Archive | September, 2014

A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

25 Sep

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

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Howie Hanson and the End of Boring

24 Sep

Well, we have a race. I didn’t really want to write about it, largely out of protest over the excruciating length of political campaigns launched fourteen months ahead of the election, but a few people have goaded me into it. For the first time in many years, there will be a politician in Duluth opposed to the current administration who aspires to something more than a protest vote.

City Councilor and local blogger Howie Hanson has chosen to go in for the race for mayor of Duluth, mounting a pseudo-challenge to incumbent Don Ness, Duluth’s champion of boring government. Ness, of course, hasn’t decided whether he’ll run again yet, and was put in an awkward position by Hanson’s direct challenge to him. (Sort of. Despite coming out guns blazing, Hanson also gave Ness plenty of credit, and admitted he would be difficult to defeat.) In response, Ness stuck to his guns and kept to his original decision-making timeline, while also saying he was ready for a debate. The entire drama played out on Facebook comment boxes, prompting the expected sniping and grumbling and misunderstanding and so on and so forth. (I know, I know, it’s hypocritical for a blogger to gripe about the rise of social media. Deal with it.)

Cards on the table: I have never been a very large fan of Hanson’s work, a sentiment that goes back to a kerfuffle some five years ago on some of his writings about local hockey. (There was a time when his name was something of a punch line in local hockey circles, though this might have faded some since he abandoned opinion writing about hockey after these incidents.) It’s nothing personal, and I try to maintain a strict division of hockey and state in my thinking. By and large, Hanson’s heart is in the right place. He’s trying to be a voice for citizens in Duluth who aren’t thrilled with aspects of the Ness Regime, and I’m all for principled opposition.

That stance is a total about-face from where he was a year ago—see the end of this post for some critical comments about his predecessor for not being on the same page as Ness—but I think that’s a genuine conversion that he’s gone through in his first year on the Council, and as he’s learned more about local government. He may not be the smoothest operator, but there’s a political vacuum that he’s in a great position to fill, and he’s given himself enough time that he could, theoretically, pull it all together. On paper, a west-sider with deep stakes in the community who relies on fiscal restraint and common sense sounds like a serious contender.

Hanson, however, has done little to suggest he will be able to seize that mantel. Flexibility and common sense are good things to a degree, but with Hanson, the underlying philosophy just seems formless. He is quick to come up with new proposals, which he paints as outside-the-box thinking, but many of them are so poorly vetted that they are difficult to take seriously. Above all, he has just seemed more ill-prepared to govern than any other city councilor in recent memory, with a glaring lack of understanding of how things work in city government. That isn’t all bad—his resistance to bureaucracy-speak is sometimes an asset—but any politician put in charge of an executive department needs to know how to speak this language, otherwise the whole enterprise will fall apart. He has a folksy sort of charm, though he also has some blustering bravado that comes out in spurts, only to be quickly covered up when he realizes he’s rubbed someone the wrong way. It could be a winning combination in the hands of a tactful politician. All of the evidence up to and including this flap over his announcement suggests that Hanson is not one right now.

He has a lot of time, though, so I won’t dismiss him out of hand. We’re going to have a painfully long campaign ahead of us, and if Ness does indeed run, we may have our field set a year in advance. If he doesn’t, Hanson has probably forced the other possible successors to make up their minds soon. (I’ve heard names, but I won’t speculate publicly.) Hanson will be a long shot even if he doesn’t have to face Ness—a near shoo-in for re-election if he runs—but with enough confusion among the people aiming to capture the Ness coalition, he might be able to make things interesting.

Boring government was fun while it lasted. With Hanson in the field, it certainly won’t be that.

Hey Duluth Politicians, I’m Still Paying Attention

20 Sep

Yes, Duluth, I’m still paying attention to you, even from afar. Here are a few thoughts on two issues that have been in the news back home recently.

The Proposed Lester Park Golf Course Development

One of the more interesting debates to surface has been about the fate of the Lester Park Golf Course (LPGC), the public course on the far east side for which the city has started fielding proposals from developers. The LPGC has operated at a loss in recent years, and with its superb views of Lake Superior and relatively undeveloped environs, it sits on an attractive piece of real estate. But this decision has, of course, spurred some backlash, with local historian Tony Dierckins rallying the troops in a series of posts over on Zenith City Online. (History of the course here, pointed critiques here.)

