State Tourney Preview 2016

It’s finally time for Minnesota’s most important holiday: the boys’ state high school hockey tournament, which begins at 11:00 on Wednesday. Needless to say, there’s plenty of reason for excitement.

You can find me covering the Tourney in lots of places:

Twitter: @KarlEastHockey

Cold Omaha podcast preview with Danny Ryan, Tony Scott of Youth Hockey Hub, and myself:

Quarterfinal game capsules for MNHockeyProspects: Class A | Class AA

Predictions with State of Hockey News:

Longer updates, press conference commentary, and arguments with random anonymous people on the Forum:

Also, check out the Dave LaVaque’s Star Tribune story on Wednesday about the 20th anniversary of the Greatest Game Ever Played, the five-overtime affair between Duluth East and Apple Valley in 1996. I had a minor assist in its creation.

Finally, you can also find me (and a few other Forum members) at McGovern’s on Saturday afternoon after the Class A championship game. Come join the party if you’re around.

To whet your appetite, here are some of this tournament’s biggest storylines:

Who are these people, anyway? No Edina. No Duluth East. No Hill-Murray. No Moorhead or Roseau. You have to go back to 1954 to find the last Tourney without one of those five. Even Lakeville North, which has become a regular and seemed a safe pick to come out of 1AA, is nowhere to be found. This AA field is a mix of throwbacks and newbies, with Eden Prairie being the only real regular entrant in recent years. Grand Rapids, celebrating its 15th berth, is the most regular entrant, but this is only their third of the two-class era, meaning they’ve finally caught up with Rochester Century on that front. (Sorry, Thunderhawks, we wounded Hounds have to get our digs in here and there.) The Halloween Machine is back for the first time in nine years, as is 80s power Burnsville; Anoka, whose best years were in the late 90s and early 2000s, has also unexpectedly crashed the party. On the other end of the spectrum, Farmington makes its AA debut, while Stillwater is suddenly among the favorites in its second State trip.

Can Anyone Stop the Hawks? If the AA field is highly unpredictable, A is just the opposite: Hermantown is a clear favorite, and would seem to be on a collision course with Breck in the final. If ever there were a time for the Hawks to end their long run of second-place finishes, it’s this year—though, of course, I said that last year, too. Barring a Thief River Falls upset of Breck, Hermantown’s road to the title will also go through two private schools, which would really be a nice touch for our old friend Bruce Plante. Hermantown has come a long way in the past few years, going from a plucky upstart trying to hang with St. Thomas to the goliath of Class A

Casey Time This year’s whacky section playoffs drained the Tourney of some of the state’s top talents, but one will be there in primetime: Casey Mittelstadt of Eden Prairie, the top player in the state and arguably the best in his age group in the nation. His talented Eagle team hasn’t always jelled, so if they are to win a third AA title in eight years, it’s likely on the shoulders of the junior Gopher recruit. There’s some debate over whether Eden Prairie deserved the top seed, but in a Tourney with no Edina or private schools, they’re certainly the ones with the targets on their backs.

Debuts on the Big Stage The less predictable Tourney field means the state will get a chance to see many of the top players who might not get as much recognition on the regular circuit of top teams. Isaac Johnson of Anoka is one of the state’s top juniors, while Farmington defenseman Tyler Jette got a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination as something of a sleeper. Ethan Johnson is the heart and soul of Thief River Falls, and the Prowlers will have to ride him as far as they can. Even Stillwater’s stars, such as the Cates brothers and Jesse Bjugstad, should get a little more attention than they did while steamrolling through the weak Suburban East Conference.

Late-Night Intrigue The best two quarterfinals, as is often the case, look to be the late night battles between the 4 and 5 seeds. In Class A, it’s a clash between two private schools that look pretty similar on paper, with debutant St. Paul Academy squaring off against surging St. Cloud Cathedral. In AA, where the privates have been shut out of the field for the third time in six years, we have an all-North battle, as Bemidji and Grand Rapids collide. This one should be great, even if it deprives the North of two cracks at the crown, and sets up a potential classic between the winner and Eden Prairie on Friday night. (Is there anything better than North vs. Metro on a Friday night?) It’s an excellent clash in styles, as Bemidji’s depth and steady defense collides with Rapids’ star power.

