Archive | February, 2015

The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

26 Feb

Three years ago, one of the most loaded teams in Duluth East history finished off a 4-1 win over Eagan on a Saturday in early March. That game, however, was not at the Xcel Center in St. Paul; it was at a consolation final in front of a half-empty Mariucci Arena. Their pride was intact, but Greyhounds Nation was left wondering what could have been. Mike Randolph, the Hounds’ longtime coach, made his way across the ice to salute the East fan base, as he always does at the end of the season.

I made sure to preserve that sight in my memory. At the time, there was good reason to think Randolph would call it quits after 23 seasons; his son was about to graduate, and he had just hit 60. Had he left then, his legacy might have been a somewhat complicated one. Yes, any reasonable observer would acknowledge his work in building up the program in the 1990s, and his two state titles with those loaded teams back then. But after that came a wacky saga that saw Randolph dismissed for a year before getting his job back, a series of section playoff upsets, and two bad upset losses once they did get back to State, the most glaring of those the 2012 affair that had wrecked his best season in over a decade. Every year, there was some grumbling from the stands, and while I had plenty of respect for Randolph, I would have been fine starting off a new era, too.

Randolph, however, came back. The results since have been nothing short of golden. Tonight’s 5-4, 3-goal comeback, double-overtime win over heavily-favored Elk River is the crowning moment of one of the all-time great runs in Minnesota high school hockey history, a streak of seven straight tournament berths, each more impressive than the last.

Sure, he still has plenty of talent to work with—though it’s gone down some each year. And yes, whiny southern fans, the section final is in Duluth. But anyone who thinks for a moment that this is at all a fluke or a function of game location isn’t paying close enough attention. In watching this team closely over the past three years, I’ve picked up on so many of the little things he does, so many of the little strengths he brings to the table that no other coach in the state does.  It helped that I had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while during that stretch, but it took careful observation to realize the totality of his control, and just how unique it is. Minnesota high school hockey fans are in the presence of a master at his craft.

Did anything change over time, to turn those disappointments into three straight thrilling Tourney berths, each more improbable than the last? Probably. Randolph sure thought so, saying “everything” had changed in how he handled his players over the course of his career. After the 2013 run, a few players joked about his wry sense of humor, a side of him I don’t ever recall hearing about when I was in high school. I told friends that he was going soft in his old age; I don’t know if the current players would agree with that after one of his famed bag skates, but whatever it was, he found a way to strike the perfect balance between pushing his players to give all they could without going overboard. This is the essence of good coaching, and performance in any sphere of life: to know how to push things to the limit and stay there, getting the most out of one’s own unique strengths.

He’s pulled just about every lever imaginable over the past three years, though I don’t doubt that there’s something else left in the bag of tricks. The 25 regular season games are merely a training ground for those three in late February that decide East’s fate. He preaches his systems, and makes his players believers, even when down 3 goals in the first period to a more talented team. 2013 and 2014 saw the creation of the most lethal power plays in the state, using East’s handful of top players in perfect positions to make up for a relative lack of scoring depth. Defense always comes first, and yet East never falls too far back into its shell, and by season’s end he’ll turn them loose on the attack when need be. This current season tested the limits of his ingenuity, with the radical adoption of a 2-3 forecheck after the defense was repeatedly shredded early in the season—only to abandon it at times in the section final against Elk River, when necessity demanded that they throw players forward. They hold back until they know they have the other team doubting themselves a little bit, smell blood, then strike.

Randolph will ride his top players at times, but everyone on the team has a role, knows it, and it’s no surprise to see some of them coming up big in the clutch. The second and third lines each scored twice in this year’s section final against Elk River, and in each of the past two seasons, players who I would have benched, being my impatient self, have made key contributions. It’s a complete cast of characters, from lunch-pail senior Nick Funk scoring the tying goal to freshman phenom Garrett Worth popping in the game-winner. He’s even played goalie psychology perfectly, benching both Dylan Parker and Gunnar Howg after struggles in their senior seasons, only to give them back the starting job with something to prove down the stretch. Both have taken the Hounds to the Promised Land, with Howg’s heroics in the semifinal against Grand Rapids the latest testament to that success.

