Hounds Hockey History VII: The Burdens of Hockey Glory (2004-2008)

15 Jul

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the history of Duluth East High School hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.

With an on-ice record of 308-82-10, eight state tournament berths, and two championships in 15 seasons, Duluth East’s Mike Randolph almost certainly had the strongest record of any active Minnesota high school coach. But after the 2003 season, the East administration chose not to renew his contract, effectively firing Randolph. The unexpected announcement shook up not only East hockey, but high school sports across the state. The incident was front-page news in Duluth for the next month, as players, parents, and alumni rallied behind the ousted coach. Hockey fans endlessly debated the possible reasons, which were not made public due to the Data Practices Act, and even school board members struggled to make sense of it all; former Member Harry Welty’s account of the whole saga is preserved here. Randolph critics were, at first, few and far between.

Still, in time, the charges against Randolph started to trickle out, and while there was no obvious smoking gun, there was an array of complaints. One of the biggest issues involved financial irregularities surrounding the program’s annual wreath fundraiser, in which both the district and the coaching staff accused each other of poor communication.1 Many complaints revolved around players being cut and playing time; while some of these arguments appeared naïve about how a hockey team with a large feeder program naturally must operate or were simply sour grapes, others went a bit further and questioned his methods for cutting players.2 Claims of recruiting, long rumored but never substantiated, also reappeared.3 Arguably the most damning critiques claimed that Randolph’s coaching style and commitment to his team’s success had made the program “too big” for its own good, and that he put too much pressure on a group of teenage boys who might not be emotionally mature enough to handle high expectations and “mind games.”4 (I plan to explore the charge about the program size in a post after I finish this series on East hockey history.)

Randolph waived his right to privacy so as to assess the charges against him, and his supporters staged a vigorous defense of their coach.5 They cast doubt upon the anonymous letters in the coach’s file, and several ex-players gave impassioned defenses of the lessons Randolph had taught them at a circus-like school board meeting. They questioned the motives of several Randolph critics, including a principal whose son had once been cut and a school board member whose name was on the side of a rival team’s arena.6 It was all to no avail: when the issue was put to a vote, the school board chose to respect the administration’s decision. East hockey had to move on without Mike Randolph.

The man who stepped into the void was Todd Wentworth, a longtime coach within the East program. Wentworth inherited a veteran team with 14 seniors, and while they were not the most explosive team on earth, they were deep at every position. East’s 15-8-1 record was the sort of solid mark expected of the program, though they were blown out by some of the state’s better teams, and also lost to Superior for the first time since 1991. The Hounds benefitted from a very thin 7AA, and though Goligoski’s Grand Rapids squad once again put up a decent fight in the section final, the deeper Hounds dispatched of them with three third period goals.

East was fortunate to draw a weak Lakeville team in the first round of the 2004 Tournament, and though Lakeville goalie B.J. O’Brien did everything in his power to give his team a chance, the Hounds prevailed, 2-0. The campaign against all odds came to a close the next night, however, as Moorhead blitzed the Hounds with a four-goal second period and jumped out to a 5-0 lead en route to a 6-3 win. East took down Wayzata the next afternoon to bring home the third place trophy, which was a real achievement given the turmoil surrounding Wentworth’s first season on the job.

It would also be Wentworth’s only season. Randolph, claiming his application for the East job had not been fairly considered, filed a grievance against the district, which went to an independent arbitrator for consideration.7 The school board, however, pre-empted the arbitrator’s ruling and chose to reinstate Randolph. The board, purged of several anti-Randolph votes in the previous fall’s election, cited numerous procedural errors in Randolph’s dismissal, explaining that Randolph had not been properly alerted to concerns about his management of the program.8 Randolph’s supporters rejoiced, claiming the board had corrected an injustice; the administration complained it had been undermined; Wentworth was left in limbo; and the players struggled to make sense of the whole situation.9 10

Given the turmoil surrounding the program, it was little surprise that Randolph’s first year back was anything but smooth sailing. First, two billet players from out of state, Josh “Podge” Turnbull and Colin Trachsel (nephew of assistant coach Larry Trachsel), showed up in Duluth. The activities department erroneously assumed they were eligible to play immediately, which they were not. East was forced to forfeit its first seven games of the year (in which the team had gone 4-3), and Turnbull and Trachsel had to sit out the next thirteen games.11 In a December game at Grand Rapids, a player claimed to have been kicked by Randolph, leading to an investigation from the Grand Rapids Police Department. Though the investigation determined that nothing worse than a foot-tap had taken place, the investigator cryptically concluded that “I certainly do not agree with the way in which Mr. Randolph conducted himself and believe there are issues to be addressed by his employer.”12 Randolph was suspended for one game for violation of the Data Practices Act after he discussed the investigation with reporters, but that was the end of it.13 On top of it all, three seniors left the team during the course of the regular season.