Enjoy the Tournament, follow along, and I’ll do my best to share my thoughts as I make my way through this crazy, fantastic week. See you at the X!

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Duluth East Hockey 2015-2016

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Duluth East’s string of seven consecutive 7AA titles has come to an end, as all great runs must. It came in heart-wrenching fashion, as rival Grand Rapids, so long the Hounds’ whipping boys, snatched away a 6-5 win on Alex Adams’ goal with six seconds left in regulation. East had just killed a late Rapids penalty, and the 7AA final seemed destined for overtime for a third straight year. It only took a momentary lapse; a sense that things might coast on into the sort of extra session that has treated East so well down the years. Instead, a supremely talented Grand Rapids team fulfilled its promise and punched a ticket back to St. Paul. If anyone ever earned the right to end a dynasty, it was this team, and they did it in a way that will go down in Rapids legend.

It was the sort of game that produced bedlam so incoherent that the details, in retrospect, are a blur. The leads went back and forth all night long, and the crowd at Amsoil Arena, 6,100 strong, nearly blew the roof off the building. For a fourth year in a row, the 7AA final gave us high school hockey at its pinnacle, as everyone in the building grinned manically through their nerves. This is how hockey is meant to be. Even when the Hounds grabbed their 5-3 lead in the third period, it never seemed safe. This was the sort of night where coaches’ best-laid plans went out the window, and it all turned on sheer emotion.

Not that Mike Randolph didn’t try. He switched lines and showed occasional glimpses of 2-3, and unlike the regular season game in which the Hounds sat back, they went at it with Rapids all night long. It made for spectacular theater. East used the TV timeouts to give Ash Altmann extra shifts, and by the end he was reunited with Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow, and those three marauded about the ice as the clock wound down. Even though his section final record now has a second blemish, Randolph took it with composure, and seemed downright proud of the Rapids players in the postgame ceremony. This one will sting, no doubt; it was a talented and balanced squad, even if it didn’t have the front-line firepower of Grand Rapids, East may not be able to match this depth again for a few years. But at this point, even someone as intense as Randolph can enjoy the spectacle for what it is.

Unlike some of the other big East senior classes, this one was often an adventure. They had their peaks and valleys, their moments of greatness and times of frustration. But they were playing up to their potential by the end, leaving it all on the ice as they barreled up and down the rink. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Altmann is perhaps the most identifiable name for the Hounds over the past few seasons, and was a force on Thursday night with a pair of powerful individual goals. His game-sealing dagger against Edina last season will remain one of the most indelible images in East hockey history. Peterson, a warrior through injury, likewise led this team, and has last year’s winner over St. Thomas to his name. Alex Spencer has his personal highlight reel of huge hits, Shay Donovan was always a steadying presence, Dow’s speed and dangles played a key role in many a win, and the versatile Nathaniel Benson found the back of the net for the first time all season in the section final. Auston Crist provided much-needed net-front presence, Marcus Skoog made his contributions, on John Orrey held down the backup goalie duties. We thank them for a long string of memories.

We East fans are blessed with eternal relevance, year in and year out. Even when the Hounds lose, it almost always happens in style, in a nail-biter against an elite team, with both teams giving it their all. It is hard to ask for much more. This year’s team was frustrating at times, with both flashes of great talent and head-shaking losses. I preached patience through their struggles, and with good reason: they would have it together by the end, and leave the ice with no shame. This latest batch of East players and their raucous fans in the stands are now members of this exhilarating hockey fraternity, one whose ties linger long past high school days. Whatever befalls the Hounds, be it a magical run like last season or the exploits of our alumni, whether it involves a crushing playoff loss or the rise of rival neighbors, we’re part of something that improbably draws us back, whatever roads we take.

