Hounds Hockey History VI: Lonely on Top (1999-2003)

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

Replicating the success of the 1994-1998 seasons would be difficult for any program or coaching staff. East hockey was on top of the world, and on paper, there was no reason to suspect East might not continue its dynasty for the next several years; while the pipeline of talent was perhaps somewhat diminished, it was still on par with most of the state’s top programs. But the world of high school hockey was changing, and the Hounds’ great run faced obstacles past dynasties could not have imagined.

The first great change was the regularization of early departures for other hockey opportunities. There had been a steady trickle of players to Canada and junior leagues such as the United States Hockey League (USHL) throughout the 1990s, as players such as Jamie Langenbrunner sought longer seasons against tougher competition. But departures became normal in the late 90s, and East suffered its first prior to the 1999 season, when star defenseman Patrick Finnegan forewent his senior year to play in Canada’s Ontario Hockey League (OHL). East would go on to lose a single defenseman before each of the next three seasons as well. At first, coach Mike Randolph was philosophical about the talent drain; “I would love to have [Finnegan] on the team for another year, but this is what he thinks is best for him and I hope it works out for him,” he told the Duluth News-Tribune.¹ But as the defections mounted, Randolph changed his tune. “I don’t think he’s ready to make that kind of a step,” Randolph says of Jon Hedberg in a 2000 John Gilbert column examining the new trend.2 It was a refrain he would return to with future early departures, and his opinion rankled observers who thought he was only trying to hold on to his players.

Randolph’s opinion, while controversial, was based off of premises that were, at least, plausible. In an interview with writer John Rosengren, he listed off six players who “wanted to take the fast track” to a D-I scholarship, but “not one succeeded.”3 Among the East early departures, Finnegan flamed out in the OHL, and Tom Sawatske, who left East for the U.S. National Training and Development Program after his sophomore year in 2000, struggled to catch on at the University of Wisconsin, and had to go back to the USHL before closing out his college career at Notre Dame.4 Of course, it is impossible to know what would have become of these players if they’d stayed in Duluth, and the debate over player development paths will go on until the end of hockey. But the landscape for high-profile players had shifted, and Randolph and East hockey would have to cope with the steady drain of talent in order to succeed.

Even for those who stayed at the high school level, the hockey world wasn’t quite the same. The MSHSL tournament had included private schools since 1975, but for the first 20 years of that stretch, Hill-Murray was the only private to consistently contend. That changed with the advent of the two-class tournament in the early 1990s. Class A had been formed to give small schools a road to the State Tournament, and while it certainly did bring glory to schools such as Warroad and the Duluth exurb of Hermantown, the possibly unforeseen beneficiaries were the private schools, a handful of which collected talent from various youth programs and cruised through the thinner Class A sections. Loyalists of the community-based model championed by Edina’s Willard Ikola, Bloomington Jefferson’s Tom Saterdalen, and East’s Randoloph were suddenly confronted by schools that operated in an entirely different manner.

The rancor caused by the rise of private schools is best illustrated by the Academy of Holy Angels, whose rags-to-riches hockey tale is detailed in a chapter in John Rosengren’s Blades of Glory. Greg Trebil, a longtime Bloomington Bantam coach, took the Holy Angels job, brought many of the top Bloomington youth players with him, and turned a weak program into a Class AA powerhouse overnight. The Duluth area, however, had its own mini-version of this story. After taking Duluth Central to Class A State in 1996, head coach Brendan Flaherty made his way across the street to Duluth Marshall. He took one of his top players with him, and several out-of-state transfers arrived to bolster the Hilltopper lineup.5 Players from the East program, backlogged with so much talent and led by a notoriously demanding coach, noticed they could have more playing time and a decent shot at the state tournament if they became Hilltoppers. And so Marshall began to build a contender, a process that drew players from around the region and angered rival programs. A 2001 incident in which a Marshall alumnus allegedly offered several players from Ely and other Iron Range schools “pretty girls” if they transferred to Marshall led many local teams to try to axe the Hilltoppers from their schedules, and many of the grudges lingered.6

Considering the steady stream of transfers into the East program during the Randolph Era, the Hounds could hardly claim to be innocent victims in the new hockey arms race. High school hockey free agency had begun much earlier with the adoption of open enrollment laws in 1988, and talent-collecting powerhouses were perhaps merely its natural culmination.7 But the Duluth East youth program, long carefully groomed for Randolph’s high school squad, was a primary feeder into Marshall. While the East youth program was deep enough to support two respectable high school squads in most seasons, the end of the Hounds’ monopoly on quality youth players from the east side of Duluth disrupted the program’s pipeline. East had outscored Marshall by an absurd 73-1 margin over their five games during the Golden Age, but the 1999 meeting was a more competitive 6-3 victory. East and Marshall would never play again.

