Hounds Hockey History V: The Golden Age (1994-1998)

2 Jul

This post is the fifth in a series on the history of Duluth East hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.

Cloquet High School had ruled the northeastern Minnesota hockey roost in 1992 and 1993, but their chance to build a dynasty took a hit when star forward Jamie Langenbrunner left for Canada before the 1994 season. With Langenbrunner out of the way and dangerous Virginia sent to Class A under the revised, enrollment-based two-class system, the Section 7AA field was open for Duluth East. Mr. Hockey finalist Clint Johnson joined sophomores Dave Spehar and Chris Locker on the top line, and with a deep, young supporting cast, East lost only four regular season games. Two losses to state power Elk River were understandable; more troubling were the two losses to a somewhat depleted Cloquet team. At the second game in Cloquet, Johnson’s pre-period ritual of tapping the opposing team’s goal with his stick sparked a fight for the ages, with fans in the stands throwing punches over the low glass at East players. The Hounds’ otherwise dominant regular season earned them the top seed, but they had yet to exorcise their demons with Cloquet, whom they inevitably met in the section final.

The week before the game, Randolph got some unpleasant news: Locker had been deemed academically ineligible, and would be forced to miss the rest of the season. Rather than shake up all of his lines, Randolph pressed freshman Matt Mathias into duty on the top line with Spehar and Johnson. The reworked top line scored both East goals in the game as the Hounds ended a long stretch of frustration against Cloquet with a 2-0 victory. East’s opponent in the State quarterfinals was Minnetonka, another young but talented team that boasted six future Division One players. But the Hounds took care of business in a methodical manner, outshooting the Skippers 29-14 in the 3-1 win.

In the semifinal, East faced an entirely different animal: the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars, the two-time defending state champions who were busy putting together the greatest dynasty in modern Minnesota high school hockey. The ’94 Jags featured nine D-I players, including future NHLers Mike Crowley, Mark Parrish, Ben Clymer, and Toby Petersen. East played Jefferson as closely as any team that season, jumping out to an early lead on a goal by Matt Frigaard and hanging in until the bitter end, losing by a 2-1 final score. The Hounds turned around and locked up third place hardware with a 5-3 win over South St. Paul the next day.

The Hounds bolstered their lineup with a handful of transfers before the 1995 season. Senior forward Dan Zabukover came in from Duluth Central to add his services to the checking line, and speed merchant Ted Suihkonen, a junior who had played an instrumental role for Virginia in the 1993 playoff victory over East, came south from the Iron Range. With Suihkonen came a pair of eighth grade defensemen who would get some varsity ice time, though they were not on the playoff roster: Ted’s younger brother, Steve, and Patrick Finnegan, who was perhaps the crown jewel of northeastern Minnesota hockey prospects at the time. The city of Virginia never would forgive East for their “theft,” but the transfers revealed the changing contours of high-stakes high school sports.

The 1995 Greyhounds were loaded for a state tournament run. Spehar obliterated the school scoring record with a 101-point season, and Locker wasn’t far behind, with 88 of his own—even though Randolph never really settled on a third member of the top line. Suihkonen combined with Mathias to lead a potent secondary scoring line, a young but talented defense improved as the year went along, and three-year starter Cade Ledingham led the way in goal. The Hounds split two games with Elk River and beat Edina and Grand Rapids; their only other losses were to Hill-Murray and a head-scratcher against Duluth Denfeld, whom they’d beaten 13-0 in the teams’ first meeting of the year.

While East had an easy road to the 7AA final, their opponent in that game, Grand Rapids, was a legitimate threat that had been ranked in the top 5 at times that season. Randolph also made a gamble in goal, starting sophomore Kyle Kolquist over the struggling Ledingham. The Hounds generally carried the play, but Rapids hung tough and tied the game at two in the second on a goal by 1997 Mr. Hockey Aaron Miskovich. The difference-maker, to no one’s surprise, was junior forward Dave Spehar, who scored the game-winner midway through the third.

