Return of the Hounds?

6 Feb

Little did we know that a miserable February trip Forest Lake would be the last Duluth East hockey game until January 2021, an ugly wound left to fester for two extra months. The intervening period had little to offer from a high school hockey perspective: stop-and-start summer activity, a halfhearted bridge league, another lengthy pause right when it seemed like we might be ready to go. Now we have hockey, albeit in near-empty arenas and with ubiquitous masks, leaving the game a shell of the spectacle it should be. But it is hockey nonetheless, and as one of the fortunate few able to attend games, I am resolved to make the most of it.

The delay only added the mystery around a team in year two of an unfamiliar rebuilding cycle. While last season had its question marks at the start, the Duluth East senior class of 2020 was, at least, reasonably deep, and we had some idea of what we would get. Before things came apart toward the end, they basically were what I’d expected: a team ranked in the 20-25 range in the state, capable of some surprise showings against the state’s best and ugly defeats, a potential thorn but no front-line contender. Most of the leading scorers off last season’s edition have graduated and moved on.

Those departures might imply the team is due for an even darker 2021, but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. For starters, the program is still plenty deep, and another respectable senior class has stepped forward to fill some of the holes. Players like Dylan and Brady Gray and William Weinkauf aren’t going to put up massive numbers, but they are going to forecheck hard and apply a work ethic that can get results; Garrett Johnson has size and a hard shot, and Matthew Locker has settled into a steady role. Zarley Ziemski is capable of being a very productive high school player.

The real reason for excitement, though, comes in the younger classes. Kaden Nelson, the headliner in the junior class, has taken a step forward and looks like he can be a force up front; he leads the team in scoring through six games. There were flashes of brilliance from Cole Christian as a freshman, but it didn’t add up to a whole ton of production; now, he is starting to collect the points, and at times the offense seems to run strictly through his creativity. Several times a game, Christian leaves me laughing with delight as he does ridiculous things with the puck in tight spaces, his puck control on par with that of anyone who has come out of this program in my time watching. Freshman Wyatt Peterson showed some instant potential with the first goal on the season; Aidan Spenningsby and Henry Murray give the team the makings of a capable defense, showing flashes and collecting points. The versatile Grant Winkler, meanwhile, has a hint of Phil Beaulieu in his ability to play just about any role, and as a sophomore is starting to make this team his own. Two young goaltenders, Zander Ziemski and Dane Callaway, both have shown plenty of promising signs.

How good the Hounds actually are, though, remains a bit of a mystery. They are 4-1-1 through six games, but only one came against a front-line opponent, and while there are glimmers, there has been nothing sustained enough for me to think this is a top 20 team in 2021. The Hounds tied the best Denfeld team in decades out of the gates in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair. Their sole loss to date came at the hands of Grand Rapids, the frontrunner in 7AA, in which they came out in a painfully cynical forecheck. For a period it almost worked; they stuck around and created some halfway decent chances, but it swiftly became inane once Rapids went up, and the ultimate 3-0 result belied an effort that generated nothing in the way of offense and triggered my Forest Lake PTSD. Beyond that, the Hounds have plugged along against middling competition, logging wins over Superior, Brainerd, and Cloquet twice. They’re good, workmanlike showings, and help restore some degree of the order that slipped away late last season.

With that base of success to work with, they will now need to step it up in the coming weeks as the schedule grows more difficult. First up is Hermantown, as a long-running cold war lifts, at least temporarily; from an East perspective, one could hardly think of a worse season to meet the Class A juggernaut from the suburban swamp behind the mall once again. It will likely be ugly. After that they visit Minnetonka, and after a reset against some of the local competition they’re stuck with in a travel-limited season, Moorhead, St. Thomas, Roseau, and rematches with Rapids and Hermantown fill out a decent enough schedule given the circumstances.

Another Covid-era quirk means the Hounds basically already know their playoff fate. With 7AA splitting into northern and southern playoff brackets, East is all but assured the 2-seed in the north, making for a fourth meeting with Cloquet in the quarterfinals for the right to have a semifinal date with Rapids. The destination is clear enough; the path they take there is the only question, as we look for signs of progression and competitiveness. To do that, the program needs to resist the chaos and get players into roles where they’re set up to succeed. With that, we can get a sense of just how much this Hounds group could grow, and if we might be looking ahead toward a return to the lofty standards of the past.

Farewell, Aunt Kat

2 Feb

My Aunt Kathleen, aged 69, passed away this past week.

I knew Aunt Kat least well of my mom’s eleven siblings. I’m not sure how different it could have been, a reality that eats at someone ever inclined to probe the depths. She had suffered, her body broken down by some of the demons she’d faced, and she was who she was. I did not know her before any of that. Her story there is not one I know well, and it is not my place to tell it.

By the time my memory of Aunt Kat starts, she had become a steady constant amid the endless party of my extended family. She arrived early to every family gathering and stuck through them, often settling into a corner with my grandmother or a few other confidantes, ever composed and calm, head propped up by her arm as she held forth with her gravelly voice. Even if she wasn’t okay, she probably said she was okay, taking care of things at her deliberate pace, baking her famed brownies and, of course, collecting yet more Peanuts memorabilia. She diligently sent her nieces and nephews gifts and clip art cards for Christmas and for birthdays, her loyalty to her sprawling extended clan unwavering. (The final one I got still hangs in my kitchen, and will stay there for some time.)

Her faith was her solace and her eternal compass through what she endured, her very literal saving grace. Too many people who fall into holes do not have guides back out, but Aunt Kat did, and it kept her going for decades. Perhaps the only memory of her I have away from a larger family gathering comes from a night when I attended a Midnight Mass with her and my mother as a kid. I remember nothing of the service—I was, if memory serves, enjoying a novel excuse to stay up late—but I remember her at prayer.

Aunt Kat got out and saw much of the world, did a few cruises on her own; she kept that going right up until the end, with a perhaps over-ambitious final voyage not long before Covid shut down the world. In her final year she shared some of those memories on what became a weekly family Zoom, putting up past pictures of journeys I’d never known she’d taken. Thanks to those Zooms, I had the pleasure of seeing her more often over the past year than at any other point in my life, and at some point I registered how pleased she was to see me on those calls semi-regularly, perhaps providing a vicarious window after I bought a house or flitted off to St. Thomas. I never tapped it fully, but there was plenty of wealth tucked away in that mind, rich in experience from her travels and the network of friends I knew little about before the stories shared after her passing.

Aunt Kat’s death was not Covid-driven, but the pandemic still robbed us of a vital ritual, that great outpouring of collective grief that has come with other family deaths. I tuned in to the live-streamed funeral Mass from my home office, where I watched the backs of the heads of a few family members scattered about a church in Illinois; after the pallbearers exited, I clicked out of the video and promptly joined a completely unrelated virtual meeting already in progress. This is not exactly what closure looks like.

Thankfully, the family piled on to another Zoom in the evening for a virtual wake of sorts. A few more memories poured out, interspersed with discussions of the estate; naturally, she’d tidied up her affairs and left things in good order. (The tidiness of the house she left her two godsons, on the other hand, is a different story.) There were pleasant drifts in to topics far more mundane. Many were not quite ready to talk, still processing a looming absence in our midst. The eldest of the nine Maloney sisters is gone now, but she is seared into the minds of her clan.

For me, that final image is of her in the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. We were in town for a family wedding, passing the time between functions and touring the town I would soon come to call a temporary home. It was a warm summer day, and she’d walked a long way; she was seated on a chair in the shade, resplendent in red, tired, but content. At the end of a road of uncommon perseverance lies grace. She had arrived.

Twelve Takes on a Transition

24 Jan

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

USVI III: Tropic Solitaire

13 Jan

Part 1 | Part 2

Early in the pandemic, I resolved not to let 2020 be a lost year. I mostly succeeded. I bought a house, managed a great summer trip, strengthened some local ties, filled my newfound downtime with some productive and athletic pursuits, and tacked on this spontaneous Caribbean adventure at the end. It was a trying year at times, certainly; never have world events felt so immediate, in spite of my isolation, and the pandemic put my most pressing search into a deeply unsatisfying pause. But I came through it all the same, and the Virgin Islands provide some catharsis ahead of a quest for more satisfying releases in 2021.