In spite of the changes around them, the 1999 Hounds were a real contender in a deep Section 7AA. Freshman Nick Licari and junior Ross Carlson, both future Wisconsin Badgers, led the East attack, and the team also had a quality second line. The defense, however, was quite green, as was sophomore goaltender Dan Hoehne. Three of their five losses were to top-end teams, but East also lost to Hermantown for the first time in school history, and a defeat at the hands of Hibbing hurt their standing in 7AA. Elk River was the clear top seed in the section, while East, Hibbing, and Greenway all split their games against one another; in the end, the Hounds drew the short straw and were seeded fourth. They beat Cloquet in the quarterfinals (in a game held in Cloquet due to a scheduling conflict at the DECC), but Elk River toppled them in the semifinals, ending the run of five straight section titles.

The offseason brought about another change to local hockey, as East left the Lake Superior Conference to play an independent schedule. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a hockey-driven move. The conference actually dissolved that season, only to re-form in meetings to which the East activities director was not invited; East, Silver Bay, and Cook County were all thrown to the curb.8 9 East’s orphaned sports teams had to find new homes, and Randolph seized the opportunity to load up the schedule with many of the state’s top AA squads instead of local opponents. He explained the move in terms that bore a certain logic; blowouts against local teams were no fun and did little to develop East players, and as only a handful of area schools were left in Class AA, these games had little playoff relevance.10 More cynical observers, on the other hand, suspected a ploy to avoid playing Hermantown and (especially) Duluth Marshall, lest some other team supplant East as the top hockey destination in the area. East turned down later scheduling requests from Hermantown and Marshall,11 but both schools voted against East when the Hounds re-applied to the LSC at various points over the next decade.12 13 It appeared the East program’s powerhouse status had opened up rifts in the local sports community, and no side can claim much high ground in the subsequent squabbling. The Hounds were both the gold standard and a target for other local hockey programs, and East fans soon learned how lonely it was on top.

When Elk River shifted back south into Section 4AA, there was good reason to suspect the Hounds would be on their way back to the State Tournament after a one-year hiatus. The 2000 squad was a very young team, but with Carlson and Licari on the top line and promising talent in sophomores such as Sawatske, Tom Kolar, and Nick Nelson, they were clearly dangerous. The new independent schedule was likely the most difficult in the state, and while the team lost four regular season games, they were all against top-end squads. The Hounds went into the playoffs on a ten-game winning streak and finished off a decent Cloquet team to earn the program’s twelfth state tournament berth.

East had finished the regular season ranked third, but when Elk River and Eden Prairie both went down in sections, a team with only four seniors entered the State Tournament as the battle-tested favorites. East opened the Tourney against Roseau, which was coached by Aaron Broten and returned much of the previous year’s dominant championship squad. The Hounds put together a controlling performance in a 4-1 win, a feat they would repeat in the semifinal against a talented Edina team. The young Hounds made it look easy, relying on their depth to apply relentless pressure.

It all came crashing down in the final, when the Hounds faced Blaine. Though the Bengals had taken their lumps during the regular season, they were clearly the more talented team; with three future NHLers, the senior-loaded squad had hit its stride in the playoffs. The Hounds’ defense was shredded by the speedy Blaine forwards, and the game quickly spiraled out of control. The 6-0 laugher put an ugly final word on an otherwise successful season, and it would be another eleven years before the Hounds made it back to the State Tournament’s Saturday night game.

The 2001 season brought about another change to the Duluth-area hockey world, as Cloquet replaced longtime coach Tom McFarlane with one of his assistants, Dave Esse. Esse would go on to lead the Lumberjacks to their most sustained period of success; counting the title game loss to East under McFarlane in 2000, the Jacks would participate in seven out of nine 7AA championships from 2000-2008, winning twice along the way. But under Esse, the Jacks saved their best performances for games against East. When he took over, Cloquet hadn’t beaten East in seven years, yet they went 13-7-2 against the Hounds over Esse’s first eight years, including a 4-2 mark in the 7AA playoffs.

