This is the fourth in a series of posts on Duluth East hockey history. For the first three parts (in reverse order), click here.
By 1985, the future of Duluth East hockey looked rather murky. There was plenty of talent coming through the program, but it had been ten years since the team made a State Tournament, and six since they’d made a region final. As the northern Metro suburbs grew and the old hockey powerhouses on the Iron Range dwindled, the benefits of the 1975 move to Region 2 grew less and less. The city of Duluth was also under demographic stress, as the collapse of Iron Range mining and Duluth-based manufacturing sapped the local economy. The trends for future hockey success in Duluth were not good. One program, however, showed decline was not inevitable: likely aided somewhat by the closure of Morgan Park High, Duluth Denfeld began its greatest run of hockey success. Behind goaltender Robb Stauber and an offensive scheme drawn up by an assistant coach named Mike Randolph, the Hunters made their first State Tournament in 1986, and went again in 88 and 89.
Over on the east side, the common perception at the time was that the Hounds were failing to live up to their potential. It was no surprise, then, that they began to cycle through coaches in search of someone who could stick. After Don Bourdeau’s retirement after 1984, the Hounds got two years each out of Bob Hill and Art Amundson, both former East players who had sons on the team around that time period. Though each got the Hounds to a section final, neither one stuck around. The 1985 Hounds lost a tight final to Anoka, while the 1987 squad was shellacked by Roseville, 9-1. The 1988 second-round playoff loss was especially glaring; even with Mr. Hockey finalist and future 15-year NHLer Sean Hill on the squad, East still lost to Denfeld in overtime. The refrain was all too familiar: high expectations, solid regular seasons, playoff failure. Neither Hill nor Amundson could break the pattern, and were both swiftly off the job.
And so the puck was passed to Mike Randolph, a 1970 graduate of Duluth Cathedral who’d gone on to be the last man cut from the 1976 Olympic squad before serving as an assistant coach at Denfeld and Minnesota-Duluth and a one year stint as the head coach at Cathedral. A disciple of former Cathedral coach Del Genereau, Randolph came to the program with a simple message: “I’ll give you the recipe.” If the team followed it, he insisted, they would be in the State Tournament within five years. Following in the footsteps of two of the state’s greatest coaches—Edina’s Willard Ikola and Bloomington Jefferson’s Tom Saterdalen—Randolph consolidated control over the youth hockey program on the east side of Duluth, ensuring young players would have knowledge of his systems before they arrived in high school. His offseason training programs also helped strengthen the pipeline and set the foundations for a top-flight community-based hockey program. He was a demanding coach, but the consensus around the program was that it needed someone to whip it into shape, and Randolph certainly seemed like the sort of man who could do just that.
Still, Randolph’s first season seemed more like a continuation of the previous few years than a break from the past. Once again, East put together a solid regular season, splitting their games with section frontrunners Denfeld and Cloquet and losing just two other games, albeit against a schedule that only included one Metro-area team. But it was only enough to earn the third seed in the Duluth bracket of Section 2, the Hounds lost to Derek Plante’s Cloquet squad 6-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
The 1990 Hounds looked to improve on the previous year’s showing, and with three excellent senior forwards and a very deep junior class, they had the makings of East’s best team in years. Randolph strengthened the schedule by adding state powers Edina, Anoka, and Bloomington Kennedy, against whom they went 2-1. They again struggled with Cloquet, losing both regular season meetings, and also tumbled against Silver Bay, Hibbing, and State Tourney runner-up Grand Rapids. But by playoff time they were the top seed in the Duluth bracket, and they marched through the first two rounds before colliding with Anoka in the semifinals. In a competitive game between two high-quality teams, Anoka prevailed, 4-3. East’s breakthrough would have to wait another year, and the expectations rose ever higher.
The defining features of the 1991 Hounds were their size and physicality. The defense, led by senior North Dakota recruit Kevin Rappana and junior Pat Ryan, was rugged and stout in front of junior goaltender Wade Salzman, who went on to play at Notre Dame. They did have one truly elite offensive player in Rusty Fitzgerald, a senior transfer from Silver Bay who was among the state’s top NHL draft prospects. However, injuries forced Fitzgerald to play defense for a chunk of the season and held him to a fairly sedate 25 points, and though there was some offensive talent around him in the likes of Derek Locker, Jeremy Jeanette, and sophomore Nik Patronas, the Hounds’ offense did not put up very big point totals. Five of their six losses were by one goal, and almost all of them of the low-scoring variety; try as they might, two wins in three games against Cloquet were the closest thing East had to signature victories. They went into the Region 2 playoffs as lukewarm favorites, and though they had a one-goal adventure against St. Cloud Tech in the quarterfinals, they rolled past Blaine to meet Cloquet once again in the section championship game. Over 1,000 fans had to be turned away from the sold-out DECC, and the game lived up to its billing and went to overtime, where Fitzgerald showed his mettle and scored the goal that sent East to St. Paul for the first time since 1975.
