Archive | February, 2017

Semifinal Saturday

24 Feb

When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, Semifinal Saturday at the DECC was the premier hockey day of the year, far better than anything at the State Tournament. The yearly collision between Grand Rapids, Cloquet, Duluth East, and some random metro interloper made for thrilling hockey every time, and even though East often wound up on the wrong end of things in those years, I could tell that I was a part of hockey at its pinnacle. The DECC, then a sterile home rink for the Hounds during the regular season, came to life. 4,000-plus fans would pack the place, and the Cloquet and Rapids fans would ally in support of whichever of the two was playing East. The student sections lined up across the long sides of the ice, maximizing opportunities for chanting horrible things back and forth at one another. The atmosphere was electric.

Perhaps most importantly, the hockey delivered. The East-Cloquet rivalry rose to its most vicious peak, as Dave Esse’s arrival in Cloquet brought about the Jacks’ longest run of sustained success. They ended East’s long winning streak over the Jacks in 2001, and handed Mike Randolph his first section final loss in 2002. East avenged that loss in a double-OT 2005 thriller, setting the stage for two memorable Cloquet wins in the Reid Ellingson-Ben Leis goaltending duel in 2006 and David Brown’s four-goal soul-crusher in 2008. It was a remarkable run of seven playoff games in nine years, all but one of them thrillingly tight, with Cloquet holding a 4-3 edge. Games beyond that rivalry delivered too, though, with East’s surprising run in 2003, and injured Tyler Johnson’s sudden appearance to boost Cloquet past Elk River in the final minute in 2007. Grand Rapids fans, of course, will forever treasure Patrick White’s overtime game-winner over the Hounds in that 07 session.

Lately, Semifinal Saturday hasn’t quite been what it once was. The trouble probably began around 2009, when Cloquet fell off a cliff talent-wise, and left the semis with two metro teams every year from 2009 to 2012. Over that same stretch, East also had a surge in talent that allowed the Hounds to dominate the section; their only close playoff games during that run were a 2009 semi with Forest Lake in which the Rangers’ goalie made 54 saves, and the 2011 section final in which they stole away a late victory from Grand Rapids.

Something else changed in 2011, though: Amsoil Arena replaced the dear, dumpy old DECC. At first blush it seemed like a win, as 7AA added a state of the art modern facility with more seating and a video board. In practice, though, Amsoil has diminished the 7AA playoff experience unless it features a section final between two northern teams. Amsoil has a remarkable ability to look empty even when attendance is pretty good, a fact attributable to those loud, ugly yellow seats with poor sightlines in front of the glass. Student sections wound up at opposite ends of the ice, nearly inaudible to one another. On Semifinal Saturday, Amsoil too often becomes a home to placid family outings, with a group of kids, dwarfed by the large UMD student section bleachers, yelling inaudibly in a corner.

There have been flashes since. There were three northern teams again in 2013, which helped boost attendance; that year gave us a genuine thriller between Elk River and Grand Rapids, and a renewal of the old East-Cloquet rivalry, albeit a pretty flat one. 2014 and 2015 featured some quality East-Rapids matchups, one of which delivered, albeit with snoozers in the other semi.

There is some hope that Semifinal Saturday could return to its former glory in the near future. First off, we have an East-Cloquet game this year. For the first time in a while, Cloquet looks like it’s on an upsurge of young talent; whether or not they can hang with East this season, there’s some hope they’ll bring new life to what has become a fairly predictable three-horse race. 7AA needs that East-Cloquet playoff rivalry to rise above the rest. Grand Rapids and Elk River, meanwhile, are two of the most skilled teams in the state, and will crash in the first semifinal of the day. Grand Rapids may be due for a drop-off in the not so distant future, but Hermantown yet come through to help carry the mantel of northern AA hockey, and even a young Marshall group could climb its way into the picture. With apologies to our southern 7AA friends, who mutually agree that this arrangement isn’t great, these games are so much better when they involve northern teams. It’s nothing personal against the South; merely our Northern pride as the region that built hockey in this state, and a solemn commitment to carrying that tradition forward.

A couple of years ago, Section 7A shook things up by moving its semifinals from the Range to an evening session at Amsoil. Now, instead of heading home to rotate through radio feeds of five other metro-area semifinals, I get to go cover those. One of those games will involve Hermantown, so I’ll have a chance to get a nap in, but seeing the Range descend on Duluth is a welcome sight, and the nightcap, between Greenway and Hibbing this season, is as good as it gets. (I’m especially looking forward to that one after my coverage of their December meeting humbled me with the reception it got on the Range.) Here’s to another Semifinal Saturday, and one that will, hopefully, leave us with a few games to remember.