When I went on this summer’s road trip, I went with pretensions of grand discovery. I got a sense of it, perhaps, but little more. Before I left for this one, though, I looked back on how I started 2020 and realized I already wrote the only beach story I needed to write for the foreseeable future. I am not on a plaintive search for anything besides the obvious sun, surf, and rum. I can zone out as I gaze into the waves, write down little nothings, let this account come naturally over time, let it stand as a testament to two weeks of freeing, clarifying escape in a strange era.

Traveling alone is nothing new for me, but that travel usually comes in a tent, not in a L’Esperance. Seeing the view, a friend calls me Citizen Kane, though I’ve arrived at this Xanadu merely through good fortune and general competence. I also undertake this journey amid an ongoing pandemic, which comes with obvious limitations. Many Virgin Islands activities, given the weather and buildings designed to beckon in the breeze, can go on with only minor changes; a beach is still a beach, and there’s plenty of space on the ones here. But with a few exceptions, there are fewer opportunities for a long afternoon of casual banter at the bar, or a night out on the town: except one somewhat later ferry ride back from St. John, I’m back at my hilltop perch for the sunset each night. With a view like this, why not?

Even in paradise, life settles into the same rhythms of the past nine months, albeit with better Zoom backgrounds and more novel diversions. I start my mornings in the exercise room; when the internet goes down briefly one day, I hop in the pool until it reboots. I rotate my work stations between the great room couch and the pool house and the kitchen counter, while evening reading or writing happens on other stray patios or seating areas. On nighttime Zoom calls, the fauna are so loud that one friend thinks an alarm is beeping in the background; dog barks and rooster crows give the night some life. For a few days during the first week, a vicious wind rips across Flag Hill. Said flag whips in the wind outside my window, and I settle into a rhythm of trade wind management, bartering between cool air flow and keeping my work papers from flying off to Venezuela. I spend inordinate amounts of time locating kitchen implements and figuring out which light switch is where.

My job proves entirely doable from thousands of miles away. I miss my second screen and feel an odd limbo in being two hours ahead of my work calendar on central time, but any annoyances are fleeting. At one point, my distance even proves beneficial, as most of the internet goes down in Duluth while I can jump in and manage a focus group with my pretentious background. (I got in a debate with the woman I meet at the St. John brewery: do we rub our tropical lives in, or try to hide it with blank wall backgrounds?) On the flip side, malfunctioning data tools are just as anger-inducing whether one has snowbanks or palm trees in one’s backyard. Work ends, happy hour begins, and I rinse and repeat the cycle the next day.

I mostly cook for myself in the villa, forking over the price for food commanded by an island that must import practically everything. I do chance a few meals out, most memorably at Duffy’s Love Shack, an open air tiki bar and a Red Hook institution that proved educational for nine-year-old Karl when his adult companions got “lei’d” here for ordering exotic drinks. Sadly, this time around, its confines feature just five tables and my lonely stool at a bar; the fun drink glasses have been replaced by plastic cups for the duration of the pandemic, and the mechanical shark gazes down on the proceedings in forlorn silence. I settle for enjoying the ever-colorful view of the parking lot around Duffy’s. Just in front of me, a college-age girl vomits in a bush (this is four in the afternoon); across the street, a security guard and a few good Samaritans chase down and corner a shoplifter. “Dinner and a show,” muses the woman at the next table.

My solitude continues on New Year’s Eve, a strange night to be alone. After wrapping up a Zoom around 11:00 local time, I launch a cathartic solo dance party to a college-era playlist, then head down to the pool deck and dive in at midnight. The pandemic has killed the usual festivities at the cable car platform just around the hill, but stray fireworks erupt here and there across Charlotte Amalie, while a villa below me supplies a soundtrack and another launches a few lanterns into the sky. Car horns honk, and somewhere, a lonely flute player pumps out Auld Lang Syne. Later, a drum circle erupts down the hill, and I stand out in the prow of the balcony and revel in my perch above it all.

I get plenty of reading done, from Zadie Smith short stories to some grazing off my aunt and uncle’s shelves: a book on St. John, an autobiography of the paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey, a brief delighted dive into some convenient Wallace Stegner. On the weightier side, I give myself equal doses Jerusalem and Athens: first, through Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the blur of divine ecstasy under the moonlight, and later, as I move toward a return to my earthlier concerns, yet another return to Hannah Arendt and The Human Condition. At the end of the dream is action, and a time to begin.

It is an incongruous time to enjoy two weeks in paradise. The pandemic rages on, and several close friends or their spouses contract the coronavirus while I am on St. Thomas. Others in my life are consumed by work, lockdowns, or other various annoyances. Early in my stay, my 94-year-old grandmother’s intestinal woes lead to a touch-and-go emergency surgery; with characteristic steadiness, she plows through it and is on the road to recovery. To sit and talk to a hospital-bound woman who can count the number of times she has left Wisconsin in her life on one hand is a jarring contrast for her grandson who alights to villas atop Caribbean islands on a whim. Toward the end of my stay, I find myself watching a news feed of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol while helping facilitate a tribal entrepreneurial focus group taking place in Minnesota while gazing out on the sun-splashed harbor of Charlotte Amalie. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?

A less self-assured soul might feel some guilt over the good fortune that allows me to enjoy these two weeks in paradise. But throughout this trip, as I knew it would be, my composure is basically a constant state, even with chaos elsewhere. I’d like to think this is some new equanimity, but history suggests there will still be lurches, and a little well-timed anxiety can be a healthy corrective at times. But if that ferocious ambivalence is the threshold of freedom, I took another step toward the door on this trip.

At times, this adventure just feeds my wanderlust. The sailors I meet on the Ram’s Head on St. John bring to mind C.P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem anyone returning home from a great journey should revisit: that freedom to put into “harbors new to your eyes” isn’t limited to the ancients, is something I too could do in a sailboat down the Antilles to keep this dream alive. There’s so much of the world I have yet to see. Someday, perhaps. But fixating on that as the end goal would miss the point. “It’s been one my best escapes ever, but escaping alone ain’t life,” I text my Duluth brain trust on my final night.

The fisherman I talk with on the Hull Bay beach tells me of his lifelong escape: endless surfing and fishing, traveling up and down the island chain, a home on the hill peeking out over the bay. “Living the dream,” I tell him; “I never need to act for anyone,” he assures me. It’s a dream, yes, but not my dream. I am here to play that game, to accept different roles on different stages, to know that my life contains multitudes, not some essential trait that I can find if I boil everything else away under the Caribbean sun. But there are moments when it all coheres, when all the different threads twist together, and whether they come on a picturesque ruin on St. John or on a moonlit ski trail in Lester Park, they show how to fend off any lurking demons and open up the complete range of possibility. And so, refreshed and tanned and one step further along a twisting, potholed island road, I begin anew.

USVI II: Beached

11 Jan

Part One is here.

The pandemic may drain people away from the crowded shopping streets of Caribbean islands, but life prostrate on a towel has the same allure it always does. Here we are free to get sand all over ourselves and glug mouthfuls of saltwater, to sweat unnecessarily and court the inevitable sunburn. This is, of course, the point. During my two weeks on St. Thomas, I sample beaches both old and new to me in my ventures outward, plus add two days of hiking on neighboring St. John. Each venture ends with a seat in the sand or a swim in the sea, a beached state of bliss that kills worries nearly as well as the rum.

On one of my first free days on the island I head to the far west end of St. Thomas. Here, the arching island tumbles down to a gated community kind enough to allow the unwashed masses to sign in at the guard hut. From there, it’s a little over a mile by foot down the road past some obscenely large houses to the westernmost point on the island. Its name is the Mermaid’s Chair, and while I never quite figure out if I should be looking for seated mermaids on the spit of land that gets covered at high tide or beneath the lone palm tree on the little isle connected by the spit or on the rocks where waves crash beyond it, the place provides a serene respite. The sunset here is sublime, and the waves crash harder than anywhere else on St. Thomas. It’s not really a beach in the traditional sense, but I find some shade behind a rock and wade into a small inlet and along through the surf, alone here at the seeming end of the earth.