I can now start to prepare for next week’s Tourney, which is East-free for the first time since my senior year of high school. It will be a strange feeling, but will also make it far less nervy, and I expect there will still be a host of Hounds wandering the X and downtown St. Paul. Grand Rapids’ elation at one Tourney berth makes us realize how lucky we are to have enjoyed so many, and as this great run now fades into memory, it will look that much brighter in retrospect. It began when East overpowered in Elk River in 2009, became routine in 2010, carried on through overtime after overtime in 2011, suffered heartbreak with a dream team in 2012, sought redemption in 2013, refused to die in 2014, and went on a magical run for the ages in its final season before Grand Rapids, four times East’s victim in sections over that stretch, broke through.

Some of the beauty of high school hockey comes in how fleeting it all seems, and how quickly it renews itself. There is promise for next year: a very talented junior class returns to take the reins, and as long as they find some depth, they’ll be right there for another run in 7AA. As I wrapped up my business in the press box Thursday night, I caught my enduring image from this season, one that sums up what this game and this sport means to all of us so simply: a lone Hounds player running up and down a flight of stairs in a near-empty Amsoil Arena. Conditioning for next season has already begun.

Gimping into Sections

Duluth East’s regular season came to an inauspicious end on Saturday, as the Hounds fell in a 6-1 laugher to Minnetonka. It was a strange end to a strange regular season, and after the wheels fell off during a pair of overlapping major penalties, the game degenerated into sloppiness and ill-advised penalties. Head Coach Mike Randolph was away watching his son play for Nebraska-Omaha; it was probably better for his sake and for the players that he missed it, though one wonders if we’d have seen some of the dumb penalties with the old general on the bench. Regardless, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and one the Hounds will have to shake off in sections.

The loss blighted an otherwise respectable late season run, as East rolled through weaker teams and gave glimpses of serious contention in winning 10 of its last 12. The only other loss was a tight decision to a very good Lakeville North team on choppy outdoor ice, and the team scored quality wins over Prior Lake and Elk River. But still, there have been periodic red flags, including overtime wins over Hopkins and Lakeville South. There were spurts of offense and games with solid defense, but rarely has it all quite jelled.

Randolph has been juggling his lines throughout, though he appears to have settled on something late in the year. Leading scorer Ash Altmann has joined sophomores Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth on the top line, and Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow anchor another quality line. Perhaps the most positive development has been the emergence of Mageau, who now sits second on the team in points. Beyond that, there’s been a steady cycle of bodies across the third and fourth lines. The decision to start one of these lines in each period seemed to put the Hounds on the back foot every time against Minnetonka, and while it was far down the list of issues in that game, it certainly didn’t help. East needs some steadiness from these lower lines, and will need the top two to carry the load if the team is to go anywhere in sections.

The defense has no shortage of talent, and for long stretches, it looks as sound as any in the state. But it still has its moments, and whether it’s a meander out of position, a bad penalty, or a moment of inattention, these lapses can prove fatal. Goaltender Kirk Meierhoff has done the job; he’s probably not going to steal a game, but if the team in front of him plays well, he’s very capable of taking this team back to State. I’m left repeating the same refrain I’ve said all year: the pieces are all here. They just need to find the poise, leadership, and attention to detail that was so evident in last season’s playoff drive, but has not always been apparent in this squad. The odds are probably better than last year, but this team will need to dig deep and recapture some of that old magic over the next week.

The Hounds will likely collide with Elk River in the 7AA semifinals next Saturday. The Elks had a strong regular season, as a young group showed great potential. Moreover, they’re finally healthy; one of their top two forwards, Jax Murray and Jensen Zerban, was out for nearly every game, but they are all back now, and collected a strong win over Hill-Murray in the season’s final week. Zerban and freshman Notre Dame recruit Jack Perbix missed the Elks’ 5-2 loss to East a few weeks ago. Murray, Zerban, and Perbix now lead a potent top line, and a second line featuring Max Michaelis and Nate Horn is less heralded but more than capable of hanging with the other second lines in this section. The Elks, if they can get over their ugly history at Amsoil Arena, might just be primed to steal the 7AA crown.