The Hounds head to the State Tournament greater underdogs than they’ve ever been, and with an otherwise loaded field taking shape, it would be easy to shrug and say that this is enough of an accomplishment this year. And yet Randolph will surely demand that his team “deny losing” once again, and nothing is assured as they head into a first-round matchup with one of the state’s three elite teams. And even if the favorites advance, no matter what happens, a legacy is intact. It is one of brilliance, and we East fans are spoiled to enjoy it once again.

Some Artistic License

18 Feb

Lest this blog turn into a hockey-only affair here in the midst of the playoffs, I’ll inject some art to liven things up a bit. The four works that follow are four of my favorites. I can think of plenty of good ones that aren’t here, and a few of my favorite painters don’t have any one single work that really stands above the rest like these do. But these four have captivated me in one way or another over the past four years or so, so they make the cut. Here they are.

I. Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens)

Rafael, 1511


Anyone who’s bothered to read all of my philosophical ramblings won’t be surprised to see this one leading off the list. It is a fresco in the Vatican, and it pays homage to the philosophical roots of the Western tradition, of which Christianity is also a part. The great minds of the ancient world debate questions great and small. It’s not always entirely clear who is who, but the central subjects of the fresco are obvious enough: Aristotle and Plato, forever in a friendly tension, the real and the ideal juxtaposed against one another. Basically every philosophical debate ever since has its roots in this one, and even the rejection of this debate can be found sitting a few steps below them in the form of Diogenes.

It’s become fashionable in some circles to dismiss Greek philosophy as an anachronism, or a narrow Western imposition. But in many ways, the Greeks had the human condition measured better than anyone who came after, and they can be valuable guides. Of course the Western Canon has its flaws; all who contributed to it were a product of their times. Instead of trashing this self-evident truth, it’s much more useful to see what they got right, and how those simple early thoughts endure far more meaningfully for lived experience than anything in the arsenal of postmodern jargon. In a rare occurrence, I side with Plato over Aristotle: this is the ideal of how debate should look, with respect and camaraderie and deeper search for the truth.

II. La condition humaine (The Human Condition)

René Magritte, 1933


At one point while I was in Washington DC, I wandered through the modern wing of the National Gallery on my own, drifting along from one picture to the next with no particular enthusiasm. Then I came to this one. I stood there, transfixed, for at least a few minutes. It was hard to put into words exactly what it meant, but I got it immediately, and it couldn’t be any more right. From Sara Whitfield’s Magritte (1992):

“This is how we see the world,” René Magritte argued in a 1938 lecture explaining his version of La condition humaine in which a painting has been superimposed over the view it depicts so that the two are continuous and indistinguishable. “We see it as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” What lies beyond the windowpane of apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can properly discuss its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception. And it is culture, convention, and cognition that makes that design; that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty.

The point here, I suppose, is not wildly different from the one I was making with The School of Athens: we all come from a certain context, and view things through a certain lens. We are our histories; we embody the people and places we come from, and cannot shake them off as we gaze out upon the world.

III. Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park)

Diego Rivera, 1947

dreamofasundayafternoon(Click image for enlargement)

A high school Spanish teacher showed me this mural long before I’d considered studying abroad in Mexico, and while I probably rolled my eyes at her gushing like most high school kids do, something lingered. By the time I headed south, it had become an essential stop, and on my first free weekend, I hiked up Paseo de la Reforma alone to stand before the mural, which occupies an entire wall in its own museum. It didn’t disappoint. I was riveted.

It tells the story of Mexican history from left to right, from the first conquistadors to the Revolution of the 1910s. The heroes and villains all mingle in the park, strolling down its promenades, forever tied up in a contradiction of a nation. At the center is Rivera as a boy, standing next to the calavera, that reminder that death levels all the differences between these many people, arm-in-arm with its creator, José Guadalupe Posada. National myth, fantasy, and harsh reality all blend together in vibrant color, a crowd that captures the soul of a contradictory nation.

