This blog is now starting its ninth year of existence, and it had gone through its life without much in the way of upgrades. It had stuck with the same old color scheme that I never loved in the first place. The links list on the side was an increasingly dated reflection of my news consumption, and the archives section had grown unwieldy on all but the longest posts. Blogging as a pursuit has changed somewhat since 2013; the golden age is long over, and people have drifted off into new quarters in the changing media environment. Facebook appears to have de-algorithmed me (I guess I need more QAnon content for them to think my stuff is interesting), and my audience, outside of the hockey stuff and the spontaneous WordPress users who stumble upon some of my travel writing, is not growing.
As a result, I’ve decided it’s time for an overhaul. I spent some time considering different approaches to my writing life. I gave a little thought to starting a Substack, but I don’t think I have the time now to scale that up to the point where it would do what I want it to do. I considered spinning things off into their own locations: put the hockey stuff in another place, for example, while leaving this as a more personal sounding board. One of the joys of having varied interests is that they do not always sit comfortably together. For the time being, though, I have decided to stay the course.
That meant that we were at least in line for a cosmetic upgrade. I’ve simplified the design: just a good, old-fashioned serif font that puts all the focus on the text, not on any noise on the sides or the background. Black and white simplicity it is. Under the menu button, I’ve started putting in some links to posts with some of my more frequently used tags. My tagging practices over the years have been spotty, so it may take a while to get it in the sort of shape I want it. It’s hardly a priority.
What does this mean for content? Probably nothing that wasn’t part of this blog’s natural drift already. Hockey during the season and when newsworthy, travelogues when I venture outward, markers for other life events. Fiction when those lurching, months-in-the-making entries reach a point where I do not viscerally hate the idea of other humans reading them. Very, very occasional political commentary, offered in a detached and halfhearted tone; a tone not offered because I do not care, but because I believe that understanding requires that level of distance. And the occasional inane offering, too.
For now, at least, that’s where I am. It could all change next week, but inertia remains a powerful force, and this blog, for good or ill, has a fair amount of that behind it now. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself.
Never have I been so delighted to feel a bit off as I did this weekend. My second dose of Moderna left me not sick but exhausted, aching, and free, as if I’d just finished a punishing hike over terrain. A fitting emotion at the end of a strange, long year.
I received my first shot on March 11, the one-year anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic. My March 2020 had begun with the Minnesota boys’ state high school hockey tournament; here were rumblings of danger on the coasts and a vague sense that maybe we should wash our hands a little more often, but no sense that the world was about to change. (A few people I know insist they got the virus in the Xcel Center petri dish that week.). Just a few days later, a sense of doom lingered over my favorite coffee shop in Aurora, a portent that this time would be different. I stocked up on food and booze just before the mad rush began and settled in to my pandemic existence.
In that changed world, I carried on in the shadow of the two twin specters of the twenty-first century: solitude and existential uncertainty. These afflictions existed before the coronavirus pandemic, and for long periods of the past year, they did not figure in my life. I accepted my fate as a chronicler of interesting times, I ran a lot, and I settled into a slower but diligent routine. But the two malaises festered, dormant in the daily blur but apt to reappear on slow work days or lonely weekend nights.
I will start with the looming uncertainty, which became manageable quickly enough. The virus has not come for me or caused any serious illness in my extended family. No one particularly close to me has died, though I did catch the obituaries of a few more distant acquaintances, including my no-nonsense high school biology teacher, Jeanne Mendoza, whose lessons on mRNA crawled out of some recess of my mind on the drive back from the vaccination site in Eveleth. Like a soldier at war, I will remember this year as one of great tedium punctuated by the occasional outburst of excitement somewhere else.
The year was one of chaos and murkiness, even aside from the social and political turmoil that infected the United States. For all the easy morality tales, our understanding of how the virus spreads and kills remains stunningly poor. The failure to respond fell especially hard on the allegedly developed, scientifically inclined West. Public discourse became consumed by painful, simplistic narratives. On one side, a brash, often spoiled mob too bullheaded to understand any concept of personal sacrifice or common good steamrolled any hope for national solidarity in times of crisis. In response, a less damaging but still insidious crew of dithering scolds invoked capital-S Science for political ends and was deified for meeting the exceedingly low bar of appearing sober-minded. Meanwhile, most humans muddled through somewhere in between, taking reasonable precautions but also finding ways to keep up with family and maintain some semblance of sanity.
Through it all, I am strangely optimistic about the post-pandemic world. Change happens slowly, then all at once, and its shepherds are those who have the shrewdness and good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, not the most strident activists. In one fell swoop, the United States reversed course on its social safety net after 40 years of neglect and now seems willing to spend money to stop the drift toward hollowed-out towns and a caste system in which even the people on top don’t feel secure. Rapid vaccine development showed the power of research and development in a crisis and offers the promise of additional breakthroughs in realms beyond mindless tech stuff. This lurch will no doubt have its own obstacles and excesses, but the collective turn encourages me more than any immediate alternative.
The lingering effects of pandemic isolation, on the other hand, are at once easier to correct for and harder to see. I now head back toward a world of unrestrained gatherings with other people, but I don’t yet entirely know how the coronavirus changed me. People who spend time alone tend to develop a clearer sense of self, and this year has featured a lot of time alone. It accentuates inherent traits, both virtues and vices, and more often in some grey area in between that can be either, depending on the channels they take on their way out to the sea. In my case, I observed the resurgence of drive I have always had, at times a self-defeating stubbornness and at times a life-giving tenacity. It formed in long, dark nights in the back room of my old apartment, on lonely roads across the American West, as I moved to a new home, as work bled over the walls I’d set up to contain it, as I booked a trip to the Caribbean, and as I searched out ways to maintain a semblance of the social life I’d led before.
Isolation increases bipolarities. I have always been one to internalize conflict, and that tendency only became more pronounced when there was no one else to squabble with, even in the mildest of ways. I am now the sort of person who yells a lot of vulgarities at his computer, for wont of better company, and one who occasionally texts friends “fuck Zoom” with no additional context. I work to fight off the fear that post-pandemic life may not be so different after all, that it will take vital effort to resist the continued drift toward the anomie and virtual reality that consume sad, late capitalist lives. A lack of human distraction made me tenser, more likely to sink into doom loops of mindless consumption, and I was not surprised to find myself on blood pressure medication by the end. Even so, I grew increasingly turned off by the therapy-speak that filters through so much of the general media response to the virus. I wonder at what point an obsession with wellness reinforces a sense of unwellness.
