The Iron Range is a land of legend for Duluth kids like myself, a realm of blue-collar grit that makes our east side homes feel like the last bastion of civilization in the frozen north. Its history is no older than the rest of Minnesota, but it is much more aware of that history than anywhere else, perhaps because that past too often seems brighter than its future. The Range is no Appalachia, but in an otherwise well-off state, it has become emblematic of the struggles of the white working class, a group that once dug up America’s building blocks but now suffers from stagnant incomes, crumbling families, and a sudden surge in drug overdose deaths. The Range only needs a third of the workers it did in the 70s to mine the same amount of ore, and imports have risen as well; even when steel prices are high, blue-collar work is no longer seen as the engine of the national economy, but instead an afterthought in an age of information. Small wonder that this longtime bastion of labor politics suddenly broke for Donald Trump.
But even as the mines rise and fall, hockey remains a constant on the Range. These northern towns steamrolled the rest of the state for several decades after the birth of Minnesota hockey, and nearly every small town in the region has taken its turn at dominance. Their legacy lingers, both in the banners of the historic rinks and in the present day big city powerhouses, whose rosters are littered with names that have their roots on the Range a generation or two earlier. I grew up in an era of dwindling Range hockey success, and am young enough that I remember more State Tournaments without Range teams than those with them; only if we count Grand Rapids as a Range city—a subject of eternal debate—is there are still anything more than a prayerful hope of present glory. But there is still talent here, still are flirtations with greatness, and now that I’m back in Duluth, it’s time to go see Range hockey as it is today.
The site of the game I attend on a Tuesday in mid-December is the town of Hibbing, home to the mine that won two World Wars and, as of last week, a Nobel Laureate in literature. Hibbing is still the largest city on the Range, its high school a stunning monument to early 20th century industry, and a time when the Iron Range quite literally created the foundations of American growth. Its hockey program lacks any one dominant era, but has been remarkably consistent across the years, and has two titles to its name. As recently as the late 90s they were there with the best; the 1997 final at Hibbing Memorial between the Bluejackets and Duluth East might have offered the absolute pinnacle of section hockey atmosphere in my lifetime. Lately, however, the Jackets have worn thin; they’re frequent visitors to the late rounds of the Section 7A playoffs, but only bust through as a serious threat when carried by an Adam Johnson or a Scott Perunovich. Last year’s dream team behind Perunovich crumbled in the 7A final, whipped by a Hermantown program whose depth has come to overwhelm the Range teams, year after year. Amid a hushed-up scandal that drove head coach Todd Versich from his job, Perunovich and star goaltender Ryan Ullan left for junior hockey over the offseason, leaving the Jackets with an uncertain future. Still, enough talent remained, and the Jackets got off to a solid 3-1 start in the young season.
Hibbing’s opponent on Tuesday night, Greenway, collects kids from two high schools and a smattering of towns across eastern Itasca County. Perhaps no part of the Range endured more uncertainty during the most recent mining downturn than these hamlets between Grand Rapids and Hibbing. Keetac in Keewatin remains idled, its future murky; Magnetation out of Grand Rapids went belly-up; and the Essar direct reduced iron project in Nashwauk, once touted as the future of Range mining, sits unfinished and mired in debt left by an incompetent management group from India. (New investors emerged in the past week to offer new hope on the last two, but it’s all still speculative, and the towns’ fates remain chained to the fortunes of the mines.) The Greenway hockey program, twice state champions in the late 60s and darlings of the AA tournament as recently as 2001, stood on the brink of demise toward the end of the 00s. Hope, however, springs eternal: the Raiders rebuilt from the ground up and returned to prominence last season, going 22-5 and making the section semifinals for the first time since 2003. Life returned to the Snakepit in Coleraine, and the Raiders entered Tuesday night a perfect 6-0.
