Lest my hockey-writing development lapse while other hockey writers work hard on their craft in summer training programs, I’ve decided to launch a series on the history of Duluth East high school hockey. I will still have non-hockey content; this will just be a weekly feature. This project is quite some time in the making, and there are still a number of holes in the record books (especially in the early years) that I still hope and plan to fill. Research for this project draws from a variety of sources, including:
-My own memory, for roughly the past ten years.
-The Duluth-News Tribune online archives, which date to 1995.
-Several other stray articles written in the past 10-15 years, most prominently a series of columns by former Star Tribune writer and Duluthian John Gilbert.
-Video of East section finals and State Tournaments since 1991. (Yes, I own just about all of them; no, I am not making copies; I have given some thought to getting them onto Youtube, though that is not a priority right now.)
-Archives of historical data provided by Lee at MinnHock, the Hill-Murray website, and the 2000 book Let’s Play Hockey Presents a Complete History of the Minnesota Boys and Girls High School Hockey Tournament, 1945-2000.
-Duluth East yearbooks, though I was unable to get my hands on copies from 1951, 1962, 1963, and 1964.
Since I have no memory of most seasons and am constructing this history backwards, there are bound to be plenty of holes, assumptions, and selective readings of history. That’s the only way to make this work. I welcome any information that might fill in some of the gaps, and different perspectives that I might not be aware of. That said, the purpose of this project isn’t a data dump, but an attempt to build my own narrative through 64 years of hockey history. At this point I’m envisioning a series of nine parts or so, with most of the emphasis on the past twenty years, which offer the most source material, the juiciest storylines, and probably the greatest reader interest, too. I’ll devote the remainder of this post to the origins of East hockey.
One quick note: rather than write out every season as two years (e.g. “2012-2013”), I abbreviate it by using simply the half of the season in which the playoffs are held. That is, if I say talk about the Hounds’ achievements in 2013, I’m talking about the 2012-2013 season, not 2013-2014, or the calendar year of 2013.
The story of one of Minnesota’s most prominent high school hockey programs begins some five years after the birth of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament in 1945. With the city’s population on the upswing, Duluth East Junior High became a high school in the fall of 1949, and put together a hockey team in its first year. Teacher Frank Hart took the helm as the head coach, and his team’s first game was against Floodwood, a tiny town west of Duluth that no longer fields a hockey team. The Hounds won, 6-0, and followed that up with a 9-3 win over Duluth Cathedral (now Marshall) and a 19-1 win over Hermantown. (Some fans might be surprised to learn that Hermantown, now a State Tournament regular, was a complete doormat until the late 1990s.) They wound up with a 7-1 record at the end of their regular season, though they appear not to have participated in the playoffs. The sole loss was an 8-1 pasting at the hands of Duluth Denfeld.
The Hounds’ most common opponents in those early days were the teams that went on to become members of the now-defunct Big Ten Conference of northeastern Minnesota. If these Proctor baseball historians are to be believed, the conference officially formed in 1959 as the Big Nine, and eventually evolved into the still-existing Lake Superior Conference. Members appear to include the four Duluth public high schools (East, Central, Denfeld, and Morgan Park); the city’s western neighbors of Cloquet, Proctor, and Hermantown (eventually—I think they were the team that turned the Big Nine into the Big Ten in 1963); and two towns on the north shore of Lake Superior, Silver Bay and Two Harbors. Duluth Cathedral also appears to have been a conference member; however, as a private school, they had their own playoffs prior to 1975. Otherwise, the conference seemed to line up with District 26, which fed its top four finishers in its district tournament into Region 7. In the eight-team Region 7 Tournament, the Duluth-area schools competed against (and were often slaughtered by) teams from the Iron Range and the far reaches of northeastern Minnesota in search of a State Tournament berth.
Records are spotty for the next few years, and East lurched through a couple of middling seasons. All I have for 1951 is a 4-6-1 record, and the 1952 yearbook suggests the listed 4-2 regular season record is incomplete. The Hounds did make their first regional tournament in that year, and promptly lost to eventual state champion Hibbing in the first round. From 1952 on I have rosters for every season but 1963 and 1965, but with these early teams, it’s hard to find much evidence of post-high school careers, unless the player in question is particularly famous or a certain college has its own database. At any rate, the 3-4 result under coach Alvin Ness in 1953 was the last losing season on record, meaning the Hounds wrapped up their 60th consecutive winning season in 2013. While the results of those first few seasons weren’t awful, there wasn’t much to suggest the Hounds could become a state powerhouse, either. First, two key people would need to leave their mark on the program.
Up next week: a post on East’s fourteen years under coach Glenn Rolle, who guided the Hounds to their first brush with glory.