This is not an endorsement of raw stoicism or the denial of pain. I have come out of my pandemic tunnel with a few scars, including the literal one on my knee from the day last May when I fell in heap on a run along Chester Creek. I crawled to my feet, bleeding from all four limbs, and assured the concerned walkers who witnessed my graceful dive that I was fine. I was somewhat less than fine, but I ran on home in spite of it. This, I think, is the vital distinction: I never sought to deny any of my own struggles of this past year. I preferred to get up and keep running.
I avoid describing my slowly growing freedom as normal, or worse, a new normal. The world is different now, just as it would have been with the passage of a year without a pandemic. The freedom afforded by a vaccination is not a return to a past life but a new beginning, a chance to appreciate the lessons of that scar on the knee, a chance to see not just more windows on to the world but a chance to once again immerse oneself, to lose oneself in a crowd and to find new value in things that had been beyond our reach. Let us live the way we were meant to live, in community with other people, and make the most of this jolt forward into new possibility.
A few hundred fans tuck in along one side of the rink. A few feeble mom yells ring out here and there. A student section of five makes as much noise as it can for the camera. Piped-in noise fills the void, draws more attention to the absence of the world we know. A late-night drive down Seventh Street finds the scene dead. Along comes litigation (unsuccessful) and a mask mandate (sporadically enforced). Groaning institutions built to keep things as they are try to adapt to challenges on the fly. This is the 2021 State Tourney, a strange simulacrum of the most Minnesotan of events. Never has it been like this before, and may it never look like this again.
The 2021 Tourney upended so much of what we assume. It turned Hermantown into the plucky fan favorite upstart and gave redemption to an Eden Prairie team haunted by the near-misses of the past decade. The Class A titlist opened a new era of hockey, the charter school with a not-so-subtle focus that turned a scattered collection of talent into an absolute machine. The two Section One entrants made finals, while the North bowed out early on. Protocols robbed us of two of the state’s great programs, and their absence will forever loom over our memories this year. But the games went on.
The Tourney’s hockey is great but its mystique comes from its pageantry, its simmering energy, the statewide jersey bingo game and the hormones seeping down from the upper deck, the rising cadence of chants and the high school girl scream that arises anytime the puck gets across the blue line late in an important game. Season ticket holders pass traditions down generations, while parties begin in hotel rooms and restaurants and on bus rides to St. Paul. Sure, Lou Nanne and Dave Wright and Jim Carroll were still there, and it all still ended with a video of great hair. Alas, a comfy couch and some Chad Greenway commercials only go so far. But the games, at least, went on.
The 2020 Tourney closed out normal life before the pandemic came to consume everything, and the 2021 version was a signal that this long, dark tunnel is nearing its end. It stripped away everything but the hockey, and thankfully, the hockey delivered. A bleach-blonde crew from Dodge County darted through the field with the elusiveness of its star, Brody Lamb. Little Falls’ feel-good story took home one win and may have nabbed some second if not for zebra intervention. East Grand Forks followed the necessary formula to make things interesting in the de facto Class A championship game, but Gentry Academy’s freight train eventually built up too much momentum, just as it did in every big game the Stars played. Every AA game had at least some level of intrigue into the third period, and the quarterfinals kept me glued, even as the favorites found their way through. Lakeville South, powered by an incisive top line and some surging sophomores, made its deepest run to date.
The most lasting on-ice memories came through Eden Prairie’s two great overtime affairs. Friday’s clash with Maple Grove, the renewal of a youth rivalry that featured the Tourney’s most hyped squads, provided the fastest pace and wildest two minutes of Tourney hockey I can remember. It will go down as one of the greatest games ever played, and sparse crowd will only add to its mystique: who among us made it in for that epic affair? Saturday night offered a more muted but equally nervy sequel, this time with a second extra session to drag the season on deeper into April. In both games the Eagle stars would not be denied, and a senior class that twice saw its dream fall short on Saturday night fulfilled its promise. Lee Smith, the finest players’ coach of his era, asked his ones to win it for him, and win it they did.
The exhaustion and punishment of the Tourney seemed even more obvious this season. First, there was Zam Plante, his face beet-red after fourteen straight minutes on the ice. Zam and his junior varsity Hawks were as gutted as any team after their loss, a quest to keep their teammates’ dream alive that encountered just a bit too much Lamb. In the overtime affairs, Carter Batchelder poured it all out: he put his team on his back in the Maple Grove game and willed his way through the championship game as his body failed him. After the title-winning goal, Jackson Blake looked more anguished than elated, his conquest bringing about a final great release. This was a year of perseverance, of powering through both small annoyances and great uncertainties, of finding ways to win in spite of the troubles that consumed so many of us.
In my own little corner of Tourney life, it is much the same. Among the Youth Hockey Hub crew there are few laments over limited credentials or deprivation of the usual pleasures. We just find new ways to make do and have fun with it, sprawled on a couch in Lowertown. A year of Zoom was adequate preparation for a livestreamed tailgate, and phone calls took the place of press conferences. I miss the spontaneous meet-ups with old friends, but my phone steadily explodes throughout the week and leaves me feebly trying to keep up. I feel more plugged in but less able to appreciate it all, wired into a network rather than full sensory immersion. It is a feeble imitation, but the failure to match the past is no reason not to push in on net with a Barrett Hall power move.
If feels discordant to watch the final day in shorts, this Tourney creeping later than it should, and I head home less tired than ever, spared the usual grind of arena entries and exits and long nights out, freed to keep up on life beyond hockey (yes, Minnesota, it does exist) through morning runs and a Thursday off day. I would say next year will bring us back to normal, but for all the pretense of tradition, no Tourney is ever quite normal. Certain patterns imprint themselves in our minds, come to define this week, but the hockey world shifts beneath us every year. It hurtles along, and we adapt or we die. But along the way there are still signposts, still some anchors in a liquid world that give it order, give it continuity, give off that warm sense of home among one’s own people. This Tourney managed some of them in spite of it all, and next year I will appreciate the rest more than ever.