As luck would have it, the Hounds were saddled with a first-round meeting with Bloomington Jefferson. The Jaguars were seeking a fourth straight title, and had only lost twice in the previous three seasons. But Mike Randolph had a game plan, and he had the perfect player to execute it. A minute and a half in, Locker found a floating Spehar on a breakaway. 1-0. Five minutes later, Spehar collected a loose puck and went the length of the ice. 2-0. Before ten minutes were up, Cullen Flaherty found a streaking Spehar again for the natural hat trick. A fourth goal late in the first made the rest of the game academic. On the other end of the ice, Ledingham had his finest game in a Hounds jersey, snuffing out several early Jaguar chances en route to the shutout, and a third period goal added some icing to the cake. The next day, East fans arrived at the Civic Center wearing shirts that summed up the mood: “East 5, Jefferson 0. Any Questions?”

Spehar, however, was only getting started. East started their semifinal against Edina the next night with a bang, as Ryan Engle scored just fifteen seconds in. Edina hung around for a little while, but the East assault was relentless, with two goals in each period, one of each by Spehar. In the title game the Hounds faced a formidable opponent in Moorhead, who was in its third final in four years. The Spuds, led by future NHLer Matt Cullen, proved far more capable of containing the East attack than their first two opponents. The Spuds took a 3-2 lead early in the third, but Ted Suihkonen had an immediate answer, and a few minutes later, Spehar broke free again. This time, the Spuds’ defense hauled him down, and Spehar earned himself a State Tournament dream: a penalty shot with the game on the line. Naturally, he didn’t miss. Four minutes later, he iced the state title when he completed his third consecutive hat trick. After 35 years, the championship trophy was headed back Duluth, and it was going in style.

Following their memorable run through the 1995 playoffs, the expectations for 1996 were sky-high. East returned two full lines, their top four defensemen, and filled in the few holes with their astonishing depth. The 1996 playoff roster featured eleven players who went on to play some Division One hockey—two more than the undefeated 1993 Jefferson Jaguars, who are generally considered the greatest high school team of all time—and that total didn’t include Locker or freshman defenseman Patrick Finnegan, who would go on to play Canadian Major Junior hockey.

The Hounds were never held to under three goals in 1996, and ran up some gaudy scores against Lake Superior Conference competition. They did prove mortal around Christmas, when they dropped a pair of one-goal games to Hill-Murray, and an injury to Locker kept both he and Spehar from exceeding their absurd point totals from the year before. One of the few teams to give them a close game was Grand Rapids, but the Indians were knocked off by Greenway in the section semifinals, and the Hounds coasted through the 7AA playoffs, winning their three games by a combined 27-3 score.

It was more of the same in the first round at State, as East demolished Blaine, 7-1. Spehar continued his Tourney prowess with a 4-goal performance, including a goal seventeen seconds in that left the Civic Center in awe. Hill-Murray had gone down in sections, and that left only one team in the field that might be considered a serious threat to beat East: Apple Valley. The Hounds and the Eagles met on in the semifinals, and the result was one of the greatest high school games ever played.

After feeling each other out in the first period, the teams began to trade goals. East never led in the game, but had an answer immediately after each Apple Valley tally. In the third period, each team’s stars took over: first Locker tied the game at two, then Erik Westrum scored his second of the night for Apple Valley; Spehar struck back a few minutes later, but Westrum finished his hat trick to give the Eagles the lead with just over six minutes to go. The gameplay was thrilling even in regulation, and the Hounds pressed forward in desperate search of a game-tying goal. Their backs to the wall, East turned to their heroes to get the job done again. With 39 seconds to go, Locker electrified the Civic Center when he pumped in a pass from Spehar to tie the game.