Once I’d drunk my fill, I then spent my own Sunday afternoon wandering the Alameda of 2010 Mexico. It was a chaotic mix of vendors and protesters and pleasure-seekers; none as famous as those portrayed by Rivera, but even if they had been, they would have been lost in the crowd. I sat down on a bench and wrote for a bit, happy to have arrived, but slowly realizing that this fleeting glimpse was only the beginning. I had more work to do. I set out to find a nation and wound up finding myself instead, in large part by coming to understand that wild cast of characters that had wandered through my own life.

IV. Et in Arcadia ego

Nicolas Poussin, 1638


Even in Arcadia, there am I. The speaker of these words, of course, is Death, and the shepherds of Arcadia have just discovered death in the form of a mysterious tomb. The pastoral lives they live are but a dream, and no one can hide from it forever.  My fatalist impulse comes through here, Posada’s calavera once again underscored: it is all so fleeting, and even in paradise, nothing is eternal.

It’s a somber note to sound, perhaps, but this isn’t to cast a pall over it all. Instead, it shows just how precious those moments of bliss can be, and how we must adapt to their lack of permanence: we must treasure them, and never lose sight of how little time we have to do whatever it is we’re setting out to do. That awareness is at the root of my hunger to figure things out, and to get as much right as I can. We all need our occasional retreats to Arcadia, but we cannot linger: the world calls.

It is no coincidence that two of these four works are filled with people, attempting to sort out their roles within a society or some other social environment. Another looks out from within, at how the individual sees the world; another steps out, while reminding us that we can only do so for a little while. It’s all part of the cycle.

Photo sources:

‘Of Miracles and Men’

14 Feb

ESPN’s 30-for-30 series of documentaries rarely delivers a dud, but it outdid itself this past Sunday, with the debut of “Of Miracles and Men,” the story of the supposedly invincible Soviet hockey team that fell to the United States in the 1980 Olympics. The Soviet squad, usually painted as a heartless machine in comparison to Herb Brooks’ plucky college kids, suddenly become humans: stolid but vulnerable men, brusque or wistful as they recollect what went wrong in Lake Placid.

After introducing its main characters, who wander back among Soviet apartment blocks to remember the street corner rinks where they learned the game, “Miracles” travels back in time to the birth of Russian hockey. This means the story of Anatoli Tarasov, a man who knew little of hockey before taking the reins of the national team, and swiftly determined that it was no good trying to beat the Canadians at their own game. And so he reinvented it, and changed hockey forever. He studied ballet and sought to bring its seamless coordination on to the ice, building fluid teams that moved at a pace no opponent could match. Russia and its satellites won every Olympic tournament between the U.S.’s less-remembered shocking run in Squaw Valley in 1960 and Sweden’s emergence in 1994, the first Games in which the former Soviet “Republics” fielded their own teams. All save one, that is.

Of course, Tarasov never got a chance to prove his worth in the 1980 games. He’d been fired some years earlier for failing to follow the party line, and the Soviets rashly chose to abandon the man who’d made them relevant. Tarasov was the architect of the Soviets’ stunning arrival on the hockey scene, the 1972 Summit Series, which matched the Red Army team against an absurd collection of Canadian all-stars and showed the world that Canada had nothing on the USSR. His legacy lived on into the 80s, most prominently in the form of his star goalie disciple, Vladislav Tretiak.

The documentary didn’t go here, but it’s important to remember that Tarasov’s style was an important part of the Soviets’ undoing in 1980. Herb Brooks had many sources for his more open style of play, but Tarasov was certainly one of them, with much of that knowledge coming via Lou Vairo, an advance scout for the U.S. squad who labored in obscurity for many years to study Tarasov and bring his methods to the U.S. Brooks abandoned the North American obsession with lanes and turned hockey into a free-flowing ice dance, coupling violence and grace to create the form of hockey that remains its pinnacle.