To continue my series of 10-year reviews of past State Tournaments, we revisit 2011 this season. It was a juicy one: a senior-dominated Eden Prairie team of destiny, a powerful defending state champion in Edina, an up-and-coming Duluth East team, and a few genuine surprises such as White Bear Lake. There were four championship bracket overtime games across both classes, plus two more frenetic, high-scoring affairs on the Class A side. The two finals were among the best in either class, with Kyle Rau’s iconic dive coming to be one of the most memorable moments in Tourney history.
2011 featured a particularly competitive set of section tournaments. No one team dominated the regular season from start to finish, but Wayzata and Eden Prairie, guided by the state’s top two seniors (Tony Cameranesi and Kyle Rau) traded blows in 6AA over the course of the year. Eden Prairie, the preseason #1, got the last laugh when Rau scored in the second overtime in the section final. By the stretch run Hill-Murray had emerged as the consensus top-ranked team, but in one of the games of the decade, a scrappy White Bear Lake team came together at the right time, dodged an open net bullet in overtime, and went back to State courtesy of Mac Jansen. Defending champion Edina had to fight off an inspired Burnsville team to secure the 2AA title. A Blaine team reloading from a senior-heavy group toppled a top five Maple Grove team for a sixth trip to State in a row, while Grand Rapids fielded one of its deepest teams of the two-class era and saw a 1-0 lead with 1:30 left slip away into an overtime loss to Duluth East. And in another battle of two top ten-ish teams, Eagan held off defending 3AA champion Apple Valley 1-0 to earn a second ever trip to State.
The AA Tourney opened with the second-seeded defending champion Hornets, the star junior class that had carried them the year before now back as seniors, against Blaine. The Bengals weren’t the favorite they were some other seasons in that era, but after one period they were up 2-1, courtesy power play and shorthanded goals by two of the Brodzinski brothers, Michael and Jonny. Edina responded early in the second, though, with goals from Jake Sampson and Andy Jordahl, and generally controlled play from there. The Hornets were back in the semifinals, though not quite in convincing fashion.
Duluth East, which added a strong sophomore class to the now-juniors who had carried them to a fifth place finish the season before, drew the third seed and a meeting with surging White Bear Lake. The Hounds had the edge in play for much of the game, but for every punch, there was a counterpunch, and the Bears took the initiative in the third, very nearly securing that elusive first-round victory. Things settled down in overtime, however, and Zac Schendel slipped in the game-winner shortly into the second overtime. That five-frame affair was just one in a series of marathons for both teams: White Bear had played overtime in its section semifinal, both had played it in their finals, and both would play it again the next two days of the Tourney.
If the afternoon was entertaining, the night billing was something of a snoozefest. Lakeville North, fresh off an upset of Justin Kloos-led Lakeville South in the 1AA playoffs, was never really in the game with top-seeded Eden Prairie. In the nightcap, Moorhead stuck around with fourth-seeded Eagan, largely through the efforts of junior goaltender Michael Bitzer, who made 30 saves in a losing effort. While rarely seriously tested, the Wildcats took an early 1-0 lead and held it until just under five minutes left, when a second tally followed by two empty-netters led to a 4-0 final margin.
Friday night opened with a battle between Duluth East and Edina, the first of four semifinal clashes between the two powerhouses in an eight-year span. If not for what happened the next night, it would have been a true Tournament classic: two loaded teams playing at an elite level, probing back and forth in a tight affair. They traded goals early then settled in to an even battle into overtime, where an Alex Toscano shot caught a defenseman’s stick and soared behind Connor Girard three minutes and 54 second into the bonus frame. East headed to its first title game in 11 years, while a beleaguered Edina lost to Eagan in the third-place game.
The second semifinal, on the other hand, was not much of a contest. Eden Prairie went up 2-0 in the first through Luc Gerdes and Nic Seeler, and the Kyle Rau show followed that, as the Eagles ran the margin to 4-0 after two. The X emptied out as they finished off a 5-1 victory, and their deep senior class had a chance go out with a win for their Mr. Hockey winner, just as their team had done two years prior for Nick Leddy when many of these core players were sophomores.
The 2011 final was one of the greatest title games ever played. The Eagles and Hounds were evenly matched, trading chances back and forth, with Trevor Olson scoring twice for East and the Rath brothers, Mark and David, accounting for both Eagle tallies East defenseman Andrew Kerr put together a highlight reel of hits on Rau. Late in the 3rd, an injury to East defenseman Hunter Bergerson forced the Hounds to press a 4th-line forward, Kyle Campion, into regular shifts on defense. The game marched on through two overtimes and into a third, the two teams’ legs leaded and dragging. A dead-even game broke the only way it could: Rau dove and swatted at a loose puck, which trickled through goaltender JoJo Jeanetta’s legs, ricocheted off the pipe, off Kerr’s skate, and into the net.
Eden Prairie’s title was its second in three years, and the second for one of the most accomplished senior classes in recent high school hockey. It cemented Rau’s place in Minnesota lore and put the Eagles among the state’s elite, a place they would remain for the next decade. It was also a triumph for a group of seniors, many of whom could have played elsewhere during their senior seasons, but chose to come back and live out a dream together. They fulfilled that promise. East, meanwhile, would return almost entirely intact the next year in hopes of revenge; Eagan would return as well, while Edina would head into a quick reload to set the stage for future success.
In Class A, a relatively deep field emerged, albeit one with a clear pecking order. After two years of upsets at the hands of Mahtomedi, St. Thomas Academy returned to State, loaded as the top seed an in pursuit of a title. Hermantown, after a runner-up finish in 2010, was settling into a rhythm of producing consistent contenders for the crown. Two-time defending champion Breck made the dance as well, though they were somewhat diminished from the titlists of the previous two years. In section 8A, Thief River Falls pulled a mild upset of Warroad to head back to State, while in 6A, Alexandria went as a 5-seed in its section.
2011 turned in one of the most entertaining days of Class A quarterfinals in memory. While St. Thomas pasted New Ulm 13-2 and the Hermantown-Alexandria game is best remembered for a pregame skate to the line, the first day delivered two crowd-pleasing upsets for the first time in the seeded era. First, Hibbing, riding an emerging sophomore star in Adam Johnson, took down third-seeded Rochester Lourdes 4-0, an upset that relied on Johnson’s star power and a strong performance from Nathan Tromp in goal. And then, in the nightcap, Thief River Falls took down Breck 7-5 in a real crowd-pleaser of a game, with Breck building a 4-2 lead after two periods before the Prowlers erupted for four in a row. A late shorthanded goal from Tomas Lindstrom gave Breck some life, but an empty-netter sealed the Prowlers’ first championship bracket win since their 1965 state title.