East’s opening-round opponent was one of the tournament favorites, a two-loss Richfield team led by future NHLer and 1991 Mr. Hockey Darby Hendrickson. The Hounds didn’t have the skill of the Spartans’ top unit, but they did have a punishing, physical game plan designed to batter their opponents into submission. Randolph later cracked that “they let us hit anything that moved,” but their clean, hard-hitting style won the Hounds plenty of support at the Civic Center. After playing to a 1-1 tie through two periods, East broke down the Spartans in the third, exploding for four goals en route to a 5-1 win. The Hounds had come into the Tournament as relative unknowns, but Randolph was happy to play the underdog role. “I wanna know if you guys know who Duluth East is right now,” he teased a postgame reporter.
East’s semifinal opponent, Burnsville, had also pulled a first-round upset when they took down defending state champion Roseau. The feisty, senior-laden Braves gave East a strong fight, and both goaltenders were on top of their game. It went to overtime, where Fitzgerald once again played the hero, and swatting home the game-winner to send East to the championship game.
The final pitted East against Hill-Murray. Though the Pioneers hadn’t had a dominant regular season, they too had caught fire at the right time, and had rolled through the first two rounds by a combined score of 18-4. The game was a classic match-up of speed against brute force, but it was the Pioneers who dictated the flow of play. For a time, it looked as if the Hounds could run with Hill, as they leapt out to early 2-0 and 3-1 leads. But the open style was not to East’s favor, and in time, Pioneer forwards such as Mike and Mark Strobel began to gash the tiring East defense. Hill took a 4-3 lead by the middle of the third period and closed out their 5-3 win with an empty-netter in the game’s final minute.
East’s loss to Hill-Murray was also the end of an era, as it was the final game of single-class hockey in Minnesota. In 1992, the MSHSL debuted an ill-fated two-year experiment in a tiered system, which separated the top 64 teams into Tier I at the start of the postseason, and left the rest in Tier II. Unsurprisingly, the Tier II competition to decide the 65th-best team in the state didn’t generate much interest. The MSHSL’s response kept the two divisions, but chose instead to divide the schools by enrollment, with Class A for the small schools and Class AA for the large schools, plus any small schools that voluntarily “opted up.”
As a result of the changes, East made its way back north to re-join its old Duluth-area and Iron Range rivals, first in Tier I of Section 7, and later in Section 7AA. The section boundaries continued to shift, however; by the middle of the decade, both Duluth Denfeld and Central, still shrinking along with the city of Duluth, dropped to Class A. Several of the old Iron Range powers also switched classes, and 7AA slowly began to extend southward, once again adding exurban Twin Cities communities.
During the two-tier experiment, Section 7’s Tier 1 belonged not to East or one of the Iron Range schools, but to Cloquet. The Jacks fielded such future D-I players as Jesse Bertogliat, Aaron Novak, Sergei Petrov, and future NHLer Rick Mrozik, along one of the greatest players to ever come out of Minnesota, Jamie Langenbrunner. While the 1992 Hounds finished the regular season with 11 straight wins and had some key holdovers from the previous year such as Salzman, Patronas, Ryan, and Fran Bussey, they were no match for the loaded Lumberjacks, who beat them 4-1 in the section semifinals.
In 1993, Randolph sought to reshape his Hounds with a youth movement. Patronas’s wings on the top line were a pair of freshmen, Dave Spehar and Chris Locker, while eighth grader Dylan Mills was one of the team’s top defensemen. The young Hounds showed no signs of inexperience, exploding out of the gate with nine straight wins. Of their five regular season losses, three were to Cloquet (by a total of four goals). But with a season split with Denfeld and a loss to Virginia on the season’s final day, the Hounds were saddled with the fifth seed in a deep Section 7, and had to travel to play Virginia in the first round. Spehar scored twice in the third period to give the Hounds a chance, but Virginia pulled away for a 5-3 win. East has not lost in the first round since. And while the youth movement didn’t produce immediate playoff success, the foundations of a powerhouse program were finally in place, and Spehar, Locker, and Mills would carry the Hounds into their greatest run of hockey glory.
Quotations come from recordings of State Tournament broadcasts on KMSP.
Next week: The Golden Age of East hockey.