularly hard to foresee. The two most affluent elementary schools, riding their reputation, became overcrowded; many of the lowest-income schools, meanwhile, bled kids. I’d need access to more data to say whether this is a product of open enrollment out of the district on the west side or families with kids consciously choosing to live in Congdon or Lakeside—most likely it’s some combination of the two—but it’s a pretty obvious trend. People will vote with their feet no matter where the lines are drawn. The question, then, is how individual schools can act in ways that attract students instead of pushing them out.

I don’t think this observation necessarily has obvious implications. Would Scenario 1 or 3 lead Woodland families to bail on the district, either by enrolling elsewhere or chopping Woodland of the list of neighborhoods they consider? It’s a very real possibility. Or do enough stay put and thereby create positive feedback loops into the western schools, thereby strengthening them (assuming one believes they actually need to be “strengthened”) and leading fewer families to bail out into Hermantown or Wrenshall or private or charter schools? We have a decade worth of data on those enrollment trends from other neighborhoods post-Red Plan to inform forecasts of what might happen here. Whichever option the district chooses, it needs to rely on more than a wishful belief in good intentions.

Fear for the Future

The questions surrounding the Woodland debate feed into a broader trend I observe so often now, whether in school choice or in any number of realms, from youth athletics to friend circles, that affect children’s futures. The logic of late capitalism has led child management for positive outcomes to become a second job, and parents will spend as much of their resources as they can to seek what they believe to be better. I don’t doubt that this has always been true to some extent, just as Duluth has always been divided between east and west, but it seems so much more pronounced now: there is a fundamental panic that things might go wrong, the product of a precarious society where even the well-off do not feel comfortable in their stations. Some west side parents feel forced to defend their choice to send their kids to the neighborhood schools as if it were a risky proposition.

This precarious world is a product of a socioeconomic climate where parents are scared their kids won’t be able to match or exceed their parents’ living standards. In an environment filled with choice, people panic that if they do not make the right choice, they may be setting their children up for failure. They may or may not be right, but perception is reality, and the need to choose correctly creates self-reinforcing loops. In this environment, the typical parent who does not live diversity and socioeconomic theory (and even a healthy number who do) will make the choices that most minimize risk of the concerns they have. They will, once again, vote with their feet.

Part of me wants to roll my eyes at this endless push. On a certain level, kids will be fine; unless it is a truly chaotic environment where no learning can take place, the evidence is pretty clear that factors beyond schools play much bigger roles in kids’ prospects than what goes on in the building itself. In my volunteer role as a college admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I’ve seen no evidence that talented kids with good support networks can’t make it in to the Georgetowns of the world, no matter where in the Duluth area they go to high school. But can I pretend that some of these considerations aren’t present as I decide which neighborhoods to focus on when I buy a house in this city sometime this year? No, I can’t.

School boundary discussions are wicked problems with no easy solutions, perhaps because we can’t quite agree on the question. Even the most committed, well-meaning believers in an integrated society struggle with where to draw lines, literal and figurative, for their own children. To that end, maybe it’s best that we pause and remember what lines cannot do: they cannot reverse people’s opinions on social and economic divides; they cannot make well-off kids dumber or turn students from hopelessly broken homes into college-bound scholars. Maybe that can offer some reassurance to both those in panic over potential changes and the full-throated believers in the transformative power of integration. Still, those who ultimately draw the lines have the task of managing the process with care and understanding for all of the people—and through them, the very fabric of a community—their decisions affect. May they choose well.