The first semifinal had a similar flavor. Hermantown trotted out to a 4-1 lead over Hibbing . Adam Johnson then went off, however, scoring a natural hat trick in a span of three minutes over the late second and early third periods. The Hawks had the last laugh, though, as Andrew Mattson scored with just over a minute remaining, and an empty-netter sealed a 6-4 Hermantown win. St. Thomas, meanwhile, steamrolled Thief River Falls 5-0 in the second semi, though the Prowlers would rebound to win the third place game 3-0 the following day.
The 2011 Class A final was the first of three consecutive meetings between the Cadets and Hawks. On paper, it was a mismatch: Hermantown was a little on the young side, while St. Thomas was good everywhere in the lineup. But in the early going, it was all Hawks, as they wee up 3-0 7:05 into the game, largely through the efforts of Jared Thomas. St. Thomas turned up the pressure in a 19-shot second period; they pulled it to 3-2 before giving up another, then scored again with two minutes left in the period to head to the third down 4-3. Andrew Commers tied the game in the third, and the seesawing affair headed to overtime. There, Taylor Fleming proved the Cadets’ hero and gave the school its third Class A championship.
The game was only a preview of fun to come. Hermantown and St. Thomas would collide twice more in the final in the coming years, while Breck, while still a contender, would settle into a third-fiddle status in the following years. But 2011, in very dramatic fashion, belonged to Eden Prairie and St. Thomas Academy.
I asked my friend to describe the strangely named bar that he said was our destination for the night. He paused, frowned, and sought out the right analogy. “Well,” he said, “It’s as if a 50s diner met a hunting shack.”
So began my first visit to Liquor Lyle’s, an establishment just south of Hennepin Avenue’s corner with Franklin Avenue in the Wedge neighborhood of Minneapolis. A year later I moved into an apartment next door, and for my two years in the Twin Cities, Lyle’s became the hub of my social life, the one place that could summon a crowd with a simple text: “Lyle’s?” It hosted grad school study sessions and end-of-semester blowouts and many a nightcap after a long night on the town. A handful of young alumni turned it into a Georgetown bar when the Hoyas made the NCAA Tournament in 2015. Whenever one of us left the city, Lyle’s was the home to the last party, and after I went on my way, no return to Minneapolis was complete without at least one night in that dark, lovable hole. In town for a professional conference in Minneapolis some years ago, I dragged a group to the bar and blended a few of my worlds. After another day of state hockey, we would decamp there to relax, maybe lure in a few friends who weren’t into hockey to catch up with them, too. My last bar experience before the Covid-19 outbreak took me to Lyle’s after the last night of the 2020 Tourney. At least I know I was one of the last people to enjoy it.
Liquor Lyle’s was the platonic ideal of a dive bar. Its entrance was vaguely tomblike, a descent into an underworld lined by sparkly red vinyl booths. Above one sat a plaque commemorating a proposal from decades ago, a happy couple lording over revelers down the years. The grime from down the ages coated the black-and-white tiled floor. The graffiti along the urinal trough was first-class. The bartenders rarely changed, and the bouncer never did. (Curiously, he absolutely refused to accept passports as valid IDs, ruining one night with an out-of-town friend.) A tray of girl scout cookies always sat on the ledge by the door next to him, free for the taking.
Lyle’s welcomed everyone, and its human menagerie delighted those of us whose own crowds have always contained multitudes. Wander in at 4:00 on a weekday, and a group or regulars lined the rectangular bar, occupying stools they had probably occupied since the place opened in 1963. A grungy, musical crowd often crowded the booths toward the back of the main room. Sometimes the Uptown bros were out in force, or a bachelorette party rolled through near the end of the night. My roommate in the apartment where we lived next door, who had the bedroom in the corner of the building immediately opposite Lyle’s, occasionally enjoyed loud, drunken break-ups that were amusing enough to make up for the lost sleep. Sometimes, stepping out the next morning for an early run, I’d find a few dead soldiers on our front stoop. Never have I looked upon litter so fondly.
No matter how far my friends and I wandered in those years, the night ended at Lyle’s, a return to the homely comforts of its burgers and the Tetris Tots. Also on the menu was a mystery beer, though they discontinued that a few years back. (My friend J., who lived on the other side of the place, took home the last one they ever served.) The mystery beer was, inevitably, a Magic Hat. The bar’s most famous deal, however, were its ubiquitous two-for-ones, which actually proved problematic when the place briefly imposed a $10 limit to use credit cards. Can’t pay for your four drinks with a card? Ah well, what’s two more?
Two-for-one veterans knew always to ask for bottles to maximize volume. Grain Belt bottles, sometimes coated in dust, were my go-to: no other drink quite fit the mood of a Minneapolis dive. Woe unto the visitor who expected a high-end rail drink: the beer list was passable, but no one went to Lyle’s for the flavor. They went for the company. The Otter may have better karaoke and the Moose may have the wackiest crowd and the CC Club may have “Closing Time,” but no other bar quite fit the city like this old windowless gem, or provided the same sense of home.
As urban planners, my friends and I had a lingering fear that Lyle’s might not be long for the world. It was clearly a holdout from a different era, a funny little piece of dated real estate on a corridor that was enjoying a burst of density. The demise of Nye’s on the other side of downtown and the steady conversion of Uptown meant the writing was on the bathroom wall, most likely scratched in with an off-color joke. But we held out hope that Lyle’s would remain Lyle’s. Alas, it was not to be: Lyle’s is for sale now, uncertain whether it will survive in its present, precious form, felled in part by a changing city and a pandemic that has taken far too many sources of beauty from this world, but primarily, it seems, by the simple march of time for its aging owners.