My second St. Thomas beach may not be a pristine beauty, but it has the best vibe of the ones I’ve sampled. Hull Bay on the island’s north shore sits somewhere between the solitude of a St. John beach and the built-up resort offerings. If the beachside bar hadn’t been sadly shut down, it would have taken me back to Puerto Escondido. When I arrive late morning, the only occupants seem to be locals. I chat with a commercial fisherman who is measuring out his kite and learn the basics of fishing these waters. Two men with metal detectors make their way up and down the beach, while a child associated with them digs a hole to Tibet in the sand. I join two middle-aged surf bums in incredulous gawking as a pristine-looking yacht tender plows straight into the beach so it can disgorge a few picnickers. Nonplussed, its pilot and an assistant work their way off the sand with some haphazard pushing and rocking, and in time head out on their merry way. “The year is only ten hours old and we have a contender for dumbass of the year,” says one of the surf bums.

Hull Bay has a reputation as a surfing beach, though only two people venture out while I’m there. The first is a teenage boy who looks every bit the surf star with a shock of sun-bleached curls, but after a few tentative steps into the breakers he settles for swimming out into the calmest part of the bay and riding his board back in on his chest before calling it quits. The second is a greying stand-up paddleboarder who stays out on the larger swells for at least two hours, bobbing away on the horizon. Score one for those of us advancing in age. The fisherman says I look like a surfer; in a different life, perhaps, I muse.

There isn’t much in the way of surfing on Magens Bay, the giant bite out of the north side of St. Thomas and its most famous beach. It’s a busy one, but large enough that people can strew themselves out along its length and splash around in the gentle turquoise waters. I traipse from one end to the other and admire the bodies on display, skimpy bikinis and pretty boy swag, plus some things that people would be better off putting away. It’s been too long since I last sampled humanity in this way. That night in bed, I feel the rocking sensation of the bay’s waves carrying me off to sleep.

Secret Harbor, which protects its secrets with about 40 speed bumps and a parking lot unnecessarily atop a hill nowhere near the beach, is an intimate stretch of sand, the sort that would be great with a group but leaves me feeling exposed when there alone. Snorkelers work their way out to its convenient reef, and the blasé servers at the seaside restaurant eventually get around to feeding me. I vaguely regret heading here on my final full day instead of ponying up for the ferry to neighboring St. John for a third time, but a little unfulfilled desire can’t hurt. I’ll be back for Maho Bay some other day.

A second stop that day, Smith Bay, restores me to my beach equilibrium. Sure, my newly developed beach snobbery leads me to conclude it’s nothing special. But there is plenty of shade, and both local and tourist families splash about in its waters and snorkel out to its buoys. Sailboats work their way back and forth into the bay, and I wrap up a book in peace and solitude. It’s a fitting final destination, though not this trip’s apex. On the drive back, I cast one last look of longing toward the island where dreams and reality blurred on this trip.

That place would be St. John, a sparsely populated isle half an hour to the east of St. Thomas by ferry. The city of Cruz Bay, its main gateway for ferry traffic from St. Thomas, is a couple of clusters of shops near the docks, and then a series of villas clinging to the hills up above it. Beyond that, the majority of the land is devoted to the Virgin Islands National Park, and after I escape the ferry traffic, I head straight for the hills.

St. John’s roads are even more painfully tortured than those of St. Thomas; I’m not sure whether to admire the engineers for their accomplishments or recommend them to the asylum. Being a driver on St. John deprives one of some marvelous scenery, since one’s eyes are always fixed on the next hairpin turn and leerily checking that tailgating garbage truck in the rear view mirror. Additional obstacles include a leisurely herd of goats, a monstrous feral pig, and some burros who look miffed when a car traveling the opposite direction gets too close. The pace of life on St. John is a world apart.

The Reef Bay Trail is one of the island’s best-known hikes, and it plunges some 900 feet from Centerline Road along the spine of the island to its namesake bay on the south shore. Ruins line the route: pull back the jungle on St. John and you find a less serene part of the Virgin Islands’ history than its pastel buildings and its cobblestone streets. Like most of the Caribbean, they were once a hub of the slave trade, and the ruins of its sprawling estates litter the landscape: a crumbling wall here, an old storehouse there, a cluster of old homes back in the thicket. Right before the Reef Bay beach is an old sugar factory, whose owners kept it going on steam power after abolition. And for truly deep roots, a side trail leads to a trickling waterfall and a pair of pools beneath some petroglyphs from the pre-Columbian Taino, who drew themselves a cartoon squid his crustacean friends. On the way back up I see how fast I can move in tropical heat, my sweatiness unnerving some not-particularly-fit hikers I meet near the top of the ridge.

On the far southeast end of St. John, a crowded trailhead leads down to the Salt Pond Beach, an idyllic, calm cove that hosts a small armada of snorkelers. I join a family who has sailed here from Georgia for a few false starts further down the beach as we seek out the Ram’s Head Trail, which climbs over to a rocky beach before ascending a bluff that juts out into the sea and gives 360-degree views. There’s little shade, and when I get back to Salt Pond Beach, I am content to lounge in the shade away from the water’s edge, a second sweaty journey of the day complete. Yes, I think, St. John is worth the hype.

St. John’s greatest gems may be on its north shore, the white sand beaches of Hawksnest, Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. The road here is stupidly pretty; the second-best North Shore on earth, I crack to friends back on another one now covered in snow. My birthday destination, however, is the end of the road at Annaberg, where the ruins of St. John’s largest plantation sit in repose over Leinster Bay. I follow a trail along the beach for a bit over a mile and briefly thrash around the ruins at the base of the hill where the trail turns away from the famed snorkeling spot of Waterlemon Bay. I first found this trail when volunteering with the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, on an outing for which we chopped out some of the brush along the trail and the ruins here; now, the jungle is encroaching again. Sufficiently scratched up by the undergrowth, I switch up to the ruined foundations of the Windy Hill House, the estate that once lorded over this whole expanse.

From there, I set out on a loop that takes me over the ridge from the north shore to the large southeastern bite out of St. John named Coral Bay. I follow the Brown Bay Trail further along the shore to another small beach a bit over a mile beyond. I have this one to myself, and tuck in beneath its encroaching undergrowth for a few minutes of shade. I only see one person on this entire trail, a relentless trail runner with whom I share a sweaty grin as we crest the hill with views both north and south. A few more ruins lie off the side near the end of the trail, which dumps me out on a road that runs along the East End peninsula. From there, it’s another mile along pavement through the hamlet of Zootenvaal, the easternmost reach of the United States.

I come to crossroads of Coral Bay, a collection of houses up on the hill and rundown shacks along the road, placid in the midday heat. I’d hoped to stop for a snack and to down some water next to its historic Moravian church, but the burros have occupied the spot beneath the one shady tree. Resigned, I turn and march 500 feet directly up a relentless grade; this is allegedly a road, but I’m not sure any vehicle could survive this thing. Naturally, the sun comes back out for its most intense burst of heat of the day while I’m slogging up. I crest the hill and saunter down the Johnny Horn Trail, which carries me back to the Windy Hill Great House.

I stop for lunch on a shaded set of steps on the ruins of the estate. The old house’s perch may be unbeatable: Leinster Bay and its sailboats to the left, Tortola of the British Virgin Islands across the Sir Francis Drake Passage to the right, shapely Great Thatch and quaint Little Thatch in front, and beyond it, Jost Van Dyke. The ruins are shrouded in pink flowers (which are, alas, an invasive Mexican creeper), its past lives as an overlord of slaves and a boarding house and a reform school now taken back by the wilds of St. John. A light rain pushes through, and I welcome the cleansing shower. I snack away, sip at a flask of rum, jot down a few notes, and attain something resembling nirvana.