Often, games that go on for multiple overtimes tend to drag as the teams tire. In this game, there was none of that, and not a hint of cagy play. Both teams flew up and down the ice, flashing their skill in search of the game-winner, and the goalies saved shot after shot—49 for East’s Kolquist and an astonishing 65 for the Eagles’ Karl Goehring. Apple Valley, incredibly, rolled just two lines, one replacing the other when the first needed a break. Randolph used a deeper rotation in an effort to wear down the Eagles, and for a moment, it seemed as if it worked in the second overtime, when replays suggest Matt LaTour tipped in a Dylan Mills shot. The referees, however, disagreed, and the teams played on. And on. And on. In the fifth overtime, in the game’s 93rd minute, Apple Valley’s Aaron Dwyer ended the longest Tournament game ever played with a laser from the point.

Exhausted and crushed, the Hounds faced the unenviable task of taking on South St. Paul in the third place game the next day. They responded in style, winning 9-2, and Spehar rounded out his Mr. Hockey-winning résumé with his fifth career Tourney hat trick. It was a bittersweet end to a storied career, though there was no shame in the way East’s run came to an end. The futures of Locker and Spehar only underlined how fleeting those glory days were: after winning WCHA Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, Spehar plateaued and did not play hockey past college; Locker went to play Canadian juniors instead of playing for Wisconsin, and his hockey career never did quite land on its skates afterward.

Despite graduating Spehar, Locker, and several key members of the supporting cast, the 1997 Hounds showed no signs of dropping off. The East Class of 1997 was the school’s deepest ever, with seven future D-I players. Even though Steve Suihkonen transferred to Hibbing, they were particularly strong in back: goaltender Kyle Kolquist won the Brimsek Award for the state’s top goalie, Dylan Mills was named the Associated Press Player of the Year, Ryan Coole was a Mr. Hockey Honorable Mention, and junior Nick Angell would be a Mr. Hockey finalist in 1998. Patrick Finnegan, a defenseman the previous year, moved to the top line alongside Matt Mathias and Andy Wheeler to help fill the void left by Spehar and Locker.

The ’97 team put together East’s only undefeated regular season. Only three of their 21 wins came by less than three goals, and the lone blemish on their record was a late-season tie at Hibbing. Naturally, East had to play the Bluejackets in the section final at Hibbing Memorial Arena. The historic arena was packed to the gills and oozing with old-time Minnesota hockey atmosphere, and two quick strikes by Hibbing late in the second tied the game and made for a thrilling final frame. But in the end, Mathias silenced the home crowd and buried the game-winner to send East to its fourth straight State Tournament.

In the first round, the Hounds faced a spirited fight from one-loss Rochester Mayo, arguably the best team to come out of Section 1AA in the two-class era. With five future D-I players the Spartans were no southern Minnesota pushover, but East used its stifling defense to keep Mayo without a shot in the third period and won the game, 3-2. They faced second-ranked Moorhead in the semifinals, and once again the defense carried the day as East rolled to a 3-0 shutout.

East’s opponent in the title game was an Edina team also in the midst of a strong run, having finished third and second the previous two years. While East was the deeper squad, Edina stars such as Dan Carlson brought a burst of speed the Hounds couldn’t match, and a first period Carlson goal gave Edina a lead they would never relinquish. Without a finisher of Spehar’s caliber, East could not solve Hornets goaltender Jeff Hall, and the undefeated season came to an end in a 1-0 final.

After the title game loss, a drained Coach Randolph gave serious thought to retirement. It had been an exhausting season, and after so much success, the scrutiny of the East program had never been higher. Hibbing fans took exception to his salute to the East fans after the 7AA Final, and his four children—then between the ages of 3 and 13—overheard some unsavory remarks about their father at the State Tournament.1 Randolph was deluged by over 100 calls and letters, “only three” of them negative, and decided to stay.2

The 1998 squad, while perhaps unable to match the incredible depth of the previous two years, was still loaded for another Tournament run. Finnegan and Angell, the twin pillars on the blue line, were the undisputed stars of the team, while goalie Adam Coole gave East a second straight Brimsek Award winner. Up front, the lunch pail line of Kevin Oswald, Dan Roman, and Gabe Taggart led the way, while brothers Ross and Rheese Carlson hooked up with Chad Roberg to give East two interchangeable top lines.