For years from now, though, I will return stray nights at Lyle’s in my mind, trace back those old paths of a younger self. You and your crew toss open the door, wait as the bouncer whips out his mini-flashlight and strains to find some defect in your ID. Some football game is on in the bar, and the crowd erupts at all the right times. The bar overflows, its stools packed deep and a ring of thirsty standing around the edge. In the area behind the divide, a large group has pulled the tables together, may be midway through a game of Jenga with the set that required embarrassing or expensive tasks on each block removed from the tower. (If someone tried to pick you up at Lyle’s, there was half a chance your suitor would have a Jenga tile in hand.) Tish, the server in dreads and chains, fetches your beer at the table that forms your temporary home. In the back room, someone who has never shot a gun in his life is playing Big Buck Hunter, while the pool sharks put the rest of us in our places. Someone cranks Toto’s “Africa” on the jukebox and follows it with a string of bands from your youth. Two of your friends suddenly disappear, later to reveal themselves as a couple, love born at two for the price of one. Right there, on a barstool amid the cacophony, you just might find yourself spilling out your soul to a friend as you never have before. At closing time, the lights slowly come on, and your party works its way out to the sidewalk, where stray groups linger and jaw at each other in the night, awaiting their Ubers or readying their plods back down the streets of Uptown.
I’ve used this Nathan Heller quote on this blog before, but when I did so, the night I had in mind was most certainly one I had at Lyle’s:
The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled nineteen-twenties lawns, dazed sixties streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.
Over the past few months, I have plowed through two biographies of prominent Black men. I read them back-to-back not out of any specific design; they were both men who loomed as distant but intriguing figures in a certain era of my life, and they both happened to put out biographies at the same time. Reading both proved more taxing than my usual, perhaps because I am still trying to understand what led me to make the decisions I made toward the end of my time in the city that defined both of them, still imagining lives not lived, and forever intrigued by the shadows cast by giants.
I started with Barack Obama’s autobiography, A Promised Land. The former president’s tome is a doorstop that takes a feat of endurance to complete. At times the detail is excessive, but to err on this side is, I suppose, preferable to omission, and long-windedness lends itself to an added level of candor. For the political biography genre, it is uncommonly introspective. Obama explains how torn he was at certain moments, shows some of the strain of political celebrity on a man who wanted the freedom to roam the streets and to be an attentive husband and father. In the end, he finds ways to rationalize his courses of action, an apologia for a presidency that was far from perfect but managed to maintain its guiding lights.
Obama’s first term coincided with my full political awakening, his journey to Washington tracking on to my own in the fall of 2008, and I relived those years viscerally as I read his book. The formative events of his first term were the formative moments of my political education, my venture into my own Promised Land at Georgetown. Being in DC gave me a window to the party outside the White House on election night, and to that cold inaugural morning on the Mall. Sitting in the University of Minnesota Duluth library while home for the summer, ostensibly doing research for one of my Georgetown professors, I read up on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and started churning out a jumbled essay on meritocracy, which was my first step into this halfhearted world of punditry that I still inhabit. In the spring semester of 2011, fresh off a semester abroad and hungry for some proof that the arc of history still tilted toward freedom and liberal democracy, I glued myself to the nascent revolutions sparking across the Middle East. A feed of Al-Jazeera English, live from Tahrir Square, ran constantly in the background in my cozy hole of an off-campus bedroom, through hope-filled days and tumultuous nights and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring briefly living up to its name. A few months later, a loud exclamation from the living room of that same house led me downstairs to find my roommates gawking at the announcement that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden. I was in the seat of history, bound up with the trials and tribulations of the world my president wanted to make.
Despite the achievements of his first term, the world did not become the one Obama envisioned in his lofty words. This complication still gnaws at me, perhaps because some of Obama’s more prominent character traits map on to a few of my own. Always ready to listen, loyal to a fault, a man capable of grand words but whose default course through life tends to settle more on the side of what George Packer calls “ironic realism,” a dogged focus on the levers that are actually within one’s grasp. This instinct to campaign in poetry and govern in prose is a major part of why the 2008 election, which so many observers expected to be a landmark shift, turned out to be a very momentary high-water mark for the Democratic Party. Obama was not the transformative figure some of his supporters mistook him for, but simply being who he was proved enough to ignite a vicious opposition.
One of the most poignant moments come in Obama’s observations of Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India through much of his term. Singh is, in some ways, the hero of the triumphant quarter century of liberal democracy that ran from 1990 to 2015 or so. As India’s finance minister in the 1990s, he perhaps did more to lift people out of poverty than any human alive, and once he took control of the Lok Sabha, his administration was one of firm commitment to democracy and technocratic competence. He was, in a way, an elder statesman version of Obama: a member of a minority group with a fraught history vis-à-vis the national majority noted for his thoughtfulness and decency. But Singh’s faults were the faults of the era: he was the anointed caretaker of a political dynasty that was running out of gas, tinkering at the margins and creating a space for people to live their lives, but aspiring to no great change, “just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.” In this more aged version of himself overseeing a ricketier system, Obama begins to see, and is chilled by, just how easily it could go wrong. “Now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”
Some critics portray Obama’s cool realism as a failure, and certainly there are some aspects of that mentality that can lead to blindness over some of the forces that were at work at in American society at the same time. But an acceptance of limits is still one of the most mature traits a politician can have, and is why so many of the ones with a talent for soaring rhetoric and righteous Tweets prove rather ineffective at actually achieving any of the things they set out to achieve. The question, of course, becomes one of where that line is between ironic realism and a resignation that cuts off the possibility of any sort of achievement, and just how content one can be with incremental progress or a gradual turning of the ship.
The limitations of the Obama way of being has led me to explore alternatives, and a second book took me back to the same time period, but for very different reasons. John Thompson, Jr., the iconic Georgetown basketball coach who I eulogized on this blog after his passing last year, has published a posthumous autobiography, I Came as a Shadow. While co-written with Jesse Washington, it is most certainly in Big John’s voice: blunt, certain, unapologetic. The book traces his journey from Southeast DC projects to the Celtics to his long tenure at Georgetown, where I, as a sports-loving freshman, ate up the story of his reign over the Big East. But the book is less a basketball book than a treatise on race in America and one man’s journey to smash any and all obstacles that dynamic imposed upon him. “Who wants to be equal to the next guy?” he asks. “I want to kick his ass.”