It’s probably a mistake to lionize Tarasov too much; he did work his players to absurd limits, and had the full power of the Soviet state backing him. He loved his players, but his control was so absolute that there was no alternative. The narrative pitched by the documentary, in which he represents the purity of the revolutionary ideal before it went sour, is also too simple a reading of Soviet history; Stalin’s depravity was simply the most extreme flare-up of a ruthless totalitarian state, and the very revolution that started it all etched its evil into its DNA. But it fits a certain romantic tale quite nicely, and one can certainly see how Tarasov might have seen himself this way. Just as the revolutionary idealism faded in the face or reality, Soviet hockey’s cynical turn post-Tarasov was all too real.

Still, it’s wrong to make his successor, Viktor Tikhonov, nothing but a villain. He was most clearly a tyrant, but “Miracles” never really stopped to admire just how dominant his teams were. He might not have been all that pleasant, but he sure knew what he was doing, and though he was a strict disciplinarian, he did still allow his teams to play Tarasov’s free-flowing style on the ice. He had plenty of moments of triumph, and his legacy in the USSR goes far beyond the Lake Placid loss. But like so many tyrants, his downfall was his obsessive control. His decision to bench Tretiak after the first period likely cost the Soviets the game against the U.S., and helped to end the goalie’s career at age 32, far too early for the man who many have been the greatest tender of all time.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, Tikhonov’s fist grew ever tighter, as he tried to keep his players from jumping ship to the NHL. Several veterans were axed from the team, and the greatest skater they had, Slava Fetisov, was strung out for years with vague promises of eventual freedom. Fetisov’s story became something out of a spy movie, as he met secretly with New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello in a hotel room, communicating via writing so as to hide from the government bugs, and eventually had a terrifying audience before a livid Dmitry Yazov, the Soviet Minister of Defense. But Yazov did let him go. Finally, in 1989, he brought down hockey’s Iron Curtain and made the leap to the NHL, becoming the first Soviet citizen to ever hold a foreign work visa.

It is perhaps a bit ironic that Fetisov went to the Devils, seeing as Lamoriello’s teams often became, stylistically, the anti-Tarasov. Adam Gopnik called many of the players he acquired en route to three Stanley Cups “Lou-Bots” because they were just plugged into a machine-like system—and a boring one at that, given its reliance on the trap. There was little room for free-flowing, Tarasov-style hockey in Lamoriello’s NHL, though times are changing, as analytics takes hold and the rediscovery of puck possession brings some old ideas back to the fore. Somehow, Fetisov probably didn’t care: he was far more free in a Devils’ trapping machine than he was in the USSR, and after he moved to the Red Wings, he became the first man to bring the Stanley Cup back to Red Square.

Fetisov travels back to Lake Placid for the first time in “Miracles,” wandering the streets with his daughter, making his way back into the locker room, and revisiting the old dormitory—now a prison, a facility so miserable that it offended Soviet sensibilities. He steps back out on to the ice at the Olympic Center—now, the Herb Brooks Arena—and one can still sense those lingering chants of “USA! USA!” in that hallowed sporting ground. Many of the Soviets now try to pooh-pooh the loss; understandably so, given their greatness for such a long time. But they still all know they were on the wrong side of that Miracle, and there are few words to describe that emptiness of stunned defeat. This is the stuff of legend, and Fetisov is left only with a wry smile, this man who stood up to the Soviet Union cast as a villain in the story of American hockey glory. Such are the vagaries of sports. The legacy, however, endures, uniting winners and losers, their stories forever intertwined in a tale that reminds us the impossible can happen.

East Side Ingenuity

6 Feb

The final week of the high school hockey regular season begins next week. For Duluth East fans, this season is lurching oddly toward the finish line, filled with more uncertainty than any time in recent memory. There have been signs of progress along the way, as they’ve held two of the of the state’s best offenses under two goals, and had a few more offensive outbursts lately, but on the whole they are still a .500 team, headed for their first serious section quarterfinal game in over 15 years.