If East gets past Elk River next weekend, the team’s next foe likely lies up Highway 2. Grand Rapids wrapped up a strong regular season with an impressive push to the finish, winning 10 of its last 11 to clinch their first top seed in a couple of decades. They have the most talent of anyone in this section, and have been playing like it lately, with gaudy shot totals and excellent puck possession. They played like that for a majority of their meeting with East at the IRA Civic Center in January, and yet East still had them on the ropes late in the third before succumbing in overtime. Here, we can ask the same question that we asked of East’s overtimes with inferior teams: does the Thunderhawks’ ability to pull out that win show they’ve finally turned the tide, and won’t fold under the pressure? Or does it show that, for all their talent, they’re still on equal footing with the Hounds, in danger of coming up short against the 7AA playoff veterans?

As has been the norm over the past five seasons, Rapids’ weakness is in back, where the defense is thin enough that one of their better forwards spent some time manning the blue line this season. Anyone seeking to beat the Thunderhawks will likely have to clog up center ice and limit chances before going on the attack when they leave themselves vulnerable, playing the momentum game as East nearly did in January. Rapids has entrusted its goal to a sophomore, Gabe Holum. Most expected the Rapids goalie to be a sophomore—Zach Stejskal—but Holum came out and won the job fairly, and has played superbly. Still, it’s probably worth noting that, to my knowledge, no team has ever come out of the modern 7AA with a sophomore as its regular starter net.

Elsewhere in the section, Cloquet does its usual act of lurking, doing just enough to suggest they might be able to give a top team a game. Duluth Marshall, slowed by injury early, had an underwhelming 9-14-2 debut in Class AA, but they played their two best games against section rivals (East and Rapids). They’re a young team, so the future is probably brighter, but I still thought this team should have been better than its quarterfinal opponent, Cloquet. After that, it’s a jumble. Forest Lake has a better record than Andover, but also had a much easier conference, and haven’t done much to suggest they can stick with a top-3 team; Andover, on the other hand, has been pesky at times, though it will take a new level to be able to hang with an East team that has improved considerably since the December meeting.

The 7AA representative at State will probably need some upset help to earn a top five seed, but if there was ever a season in which seeds didn’t matter, it’s this one. Barring major upsets, no one really offers an easy draw, and the state is as wide open as it’s ever been. Undefeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s is a deserving #1, but they don’t bury their opponents, and all eyes are on the wounded shoulder of their top forward, Cade Gleekel. Minnetonka has surged while preseason favorite Eden Prairie tanked; Tourney regulars Edina and Hill-Murray are, like the Hounds, facing tall odds to get back to State. Blaine, Lakeville North, and Bemidji enter sections on long win streaks, but haven’t faced much of anyone in recent weeks. The only guarantee at this point is bedlam.

Which NFL Team Is Your High School Hockey Program?

In honor of Hockey Day in Minnesota and that other big sporting event this weekend, I present each NFL team with their Minnesota high school hockey equivalent. They are, of course, meant in a spirit of good fun.

Edina Hornets: Dallas Cowboys. Seem to be the center of the universe for their respective sports. Hated by everyone else. Won’t be going away anytime soon, sadly.

Hill-Murray Pioneers: New York Giants. Blueblood teams that win titles from time to time. Get all the attention from the east coast/metro media.

Roseau Rams: Green Bay Packers. Small northern towns in the middle of nowhere that don’t seem to have any business competing with the big boys, but there they are: loyal fans, media darlings, and heaps of titles from down the years.

Moorhead Spuds: Minnesota Vikings. Usually put out strong teams and have had their share of memorable moments down the years. Just don’t ask them to win a championship game.

Duluth East Greyhounds: New England Patriots. Always good, to the point that it gets on people’s nerves and inspires paranoia. Mike Randolph and Bill Belichick would probably be pretty good friends. For all their success, some high-profile chokes in their most talented years.

Lakeville North Panthers: Carolina Panthers. Flashy new kids on the block from somewhere down south. And both Panthers.

Eden Prairie Eagles: Denver Broncos. Usually very good, and have some stars they can ride to the occasional title. Great team, but not quite in that historically elite tier yet.

Blaine Bengals: Indianapolis Colts. Blue and white teams from fairly anonymous places that have ridden their stars to become regular contenders over the past 20 years.