Thompson proceeded to kick many asses during his tenure with the Hoyas, both as he whipped his own players into line and as the on-court results cemented his reputation as one of college basketball’s great head coaches. He did it amid a torrent of abuses, obvious and hidden. He wore glasses to look learned and forced his players into suits, the results of a lifelong process of studying the white man and learning to win on his terms; he reveals that his all-Black teams were not for a lack of effort to recruit white players. At times he seems like just a good partisan coach, as when he questions refs’ motivations. But while reading the book, I re-watched the 1984 national championship game, and was struck by how composed he was. He doesn’t come across as a screamer or a radical, and yet here he is, getting labeled “the Idi Amin of college basketball” because he was big and Black and had his big, Black players run a full-court press. (Thompson’s response to this charge is classic: “Amin was a Ugandan dictator who killed thousands of innocent people. I’m still trying to figure out who I’m supposed to have killed. Maybe Oregon State, because we beat them 69-45 to reach the Final Four.”) Above all else, he unsettled some observers because of the totality of his control.
Georgetown and Thompson were a fascinating odd couple: a Catholic school from a place famed for its establishment cocktail parties that went and hired a Black man who ran the nation’s most transgressive basketball program. Race, Thompson argues, is exactly the reason he was hired: he’d achieved some success as a coach in the DC area just as Georgetown was starting to think it had to do more for Black people in Washington in the aftermath of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Thompson allowed the school to check a lot of those boxes. Basketball played no small part in giving Georgetown its national reputation, and Georgetown gave Thompson a platform to prove himself right about everything he believed in. Thompson largely praises the Georgetown administrators who let him be himself, even as he casts his stare on the institutional constraints that both created Georgetown and keep it as it is. The book concludes with the revelation from several years ago that Georgetown sold a bunch of slaves in 1838 to preserve its existence, and with Thompson’s speculation that his own ancestors were almost certainly among those very slaves.
Thompson makes passing mention of his respect for the Obamas, and like the basketball-loving former president, the coach can see the complexities in American race relations and is much more nuanced than the 80s press sometimes made him out to be in popular imagination. But when it comes to ways of being in the world, it’s hard to imagine a much bigger gulf. Obama carefully calibrated everything he did, weighing options and testing waters, ever seeking that ideal of democratic consensus, wrestling with processes and seeking input and collaboration. Thompson, on the other hand, simply did things his way. Part of that divide probably just stems from the nature of their realms; at the end of the day, for all his justified insistence that he was more than a basketball coach, Thompson’s record still falls heavily on wins and losses, while judgments of Obama run through the much murkier and subjective world of politics. But Obama and Thompson come off as diametric opposites in temperament and approach.
Or were they? Both men are scholars at their core, with Obama’s Harvard Law instincts and Thompson’s undying insistence that his players come for the education. Both were trailblazers, but knew they had to do what they were doing on society’s terms: Thompson always speaks of studying the white man and learning his ways, while Obama’s broad appeal has its roots in an expansive view of the American Dream that has its most obvious roots in the very white realm of midcentury American liberalism. Both men were integrators, not assimilationists or among those who sought revolution. They wanted a world in which what they stood for was not radical at all.
That, however, was not the world in which Thompson or Obama lived. Their circumstances did not allow for such anonymous walks down the street. We could debate their methods and the extent of their successes ad nauseam; in fact, we should, and they would both probably appreciate recognition on those terms. But the reason I’m reading their biographies now is because of what they did in the face of a world that would not allow them that anonymity. It is because they had the insight to know their worlds were not quite right yet, and because they had the tenacity to use the tools before them to change those worlds. They were men in the arena.
Tonight is the opening round of the 7AA playoffs, but I’m sitting at home. The Duluth East hockey season came to an unceremonious end on Thursday, March 11. In a cruel irony, I’d just come home from my first vaccine shot when I got the news. The Hounds were done for 2021, slayed by the virus, and while there was some back-room wrangling to try to pull off a game tonight, it came to nothing. The protocols won out, and the East season came to an end.
The shutdown denied us a satisfying narrative to close out a tumultuous season. 2021 saw a lurching preseason, a month-and-a-half delay in the start of games, a mask mandate and empty arenas, and mass midseason defections from the East senior class. At 6-8-2, the Hounds logged their second straight losing season after decades upon decades of winning. At the same time, they were playing their best hockey toward the end, as evidenced by a loss to Grand Rapids that was competitive until the end and a battle with Hermantown that was tied until a fateful single play that led to a major penalty on which it slipped away. When this team maintained its discipline, it was proving it could be a royal pain to its more skilled rivals. What was this season? Was it going to be the year the Mike Randolph regime finally crumbled into chaos, as a team rejected his intense demands? Was it going to be yet another tale of East rallying behind a radical game plan to pull a stunning upset? We will never know.
For all the drama, though, this team was exactly what I thought it would be coming into the season. They did not beat a single team I expected them to lose to, and they did not lose to a single team I expected them to beat. The only semi-exception was a tie to Cloquet, which was unfortunate after two earlier wins but no grand shock in a rivalry game that was played three times in sixteen games. The youth movement did not surprise me, though the commitment to a third man high did, somewhat; I expected East to establish lines that I might come to see for the next two or three years, rather than the rotating cast that at times had the team struggling to get the right number of players on the ice. By the second Hermantown game, when the team seemed a bit more ambitious offensively, I finally had my finger on the end goal, the ends behind the means. But we never got to see them.
And so, as always, I thank the seniors: Dylan and Brady Gray, Zarley Ziemski, Garrett Johnson, Matthew Locker, Caleb Keenan, and George Rolfe. Aside, of course, from those who have suffered directly from the virus, there are no people who have more of my sympathy over the events of the past year than those in their high school and college years who have lost vital formative times they will never have back. To these ones, who persevered through this season and so much more, it must feel like a cruel joke to see the season stolen away just as it seemed like things were lurching back toward normalcy.
If the young core returns, the future of East hockey looks pretty bright in a more normal 2021-2022. The defensive corps in particular appears promising going forward, with a bunch of kids who were really rounding into their roles coming back. (I hope the two who spent much of this season in a positionless sort of limbo can settle into more natural roles.) The Hounds return a handful of forwards with genuine skill, and there are reinforcements on the horizon from the youth program. Both young goaltenders played reasonably well, giving the program viable options for several years to come there. If the top-end players continue to progress and the team can round out its lower lines with some good, hard-working role players, the Hounds can be formidable next season.