At the bottom of the hill, I strip off my sweat-caked shirt and wade into the bay. I edge out gingerly, leery of urchins, and then strike out to a depth where I can float and tread water in peace. A few fish flit past my ankles, and I peer into the depths in this snorkeling haven as well as I can without goggles. A few motorboats come and go. The sun drifts in and out from behind the clouds. Hikers process up and down the beach in no real rush. I wonder just how long I can tread water, even though I know I must move on.

When a large family occupies the beach directly next to my bag, I decide it’s time to leave Leinster Bay behind. I do so with great reluctance. I stick with flip-flops for the beachfront stroll back to the car, where I change out of my sweaty hiking gear and take a brief spin through the Annaberg plantation. On a previous visit, it was packed, with docents and a little booth where a woman served juice from the plantation’s old kitchen; today, it is just me and a picnicking couple. Last time, I remember standing here, transfixed by a vista through the branches of a tree toward the sea; today, I find that spot again and internalize it as deeply as I can.

I make my way back into Cruz Bay. After a parking odyssey, I find the St. John Brewing Company’s tap room, which is tucked away on an upper level of the labyrinthine Mongoose Junction shopping area. The beer does the job, and I befriend Jim and Kate from Connecticut at the next table, the three of us reveling at the joys of dining in a restaurant and working remotely. How we’ve all missed this spontaneity, this liberation afforded by the most pristine of Virgins.

I take the ferry back at sunset. I’m at once hungry for more and fully satisfied: I could spend weeks on St. John, most likely, but I drank enough from its well on this trip to keep me going for years. How can I miss a place that provides a window unto eternity?

Part 3: Solitude in Paradise

USVI I: Among the Virgins

10 Jan

I am restless, cooped up by a grey Duluth winter and a pandemic that has stolen away my primary winter diversion. My days are inane circuits between my bedroom and my home office and my kitchen. I idly search for direct flights from Minneapolis, lusting for some affordable escape. To my surprise, Delta has just launched a new service to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here, I think, is a real option, and in a year that has snuffed out spontaneity, I decide to end with a burst of it. A few emails and a negative Covid test later, I make my way to the Virgin Islands for two weeks of sun and remote work.

The Virgin Islands are at the fulcrum of the Caribbean, the point where the Greater Antilles come to an end and swing southward to become the Lesser Antilles, the island chain that dangles down to South America. The British control the eastern islands, while the Danes sold the western collection to the United States in 1917. St. Thomas is the principal island of the bunch, home to the airport and the capital of Charlotte Amalie, which wraps around a large harbor that beckons in visitors in search of a tropical retreat.

The realm has its share of history, from ancient pictographs to exploration age outposts, from slave-filled plantations to a strategic sale to the U.S. during World War I. Charlotte Amalie bears the name of an old Danish queen, its strades and gades still evidence of that nation’s forgotten colonial phase. Blackbeard and Bluebeard had castles—or, at the very least, some stumpy turrets—here, and the city hosts a collection of pretty historic houses of worship. Now, however, most of that history is dead and buried, and this place exists as a great escape where Americans can enjoy the virtues of the Caribbean without sacrificing too many comforts of home. (Until one gets herded into the airport’s cattle pens on one’s departure, at least.) In normal times, as many as five cruise ships drop anchor in Charlotte Amalie, seemingly hundreds of jewelry and trinket shops lined up to greet them. These jagged islands have little flat ground, and not far from the top of the cable car up from the Havensight dock on Flag Hill sits L’Esperance, the villa that hosts me for my stay.

L’Esperance has a commanding perch from which to survey this realm. Its great room and patios provide sweeping views of the harbor to the west, where Charlotte Amalie rises from the waterfront like a red and white-spackled backsplash that fades into green as it works its way up the hill. The main floor bedrooms peek down the east side, giving the property views of the sea in three directions. I open the hurricane shutters and sliding doors to beckon in the sweet trade winds, which ease their way between balconies on either side of the villa through the glassed-in arcade: no conditioned air here. Every evening, the sun plunges to the horizon in the west, lighting up the whole harbor below me; on a rainy morning, rainbows erupt here and there. I could stare at this view for eternity.

My experience of St. Thomas is, of course, exceptional. The island is in a state of development limbo, a paradise found and hardly virginal anymore. The Virgin Islands are the last eastward outpost of the American empire, a colonial leftover that welcomes in thousands of Americans for vacations or second (or third or fifth) homes. Charlotte Amalie may be the only city in the traditional sense, but there are urban clusters around the east end ferry docks at Red Hook and in the built-up inland portions where one finds box stores and more basic necessities than those on offer at the duty-free shops along the wharves. Pothole-riddled roads strewn about the hills like haphazard silly string connect these clusters of homes. Resorts sprawl along the beachfront, while villas cling to the hills in varying levels of precarity, with only the steepest slopes remaining untouched.

Between the waterfront beaches and the hillside villas, a majority-Black, high poverty population clusters in cement apartment blocks or trailer-size homes along highways or tucked in the nooks of the hills. On my first full day, I go out for a spin to get used to left side driving and get momentarily lost in the back alleys of Charlotte Amalie. I bump around a maze through crumbling concrete homes, their paint chipped away, men shuffling around and sitting on stoops. Circling the islands’ roads makes me wonder if there are more broken vehicles than functional ones in the territory. Beauty and sorrow move in tandem.

The Virgin Islands are propped up by tourism, which, as is its wont, creates plenty of seasonal sales jobs but far fewer career paths or high incomes. Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which decimated Puerto Rico, also punished the islands and left part of L’Esperance’s great room temporarily roofless. The islands have weathered the pandemic well enough from a health perspective, but the economic toll took out the tail end of last year’s tourist season and has drastically altered the start of this one. No cruise ships ply the harbor this winter, and many of the tourist traps in Charlotte Amalie are shuttered. But life goes on; the usual regatta of sailboats and yachts dots the sea below me, and the rental car guy tells me their business has not suffered at all. Grocery stores conduct temperature checks, beaches close at four on weekends, and I retreat to the social distance of the villa.

Despite these travails, St. Thomas makes its way back to the dreamy lull of paradise. I’m told a hotel or two are still rebuilding, but I see no real evidence of the hurricane at haunts for tourists. Some of the locals’ homes are still looking pockmarked or covered in tarps, but the damage is quickly being paved over or fading away. The vegetation has come back with a vengeance. The lush tropics swallow everything back up, always growing but never really changing. Even the spurts of activity like the intense pandemic watchfulness come from an instinct to keep things as they are, not to change. The ecosystem reverts to stasis.

This is my sixth time in the Virgin Islands, a repeat destination made possible by the generosity of an aunt and uncle who own L’Esperance. The first visit came as a nine-year-old, back when they were still a little ways down the hill in a villa named Overlook, my first trip away from the U.S. mainland. I came again in high school and twice in college, and, most recently prior to this trip, as a first-year graduate student over New Year’s 2014-2015. This time I come alone.

The islands haven’t changed drastically over those twenty-two years. A few more villas and bigger cruise ships and a couple of new breweries, perhaps, but many places look as they did in my mind’s eye from the past. The temperature still oscillates in the same range of highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid-70s, days after day. The occasional unpredictable rainstorm erupts so as to reward us with some rainbows. Beaches remain beaches. The sea and cliffs still collide all around the islands, setting up those stunning views back from every angle. Scores of Americans arrive each year in search of the same things.

I, meanwhile, have changed. As a nine-year-old haunted by recent loss, I was content to ogle the views and the beaches and use this first trip into the unknown as a foundation for my fictional world-building. Later, on a return trip immediately after a semester in Mexico City, I felt like I’d gone right back: the people were Black and not brown and spoke English instead of Spanish, but the colorful, narrow streets and the gated outposts and the urban slums were just what I’d come to know south of the border. Now, as a working adult, I blur my worlds: remote worker, wilderness seeker, lover of a spontaneous party, amateur sociologist, history buff, single boy on a beach. My return to St. Thomas is a return to bliss, an escape I’ve had the great fortune to enjoy at times when life called for renewal or reflection and just a simple dose of fun. At the start of 2021, I come again for all those reasons, certain I’ll find it all because I know it’s all right here.