The most encouraging outing came on Saturday night in Elk River, when the Hounds played the Elks dead-even on the road en route to a 1-1 tie. After a slow start, a crushing hit by Alex Spencer jolted East to life, and the Hounds took it to the Elks for a majority of the rest of the game, bottling them up superbly and generating their own share of chances. A shot in the final minute of overtime might just have slipped in under the crossbar—no one will ever really know—but the statement mattered more than the final score: when they play well, East is on par with the section’s best.

The game showcased Mike Randolph’s spurt of ingenuity this season: a 2-3 forecheck, with the center manning the point along the blue line between the two defensemen. It’s something I haven’t seen out of a prominent high school program before, but it makes intuitive sense: with a struggling defense and a lack of talent to maintain the dominant forecheck of years past, the Hounds have resorted to doing everything they can to bottle up the opposition in its own zone. This approach comes at the obvious expense of bodies down low—with only two forwards deep in the zone, the offense runs the risk of becoming a very predictable series of passes around the perimeter—but it can make it difficult for even good teams to break out with any rhythm, and protects the defensemen from overexposure. The presence of the center on the blue line also frees the defensemen to pinch more freely than they might otherwise, keeping some semblance of the classic East cycle alive. To give an idea of its effectiveness, Elk River hadn’t been held under 3 goals all season long, but needed a late power play just to tie this game at one.

That cycle was on display again on Monday. East continued to work the 2-3 in Cloquet, a decision that may have sacrificed a chance at a win in the short term in the interest of preparing the system for the playoffs. They kept Cloquet bottled up for long stretches of the game, to the point that the Jacks’ offense degenerated into a string of icings, but the go-ahead goal never came, as East never generated quite enough in front of the net of sophomore Eric Newman. This is the weakness of the system: it gives East a shot against most anyone, but it also lets less skilled opponents hang around, and that is an especially important concern given the likely first round match-up against Andover, a team built around a great goalie and the occasional offensive surge forward.

The lack of offensive zone presence wasn’t an issue on Thursday against Blaine’s porous defense, but the sloppy defense reared its ugly head again, especially in the opening twelve minutes of the game, when East spotted the Bengals a 3-0 lead. While they showed their mettle as they battled back to twice tie the game, the game was already being played on Blaine’s terms, and that did not bode well for a team built around defense first. It was a second straight toss-up game with a top-ten team, but these track meet games are too volatile, and reminiscent of their most recent losses in sections, a 6-5 loss to Cloquet in 2008 and a 5-4 loss to Grand Rapids the year before, when East lost control for long stretches before coming back and ultimately failing to close the deal. Blaine is a top-ten team and deeper offensively than anyone in 7AA, but Grand Rapids and Elk River certainly have the firepower to get East into that sort of game (as Rapids did in January) and render all of this pining for systems useless.

The East defense remains the most profound concern. There are too many blown assignments and bad decisions leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional long stretches stuck in the defensive zone quickly deflate momentum. Stupid penalties have also been rally-killers at times. Gunnar Howg has won the goalie job back for good and has proven a savior at times, though he can’t do it all himself. I’ll avoid naming names, but a couple of players are frequent culprits, and must avoid the lapses that may end up costing this team its season.

The offense is showing more potential after a slow start. The longtime top line combo of Nick Altmann and Brian Bunten creates the most chances, many of which come agonizingly close but don’t quite make their way into the net. The all-junior second line, after leading the way early on and going a bit cold midway through the season, erupted in the Blaine game, giving some hope there. Luke Dow is certainly the most dynamic of the centers, and can run things from the point when East sets up the 2-3 in the offensive zone. The third line, usually featuring freshmen Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth with Matt Lyttle playing the high center role (with occasional Nick Funk and Ryder Donovan sightings) is now scoring with some regularity as the young snipers come into their own. The three freshmen on the roster have all come along nicely as this season goes on.