Before we get into the merits of this particular plan, Tony makes one point that is especially bothersome when he floats the notion that this somehow detracts from the plan to revitalize the west side. This is the sort of attitude that reinforces the east-west divide, turning development into a zero-sum game. There is plenty of room for development on both sides of Duluth; nothing should be off the table simply because it is on a certain side of the city. Imposing some sort of moratorium on east side development so the west side can play catch-up would be a heavy-handed tool that would likely just leave us with less of anything in the end. Closing LPGC would actually eliminate an east side amenity, and if (if!) it is indeed a profitable move, could free up some cash for the west side. Signs of flexibility and openness to creative ideas would be a positive for the city as a whole, and could improve the overall development climate. Though Duluthians should be proud that their city tends to stop and think before rushing to throw up every new plan placed before it in shiny wrapping, this mindset is exactly what gets Duluth a reputation for being stuck in the mud when it comes to development. There’s room for many different options.

I’m also not entirely sold on a number of his other defenses of LPGC. Yes, it’s public, and gives green access to golfers who can’t afford Northland or Ridgeview Country Clubs. But it’s also not a free amenity open to anyone, and calling a golf course ‘nature’ or an opportunity for serious physical activity is something of a stretch, especially in a city like Duluth. Golf courses are odd ducks in the planning world: they’re recreational, but very specific in purpose, and take up a lot of land area. Tony gives a massive job loss number, but it’s worth noting that many of them are seasonal and not exactly careers, such as caddying. These jobs are great for kids starting work and a few seasoned pros, of course, but it’s not comparable to closing a factory.

Tony’s financial numbers seem fishy at best. It’s certainly not the government’s job to subsidize golf at whatever cost, and if the market’s not there, the local golf community either needs to pony up or face reality. It may be a bit premature to throw LPGC under the bus—Tony does have a not-so-very-old quote from CAO Montgomery dismissing any financial concerns about the courses that needs an explanation—but things do need to add up here. Tony has a pretty clear personal interest in LPGC, and while there’s nothing wrong with that—I’d be putting out some prolific venting if the city, say, tried to do away with Fryberger Arena—let’s not pretend he’s laying out these facts without a clear agenda.

All of that said, barring an offer the city can’t refuse, I do think it would be shortsighted to just shut the place down and put up a new, strictly residential subdivision. Overcrowding at the Enger course would be a serious issue, as would the loss of a venue for major charitable events. Golf does have genuine cultural value, and generates some tourism. Weather might have played a role in recent financial struggles, and LPGC is also sadly burdened by the hopelessly arcane liquor sales ban that lives on in Lakeside. The public needs to learn a lot more about the course’s operations before it accepts that it just has to go.

The good news is that some of the proposals apparently do not involve the total loss of the golf course. Preserving 18 holes while allowing for some modest development might prove a sensible compromise. Ideally, any redevelopment will maintain some parkland and public access to the excellent views along LPGC, no matter what fate befalls the course. The ideal plan would also probably bring some space for business along with it, instead of isolating a group of houses out on a cul-du-sac off Lester River Road. I’m intrigued to see what comes out of this. Tell me more.

September School Board Meeting

Oh, yeah, that thing. I’m afraid it still exists, and is just as absurd as ever. I made it about halfway through the Youtube video before giving up. It started off as usual, with Members Johnston and Welty doing lots of grandstanding for entirely understandable reasons, as they still have not been given any clear path to get anything on the Board’s agenda. Chair Miernicki continues to be the greatest PR operation the minority could have dreamed of on their behalf, persistently bumbling through everything.

At one point, Member Johnston said that Chair Miernicki had told him that he was “scared” of him in an email, which is telling. Many adjectives could be applied to Member Johnston, a number of them not very nice, but “scary” is not really one of them. Years of battles have left the majority paranoid about the man, and even his more mundane critiques give rise to defensiveness. Everyone is so well-trained at taking those who they do not agree with in bad faith.

