This is the third post in a series on the history of Duluth East High School hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.
After the retirement of longtime coach Glenn Rolle, Duluth East hockey came under the leadership of Don Bourdeau. The Hounds only made one trip to State in his seventeen years at the helm, making for one of the driest spells in East hockey history. But if the Bourdeau Era was not a time of greatness, it was one of sustained quality. Under Bourdeau the Hounds won five of seven District 26 titles and the Duluth-area bracket of Region Two in the first five years of the new playoff setup that began in 1975.
East had a strong season in Bourdeau’s first year, beating six of the eight eventual State Tournament entrants and rolling past Cloquet for a district championship. Their run came to a crashing halt in the first round of regions, as Virginia eclipsed the Hounds, 4-3. It was a theme that would become all too familiar: despite those five district titles in Bourdeau’s first seven years and a run in which they lost only nine regular season games from 1970-72, East only escaped the first round of the playoffs once, in 1973. Curiously, that was one of the years in which they did not win the district, and even though they managed a narrow win over Virginia in the Region 7 quarterfinals, they dropped a competitive game with eventual State champion Hibbing in the semis. The quarterfinals always pitted the top four Duluth-area teams against the top four from the Iron Range, and the wins for the Duluth area teams were few and far between.
Despite the playoff frustrations, East had its share of talent in Bourdeau’s first few seasons, and averaged roughly one Division-I player per year. As had been the case under Rolle, Minnesota-Duluth was the most common destination, though East also had several players make their way to schools such as Brown, Hamilton, Colorado College, and Denver. The greatest of their number was 1969 graduate Mark Heaslip, a forward who starred at UMD before going on to become the first East NHLer.
East just missed out on a second future NHLer in the late 1960s, as they suffered one of the first defections to Canadian hockey. Butch Williams, the younger brother of U.S. hockey pioneer and Duluth Central graduate Tommy Williams, had been slated to go to East, but in an era when American NHLers were rare and exposure was hard to come by, he chose to play amateur hockey in Ontario instead. The Williamses would later become the first pair of American-born brothers to skate in the NHL. While the pursuit of alternate hockey development options was not a common occurrence at the time, Williams’s story shows that the present isn’t always so very different from the past.
The 1975 season brought major changes to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). For the first time, the league brought in private schools to compete against the publics in the playoffs. This meant Duluth Cathedral was added into the local playoff mix, though Cathedral was down some from its peak in the 1960s and never seriously threatened for a State Tournament berth until the creation of the two-class system. The biggest change, however, was in the playoff format, as the MSHSL scrapped the district playoffs and went to one giant bracket for each region. To balance the numbers, the Duluth schools left Region 7 and shifted south into Region 2. Region 2 was an awkward collection of the Duluth schools (but not neighbors like Proctor or Hermantown), Cloquet, the St. Cloud area schools, and eight suburban programs from the northern metro area of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On paper, this made the Hounds’ road to State easier, as they were rid of those troublesome Iron Range teams, though the section realignment also put the State Tournament back door to death. The Big Ten Conference, which had expanded to 11 teams with the inclusion of Superior, Wisconsin in the early 70s, was renamed the Lake Superior Conference.
East did indeed reap the benefits of the new region in their first year. At 11-9, the 1975 regular season was actually the Hounds’ worst under Bourdeau. (The yearbook suggests injuries played a big role in some of the losses down the stretch, including losses to Denfeld, Cloquet, and Grand Rapids.) Still, the team had plenty of talent, and beat state power Edina East. Forward Phil Verchota was one of the Hounds’ greatest skaters of all time, and went on to star at the University of Minnesota before playing on two U.S. Olympic teams, including the 1980 Miracle on Ice; he scored the game-tying goal in the gold medal-winning match in Lake Placid. Three sophomore D-I prospects supported Verchota: Jeff Mars (Michigan), John Slonim (Brown), and goaltender Walt Aufderheide (Denver). (In a fact that might surprise fans who now associate the Mars name with the Duluth Marshall’s home arena, four members of the Mars clan played for East in the 1970s, two of whom went on to play D-I.)
East avenged several of their regular season losses in the playoffs, defeating Denfeld in the quarterfinals and slipping past Cloquet 2-1 in the final to make their only State appearance under Bourdeau. It was the first meeting in what would become the Hounds’ biggest playoff rivalry; while teams have risen and fallen to fight the perennially-contending Hounds, no team has been as consistent a challenger as Cloquet. As of this writing, East holds an 11-9 playoff edge over the rival Jacks.
The Hounds faced a Hill-Murray team making its MSHSL Tournament debut in the quarterfinals, though the Pioneers had won the State Independent Tournament two times in the previous five years. Hill struck twice in the opening period, and though East closed to within one on a goal by Mars and piled on the shots in the third, they could not get another one past star goaltender Steve Janaszak. An empty-netter cinched a 3-1 Hill win, and East was relegated to the consolation bracket, where the Hounds powered past Henry Sibley in their first game and beat Hopkins Lindbergh in overtime to win the fifth-place trophy.
East would build on its dominance over the Duluth area from 1975-1979, winning the northern bracket of Region 2 to earn a trip to the region final every year. The 1976 region championship was the first of three consecutive finals between Duluth East and Mounds View, and pitted the Hounds against 1980 Olympics star Rob McLanahan. The Mustangs won, 3-1. The 1977 Hounds went 17-3 in the regular season, but despite a deep senior class and a less talented Mounds View edition, they still couldn’t get past the Mustangs. A weaker 1978 team also managed to go on a decent run toward the end of the season, but Mounds View prevailed in the final again, 8-4.
When Mounds View’s success dried up after 1978, the team that rose to fill the power vacuum was not Duluth East, but instead an Irondale team that included future NHLer Scott Bjugstad. The Hounds caught fire in the playoffs in 1979 and beat three Duluth-area teams they had lost to during the regular season, but they were no match for a deep and powerful Irondale squad and went down, 9-2. Despite an uptick in college hockey talent in the early 80s, East would not make another section final until 1985. Irondale would follow in Mounds View’s footsteps and win three consecutive Region 2 titles.
The 1980s were a frustrating decade for East hockey; despite a stream of talented players, the team only won the Duluth bracket of Region Two twice in the decade. East’s struggles were due in part to the rise of several local rivals. Over the first half of the decade the culprit was Cloquet; long a local whipping boy, the paper mill town west of Duluth finally rose to prominence under head coach Bill Kennedy. The Lumberjacks made the 1982 State Tournament with squad featuring five future NHL draft picks, the greatest of them all being forward Corey Millen. It was the first Tourney berth for a Duluth-area team other than East since Central’s trip in 1954, though an injury to Millen wrecked the Jacks’ chances at a title. Cloquet eliminated East from the playoffs in 1981, 1983, and 1984. The other thorn in East’s side was Duluth Denfeld, which enjoyed its most successful decade in hockey in the 1980s. The Hunters eliminated the Hounds in 1980 and 1982.
With Cloquet on the downswing and an East talent bubble including future University of Denver standout Scott Mathias and a deep junior class, 1984 seemed like a possible changing of the guard in Duluth-area hockey. Four of the Hounds’ six losses that season were forfeits due to a Duluth teachers’ strike, and they went into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. But the Bourdeau Era came to a halt in a 4-3 loss to Cloquet, making for an unhappy end to a seventeen-year career. Bourdeau’s 275-112-10 record at East is obviously an impressive mark, but he was never able to couple his success against Duluth-area teams with any sort of sustained playoff achievement.