And so the Hounds head for their reckoning. They have two games in the final week, both against higher-ranked but beatable teams, Lakeville South and Minnetonka. Between those two games is the 7AA seeding meeting, which should be put on pay-per-view, but is most likely to hand the Hounds a 3-seed and a first round date with Andover. (There’s an outside shot St. Michael-Albertville could poach the 3 and leave East playing Cloquet in the quarterfinals, but I’ll be surprised if their schedule gets much respect at the meeting.) It doesn’t matter a whole lot, since the section is such a mess. Elk River has its best player in Jake Jaremko, but the depth, especially on defense, is not phenomenal, and Amsoil Arena has not been kind to them. Grand Rapids is bipolar, looking like world-beaters one moment and sickly the next; who knows if they can string together three straight wins. STMA is reasonably deep and hungry to prove themselves, but venturing into uncharted territory; Dave Esse has hard-working Cloquet rising to the occasion down the stretch. Andover has a goalie and a handful of skaters who can be difference-makers, and are plenty capable of stealing a game or two. Even Forest Lake, despite a poor year, has a history of doing well against Rapids, whom they are almost certain to play in the first round. And then we have these Hounds, trying to find that right balance and get back that East side energy and confidence that have kept them atop this section for the past six years. We’ll see if this group has it in them.

Notes on a Tainted Election

2 Feb

With apologies to the vast majority of my readers for whom this post will seem like inside baseball, I felt some need to comment on the recent election scandal for the Public Affairs Student Association (PASA) in my graduate school. The election was canceled and restarted after it became obvious that several people had taken advantage of the thing I noticed when I went to vote (once, and once only!): there was nothing to prevent people from stuffing the electronic ballot box with as many votes as they liked.

The aftermath has produced a number of indignant emails from disgusted students and members of the outgoing PASA administration, and has, predictably, earned the nickname “PASAGATE.” (Ugh, ugh, ugh. Can we please retire that obnoxious idiom?) The wrongdoers, presuming they are not soulless blood-sucking vampires, have been thoroughly shamed—unless they simply do not care about PASA and thought it would be funny, which is the most likely reason for this “fraud.”

As a longtime student of international affairs, I’m well-aware of how precious a vote can be, and how much we Americans can take it for granted. Even so, it also bothers me that voting has now become our most sanctified political act. I wondered vaguely how many of the people upset about this election scandal have ever been to a PASA meeting, or have any conception of what it does beyond organizing weekly happy hours and occasional larger parties. Do we have any right to be indignant about the corruption of democracy if we don’t ever act within that democracy beyond a vote once a year?

I include myself in that category; I’m as guilty as anyone. I also recognize the weird status of student government, as it takes on trappings of importance while acting on issues that are mostly very small in the grand scheme of things. As an undergraduate, I served on a student government at one of the most politically-obsessed schools in the country. I’m proud of the work I did there, and admired the efforts of many of my fellow staffers. Still, it was hard not to sigh and groan over some of the posturing and credential-chasing of some people in and around the student government, and even there in Washington DC, the majority of the campus couldn’t be bothered to care about what we did. It was at once both a thrilling political training ground and little league. It’s the nature of student government to struggle with questions of legitimacy, and there will inevitably be people who find it a self-obsessed joke.

An attempt to hunt down and further shame wrongdoers would likely only confirm that suspicion. Perhaps I’m just being my cynical self here, but it’s at least worth asking whether all the righteousness is merited. I want PASA fight on behalf of grad students for resources and encourage inclusivity and get us out into the community more and, yes, throw some good parties. PASA must avoid falling into solipsism. (What does PASA do? It goes after people who disrespect and abuse PASA!) Student governments certainly can do great work, but its members need some sense of perspective about what is really at stake. (Thankfully, the PASA members I’ve gotten to know in my time here have certainly had that sense of perspective.)

Some of the upset emails demand justice. Yes, justice would be nice, but more than anything, I’d hope for a little engagement beyond the election. If we don’t have that, what’s the point of PASA, anyway?