This fear of minority critiques came out later in the meeting, when Member Harala lost her cool and snapped at Member Welty for his (real, but fairly mundane) grandstanding on minority students’ poor test scores. So much for the one person on the majority who I thought was making a concerted effort to see things from the other side. Predictably, this sent Member Johnston off the rails with accusations of harassment and lack of care for minorities, in turn sending Chair Miernicki into justified indignance. After that bit of ugliness, I stopped watching. Member Johnston said the Board has done nothing for underserved groups, but this is patently false. Whatever one thinks of it, the Laura MacArthur curriculum flap is obviously an effort to cater directly to groups that need extra help in school, and from my time there onward, there has been a very concerted effort on the part of the East administration to directly engage with minority students. (In fact, there were even a few jokes in poor taste about how this was the only thing the administration cared about.) I doubt East is unique there. Just because it isn’t being announced with trumpets doesn’t mean it isn’t getting done. Its efficacy may be another story, though, and everyone seemed to be in violent agreement that this is a conversation worth having.

The trouble is that the conversation will likely go in the exact same direction. Members Welty and (especially) Johnston are full of depressing facts but short on solutions, in turn leading to defensiveness and qualifications from the rest. I’m all for the accurate reporting of the statistics, but just reading off the numbers does little to advance the conversation. Stupid as it may be, Members Johnston and Welty may have to cater to their colleagues’ fragile sensibilities if they really do want to have this conversation (which they already do somewhat with a lot of qualification), and some brevity might do them a world of good, too. Unfortunately, the success of Laura MacArthur may be leading some on the Board to believe that this is an easy problem to solve. Member Welty says he won’t be happy with mere incremental success, and the Board should obviously aim to do all it can, but in the end, I’d be relieved with some slow, steady progress. While he may just have been in a state after Member Harala’s outburst, Member Johnston’s suggestion that the achievement gap exists because people aren’t trying is just his bad faith reading of people he does not like. This is a brutally hard issue to fix.

The same could be said of the east-west divide, which also came up in relation to test scores after everyone got all of their hating on testing and No Child Left Behind out of the way. (If there’s one thing that seems to unite everyone in the room, and can even get Chair Miernicki to praise some of Marcia Stromgren’s words, it’s a hatred of tests.) The concerns about equity between East and Denfeld came up again, and while I’ve already said plenty on that, I’ll again point out what a bind the District is in as it tries to correct for some of these issues. The new curriculum director has his work cut out for him, though as I suggested in that past post, there are some creative ways to offer greater equity while also working within reality.

I’m not going to defend the Board’s existing efforts fully, though, and at their worst, some Members do sound like patronizing teachers when they acknowledge problems but do not share any further details, or dismiss them in facile ways. (See Chair Miernicki’s suggestion that, because something appears in the curriculum guide, this must automatically mean there is equal access to classes at both high schools. Please. And what is this nonsense about a full year of lifeskills—by far the most useless class I had in ISD 709, though that was perhaps related to the teacher—instead of offering Spanish at Lincoln Park?) It’s all part of the culture of secrecy inside the District. It may not look like it exists from inside the bubble, but it does, and it’s glaring. Read this DNT op ed and some of Harry’s correspondents for more details.

The public speaker session included Linda Puglisi’s jarring story of a pool rescue, once again showing the horrors of teachers trying to do the best they can with large class sizes. Another speaker hammered this theme home when discussing Lester Park, and I’ve heard similar stories out of Congdon. Not coincidentally, these schools are on the east side; in addition to serving the area of the city with the most young people, they are the ones families are trying to transfer into, often blackmailing the District with threats of withdrawal if they don’t get their way. Even so, class sizes are still a problem, despite a few added teachers here and there thanks to the levy money. This Board has some work to do, and it needs to do more than “have conversations”–though in some cases, it isn’t even doing that.

On that happy note, I’ll cut myself off. Writing about Duluth politics is cathartic. I miss it, in a twisted sort of way.

Disjointed Vomit

16 Sep

I’m not sure when vomit is ever jointed, but the title of this post is just there to convey the sheer randomness. For starters, it’s the first post I’ve ever written in WordPress’s post box, instead of pasting from a Word document. There is no plan here. I haven’t posted in a week, and even with most of those last two posts, I’d done most of the groundwork over the summer. I just need to get something up.