Grand Rapids Thunderhawks: Chicago Bears. Northern city with a long and proud history, though the amount of noise around the program tends to exceed the actual results. Wear orange.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights: New Orleans Saints. Won a championship semi-recently to pull together a place after a tragedy. Known for explosive offenses. Also, both names include Saints.

Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars: San Francisco 49ers. Had a run some time ago when they were clearly the best. More mixed results lately.

White Bear Lake Bears: Cleveland Browns. Orange teams that usually lose things.

Minnetonka Skippers: Atlanta Falcons. Usually relevant, but never really finish the deal. Have been around for a while, but aren’t exactly a traditional power. Just sort of…there.

Wayzata Trojans: San Diego Chargers. Western teams in blue and yellow that have had some talent over the past decade, but haven’t won much of anything. But hey, at least they have the ocean/lake.

Elk River Elks: Baltimore Ravens. Blue-collar mentality and some success in the semi-recent past.

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjacks: Oakland Raiders. Gritty teams from gritty cities.

Burnsville Blaze: Washington Redskins. Proud history, though leaner more recently. Shared legacy of controversial mascots.

Holy Family Fire: Houston Texans. New arrival on the scene. A lot of noise, but haven’t gone anywhere yet.

Anoka Tornadoes: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Won something once in the early 2000s, but that’s about it.

Maple Grove Crimson: Cincinnati Bengals. Talented, but never seem to quite get anywhere. Make as much news off the field/ice as they do on it.

Academy of Holy Angels Stars: Los Angeles Rams. The Rams left St. Louis and broke their fans’ hearts; the Stars built themselves by getting a bunch of players to leave Jefferson. (Yeah, it’s a reach, but it’s not like high schools up and move from one part of the state to another.) Some flashy displays in the late 90s/early 2000s, but that’s about it.

Hermantown Hawks: Buffalo Bills. Somewhat obscure and unremarkable northern location good at losing consecutive championship games. Though at their current rate, the Hawks are going to leave Buffalo in the dust.

East Grand Forks Green Wave: Seattle Seahawks. Team from somewhere up in the northwest that recently made a splash with their physicality and strong defense.

Hibbing Bluejackets: Pittsburgh Steelers. Lots of success down the years, though the very brightest years were in the more distant past. Both  cities have a lot to do with steel.

Warroad Warriors: Kansas City Chiefs. Proud histories somewhere out in the flatlands. Native American mascots.

Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears: Detroit Lions. Had some great teams back around the dawn of time. Since then, it’s been rough.

Luverne Cardinals: Arizona Cardinals. Southwestern teams trying to prove their newfound relevance, with middling results. Roll Cards Roll.

St. Paul Johnson Governors: New York Jets. Some early success in the big city. Now mostly there for nostalgia’s sake.

Minneapolis Southwest Lakers: Miami Dolphins. Went undefeated once in the 70s, but otherwise no one is really sure if they still exist or not.

Worthington Trojans: Jacksonville Jaguars. Both are in the southern part of the state and most notable for existing.

Rochester Mayo Spartans: Tennessee Titans. Like Jacksonville, they are in the South. At least they have occasional flashes of relevance.

Philadelphia Eagles: Rotating position for whichever program’s fan base I find most obnoxious in a given week.

St. Thomas Academy Cadets: Toronto Argonauts. Yeah, they won things, but no one is impressed.

Et in Arcadia Ego

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The purity of memory never lasts. Those happiest of moments become tinged by time, whether abruptly or by a slow and steady march. The markers of a carefree youth age away, and the impermanence of all things becomes all too real. Cause for defeat, for fear? No: an added sense of urgency, a realization that every little moment is precious. Reminders that we can build something real; even if it only lasts an instant, we can cherish it for a lifetime. We cannot control history, but we do have at least some control of the narrative that emerges from it. It takes time. But time, just as it can wear things down, brings wisdom, and renews itself in cycles that defy the linear logic we’ve imposed on it. Everything dies and nothing dies, and we are left with neither heaven nor hell but earth, where we belong; here, in all its absurd messiness. It’s a beautiful thing.