Part 2: Beach life in the Virgin Islands.

A Christmas on Pause

25 Dec

This Christmas is defined by absence. No work parties, no glances out my office window at a lit-up Bentleyville. No hockey games for collective celebration. No explosion of family exuberance on the far south side of Chicago; no wine tasting, no off-key caroling, no vats of meat or Brandy Alexanders. No meet-ups with old friends who are also in the Windy City. No train ride north to Milwaukee, no venture into my dad’s family’s roots, no quiet Christmas Eve among the cats at my grandma’s place in rural Wisconsin.

Until the week of Christmas, no snow, either. A bleak, grey Duluth December, a steely lake beneath ominous clouds, my 2020 running regimen steady to the bitter end. A dash through Irving and Fairmount out west feels like a run through a Rust Belt coffee table book, the drab conditions drawing my eyes to the drabber houses, the color that can light up the west side washed out in a winter rain. I head home to sit and stare at Zoom for a few more hours, more restless than ever, ever so exhausted of staring at my own face yet again. I summon various friends on walks; I dive back into the meme-filled text strings that have passed as my social life for much of this year. My stir-craziness hatches an impulsive plot. (More on that in a week or so.)

When winter finally hits, life arises anew. Backyard rinks pop up all over Duluth. I ski Lester Park after a dump of snow on the Solstice. It is neither lit nor groomed, and after the first partial circuit I shut off my headlamp and plow along by moonlight. I know this course well enough to ski it blindfolded, and in darkness I can catch more anyway, my eyes free to see beyond a few lit feet in front of me. The moon pierces through and glints in the trees’ snowy sheen, brings its beauty down to earth, freshens this year of toil. A good, old-fashioned blizzard hits the night of the 23rd, and I watch the snow cake on to the windows of my house and listen to my furnace chug away as it tries to keep up with the plummeting temperature, and think, yes, this is home.

I dig myself out the next morning, head to Hartley for an afternoon ski. It’s frigid, barely above zero, and at times here I’m breaking fresh snow, but no gust of wind can ruin the moment. A few quick kicks and I’m cruising in comfort, zipping down the hills, a course to myself. If a Christmas must be solitary, let it be beautiful. For once, social media becomes not a political cesspool but a collection of people I’m fond of finding paths to goodness, to little joys, to some panache amid the ruins. Christmas Eve with my dad, Christmas Day with my mom, two constants grounded in reality instead of virtuality. If I had to be anywhere for a pandemic, I’m glad it is here.

Home each night, I go back to the well that keeps me going, night after night. Some Christmas fiction from my college days, for my eyes only; old essays on my own journeys this time of year. Finally, two stream-of-consciousness accounts, one of my usual Christmas circuit some years back, one of a trip to Minneapolis during this season the year after I finished grad school. We were all just striking out on our own, gathering amid a snowstorm in a farewell party for one of our number, the night ending at Liquor Lyle’s as they always did in those days. A few people I visited on that trip were expecting or had just had first children; now, some of those same families’ Christmas cards hang from my walls with second children on display.

My tour through wisdom from Christmases past ends with The Human Condition, a return to those words on birth and renewal, on beginning anew and making good on hope. And so we pause now, acknowledge the past and make peace in the present, and turn our eyes toward what comes next. “Action is, in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth…must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.”

Merry Christmas.

Pandemic Rankings: Players of the Past 15 Years

20 Dec

In this week’s pandemic rankings, I come up with a top 15 skaters of the past 15 years. Because this was hard, the honorable mention list also includes 15 players. This list emphasizes high school performance; if a kid was a high-round pick but didn’t have an exceptional high school performance, he probably doesn’t make the list.

[u]15 Honorable Mentions[/u]

Joey Benik, St. Francis (2010)

-Benik scored 65 goals as a senior in 2010 and ranks sixth on the state’s all-time points list and second in goals. He was also a case study in what a great player can do on an otherwise awful team; while the Saints played a thin schedule and were never better than a 6-seed in 7AA, he went on to a strong college career to prove his success was no fluke.

Jake Randolph, Duluth East (2012)

-Flip a coin between Randolph and his linemate Dom Toninato here; Toninato, with his size and two-way play, was the better pro prospect, but I’m going with Randolph here for his great high school productivity, which made him the de facto runner up to Justin Kloos for Mr. Hockey in 2012.

Zach Yon, Roseau (2014)

-Yon delighted when the Rams made the Tourney in 2014, working with linemate Alex Strand to come tantalizingly close to an upset of Lakeville North in the first round. Avery Peterson won Mr. Hockey this year, but Yon made a compelling case in his performance at State.

Jake Bischoff, Grand Rapids (2013)

-A star on both ends of the ice, Bischoff teamed with a couple of other skilled players like the aforementioned Peterson and Hunter Shepard to lead Rapids’ rise early in the teens and came ever-so-close in two 7AA finals.

Ryan Poehling, Lakeville North (2016)

-The Poehlings are hard to handle here; they were arguably the greatest line of this era, but it can be hard to pull out their individual accomplishments. (A similar problem plagues the great Grand Rapids line of 2017, whose best two players left early.) Ryan makes the list because he was always the most hyped of the bunch, and had a chance to prove his dominance in his junior/accelerated senior year in 2016, when North was a top 5 team for most of the season but got done in by Farmington in the playoffs.

Tommy Novak, St. Thomas Academy (2013)*

-Not many players on this list left high school early; it’s hard to build up enough credentials without the productivity of a senior season. Novak is an exception to that rule with his flashy two seasons at St. Thomas, where he won it all twice and scored a game-winner with six seconds left against Hermantown in 2013. Bruce Plante is still recovering.

Nick Wolff, Eagan (2014)

-Wolff was a heavyweight who rarely came off the ice and played a key role in guiding Eagan to one of its best ever finishes, a surprise third place run in 2014 that came after a few deeper teams had fallen short.

Riley Tufte, Blaine (2016)

-Just a great, solid power forward who took his team to a Tourney in 2015 but came up short as a senior.

Garrett Worth, Duluth East (2018)

-As with Randolph above, there’s a case here for Worth’s more complete linemate, Ryder Donovan. But I’m going with Worth because of his level of influence and unique skillset. As a pure goal-scorer, the ever-adventurous Worth has maybe only one peer on this list, and he backed that up with a great State Tournament performance in 2018.

Josh Ludtke, Minnetonka (2019)

-The leader of a state championship Skipper team, Ludtke paired with Grant Docter to make for one of the greatest defensive pairs of this era.

Luc Snuggerud, Eden Prairie (2014)

-2014 was a banner year for defensemen, and Snuggerud was one of the most offensively skilled blueliners of this era. He left it all on the ice in his Eagles’ double-overtime loss to Lakeville North in the state semis that year.

Phil Beaulieu, Duluth East (2014)

-The smooth-skating Beaulieu made things look effortless and is largely responsible for extending East’s reign over 7AA in 2013 and 2014. He was rostered on four Tourney teams, all of which won two games while there.

Matt Gleason, Cretin-Derham Hall (2020)

-The most prolific forward of the post-Mittelstadt era, Gleason recorded over 200 points on some Cretin teams that were pretty good, but struggled to break through in challenging sections.

Tyler Nanne, Edina (2014)

-Nanne was probably the most essential member of the Hornets’ back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, and his big hits in the 2014 rout of Lakeville North are my enduring memory of that one. He had a bit of help with that supporting cast, of course, but

Dylan Samberg, Hermantown (2017)

-Samberg was the greatest Hermantown player over this period, and he has a state championship-winning goal to his name to boot. Under his watch, the Hawks finally shook the bridesmaid status that plagued them in the years before and that has returned somewhat since.

[u]The Top 15[/u]

15. Nick Bjugstad, Blaine (2010)

-Bjugstad’s Bengals never quite achieved the Tourney glory of some of the other teams on this list—his final year in high school saw an upset loss to Apple Valley at State—but that takes nothing away from his dominance, which included 181 points despite accelerating his senior year.