It’s not for lack of effort; I did get halfway through a post that meandered through thoughts on adolescence and American culture and the state of democratic society and so on, but it was dragging, and didn’t seem to say anything I haven’t said on here before. The goal, as always, is fresh content, not endless repetition. I’ll settle for directing readers to the two articles that prompted all these thoughts. The first, by film critic A.O. Scott on adolescence in American culture, hits on themes I’ve mused about in many places, from my thoughts on U.S. foreign policy to book and film reviews. The second is by my old professor, the oft-cited Patrick Deneen, and worries about the decline of democracy in the U.S., diagnosing private obsessions and a bit of adolescence at its root. I appreciate both, but I have some critiques of them, too. If this all interests you, get back to me with a report on the articles and we can talk. Someday, I’ll get around to fleshing all of this out in a coherent way. (Yes, being back in academia is rubbing off on me. Sorry.)

Now, on to some administrative notes and a life update.

A few people had asked if, now that I’m in Minneapolis, I’d move on to covering Minneapolis public meetings. My schedule down here has decided that for me; with few free evenings, it’s not possible. So the answer is no. Likewise, watching webcasts of Duluth City Council meetings is out of the question, at least through mid-October. That said, I am still watching Duluth affairs from afar. Comments will come at some point.

I am, finally, comfortably settled in Minneapolis. My neighborhood, which is somewhere around the place where Uptown and The Wedge and Lowry Hill all come together, is a delight. This is a place where it’s easy to live well, with incredible variety all around and easy access to both the frenetic Downtown and or the relative tranquility of Lake of the Isles. Of course, there’s no Duluth-style community or solitude to be found, which I can miss at times, but I do have enough of network in this area that I’m never too far from home.

My program is a vibrant one. Some of the people involved have incredible niche interests, while others (like myself) are a bit more detached about it all, but it’s easy to see why we’re all here. The workload is not daunting (yet). I’m still feeling out what the standards are, how it compares to Georgetown, and how not to sound like an obnoxious elitist when talking about Georgetown. The lifestyle is fairly different from undergrad, as many students have already had a career of some sort, and people are married or significantly attached and just generally have busy lives away from the school bubble. Still, there’s some camaraderie building, and that should only grow. I expect my coursework will come out in a blog post or two as well. There’s lots to think about here.

The U of M is big. Really big. I’m somewhat isolated from it all on the West Bank, but it’s a change from both Duluth and the very compact Georgetown campus. Life in a larger city is inevitably a bit more fragmented, though all of the opportunities help make up for this. I enjoy being on the campus of a Big Ten (Big Fourteen? Big Sixteen? Big 37? I lose track) school, despite the mediocrity of the football team. Hey, at least they have their integrity, unlike a certain other local sports franchise that wears purple. This past week has left me relieved that I a) root for a team that does its best to do things the right way, and b) consider football inferior to most other sports out there. Maybe the football bubble is finally starting to implode. At any rate, Minnesota’s competent male professional sports franchise gets going in less than a month, and I should get out to see some Elite League high school hockey before then, too.

For someone who enjoys travel as much as I do, I’ve done shockingly little over the past two years, which means a trip to a new destination next month is very welcome. I’m off to Phoenix for a long weekend in early October, in part for a school board campaign victory party (long story), and also to visit an old friend. Blogging will ensue.

For now, though, that’s all I’ve got. Back to work.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part II

9 Sep

As promised, here’s part two, including sections 6AA-8AA and all of the Class A coaches that I have something to say about. Part One is here.

Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Pauly, now entering his 24th season coaching, is a high school hockey institution. He first took the Benilde job at the time when many private schools were on the rise, and he took his opportunity and ran with it, building the school up from nothing and having the ambition to quickly make the jump to AA. He left Benilde for a brief tenure at Minnetonka, where he also lifted that program to one of its two State berths in the past 20 years and set up a foundation for future success. His return to Benilde brought continued steady improvement, as the Red Knights are now the west side’s preeminent private hockey school. His teams play up-tempo, exciting hockey that lets players flash their offensive skills, though sometimes this has obvious consequences on the other end of the ice, with halfhearted defense and goalies hung out to dry. He’s a driven man; no one works the refs harder, and as the head of the Coaches’ Association, he’s been one of the most vocal defenders of high school hockey against other development models. That fire gets him into some trouble, but he’s certainly been one of the most influential coaches of the past two decades.