My claim that this team basically played to its talent level might come off as a rationalization for mediocrity. Anyone who knows me, however, knows I have spent most of the past two years rolling my eyes at sloppy play and muttering things under my breath. I am, however, blessed with an ability to step back and see things for what they are, and the many hours I take to watch the top teams in the state every year and rank them gives me the sense of perspective over what is realistic. I also benefit from a long time horizon: few, if any, people have followed this program as closely over the past 15 years. This is not to say I will not arch my eyebrows at times, or that there have not been occasional failures during the Randolph era. There have been, among them the 2009 quarterfinal against Cretin-Derham Hall, the 2012 Lakeville South collapse, and the sorry limp toward the Forest Lake affair in 2020. But those were the exceptions to the rule.
The past three seasons have had an unusual level of chaos at Duluth East. Sure, complaints about Mike Randolph are not new, and universal approval is impossible. Through the middle of the past decade, though, the Duluth East program achieved relative peace. It was a welcome development, and one I lauded because it seemed like the kids and the coaches were just having a lot of fun. Not coincidentally, I was pleased with the on-ice result every single season from 2013 to 2018; even when the team fell short, I didn’t feel like they’d given anything less than they could have. That sense is gone now. In part this may just be a product of mediocrity, which no one is handling well, but the wheels started to wobble in 2019, when the team was quite good and I had few complaints about how they were playing at the end.
A lot can go into that shift, and I have no great interest in interrogating what changed at this time and in this format. (If you’re really interested, let’s grab a drink post-pandemic and chat.) I will observe only that Duluth East hockey has been at its best when it has combined great talent with coaching creativity and defined roles. The talent has been in relative short supply in recent years, no doubt, but that will happen from time to time, and hard work can still make up for talent gaps. The coaching creativity is a constant in this program, sometimes to the point of excess, but more often than not successful. What have been in short supply over the past few seasons have been the well-defined roles. And while I recognize that a coach needs to play around some to see what he has and that kids (and their parents) also need to be willing to accept roles, well, if these next few seasons are to be a Greyhound restoration, that stability is essential.
So I will watch these strange, East-less playoffs, and then look forward to a break after a season that took away too much of what I enjoy about this sport. (How delightfully transgressive that one night at the bar after one win felt.) Will the recent travails and empty feelings at the end be a sad interruption, just like we hope this pandemic is, or a sign that things won’t ever be as they were? We’ll be back here in November to start answering that question.
This post is brought to you by the Youth Hockey Hub High School Hockey Podcast and my countless drives out of Duluth for work purposes over the past four and a half years to every small town northeast Minnesota has to offer. (Except Meadowlands. I remain convinced that Meadowlands is a mythical place and does not actually exist.) To qualify, a road must have a legitimate and distinct destination, thus ruling out mere connectors such as Minnesota 194, parallel roads such as the Jay Cooke portion of Minnesota 210 (pretty as it is), or the various township line roads that sputter out a short ways north or west of the city.
Minnesota Highway 61 up the North Shore. Was there ever any doubt? Bonus points to those who take the Scenic Highway instead of the expressway to Two Harbors, but even the fast road provides a few decent lake views and eventual access to one of the greater drives out there. Drawbacks: rubberneckers, crowds on certain weekends, the inevitable overflow at Betty’s Pies. Additional delights, beyond the obvious cliffs and surf and rushing streams: Cedar Coffee, surfers on Stoney Point, a few roadside architectural marvels, and Rocky Taconite.
Highway 13 on the South Shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. It’s a less dramatic driving experience than the North Shore, but it still has its quaint towns and lake views, plus eventual sea caves and the Bayfield Peninsula.
Minnesota Highway 23. An underrated road, as it takes the driver through the full history of industrial Duluth along the St. Louis River corridor, then climbs to a nice overlook up the valley toward Jay Cooke. Winds pleasantly through forests of the Nemadji State Forest from there, and while it turns into a more standard straight shot through a few lost-to-time hamlets after that, it redeems any possible boredom by heading through Banning State Park before reaching 35 again.
St. Louis County 4 to Biwabik. The Island Lake causeway is pretty, of course, but I’m fond of the winding road through the depths of the Cloquet Valley, a stretch where the deer counts can reach triple digits. Additional highlights include the not-so-subtly-hidden pot farm and the occasional wolf sighting. There’s something peaceful about driving a stunningly empty road south as snow falls softly on the pines and tamaracks. (Can you tell I’ve driven this road often?)
St. Louis County 39/44 (Jean Duluth and Pequaywan Lake Roads). Basically, a somewhat less scenic Highway 4 and even less of a destination at the end, though this may not be a bad thing. The back road up to the east side of the Range, or perhaps to Ely. Pluses: the Breeze Inn, little-used ski trails.
I-35 South. Not thrilling, but it keeps you moving, and will forever be redeemed by that view over Thompson Hill that signifies homecoming for any Duluthian.
Highway 2 East. The Superior slog drags it down, but after that it’s a passably interesting meander over toward the Brule River and eventually on to Ashland, and eventual UP destinations farther east.
53 South. Like 35, its most salient trait is moving people quickly, and it does so with little traffic. It does, however, require that long drive through Superior to get there. Was slower but somewhat more interesting in the olden days when it went straight through towns like Solon Springs and Minong. Gets some bonus points for how often I’ve driven it over the years.
US 53 North. Instead of slow slog through Superior, this route gives the driver a somewhat faster slog through Hermantown, which manages to be more chaotic and tiresome and lacks the occasional harbor view. After that, it is mostly drudgery and crazy signs until one reaches the outskirts of Eveleth. It improves from there, both through history and a scenic new bridge and eventual lake country access, but there’s too much drabness on the front end.
Wisconsin Highway 35. An endless death march through the strip malls and strewn out neighborhoods of Superior and South Superior, followed by two lanes of absolutely nothing before you finally get to the cabin country between Danbury and St. Croix Falls. Redeemed somewhat by Pattison State Park.
US Highway 2 West. First, one must endure Proctor. (Or, alternately, Hermantown, if one comes via 194.) Then, a long, mindless plod across peat bogs, every minute spent in desperate hope of a passing lane. Mild pluses: the St. Louis River crossing and the mild improvement that comes in Itasca County when the woods grow thicker around Grand Rapids.
Minnesota Highway 210 west from Carlton to Aitkin. The great, interminable swamp.
Yeah, this blog will get back to having actual content sometime soon.
