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.