Lee Smith, Eden Prairie Smith makes for an interesting contrast to Pauly; he’s not one to actively grab the spotlight, and he doesn’t really have a distinctive style. What he does do, however, is get more out of his top players than any other coach. From Leddy to Rau to Spinner and Snuggerud, his teams revolve around those big guns, and the supporting cast usually knows its role and makes for a cohesive unit. His teams don’t do many memorable things when they don’t have those front-end stars in their primes, but when they do, few deliver as consistently and reliably. More often than not, favored, senior-heavy teams struggle with the pressure. Smith’s don’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Brian Urick, Minnetonka Urick seems to have a good handle on how to build a deep, successful team; there is no over-emphasis in any one particular area, and he’s had a couple of truly great teams. Minnetonka, which had been up-and-down in the past, is now a regular in the title conversation. That has only manifested itself in one trip to State, and that in a year when they had an overwhelming array of talent, though 6AA is very unforgiving. He has been outcoached tactically on occasion in big games.

Pat O’Leary, Wayzata O’Leary is one of the shortest-tenured coaches on this list, but he’s already made a distinct mark with his heavy defensive emphasis. His Wayzata teams just don’t give up much, period. He appears to be personable and well-liked, and as a young guy, he could have a long career ahead of him. The unsurprising flip side to the defensive emphasis is a lack of offensive dynamism, despite some considerable talent coming through. We’ll see if that evolves as the years go on.

Noel Rahn, Holy Family Rahn has done a good job of attracting talent to the Fire, and his players attract attention by putting up some big numbers. The move to AA was an ambitious one that probably helped that process, though it has also made it difficult to break through against the deeper suburban teams. They’ve also had some trouble keeping some of the top players they’ve attracted around until graduation. It’s all a work in progress, so we’ll see where the Fire go in the coming years.

Mike Randolph, Duluth East I could, of course, write an entire book about Randolph, who built East up from relative mediocrity and has kept the Hounds near the top of the heap for a quarter century. He couples his intensity with a complete command of the details of the game, and as a result is a very hands-on coach, always tinkering and correcting and looking for some little edge. He has learned things and evolved over the years, though there are certain constants to his complex systems that keep East relevant even when front-end talent dips. Defense comes first, the special teams are always excellent, and his teams are physical without going overboard. His weaknesses are, basically, his strengths in excess: he can be hard on his players, and try to pull too many levers instead of just turning them loose. This can create the high-pressure environment that will rub some the wrong way, and a number of his teams have caved under that pressure. Still, it’s hard to argue with the supreme confidence and the consistency of the results.

Dave Esse, Cloquet Esse does well with a program that doesn’t always have an overwhelming array of talent, and usually gets his Lumberjacks to play a complete, defensive team game. No high school coach works the trap as well as he does, and he gets his teams up for big games against rivals. In the years when he actually has had front-end talent, though, it hasn’t always come together. His fieriness has also gotten him into a brief bit of trouble.

Gordie Roberts, Elk River Roberts has the difficult task of filling Tony Sarsland’s boots; even when he wasn’t successful, Sarsland was such a distinct and memorable character that he casts a long shadow. Roberts is much more even-keeled; he’s not one to do anything radical, and has had his teams playing fairly well down the stretch, only to see things end in heartbreak two straight years. We’ll see how he responds to that, and how he evolves as time goes on.

John Rothstein, Grand Rapids Rothstein pushed the pace a bit more than his predecessor, Bruce LaRoque, did in his long stint in Rapids; the result was serious over-exposure of a thin defense. It’s still early, though, and Rapids has enough upcoming talent to make some noise.

Mark Manney, Andover It’s been up-and-down for this program, but Manney has gotten some good runs out of middling talent when they all buy in and play good defense.

Andy Lundbohm, Roseau The size of the program means Lundbohm has some challenges that most AA coaches don’t. He expects his big players to carry the load and leans on them, which is probably necessary to compete with the deeper teams out there. There were some rocky moments in the past few years, but the team held its own with some much deeper teams at State in 2014.

Jon Ammerman, Moorhead Ammerman succeeded Dave Morinville this past season, and will have to replicate his defensive success to keep up the Spuds’ strong tradition in 8AA. It’s too early to say much here. Seemed to be well-regarded in his brief stint in Windom.