I head to Hibbing right after work and arrive an hour early to secure my perch for the game. I needn’t have worried too much: the crowd is respectable, perhaps just under 2,000, but there’s plenty of space at cavernous Hibbing Memorial. Still, I’m glad for my early arrival, as it gives me time to meander up and down its aisles and gaze up at those old pictures, banners, and majestic arched ceiling. It’s the oldest artificial ice on the Range, dating to 1935, but the upkeep is impeccable, a perfect blend of new paint and a few historic touches to remind us we’re on hallowed hockey ground. A reverent silence grips the arena long after the anthem ends, as the local VFW chapter retires the colors; finally, a kid in the Hibbing student section shatters it. “It’s gonna be a long night, Raiders!” he bellows. On cue, the arena erupts into life, just as it has for eighty years.
The Bluejackets are true to the words of their instigator in the stands. Greenway may come in as the higher-ranked team, but Hibbing strikes immediately on a goal by Tristan Birdsall, the lone sophomore skater on a veteran-laden squad. Hibbing’s puck movement is superior; the Raiders, their top two talents inexplicably separated on different lines, fail to generate much punch beyond individual moments of flashy stickhandling from Taylor Lantz or pure power moves by Grant Troumbly. Greenway assumes the mantel of powerful northern hockey and unloads the hits, but Hibbing does just enough to hold serve. Late in the first period, Lantz and Troumbly momentarily join forces, and Greenway instantaneously has its best shift of the period. But when the second period opens, they’re apart again, and won’t be back on the same line until the game is out of reach. Maybe coach Grant Clafton is trying to wear Hibbing down in an ill-fated search for depth; maybe he’s being coy or experimental, waiting to unleash his finest talents later in the season. For now, however, it fails to generate much.
In front of me, the Hibbing students, scattered into friend groups at the start, congeal into a unified mass. In the Metro, students bounce beach balls around to annoy the ushers; here, they are purists, and keep a hockey puck aloft for a spell. They are all choreographed, sit as one when a Hibbing player goes down hurt midway through the first period, and repeat the ritual when a top Greenway defenseman’s leg crumples in the third. When the Greenway cheerleaders take the ice between periods, they turn their backs on them; these harmless antics that have been beaten out of student sections elsewhere still live on the Range. Later, “Rapids Rejects” joins the usual arsenal of victorious chants as the clock winds down. These kids are engaged, locked in on the game, having fun: a pleasure to see. One sees me taking notes, and asks if I’m a scout. No, kid, just a traveler from afar, drinking it all in.
Shots on goal read 4-3 Hibbing after the first period, a deathly low total that reflects the physical pacing of the game. In the second, however, the Bluejackets begin to open it up, and their sharp power play creates quality chances. Finally, late in the period, they’re rewarded, as Zach DeBoom’s bullet gets lost behind the Greenway goalie, and Riley Versich collects the garbage goal. Troumbly claws one back for the Raiders early in the third, but DeBoom unloads again shortly thereafter, and this time he doesn’t need a tip to reclaim a two-goal lead. From there, the Jackets settle into control and pop in two more goals for a 5-1 victory. For now, at least, the Iron Range’s steadiest power retains its crown in a longtime rivalry, and states its case for a little more respect in the rankings.
The best player on the ice is Jarrett Lee, a Hibbing junior winger who’d lived in Scott Perunovich’s shadow his entire career. This team is his now, though, and in the absence of a superstar, several Hibbing players had a chance to share in the load. A small but gritty player, Lee takes control when he sees the ice, running the Bluejacket power play from the point and darting about the offensive zone. Like many who have endured the ups and downs of local industry, Lee is also a survivor: he overcame a cancer scare in eighth grade.
Boom cycles will come through the Range, just as Perunovich-caliber players will roll through from time to time. When they do, Rangers will delight in the riches and artistry they create. But the lean times will come as well, and there will be times when players across the Range need to wear those sweaters with pride and go into corners to dig out pucks, no matter the odds. The Range I saw on Tuesday still has its sense of history, still has its sense of community, and it has a future, so long as the loyalty in the stands and the work ethic on the ice still prevail. No one offers a better window into its struggles and its promise than these high school kids.
There will be easy scapegoats, from Hermantown to China, and they may indeed play by different sets of rules. But easy fixes aren’t always there in hockey or in life, and there are things to learn from the resilience of a Jarrett Lee or a Greenway program that brought itself back from the brink. Lord knows the Range faces its challenges, but no one can really understand it from a heap of data or an elegiac piece of journalism. To do that, one must go to the Range and live it, if only for a little while.