14. Sammy Walker, Edina (2018)

-Walker made a name for himself when he was one of the best players on the ice in the 2015 Tournament, and by the end of his time at Edina, he was the leader of one of the most lethal offenses the state has ever produced. The one regret: he never added his name to that list of Hornet state champions, as his seasons ended in two semifinal losses to Duluth East sandwiched around two section final losses (one upsetting, one not) to Wayzata.

13. Hank Sorensen, Wayzata (2016)*

-Few players had high school careers as entertaining as Sorensen, whose physical play led Wayzata to its upset of Eden Prairie in the 2016 championship game. No one hit harder or changed the complexion of a game more by the mere fact of his physical presence, and for that, he makes the list.

12. Ben Hanowski, Little Falls (2009)

-This Little Falls Flyer electrified the state in the late 00s, and he later proved he was no small-school flash in the pan after high school as well. His name litters the record books, including career points (405), career goals (196), and points in a single season (135). He carried his team to four Tourneys; they won their first-round game twice and gave St. Thomas its best test in 2008 despite the unfortunate first round draw. They never could crack through to a final, though, as the undefeated Flyers fell in a clunker to Breck in his senior season.

11. Dylan Malmquist, Edina (2015)

-A two-time state champion and the offensive leader of the Hornets’ dominant run during the middle of the decade. While not as great a pro prospect as his 2015 teammate Sammy Walker, he is the all-time leading scorer in the state’s most decorated program. Could they have won three in a row if he’d been able to go against East in 2015?

10. Pat White, Grand Rapids (2007)

-Few players took the State Tournament by storm as much as Patrick White, who carried a couple of Rapids teams that didn’t have stunning depth to back-to-back runner-up finishes. His teams came out of very deep 7AAs and knocked off arguably the top team in the field both years, beating Hill-Murray in the 2006 semifinals and Edina in the 2007 quarterfinals.

9. Justin Kloos, Lakeville South (2012)

-Kloos’s 238 points across three seasons against pretty good schedules at South put him in select company. His team wasn’t as strong as some of those of his compatriots here, but he was the architect of a great State Tournament upset and got a third-place finish for his efforts. His 103 points as a senior are the most for a AA player in the two-class era, with the asterisk that Dave Spehar had two fewer in three fewer games in 1995.

8. Brock Nelson, Warroad (2010)

-Nelson is the greatest player to come out of a Class A school over the past 15 years, and it really isn’t close. He put up absurd point totals and carried Warroad to three Tourneys, finishing third twice and second once.

7. Anders Lee, St. Thomas Academy/Edina (2009)

-A five-time State Tournament entrant and the best transfer in the history of high school hockey, Lee was one of the state’s greats both during and after his high school days. He won it all as a freshman at St. Thomas in 2006, but couldn’t tip some great Edina classes over the top after that.

6. Nick Leddy, Eden Prairie (2009)

-It was pretty simple: when Leddy was on the ice in 2009, the other team didn’t score. He carried an otherwise sophomore-dominated team to a title that season, scoring a goal in the title game win over Moorhead.

5. Aaron Ness, Roseau (2008)

-As entertaining a defenseman as the state has ever produced, Ness owned both ends of the rink in high school. He took home a state title in 2007, though the dream of a repeat and an undefeated season came up short the next year.

4. Grant Besse, Benilde-St. Margaret’s (2013)

-The state’s greatest goal-scorer of the past 15 years wrote his name into the record books in the 2012 Tourney, when he scored five times in the title game against Hill-Murray. His 163 goals against good AA competition made him a modern-day Dave Spehar.

3. Ryan McDonagh, Cretin-Derham Hall (2007)

-After a run of forwards from #7-#12 on this list, there are a bunch of defensemen near the top here, as a dominant high school defenseman can rack up absurd minutes and completely control a game. I’m putting McDonagh at the head of that list, as he carried his Raiders to a title despite not having an Edina or Eden Prairie-style supporting cast. Like the two players immediately behind him on this list, he won it all as a junior but came up short on an arguably better team as a senior.

2. Kyle Rau, Eden Prairie (2011)

-Rau simply is Minnesota’s Mr. High School Hockey: a two-time state champion, both as a sophomore alongside Leddy in 2009 and with his deep core of senior sidekicks in 2011, where he scored the most famous goal of this stretch on a diving effort in triple overtime. His story is what dreams are made of. He, Leddy, Nanne, and Samberg in Class A are the only four players on this list who won it all as seniors, showing just how hard that dream is even for the best.

1. Casey Mittelstadt, Eden Prairie (2017)

-No player was as total in his ability to do insane things than Casey Mittelstadt, whose offensive skillset is unrivaled in this era. He put up 204 points over three seasons of Lake Conference hockey and took his team to three Tourneys, where they were twice the top seed. The one knock, of course: Casey never won it all, while the five players right below him on this list did. Should it be enough to drop him? In my book, no, but it’s an open debate.

Pandemic Rankings: Mascot Edition

13 Dec

In this week’s edition of random Sunday morning pandemic rankings, I rank and categorize every active boys’ high school hockey program’s mascot, plus a handful from recent history. We’ll roll through a bunch of categories before we get to the authoritative top 15.

Nameless Wonders

We start with the mascots that don’t exist: some co-ops have decided to not even bother with one. In some ways I prefer this to a meteorological or celestial phenomenon glued on top of a group of schools with their own unique mascots, which seems to be the standard operating procedure for co-ops.

Minneapolis

Minnesota River

The Inane

These schools take pride in stating the obvious.

Prior Lake Lakers

Detroit Lakes Lakers

White Bear Lake Bears

St. Francis Saints

Red Wing Wingers

Buffalo Bison

Elk River Elks

-This one is the winner of this category: not only is it inane, it’s grammatically wrong. The plural of elk is elk. Unless they were naming themselves after the fraternal organization, I guess, in which case their mascot should be a group of 70-year-old dudes running a bingo game or something.

Mixed Messaging

Am I supposed to be intimidated or amused by these ones? Nobody knows!

Stillwater Ponies

-There has to be a good origin story here.

Winona Winhawks

Grand Rapids Thunderhawks

-Slapping prefixes on to poor, unsuspecting hawks is a surprisingly common theme.

Thief River Falls Prowlers

-Is it a cat, or something more…questionable?

Burnsville Blaze

-Like Grand Rapids, a replacement for a now decommissioned Native American mascot; unclear if a reference to a fire or a subtle nod to the use of an illicit substance.

Kittson Central Bearcats

-Is it a bear, or is it a cat? Actually, the proper name for it seems to be a binturong!

Flocking to Boredom

Birds, for some reason, make for attractive high school mascots. With ten entries, “Eagles” is the most common name in the state, though the southern part of the state sure loves its cardinals.

Apple Valley Eagles

Becker-Big Lake Eagles

Eden Prairie Eagles

New Ulm Eagles

Red Lake Falls Eagles

Rochester Lourdes Eagles

Totino-Grace Eagles

St. Cloud Apollo Eagles

Windom Eagles

Alexandria Cardinals

Coon Rapids Cardinals

Fairmont Cardinals

Luverne Cardinals

Redwood Valley Cardinals

Willmar Cardinals

Chaska Hawks

Hermantown Hawks

Faribault Falcons

Waseca Bluejays

East Ridge Raptors

-For the first several years of this school’s existence, I assumed this mascot was a dinosaur, and I was sorely disappointed when I learned it was just another stupid bird.

Osseo Orioles

St. Louis Park Orioles

Cat People

Like senile old ladies, high school mascots have way too many cats. Also, since when is a Royal a cat? All three teams named “Royals” are cats.