Dave Aus, Brainerd (formerly of Blaine) Blaine won State the year before Aus showed up, but they’d yet to really establish themselves as a consistent contender. Under his oversight, Blaine achieved that, and is now a top-ten team year in and year out. The playoff results often did not always match regular season success, especially in his last few years in Blaine, when things seemed to snowball some. The Brainerd job should prove a very different sort of challenge, but the program has some potential, and Aus’s lack of stylistic rigidity should be a plus there.

Roy Nystrom, Albert Lea Like Lorne Grosso, Nystrom is an institution in southern Minnesota hockey, and usually does a good job of keeping his teams relevant, despite a fairly thin talent pool. He’s one of those people that make high school hockey unique, plugging along in a southern Minnesota town and putting out an entertaining squad, year after year.

Derrick Brown, Luverne Brown is very raw, but he has the confidence of someone looking to build something serious in the state’s southwest corner. He’s one worth watching.

Les Larson, Breck Despite a successful tenure to date, I just don’t have much to say about Larson. He isn’t very distinct. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also a perk of running the premier Class A program in the southern half of the state.

Mark Loahr, Totino-Grace Has had a very long tenure with many wins and numerous State berths, though he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive in building his program as some of the other private school coaches.

Jeff Poeschl, Mahtomedi A long-tenured coach, Poeschl has helped build arguably the strongest Metro Class A public program, and could be a real beneficiary of St. Thomas’s move to AA. I don’t know his work well, but he appears to be well-regarded.

Tony Couture, Little Falls Jared Festler and Ben Hanowski will help one’s coaching career, but Couture has done a nice job with a small-town program, building it into relevance and making State in 2012 without any such stars.

Bruce Plante, Hermantown Plante is the ultimate player’s coach. Easygoing and easy to play for, he turns his players loose and gets the best out of them, making for great team cohesion and some genuinely fun hockey. He’s overseen the growth of his program into a state power, and has Hermantown in a very good place going forward, with resource advantages that no Class A public school can match. I will admit that I’ve never been terribly impressed with his tactical chops, and while his shtick is amusing, his private school rants probably became a distraction after a while. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is great when the environment is loose and upbeat, but may not help when trying to escape a frustrating string of 2nd-place finishes.

Brendan Flaherty, Duluth Marshall Flaherty built up Marshall from doormat status in the mid-90s, and his teams have been consistently relevant for the better part of a decade, with the best teams coming when they had a couple of legitimate stars to lean on. Beyond that, nothing much jumps out; he’s not especially creative, and will look to rely on his above average depth on hand to wear down thinner Class A opponents. He’s a sharp contrast to the other Duluth area coaches, most of whom are distinct characters.

Kevin Smalley, Duluth Denfeld Smalley is one of the few people on this list who’s never been to St. Paul in March, but he does well for himself, all things considered. He coaches a feisty team that, while not especially talented, gets itself up for big games against local competition, giving these teams fits with some regularity. His teams are a bit rough around the edges, and that shows when playoff time comes around, but if he keeps at it and shores up a small youth program, he’ll get there in time.

Tyler Palmiscno, East Grand Forks Palmiscno has done it by the book these past two seasons, relying on depth and great defense to win a state title. The wheels fell off against St. Thomas in 2013, but he obviously learned from that, and the confidence this past season was obvious. There’s enough talent left in the chute that he could go on a run and really make a name for himself, though some other strong 8A teams will have something to say about that.

Al Oliver, East Grand Forks assistant (formerly of Roseau) Despite not being an active head coach, Oliver is just too good of a character to be left off the list. He brings the intensity and fire, making up for his lack of a hockey background. He’s learned a few things over the years, too: while not a tactician by trade, EGF’s style bears a lot of resemblances to the great Roseau teams from 06-08, particularly in its defensive emphases. The man just screams “northern Minnesota hockey.”

Tim Bergland, Thief River Falls Bergland is not one I claim to know well, but I’m impressed just about every time I see his teams in action. His teams are scrappy and fight hard, consistently entering the Class A top ten, even though they’re not blessed with great riches. Whatever he’s doing up there, he’s doing something right. Also coached in Fergus Falls toward the tail end of their run of six straight tourney berths in the late 90s/early 00s.