I am going to write this post in the abstract and avoid any names. I don’t think it’s any secret to those in the know who or what inspired this post, but I also certainly do not mean to cast any aspersions upon anyone, or to pretend like I know what’s going on in specific situations off the ice. I’m going to write this in vague language to try to provide a view from ten thousand feet and show how and why some situations come to pass.
I will start with some simple math. A youth program with five PeeWee teams will have about 75 PeeWee players, or roughly 37 per grade. There are 20 spots on a varsity hockey roster, which will span three and sometimes even four grades. That means that less than a third, maybe less than a quarter, of the kids who play PeeWee hockey in a youth system of that size will ever play varsity hockey. Some will drop out because they have other things they want to do with their time, whether in sports or activities of some sort; some will see the writing on the wall and step aside. A handful may go off to other high schools, though on the flip side, good programs also tend to import a few players along the way, too. But more than enough will still aspire to a spot on varsity. Most if not all of these kids will have played on upper-level youth teams, and many will have had some success there.
For those who do make it through, a coach needs a process. Some kids just aren’t that talented, and no level of extra skating or hours in the gym is going to change that. These are, simultaneously, both the easiest kids to cut and the hardest kids to tell they do not have a roster spot. A coach, however, does those kids a disservice if he indulges them in a fantasy, and he has an obligation to the other 19 kids on the roster to put the best team on the ice. By high school, most reasonable observers seem to understand we are not in this for participation trophies. This certainly does not give high school coaches carte blanche to run programs like military camps, and every now and then one sees a case for keeping a beloved if not great figure around for what he brings to the team in work ethic or camaraderie. But talent, at the end of the day, is the first great separator, and no one should ever judge a coach for using that as a deciding factor.
There are other ways to cull the herd, though, and they are valuable, if not necessary, in a larger program where there is relatively little difference between what we might call a number of replacement-level players. I don’t make it my business to know what kids do or don’t do off the ice (though sometimes one can’t help but hear things). But it is certainly a coach’s job to do so. An involved coach will know what kid’s grades are, will have some sense of how much he may party or smoke pot or treat other kids in school, and will certainly know how much work a kid is putting in during the offseason. After a little while, the coach will also know something about a kid’s mental headspace; whether he fights through challenges or crumbles in front of them, and whether he takes responsibility when opportunities emerge or blames his problems on outside forces.
When sorting among forty to fifty kids and deciding who gets playing time, these all strike me as perfectly valid data points. We may choose to weight certain ones differently; some coaches will be more forgiving and believe in second chances, while others will wield the iron hammer. Some will hand down cuts indiscriminately; some will provide a series of off-ramps through nudging and hard truths, perhaps offering manager roles or even encouragement to go play somewhere else to keep the hockey dream alive. How they communicate these decisions is essential, and once again, I am not in the locker room and cannot judge them. But the determinations in and of themselves are, once again, never going to be my source of complaint.
What is obvious is that parents are often the poorest judges of these factors. I am not a parent yet, so I can’t claim to know the anguish of learning that your kid just isn’t good enough, or see him caught in limbo and shuttling between varsity and junior varsity. I am sure it is even harder to learn that a coach is skeptical of your kid’s work ethic or off-ice activity, regardless of whether that determination may have any seeds of truth. I’m only tangentially aware of the desire for certain outcomes that comes after thousands upon thousands of dollars of investment and exposure to the hype machine of an inward-looking world (to which I confess I am a contributor) that can inflate an ego. I can only look at these situations with the eyes of an invested but fairly neutral observer.
From that standpoint, I have a fascinating window. Parents of skilled players will grumble if the coach runs a deep lineup; parents of the fringe players grow angry if the bench shortens in the slightest. Running a more rigid system angers parents who prize the development gods above all others; playing run-and-gun hockey leads to disgust over the lack of discipline or coherence and grumbles about underachievement. I listen as parents who once lobbied to get their sophomores into the lineup come to laud seniors who pay their dues two years later. Deep parent friend groups form over years of youth tournament travel, and it can be hard to watch a good friend’s kid get squeezed out through the attrition process. (For that matter, it can be hard for kids to watch their friends go through the same process.) One parent starts to complain or picks up on a criticism from elsewhere, and before long a herd starts heading in a certain direction, even if one has no real beef around one’s own kid.
This especially true in an era when parenting, in a not unjustified turn against the cold distance of past generations, has drifted toward unconditional support instead of tougher love. No doubt there are some situations where a kid just gets a short end of the stick. But I know enough about the teenage psyche to know how easy it is at that age to feel aggrieved and tell oneself—and even fully convince oneself—that one is the victim of a grave injustice when the world does not move in the path of one’s dreams. (Some people, of course, never grow out of this phase.) A halfway intelligent parent knows this tendency and can see right through it. This is not to say coaches deserve unconditional support either, but that a clear-eyed parent can see the nuance there while at the same time having a very good idea of where their own kid should stand.
Last year, I took a phone call from an anguished parent who lamented that his kid was probably going to get squeezed out. He’d seen it happen to other kids in similar situations, and he was worried, because hockey was the thing that kept this kid going. (My co-workers looked on with wry smirks as I tried to politely acknowledge this guy’s concerns while edging him off the ledge.) I didn’t think quickly enough to articulate my response to that statement, but the simple truth is this: if hockey is how the kid is measuring his self-worth, something that has nothing to do with hockey is awry in that situation. Too often, the fixation on the path of dreams blinds people to the cold facts of reality, and the need to not put all of one’s pucks in one bucket. Hockey is not life, and never will be.
Greatness, by its very nature, implies that many will fall short of that standard. To play in a great high school hockey program in Minnesota is to accept that, for all of the broad community-based participation that goes into making it what it is, the spoils will go to those toward the top of Herb Brooks’ old pyramid. This is the price of glory. Are we crazy to saddle high school kids with such burdens, and does this obsession undermine the sport we claim to love? Perhaps; the ties it builds make the tough decisions much more painful than they would in a more transactional, free market hockey world. Decisions that would be business as usual in a AAA program feel like cuts to the heart in a high school.
That’s why the reward that comes at the end, in front of 18,000 in St. Paul, is something no other form of hockey can replicate. This is why some of us who have seen much of the world beyond Minnesota will forever see high school hockey as the pinnacle of the sport. It is an uncompromising process that can rip one’s heart out. The push it demands can bring out the worst in people. But it can also bring out the best, and over the years, that is what has made high school hockey exceptional.
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.