Chisago Lakes Wildcats

Dodge County Wildcats

Eagan Wildcats

Waconia Wildcats

Albert Lea Tigers

Delano Tigers

Farmington Tigers

Hutchinson Tigers

Marshall Tigers

St. Cloud Tech Tigers

Lakeville North Panthers

Park Rapids Panthers

Rochester Century Panthers

Spring Lake Park Panthers

Centennial Cougars

Lakeville South Cougars

Mankato East Cougars

St. Paul Como Park Cougars

Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars

Blaine Bengals

Legacy Christian Academy Lions

Providence Academy Lions

Hopkins Royals

Rogers Royals

Woodbury Royals

Shakopee Sabres

-Questionable, but their mascot is a saber-toothed tiger, so they get stuck here.

Dead Old Soldiers

Along with birds and cats, vague historic military references make for a large category.

Brainerd Warriors

Henry Sibley Warriors

-We’ll see if the name change for the high school changes the mascot. It wouldn’t hurt.

Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders

Greenway Raiders

Hastings Raiders

Northfield Raiders

Roseville Raiders

Crookston Pirates

Champlin Park Rebels

Moose Lake Rebels

St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders

Irondale Knights

St. Michael-Albertville Knights

Orono Spartans

Richfield Spartans

Rochester Mayo Spartans

Simley Spartans

St. Paul Academy Spartans

New Prague Trojans

Wayzata Trojans

Worthington Trojans

North Branch Vikings

Other Commonly Used Names

Say hello to various dogs, horses, frequently repeated animals, and meteorological or celestial phenomena. While not quite as common as all the birds and cats, these names evince little creativity.

Cambridge-Isanti Blue Jackets

Hibbing Bluejackets

-Is it one word, or two? The debate rages.

Andover Huskies

Owatonna Huskies

Pine City Dragons

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons

Blake Bears

Lake of the Woods Bears

Bagley Flyers

Northern Lakes Lightning

Eastview Lightning

Breckenridge/Wahpeton Blades

Forest Lake Rangers

Rock Ridge Wolverines

Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines

Chanhassen Storm

Morris/Benson Storm

North Shore Storm

Sauk Rapids-Rice Storm

Breck Mustangs

Mora Mustangs

Mounds View Mustangs

Robbinsdale Wings

Academy of Holy Angels Stars

River Lakes Stars

Prairie Centre North Stars

Southwest Christian/Richfield Stars

Adding Some Color

Some of these just slap an adjective on a boring mascot, but even that makes things much better, and some of the best—Scarlets, Crimson—do generate pretty strong images. I still don’t know what a Green Wave is.

Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears

Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights

Minnehaha Academy Redhawks

Mound-Westonka White Hawks

Maple Grove Crimson

Mankato West Scarlets

East Grand Forks Green Wave

More Unique, but Nothing Special

At least someone tried.

LaCrescent Lancers

Holy Family Fire

Park (Cottage Grove) Wolfpack

St. Thomas Academy Cadets

Virginia Blue Devils

Sartell-St. Stephen Sabres

-In Shakopee, sabres are cats; in Sartell, they are swords.

Tartan Titans

-Bonus points for alliteration.

Riding Reputation

These ones would be in the previous category, but they get bonus points for being iconic in hockey.

Edina Hornets

Hill-Murray Pioneers

Duluth East Greyhounds

Roseau Rams

Historical/Local Relevance

Call these the honorable mentions: they often aren’t the most creative names on earth, but at least they have some obvious tie to the school or local community that just makes sense, and they get credit for that. Some honor local blue-collar or ethnic roots, or, in Minnetonka’s case, white-collar yacht-piloting roots.

Austin Packers

South St. Paul Packers

Rosemount Irish

St. Paul Highland Park Scots

Bemidji Lumberjacks

Minnetonka Skippers

Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers

-Marshall is, indeed, on top of a hill; I go back and forth on whether this one is creative or belongs in the inane category.

Princeton Tigers

-How many people in Princeton get the reference with this one?

The Top 15

15. Rochester John Marshall Rockets

-I just like this one for no apparent reason.

14. Proctor Rails

-If your town was built around a railyard, you might as well have some fun with it.

13. Monticello Moose

-The Moose chant at the X a few years back made this one legendary.

12. Duluth Denfeld Hunters

-Fun fact: not named after people going hunting, but instead for a guy named Hunting.

11. Fergus Falls Otters

-This one is just…fun.

10. Anoka Tornadoes

-As is this one.

9. International Falls Broncos

-Not named for the animal, but for famous son Bronko Nagurski. A few bonus points for history.

8. Little Falls Flyers

-Another name that honors a local of historical significance, Charles Lindbergh.

7. Warroad Warriors

-It may seem like a generic name, but the backstory and living culture here gives it some serious cred.

6. North St. Paul Polars

-Second-best mascot image. RIP.

5. Cloquet Lumberjacks

-The lumberjack dude is pretty hard to beat, and somehow the purple makes it that much more endearing.

4. St. Paul Johnson Governors

-Could go in the “historic/local” category, but this is the best of the bunch.

3. Mahtomedi Zephyrs

-The west wind is a winner, both as a mascot and now on the ice.

2. Ely Timberwolves

Best mascot image out there.

1. Moorhead Spuds

-Could it be anything else?

Pandemic Rankings: Greatest Duluth East Regular Season Games, 2006-2020

6 Dec

As we settle into hockey quarantine, I find myself plagued by a compulsion to continue to rank things on Sunday mornings. My first take: the most memorable Duluth East regular season games over the 15ish years I’ve been following Hounds hockey. I plan to do something like this every week of what would be the hockey season until I can rank actual hockey teams again, and I promise that not all future takes will not be this East-centric.

As usual, I’m going to list 25 entries, with a top 15 ranked and ten honorable mentions though I’ll put them in reverse order to add to the drama or something.

The Honorable Mentions

Edina 3, Duluth East 1, 2008

-A random game of no great consequence, but I just remember this as an incredibly well-played, fairly even game between the eventual runner-up and a Hounds team that was finding its stride defensively. Edina’s Marshall Everson was the difference-maker with two goals, including a late one to put East away.

Duluth East 7, Superior 0, 2018

-Like the Edina 2008 game, this game probably won’t be one most people commit to memory. It stands more in my mind as one of aesthetic near-perfection, with the Hounds’ control about as a total as a team’s can be. I also have a strange fondness for watching games at Wessman Arena, where the high bank of stands just let the total domination unfold before me. It was a beauty to watch. Garrett Worth scored twice in a four-goal first period, while Austin Jouppi had himself a hat trick by the end as well.

Duluth East 7, Elk River 0, 2018

-It’s not often you see a seven-minute power play, but this game managed to achieve that. Austin Jouppi scored twice to pace a relentless Greyhound attack that had the Elks in a dour mood by the third period. East’s play down the stretch in 2018, as repeated games from that era on here will show, was probably the most complete late-season showing by a Hounds team in my time watching the program.

Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2008

-Get used to seeing these two team names on this list. This version wasn’t the most dramatic of the bunch, but a key victory late in one’s senior year is a good bet for the list, and this one, decided by Dillon Friday’s dump-in goal from center ice, secured the top seed for the Hounds.

Cloquet 3, Duluth East 0, 2006

-The gameplay of this one wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but in my memory, it is the East-Cloquet rivalry at its most fevered pitch, a time when going into the Lumberdome was a legitimately scary experience for an East student. At one point, the Cloquet fans threw a golf ball across the ice at us; in response, the ever impartial Cloquet security people ejected a few East kids for no real reason. To be fair, we probably deserved it for some of the things we were yelling.

Duluth East 4, Cloquet 0, 2011

-Like the 2006 game, this wasn’t a real thriller, but Jake Randolph going off on the Jacks was memorable, as was the on-ice scrum at the end featuring East-to-Cloquet transfer Nolan Meyer and a sophomore enforcer-in-the-making in Andrew Kerr.

Andover 7, Duluth East 1, 2020

-Ugly and not particularly surprising, given the teams’ respective talent levels, but this game was a decisive sign that East’s reign atop 7AA from 2018-2019 would be coming to a close.