Jay Hardwick, Warroad He has a couple of very talented players, but Hardwick’s Warriors were arguably the 2nd-best team in Class A last season despite not being able to match the depth of East Grand Forks. There’s something to be said for that, and he bears watching in the coming seasons.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part I

7 Sep

The Breakdown, which puts out a superb high school hockey preview guidebook each season, recently asked me to make a fool of myself with a series of preseason predictions. In among the usual questions about who will win State and Mr. Hockey and who will be a surprise this season, there was a straightforward but very difficult question: who is the best coach in Minnesota high school hockey? I took the easy way out and was a total homer about it, but it got me thinking about the many options, and will ramble some about them here.

It’s a tough question. A coach who is right for one program at a certain time might be useless for another, and vice versa. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and bring interesting mixes of skills to the table. They also change over time, learning lessons and adapting to the different teams they have. When measuring coaches, it can also be very difficult to separate them from their programs: how on earth do you compare the work of Edina’s Curt Giles with the work of the coaches in River Lakes or Owatonna?

Instead of trying to devise a ranking, I’ve settled simply for some short descriptions of many of the most prominent coaches. I’ve tried to be fair with each of them, though that doesn’t mean I’m entirely neutral. I’ve focused on the coaches I know best; if I’ve omitted someone prominent, it’s probably because I don’t know them all that well, not because I’m trying to slight them. They’re listed in rough order by section.

Trent Eigner, Lakeville North Eigner walked into an ideal situation as the community-chosen successor to Randy Schmitz, who had been run out of town. He inherited a team that was just about ready to take off, with a rising golden generation and a section ripe for the taking, and take off it has, making the state final last season. He’s not one to over-structure things; he simply turns his players loose. This has its downsides—see last year’s state final, when the wheels fell off and people were flopping all over the place—but he’s also young and still on the learning curve, and there is plenty to be said for letting players play with their emotion. No one will be under heavier scrutiny this upcoming season.

Kurt Weber, Lakeville South Weber has been on the receiving end of some criticism over the years; in 2010 and 2011 the Cougars were favored to win 1AA, but fell to mediocre North teams. South has also seen some talent migrate north over the past few years. Still, when he did break through in 2012, he coached a game to define a career, putting in a lot of video work and planning to orchestrate the upset of Duluth East. Top players have also done pretty well under him.

Lorne Grosso, Rochester Mayo Grosso has been around forever. He’s not nearly as intense or territorial as some of the other long-tenured coaches, and seems to go with the flow. Back when he did have some serious talent in the mid-90s, his teams did quite well, finishing 4th in 1995 and giving undefeated Duluth East a one-goal quarterfinal game in 1997. Lately, there’s been so little in the pipeline that he just can’t be compared with the others here.

Curt Giles, Edina Giles is blessed with an embarrassment of talent, making him hard to measure him against the others on this list. He made some mistakes early in his career, riding his top line too often in the Budish-Everson-Lee days, and failing to deliver a title with that golden generation. One of the best marks of a successful coach, though, is his ability to learn from his mistakes, and Giles has done exactly that. He now uses all of that incredible depth at his disposal, and with three titles in five years, the results speak for themselves. He’s also drawn some criticism for reliance on younger players, but again, it’s hard to argue with success, and Edina has so many talented players that some will inevitably be jilted. He’s left his own distinct mark with Edina’s physicality—no soft cake here—and he’s also a master at line-matching. It’s hard to say how he’d do if he were thrown in somewhere else, but right now, he’s mastered the art of coaching Edina, and he’s got the hardware to back it up.

Janne Kivihalme, Burnsville Kivihalme burst on to the scene in 2007, when his Blaze went on a surprise run, beating Holy Angels in sections and made the State semis. The Finn had a bit of an aura around him, but the results haven’t quite followed since. A lot of this is due to the misfortune of sharing a section with Edina, but there have been a number of very narrow calls over the years. In spite of it all there doesn’t seem to be too much criticism in Burnsville, though they also lose top players to juniors at a faster rate than perhaps any team in the state. Nothing about his in-game coaching jumps out at me, for good or ill.