Given the youth of the 2000 runners-up, there was good reason to expect the 2001 Hounds would make their way back to St. Paul. Juniors Licari, Nelson, and Kolar led the offensive charge, while Colorado College-bound senior Weston Tardy headed a deep defense in front of third-year starter Dan Hoehne in goal. While the 01 Hounds lost seven regular season games—the most by an East team since 1987—the intensity of the schedule was probably the primary culprit. East beat Edina and Hill-Murray twice each, along with several other prominent programs, and an early-season rout over Park Center involved a memorable scrap. However, the Hounds’ offense abandoned them in a handful of key games down the stretch, including a 4-0 loss to a talented Greenway squad that claimed the top seed in 7AA, a 1-0 shutout against Cloquet (the Jacks’ first win over East since 1994), and a 2-1 loss to Moorhead.

As the second seed in 7AA, East was on a collision course with Cloquet in the section semifinals. The Jacks certainly could not match the Hounds’ depth, but they played stout defense in front of star goaltender Josh Johnson, and late season wins over East and Greenway had them playing their best at the right time. Nothing went right for East in the game, and they fell 4-1, despite a 29-15 shots edge. Try as they might, they could not solve Johnson or turn back Esse’s disciplined, opportunistic squad.

The forward corps returned largely intact in 2002, a year in which Kolar and Licari—the latter now in his fifth varsity season—were both Mr. Hockey finalists. The defense was a bit thinner than in the previous year, and Hoehne’s graduation left a hole in goal that East filled with transfer Dustin Aro, himself displaced by a transfer to his old school, Elk River. Aro earned some revenge in the second game of the season, as East eased past the defending state champion Elks, 4-3. The regular season followed a similar script to the previous year: many close games with top-end teams, a couple of sketchy losses to Brainerd and Hastings down the stretch, and a 15-6-4 regular season record.

It was enough to earn the top seed in a talented 7AA, and East beat a top ten team, defending section champ Greenway, in the semifinals to set up a rematch with Cloquet. They’d tied and beaten the Jacks during the regular season, but with Johnson in goal and a similar defensive game plan to the previous year, Cloquet hung tough. The Hounds never could solve Johnson, and a shorthanded third period goal was enough to tip the Jacks back to the Tourney. The 2002 final was Mike Randolph’s only loss to date in his 15 section finals as East head coach.

After two straight State Tournament misses, Randolph faced one of his greatest challenges in 2003, as the Hounds had to replace their offensive core from the previous season. With an inexperienced group of forwards that lacked any real standouts, East unsurprisingly struggled to score in the early going, and Randolph rotated his lineup extensively in search of a winning combination. The Hounds also ran through several goalies before settling on junior Jake Maida down the stretch, and though they were fairly deep and strong on defense, it didn’t translate into wins against East’s rigorous schedule. Mid-January found the Hounds sitting at 3-8-4, their 50-year streak of winning seasons in serious jeopardy.

The turning point was a game against the eventual state champion, Anoka; East tied the Tornadoes with three seconds to go in the game and won it in overtime. The victory kicked off a six-game winning streak, and though East fell to Cloquet for a second time that season and was left with the 2-seed, they scraped out an 11-10-4 regular season record. It was also a very forgiving 7AA tournament, with no team far ahead of the pack, and Grand Rapids helped out the Hounds by knocking off top-seeded Cloquet in the semifinals. The Thunderhawks were a fairly thin team led by future NHLer Alex Goligoski, but they managed to hang in against the Hounds to force overtime. On the first shift of the extra session, Tom Knutson lifted East back to St. Paul.

The Hounds were clear underdogs heading into the State Tournament, but for two periods, it looked like they might slip by Anoka in the first round. They went into the third with a 3-2 lead, but the Tornadoes tied it halfway through the period and won it in the game’s final minute. The next day, East lost to Moorhead in their first consolation bracket game under Randolph. The two-and-out was hardly a happy ending, but given the relative lack of talent and the progress made from midseason on, it looked like a good building block for 2004. Before the Hounds could give any thought to the upcoming season, however, the school district dropped a bombshell on the program: it announced it would not renew Mike Randolph’s contract.