In the midst of the off-ice controversies, the team put together another solid season. The Hounds knocked off title contenders such as White Bear Lake, Apple Valley, and Roseville, though they (rather understandably) struggled with consistency at times, and two regular season losses to Cloquet left the Hounds as the second seed in 7AA. Rob W. Johnson carried the load for an otherwise inexperienced offense, and sophomore wunderkind Cade Fairchild dazzled with his puck-moving skills on defense. But the player who carried East back to the promised land was Chris Sall, a little-hyped senior goaltender who simply caught fire in the playoffs.

The section final was a thrilling affair with top-seeded archrival Cloquet, as Sall held back a talented Jacks squad led by Mr. Hockey Finalist Mitch Ryan. Johnson scored in the third period to tie the game at two, and as the game moved into overtime, the deeper Hounds finally started to generate some offensive momentum. The winning goal, however, came from the least likely source: senior defenseman Kyle Michela, whose double-overtime game winner was the only goal of his high school career.

The State Tournament quarterfinal against White Bear Lake followed a similar script. The Hounds were outgunned and outshot 29-13, but Sall held firm and kept him team close. Two quick third period strikes were enough to stun the Bears and earn a return trip to the semifinals. Against a Moorhead team that featured six D-I seniors, not even a record-setting performance could save East; despite a 22-save 2nd period from Sall that stood as a State Tournament record for eight years, the Hounds fell, 4-1. They rebounded the next day to secure a second straight third place trophy with a 5-3 win over Tartan. After all of the tumult, Randolph’s first year back produced a very positive on-ice result.

The next three seasons bore some surprising symmetries. The Hounds had similar records (20-6-1, 18-7-2, and 18-8-1, respectively). Each year, they lost a player to other hockey opportunities (Cade Fairchild, Josh Turnbull, and Keegan Flaherty, respectively). And each year, they suffered an agonizing loss in the section semifinals to a lower-seeded team.

To be sure, the 2006 and 2007 losses were hardly upsets. 7AA was at its deepest, and all of the teams were tightly packed in the rankings. Cloquet had its most talented teams since the days of Jamie Langenbrunner, Grand Rapids won the section and finished second at State both years, and Elk River, re-added to the section, was a top ten team in 2006. The 06 East team was quite young and rather thin in back, but after a mediocre December they went on a run, winning 14 straight to close out the regular season, including an overtime win over Cloquet to secure the top seed. They clashed with the Jacks again in the section semifinals, but this time, Cloquet goaltender Reid Ellingson stole the show in a 1-0 shutout. Cloquet outshot the Hounds, slipped one fluky goal past East’s Ben Leis, and put an end to the run of three straight section titles.

2007 followed a similar script, as East muddled through December before racking up the wins in the second half. A February game against Cloquet featured another thrilling duel between Ellingson and Leis, with the goaltenders combining for 92 saves in a 1-1 tie. Another East-Cloquet playoff clash seemed like destiny, but a powerful Grand Rapids team had other ideas. After coasting to a 2-1 lead in the opening period of the section semifinal, East went on to have one of the worst periods in program history. Rapids outshot East 18-2 in the second period (though one of those two was, miraculously, a goal), and eventually the teams went to overtime, where Rapids star Patrick White beat Leis to secure a 5-4 victory.

Rapids and Cloquet suffered serious losses to graduation after 2007, and though the MSHSL cycled a decent Anoka squad into 7AA for 2008, the section seemed ripe for East’s taking. The offense was not deep, but they had a strong top line in Max Tardy, Rob A. Johnson, and Jake Boese, and the defensive corps was perhaps their best since the late 90s. The Hounds again started slowly but streaked down the stretch, with their only loss in the last 13 games coming to an elite Edina team; they beat Cloquet to earn the top seed in the section and renewed their rivalry with the Lumberjacks in the semifinals. The game was an exhilarating back-and-forth affair that saw East take a 5-4 lead after an early 4-2 deficit, but the hero of the hour was Cloquet defenseman David Brown, who scored four goals, including the game-winner with 12 seconds to go.