Jeff Lindquist, Bloomington Jefferson Lindquist has had the unenviable task of succeeding a legend in Tom Saterdalen, and his time at Jefferson has coincided with a drop in the talent pool on the west side of the Twin Cities’ largest suburb. He made State once and has had a couple of other teams threaten, but have usually been overwhelmed by Edina. Also had some success with Blake in the 1990s.

Joe Pankratz, Prior Lake Pankratz has quietly turned the Lakers into a relevant team, building things from the ground up. This past season was the first real bump in the road, but the future remains bright.

Mike Taylor, Eagan Taylor has been brilliant over the past few seasons, getting a lot out of teams that were supposed to be dropping off in talent. Eagan has never had the youth success of many of the top programs in the state, but the high school teams have been right there over the past five years (though some transfers do help there). He brings a strong but not excessive defensive emphasis, great tactical chops, and a complete team system that has teams looking very fluid. If there’s an obvious flaw, it’s in the poor special teams, and it’s hard to go too far with someone who’s never made a state title game. Still, he comes across as one of the most intelligent coaches in the business, and isn’t one to rock any boats. We’ll see if the success continues now that the well is drier than ever before.

Tom and Greg Vannelli, St. Thomas Academy The Vannelli brothers have built STA up from nothing, turning an also-ran into a state power. Their personalities complement each other well, with one doing the yelling and the other being more even-keeled. They run a tight ship and are good ambassadors for STA’s image, and stayed above the fray when lots of people were griping about their presence in Class A. Their style, which doesn’t vary a whole lot and places its emphasis on strong transition play, was great for Class A domination, but I wasn’t surprised to see it undone by a physical Eagan team in the first year in AA. Their success in the big school division will likely be determined by their ability to adapt to the different situations, many of which they did not see in Class A. They did a great job of building STA up, but the jury is still out on any further verdict.

Drey Bradley, Eastview Made a splash in 2013, and has built a contender out of a team without overwhelming skating talent. Tried some unique little tactics in the Tourney against Hill, though it didn’t amount to much in the end.

Jim O’Neill, Cretin-Derham Hall The Raiders under O’Neill have never become the hockey destination that other Twin Cities private schools have, but he does quite well with what he has, winning a title with a team that didn’t have much prolific talent beyond Ryan McDonagh in 2006, and making the semis again in 2009.

Bill Lechner, Hill-Murray Lechner’s even-keeled demeanor is well-suited for the Hill ethos; he comes off as a confident blueblood who stewards a storied program with ease. His biggest triumph was in 2008, when he knocked off the top two teams in the state en route to a title, and his best teams bring an intense physicality and stout defense. (Assistant Pat Schafhauser often gets some credit here.) He’s also developed a reputation strict disciplinarian with high standards for off-ice conduct. He’s good at building a winning atmosphere, which helps make up for a relative lack of tactical innovation or creativity. He inherited a great situation at Hill, but does not strike me as someone who would be great if thrown into a job with a struggling program and asked to grow it from the ground up.

Tim Sager, White Bear Lake Perhaps the most notable thing that can be said about Sager is that he is a survivor. No one has taken more heat over the years, yet he hangs in there, and has had some seasons of legitimate overachievement, as in 2011. His teams rarely have Hill’s talent, but by the playoffs they can almost always give the Pioneers a good run, usually by relying on emotion and a neutral zone trap. There has been some maddening inconsistency over the years, but through it all, the Bears put out some good talent remain perennial 4AA contenders.

Matt Doman, Stillwater He’s only had one year, but in that one year he did what no previous Pony coach could do, from Bill Lechner to Phil Housley: he got them to State. Their run through 4AA featured lots of good energy and ambition, though they were quickly throttled by Edina at State. With some talented youth teams feeding in, he’s one to watch in the coming years.

Ritch Menne, Centennial Menne also has a very short résumé, but it’s an excellent one, with two State berths in two years, both as a lower seed. His Cougars have done it with tight defense, good discipline, and just a bit of an edge. He’s another one to watch in the coming years.

Tom Starkey, Maple Grove It’s way too early to say much about Starkey, but his team was consistently in the picture last season, and given the strength of the program, he’ll be under the spotlight. He has a chance to leave his mark in a section that is fairly open for the taking.

I’m breaking this post into two so that it isn’t overly long. Here is part two.