Duluth East 6, Cloquet 1, 2009

-After a long string of frustration and tight games with their great rivals of the 00s, including a playoff thriller the Jacks won the season before, the Hounds busted out and buried Cloquet. It touched off a run of 12 East wins in a row over the Jacks before a loss in 2014 brought the rivalry back to a more competitive level. The fracas at the end was also the most dramatic of this era, with East leaving the ice before returning for the handshake line and a charming exchange of pleasantries between Mike Randolph and Dave Esse.

Andover 2, Duluth East 1, 2019

-This game was not a sign of things to come, as East avenged Andover’s first-ever win over the Hounds in sections, but it was a very entertaining, back-and-forth affair in front of a packed house in Andover. Luke Kron popped the overtime game-winner for the Huskies, temporarily avenging the section final loss the year before in this low-scoring game that started as a chess match but turned into a burnburner over time.

Edina 7, Duluth East 1, 2015

-I include this game simply for the shock value of how completely Edina dominated East, despite nine Hounds power plays. As I watched the stream from a couch in the Caribbean, I was ready to throw in the towel. A little over two months later, the Hounds would complete one of the most dramatic script-flips in the history of high school hockey.

The Top 15

15. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2017

-If Cloquet was East’s great rival in the 00s, then Grand Rapids took that title in the teens. This game drops down the list a bit because Grand Rapids was down a few players, and it sits sandwiched between the Thunderhawks’ thrilling section final wins in 2016 and 2017, but in this regular season meeting, the Hounds got some sweet, sweet revenge, who were paced by three-point nights from Garrett Worth and Ian Mageau.

14. Duluth East 4, Eden Prairie 3, 2011

-Add this to the string of games in this section that were fun, memorable, and a reverse of what would happen in the playoffs. In a game played at the newly opened Amsoil Arena, Dom Toninato won it for the Hounds in overtime, despite East being outshot 32-14. Toninato scored twice for the Hounds, while (who else?) Kyle Rau had two for the Eagles, including a tying goal with just under three minutes left in regulation. This one was just a sneak preview of the three-overtime thriller these two would give us that March.

13. Blaine 7, Duluth East 6, 2015

-This might have been the most dramatically see-sawing game I’ve ever seen. Blaine jumped out to a 3-0 lead, East fought back to go up 4-3, Blaine popped three more to lead 6-4, East tied it 6-6, then Blaine won it in overtime. While it was a loss, it was a sign of fight from an East team that was about to go on an epic playoff run. This was also the night some random dude named Danny Ryan sought me out and introduced himself to me. I had no memory of him when he re-introduced himself to me at the State Tournament a month later.

12. East 6, Cloquet 6, 2018

-Talent-wise, this was a game that shouldn’t have been this close, but it was also one of the most massively entertaining games I’ve ever watched. Cloquet came back from a 5-3 deficit to grab a 6-5 lead with 15 seconds remaining. The Hounds’ Brendan Baker then scored with three seconds and change left to salvage the affair. Two of the team’s five regular season blemishes in 2018 came at the hands of their rivals.

11. Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2006

-Ryland Nelson’s overtime game-winner in front of thousands at the DECC avenged the 3-0 loss earlier this season and secured the top seed for East in one of the best seasons 7AA has ever had. The game was a nervy thriller, with Ben Leis making 36 saves for East in the win. He’d allow just one goal in the section semifinal matchup as well, but that time, the East offense drew a blank, and the Jacks collected the third of four playoff wins over East in the 00s.

10. Duluth East 4, Edina 1, 2013

-East’s seven-year reign over 7AA that began in 2009 could have easily come to an end in 2013, a season after the Hounds’ Tourney upset loss to Lakeville South. Rising Grand Rapids was at the Hounds’ heels, and the team came out to a pretty pedestrian start to the season. Then, in the second game of the Schwan Cup, the Hounds burst to life to defeat a favorite. The Hornets, however, would have the last laugh when these two teams met in a Tourney semifinal.

9. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2013

-If the aforementioned Edina win was the game that turned the 2013 season around, this late-season victory was the one that cemented the style of this Hounds edition. Their power play late in the season, which ran through defenseman Meirs Moore atop the umbrella, was perhaps the most lethal I’ve seen on a high school team: it hit 42% in the regular season that year, and this game was no exception, as Moore bombed away for an all-power play natural hat trick to overcome an early 2-0 deficit. This team wasn’t blessed with D-I talent (Moore and Phil Beaulieu were its only two), but those two defensemen and total team buy-in took this group a long way.

8. Duluth East 4, Maple Grove 1, 2012

-After beating #2 Minnetonka in the Schwan Cup Gold championship game, the top-ranked Hounds faced a second #2-ranked team the next week, and was every bit as convincing in victory. This one is lower in the rankings than the Minnetonka game since that Skipper team was legitimately better and because that game came in a tournament, but East’s puck control in this game was so thorough that it was what I had in mind when I picked a name for this a blog.

7. Grand Rapids 4, Duluth East 3, 2016

-An overlooked game, but an important one in retrospect: though Rapids had beaten East in the regular season in 2015, the Hounds’ win in sections that year showed they had something to prove. In regulation, it seemed like East might still have Rapids’ number, as the Hounds came back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits in the third period to force overtime. This time, however, the Thunderhawks found a way to win in overtime, which would set the tone for the next two section finals. East’s invincibility in close games against Rapids had come to a close. The unlikely hero for Rapids was defenseman Drake Anderson.

6. Minnetonka 9, Duluth East 3, 2012

-The great Hockey Day debacle: undefeated East went down in a heap at Pagel. There were a lot of asterisks at the time; East was down a bunch of players and the game had been moved indoors on fairly short notice due to bad ice on the planned outdoor rink, but it was the first warning sign that this dream season was not to be.

5. Duluth East 1, Cloquet 1, 2007

-Maybe the best-played of the great East-Cloquet duels of the late 00s that litter this list. The Jacks were down injured star forward Tyler Johnson, so if the Hounds were to grab the top seed in the section and avoid a semifinal clash with Grand Rapids, this was their chance. They didn’t quite do enough. The game was a goaltending clinic: Cloquet’s Reid Ellingson, that season’s Brimsek Award winner, made 53 saves, while East’s Ben Leis, no slouch in his own right, made 39. We thought this game would be a section final preview, but Grand Rapids had other ideas when it faced East in the semis.

4. Duluth East 1, Elk River 1, 2015

-The game I will forever remember as the 2-3 game: East, coming off a loss to Anoka and sitting at 10-9-2, the Hounds busted out their funky forecheck and played the clear 7AA favorite pretty even. Freshman Garrett Worth scored the Hounds’ lone goal, though we still need a replay on whether the Hounds’ effort in overtime went in the net. It was a preview of the Hounds’ double overtime win over the Elks in the 7AA final and the storybook playoff run that will follow. This was the night that turned the season around, and I walked out with a sneaking suspicion that this group might just pull something off.

3. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2018

-A delicious clash and preview of the eventual state championship game. A strong second period was the separator for the Hounds, who rode two Garrett Worth goals to a 3-1 lead that they hung on to in the 3rd. They wouldn’t repeat the feat at State, but for one night in January, East rose to #1 in the state for the first time since 2012.

2. Duluth East 6, Minnetonka 2, 2012

-Another battle for the top spot between the Hounds and Skippers, but this one was even more decisive, with East running out to a 2-0 lead after one and a 5-0 lead after two. Back when the Schwan Cup was a sort of midseason championship, this game was a coronation for the East team that, when on its form, was the most dominant one the Hounds have produced since the golden age of the late 90s. Ryan Lundgren scored both first period goals, while Dom Toninato had himself a four-point night at the X.

1. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2014

-Grand Rapids had reason to believe 2014 would be the year the Thunderhawks finally broke through. They had Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson up front and Frank Brimsek winner Hunter Shepard in net, both as seniors, and the supporting cast was nothing to sneeze at, either. Heading into this game at the IRA Civic Center, it was time for a Rapids team that had fallen just short in the 2013 section final to make a statement against an East team that didn’t have the overwhelming depth of talent of previous years. Phil Beaulieu and friends, however, had other ideas. Before long, the rout was on. For shock factor in a hostile environment against a rival, this one takes the cake.