The 6-5 loss seemed a fitting capstone to a frustrating run for a program saddled with such high expectations. The 2006-2008 teams were all reasonably good, but were never great, and there was no peak of talent that might have carried East deep into the State Tournament. Not far away, Duluth Marshall was enjoying its finest run of MSHSL hockey success, while other hockey opportunities drained away top East players. Meanwhile, the East program was under an intense scrutiny brought on by past success, its unique powerhouse status in northeastern Minnesota, and the drama surrounding an intense, embattled coach.

It is not hard to see how the pressure weighed down the Hounds once they had become a high-profile program. The years in which the team was supposed to peak and be a frontrunner for the title—1996, 1997, 2009, 2012, perhaps 2002—all ended in frustration. The years immediately pre- or post-peak, however, almost always turned out well: the 1995 team won the title a year ahead of schedule, and the 1998 squad won it when East was supposed to be dropping off some. Excellent runs in 2011 and 2013 bookend the 2012 failure. Very young squads such as the 1994, 2000, and 2010 teams were quite potent by the playoffs, though there was more grumbling around the program in those years due to the reliance on underclassmen. East hockey was under a microscope, and the burden of expectation was a heavy one to saddle upon a group of high school kids. After three straight section semifinal losses, it would have been easy to claim the program was on the decline, overwhelmed by the changing high school hockey scene. But through it all, the Hounds’ pride remained intact, and even Mike Randolph’s staunchest critics would admit he is never one to back down. In 2009, a new talent bubble was ready to take East back to St. Paul.

Next week: East’s run of five straight tournament berths from 2009-2013.

1 Nowacki, Jon. “Fundraiser at Issue: Duluth East Administrators Asked Coach Mike Randolph for an Explanation of Wreath Sales Profits in December.” Duluth News-Tribune. 29 April 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

2 Augustoviz, Roman. “Coach Questions Process: Mike Randolph Still Wants to Know Why His Contract Was Not Renewed After 15 Seasons and Much Success as Duluth East Head Boys’ Hockey Coach.” Star Tribune. 6 May 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

3 Kersten, Craig. “Sound Off: Principal Did Well.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 May 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

4 Meryhew, Richard. “The Ice Man Goeth: Duluth Coach’s Exit Spotlights Polarized Views of Program .” Star Tribune. 6 July 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

5 Nowacki, Jon. “Randolph Asks District to Open His Personnel File.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 May 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

6 Meryhew, op. cit.

7 Nowacki, Jon. “Randolph Files Grievance: Former Duluth East Coach Says District Is Unfairly Disregarding His Application.” Duluth News-Tribune. 8 July 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

8 Michals, Lisa. “Board Reinstates Randolph: The Former East High School Hockey Coach Will Get His Job Back.” Duluth News-Tribune. 21 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

9 Michals, Lisa. “School Board: Hockey Coach’s Reinstatement Prompted Accusations, Left Administrators Feeling Undermined.” Duluth News-Tribune. 22 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

10 Nowacki, Jon. “Hockey Players: Many Students Happy to See Randolph Return, but Sad that it’s at the Expense of their Coach this Season.” Duluth News-Tribune. 22 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

11 Nowacki, Jon. “Duluth East Gets Penalized: A Transfer Rules Violation Means East will have to Forfeit Wins in Boys and Girls Hockey.” Duluth News-Tribune. 19 December 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

12 Stodghill, Mark. “Randolph won’t Be Charged.” Duluth News-Tribune. 29 December 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

13 Weegman, Rick. “Randolph Gets One-Week Coaching Suspension.” Duluth News-Tribune. 21 January 2005. Web. 15 July 2013.

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One Response to “Hounds Hockey History VII: The Burdens of Hockey Glory (2004-2008)”

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  1. Hounds Hockey History VI: Lonely on Top (1999-2003) | A Patient Cycle - July 15, 2013

    […] Next week: Coaching controversy, East hockey from 2004-2008, and an examination of the intense pressure placed …. […]

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