Just a couple of years ago, the Hermantown Hawks were the darlings of the Class A Tournament, the last public school bastion of defense against the march of Twin Cities private school machines. How quickly the tables turn: the longest-running and incessant debate on the hockey forum this offseason has been about Hermantown’s dominance over Class A, and the competitive imbalance it creates. As with St. Thomas Academy before them, the Hawks’ consistent ability to pump out elite teams has prompted frustrated reactions from those who are stuck going up against them and lose, year after year: shouldn’t this high-powered team move up to AA?
As long as they kept losing state championship games, as they did for six consecutive seasons, they had an easy counterargument: for all their success, the Hawks clearly weren’t on the level of a St. Thomas or a Breck. But on the seventh year of consecutive title game appearances, God rested in his torment of Hermantown, and the Duluth suburb took home its second state title in ten years. With a loaded team coming back this coming season, anything less than a convincing repeat would be stunning. The Hawks are the undisputed superpower of Class A, and no one is even close.
I’ve been mostly agnostic in the A vs. AA debate, as I have no strong Class A loyalties. I respect teams’ rights to run their own programs as they see fit, and prefer not to throw stones when my own team makes scheduling decisions based on what it believes is right for its situation. Any complaints that spurted out of my Twitter feed were from an aesthetic standpoint; I want to watch competitive hockey at Class A State, not giant blowouts, and grew bored with some of the Hawks’ men-versus-boys contests last season. Sure, I think it’s fun when historic Range teams head to State, and as a northern boy, I’d appreciate another northern squad in 7AA so as to boot Elk River to a different section and carry the regional torch at State if they earn it. But this was not among the things keeping me up at night or making me mutter under my breath.
Hermantown defenders are right to make a few points. The school is playing where it was assigned, and its enrollment is nowhere near the AA cutoff. Nor are most of Hermantown’s advantages the product of an evil recruiting scheme, even if there may be isolated incidents here or there. (I’m not close enough to say whether those rumors have any teeth.) The school boundaries around Hermantown do lend themselves to open enrollment. Townships to the west and northwest of are in the Proctor school district, despite being closer to Hermantown and not touching Proctor. (Numbers from these townships help keep Proctor a decent-sized school for an otherwise tiny community.) The closure of Duluth Central also pushed a decent number of Duluth Heights residents to open enroll across the border, as Hermantown was both convenient, and higher-performing than those students’ new West Duluth schools. (Of course, it’s worth asking how much of this has to do with anything unique to Hermantown, and how much of it is just demographic inertia.)
That said, Hermantown does have its share of advantages that most small hockey programs in the state do not enjoy. It is an exurban community in a respectably-sized metropolitan area of about 200,000. That’s not huge, but it’s substantial, especially when accounting for the wealth of local hockey history and the presence of a prominent D-I program, many of whose graduates stick around. It’s growing, and adding young families. It’s not the wealthiest part of the Duluth area, but it’s certainly toward the upper end. Its basic urban design—large, sprawling wooded lots—does not lend itself to much density of lower-income residents, even if it also limits its economic and population growth potential. If we remember our lessons about urbanism and high school hockey, that tends to be good for hockey success, at least in the short run while the community is still growing.
The small size of the Duluth metro area also magnifies the Hawks’ position. The closest comparison to Hermantown in the Twin Cities is probably something like Delano, which is starting to surge toward hockey relevance. Delano, however, doesn’t have neighbors who aren’t also affluent and growing; no one is open enrolling there to flee the shuttering or struggling schools of Plymouth or Minnetonka, or to dodge bizarre borders with other Wright County towns. In an area that can only support a handful of options, just a handful of player moves can throw things out of whack. Unlike some Twin Cities schools that may lose a bunch of players to open enrollment or private schools, places like Proctor or Denfeld aren’t losing players all over the place; there are only two or three places that stand to benefit, and those places are likely in the same section. Duluth’s smallness and the extent to which everyone knows each other make it obvious who the winners and losers of player movement are, and make the scapegoats easy to identify. (We Duluth East fans know a thing or two about this.)
The advantages that some schools have over each other are blurry, and there are gradations of advantage and disadvantage all over Class A. East Grand Forks also benefits from a decent-sized metro and a convenient D-I school; Mahtomedi lurks just under the cutoff bar for AA and thereby builds some of the deeper A teams out there. Even small, relatively isolated towns aren’t all cookie-cutter; Luverne has surged to relevance in recent years, while nearby Worthington is at the bottom of the barrel, largely due to an immigrant-heavy population with no knowledge of hockey that has been drawn to its meat packing plant. The fans of the true small towns in Section 1A could probably gripe about how it’s been dominated by schools in larger towns (Rochester Lourdes, the Mankatos), or towns on the growing exurban fringe (New Prague). It’s worth remembering that even St. Thomas Academy was a Class A doormat at one time, and that it took years for Greg and Tom Vannelli to turn it into a consistent contender. These different levels of advantage are reality, and any assessment of a team can’t be a snapshot at one point in time, but needs to understand its long-term record and accomplishments to date.
Hermantown is clearly pretty far along on this spectrum of success now, and that’s to their credit. I don’t think any team should ever be forced to opt up, and any pressure to do so should only come after a long period of dominance. I want to see good teams and players in Class A, and more than one or two new opt-ups due to Class A success in a decade would quickly drain the field. That said, when a program is consistently putting other top five teams in its class in running time, it’s a clear sign of a mismatch, and the point at which even diehard supporters should see a case for a move.
There’s no doubt Hermantown could compete in AA, and rumors suggest the program may make the leap after this coming season. The move may come a year too late: this year’s squad, with a pair of potential Mr. Hockey candidates and depth across the board, could have easily contended for a AA title. While people might be able to cherry-pick a regular season result or two to claim they’re better than a bunch of AA Tourney entrants, we’ll never really know how good they are. (The AA playoff gauntlet is an entirely different animal from what the Hawks now face; just ask STA about its first three years in AA.) Beyond this year, Hermantown looks good, but perhaps not as good as last year and this year, and will face the 7AA minefield. If they do make that move, I’ll welcome them in and look forward to the battles; if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed, but life will go on. Much as I’d love to see some success out of Range teams, they face their share of internal obstacles in the search for a return to glory.
The whole debate relates back to a deeper question: what’s the whole purpose of the two-class tournament? The generic State High School League response will tell you that it gives more players a chance to play at State. That’s true, but from a hockey development standpoint, its true benefit is in giving more players a chance to aim for State: to grow hockey in areas that haven’t traditionally seen success, and to revive it in areas where it might otherwise have faded or died. Hermantown is as obvious a success story as any in 25 years of two-class hockey; it went from an afterthought to an unstoppable force, and probably wouldn’t have done so without being able to take the baby steps allowed by Class A. The Hawks have succeeded. Now we’ll see if they’ll let someone follow in their footsteps.