The Hounds opened the season with five straight shutout victories, including 3-0 wins over state powers Elk River and Hill-Murray, though they were later forced to forfeit two of those wins due to a mix-up over Rheese Carlson’s eligibility. The senior forward had started the year at North Iowa of the United States Hockey League, and there was some question as to his status due to state residency rules. The MSHSL initially suspended Carlson, but a county court issued a restraining order against the League, and its Board of Directors later voted to declare Carlson eligible, though the wins were not reinstated.3

The 1998 squad’s sole on-ice loss came at the hands of Grand Rapids in the sixth game of the season, 7-5. The Hounds had only a handful of close games after that, including narrow wins over Moorhead and Greenway, and a 3-2 victory in a rematch against Rapids. They closed out the regular season with a 6-5 win over state title contender Anoka, and shut out Rapids in the 7AA semifinals before moving on to face Elk River, newly added to the section, in the final. The inclusion of an elite Metro-area program in 7AA rankled many supporters of northeastern Minnesota hockey, and the Elks were not particularly enthused over being forced to play a section final in Duluth, either. The 7th-ranked Elks were missing an injured young defenseman named Paul Martin for the section final, but even he would have struggled to turn the tide. The Hounds powered to a 7-1 victory to clinch a fifth straight trip to State.

The road back to the final was not an easy one, as East faced second-ranked Hastings in the first round. The Raiders were not a deep team, but with stars Jeff Taffe and Dan Welch leading the way up front, they could score in bunches. The teams traded punches for two periods; the Hounds built a 5-2 lead, and while Hastings drew within one late in the second, East held the Raiders down in the third for a 5-4 win. The semifinal pitted East against Bloomington Jefferson, a State Tournament rubber match between the top two programs of the 1990s. The top two remaining teams in the state, though sloppy at times, eventually delivered the goods: East took a 2-1 lead on an Angell goal in the third, but Jefferson battled back to force overtime. Randolph gambled by putting his big defensemen together, and it paid off; Kevin Oswald won the game for the Hounds at 3:43 of the overtime. In the championship game East faced fourth-ranked Anoka in the final hockey game at the old St. Paul Civic Center, but this time, there was no need for late heroics. The title game was a clinical 3-1 victory that showed off East’s dominant defense and Coole’s superb goaltending.

The win closed out a dominant era for the Hounds. They had finished in the top three in five consecutive seasons, a stretch in which they posted a 126-13-1 on-ice record. They won two titles, and their three playoff losses were all by one goal to the eventual state champion. 19 skaters who appeared on those teams went on to Division One hockey, while another 12 played after high school at some level. They brought an end to the great Jefferson dynasty, spent nearly all of 1996-1998 ranked #1 in the state, and the 98 title run, in which they beat the other three teams ranked in the top four, crowned the Hounds as the state’s premier hockey program. It was a superb time to be an East hockey fan, though it couldn’t last forever.

Next week: East hockey from 1999-2003, including an account of changes in high school hockey, life in a program expected to win, and the bombshell at the end of the 2003 season.

1 Pates, Kevin. “Randolph Ponders His Future: East Hockey Coach Considers Stepping Down.” Duluth News-Tribune. 11 March 1997. Web. 1 July 2013.

2 Pates, Kevin. “Randolph to Return; Support Overwhelming.” Duluth News-Tribune. 22 March 1997. Web. 1 July 2013.

3 Pates, Kevin. “Carlson Ruled Eligible: MSHSL Restores East Player’s Status.” Duluth News-Tribune. 13 January 1998. Web. 2 July 2013.

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One Response to “Hounds Hockey History V: The Golden Age (1994-1998)”

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  1. Hounds Hockey History IV: Building a Powerhouse (1985-1993) | A Patient Cycle - July 2, 2013

    […] Next week: The Golden Age of East hockey. […]

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