Next week: Coaching controversy, East hockey from 2004-2008, and an examination of the intense pressure placed on a high-profile program.

1 Pates, Kevin. “Finnegan Leaving: East Defenseman Will Forego Senior Year to Play in Canada.” Duluth News-Tribune. 19 June 1998. Web. 8 July 2013.

2 Gilbert, John. “Hounds Lose Hedberg to OHL’s Guelph Team.” Used Car Picks. Summer 1999. Web. 8 July 2013.

3 Rosengren, John. Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win. Sourcebooks: Naperville, 2003, p. 232-233.

4 “Wisconsin Loses Defenseman Sawatske; Suter Sets Deadline.” USCHO. 24 May 2004. Web. 8 July 2013.

5 Pates, Kevin. “An Eastern Power: Duluth East Should Rule 7AA, Lake Superior Conference Again.” Duluth News-Tribune. 26 November 1996. Web. 8 July 2013.

6 Nowacki, Jon. “Private Schools, Public Outcry—Duluth Marshall: The Northland’s Only Private School Hockey Program Is in Danger of Being Shunned over Allegations of Recruiting.” Duluth News-Tribune. 7 December 2002. Web. 8 July 2013.

7 Rosengren, p. 123-124.

8 Miernicki, Mike. “Local View: East Belongs in Lake Superior Conference.” Duluth News-Tribune. 15 March 2012. Web. 9 July 2013.

9 “LSC Set to Return for Another Year.” Duluth News-Tribune. 13 April 2000. Web. 8 July 2013.

10 Weegman, Rick. “A Case of Class Warfare: Duluth Marshall and Duluth East Are Both at the State Tournament—But Not Playing One Another.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 March 2005. Web. 8 July 2013.

11 Ibid.

12 Lubbers, Rick. “Here’s an Idea: Prep Showdown on Amsoil Ice—Bring the Area Top Four Hockey Teams under the Same Roof for a Holiday Tournament.” Duluth News-Tribune. 12 January 2011. Web. 9 July 2013.

13 Miernicki, op. cit.


2 thoughts on “Hounds Hockey History VI: Lonely on Top (1999-2003)

  1. Finnegan had over 70 points for a D- man in the OHL. Rookie year in O, over 40 points on a team that was .500 and rebuilding. That’s flaming out? Then the kid went on to play 3 seasons in Europe with a 90,000 euro signing bonus his first season. I’m a friend and as i read this i laughed at your false opinion. His family lost three family members in a car wreck and he hung up his skates.

    Karl’s response: His first year in the OHL was good, no denying that. But one good year does not a great post-HS career make. There are a number of press clippings out there that note that things didn’t go as well for Finnegan in his second year in Windsor, one of which I link to in this post. I’m hardly alone in my opinion. It’s a question I’ve heard plenty of times: “whatever happened to that Finnegan kid?”

    My point of departure here is this: in high school, Finnegan was arguably the most dominant player in Minnesota. He was compared favorably with a whole heap of draft picks and future NHL players. When he left for the OHL, there was every reason to believe he was on the fast track to the NHL, and his first year did nothing to change that notion. And yet…it didn’t happen. There’s no shame in playing in the Netherlands and making good money, but it’s hard to argue that was a career move that would have gotten him into the AHL or NHL, with or without the terrible tragedy involving his sister. From a distance of 15 years, I’d hope that anyone could look back and wistfully wonder what could have been. God knows I’ve done that in my own life.

    I could probably have found a better phrase, but it’s a throwaway line in a paragraph that isn’t about Finnegan; it’s about the idea of leaving HS hockey early for other opportunities. His old HS coach had strong opinions on the topic, and I think understanding his opinion is an important part of the story that I’m trying to tell in this series of blog posts on Duluth East hockey, whether or not you agree with that opinion. We can spin it in different ways, but it’s hard to argue that heading to the OHL really improved Finnegan’s stock as a hockey player, considering where he’d been when he was in high school. I say that not to condemn Finnegan’s early departure (or that of any other player), a topic on which I am quite neutral; I say it to explain why Mike Randolph came to hold the opinions he did. That’s the question that interests me here.

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