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The Broken Section Seeding Process

18 Feb

At the end of the regular season in high school hockey, a factor that has little to do with on-ice results weighs on teams’ fates. This week, the coaches in each section meet in smoke-filled rooms to set the seeding for their respective section tournaments. (In most cases, this is now done electronically; in 7AA they literally do meet in a smoke-filled room at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley, a tradition sadly interrupted this season, when Duluth Marshall had the nerve to schedule a game for itself on the sacred Wednesday night.) The coaches cast preliminary seeding votes, view the results, debate and make cases for themselves if they think the first vote hasn’t been fair, and then vote a final time to decide who gets which seed. To avoid sabotage, coaches do not rank their own teams, and the highest and lowest vote for each team is thrown out. Even so, the process is messy, controversial, and is responsible for an average of 37 aneurysms per year among users on the USHSHO Forums.

The leading controversy this season, as it so often does, comes out of 7AA, where Cloquet leapfrogged Grand Rapids to claim the 3-seed. The storyline in 7AA all season long was that one of its three big contenders (Elk River, Duluth East, Grand Rapids) would claim the top seed, and thereby avoid having to play two games against top-flight competition to make the State Tournament. Cloquet, however, threw a wrench in things. I was at the Rapids-Cloquet game this past Tuesday, and it was as stunning a high school game as I’ve seen in a while, as the Lumberjacks jumped all over Rapids and forechecked them to death in a convincing 4-1 win. It was a coming-out party for a young Cloquet team, and an exclamation point on a sudden, ugly late-season turn that has an incredibly talented Grand Rapids team struggling to find answers.

Grand Rapids, interestingly enough, doesn’t lose much of anything with this arrangement: there’s not much distinction between being the 3-seed or the 4-seed in 7AA this season. With losses to Elk River and Duluth East, they knew they were going to have to go through the Hounds and Elks regardless. The order is just different there, and they play Andover instead of Duluth Marshall in the first round, which I’m not convinced is a drawback, either. Likewise, even if Cloquet beats Marshall a third time, they’ve earned themselves a date with Duluth East, who’s beaten them 5-0 and 5-1, respectively, this season. For Rapids and Cloquet, the actual difference is minimal.

Backers of top-seeded Elk River, on the other hand, are crying foul. Their squad’s reward for the top seed could well involve a semifinal meeting with a team that spent a fair amount of time in the top 5 in the state this season, and they’re understandably leery that the Rapids sleeping giant will awake at the wrong time. (Mixed in here, one suspects, is a fair amount of frustration over the location of the 7AA semis and final, an entirely separate issue that has also not treated Elk River well.) No one out there honestly thinks Cloquet had a better season than Rapids, but two of the factors that have long swung section seeding meetings—record in the section, and performance in the second of two meetings between teams—tipped the scales. The logic the coaches used shouldn’t have surprised anyone who’s paid attention to section seeding over the years, though that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things.

Over in 8AA there was controversy as well, but the reasons were entirely different. Bemidji had stumbled through the first half of their schedule, with four losses to section foes, before turning it on down the stretch. The Lumberjacks beat St. Michael-Albertville, who had been the presumptive 2-seed, in their only meeting, and also avenged an earlier loss to Roseau. In a section that was a total seeding mess, one might have thought that Bemidji’s late-season run and avoidance of truly bad results would boost them up to the 3-seed, perhaps even the 2-seed; that would certainly be true if we applied the logic the 7AA coaches seemed to use. Instead, the Lumberjacks were consigned to the 5-seed. That result that does have its own internal logic, as they lost twice to 4-seed Brainerd, but seems awfully harsh for a team that is playing well right now, is 3-3 against the teams immediately above it, and that most observers would agree is one of the two or three most talented in the section.

The coaches’ vote is a meat-making process that will, inevitably, lead to butthurt. I’m not terribly sympathetic to those who are upset, a position I will maintain even if my alma mater someday seems to draw the short stick in one of these controversies. (The fact that this hasn’t happened in recent memory has led to some laughable efforts to endow Mike Randolph with magical powers of ballot box stuffing or persuasion.) Teams just need to find ways to win, period. But I recognize it does affect things, and I can think of two ways that could remove some of the intrigue:

Use an algorithm to do the seeds. Plenty of people have designed algorithms that can spit out dispassionate rankings of high school teams. The Minnesota State High School league has even offered up one, QRF, as a valid criterion for making seeding decisions. I enjoy looking at computerized rankings, but this one is probably the worst of the bunch, to the point where I look at other algorithm-based rankings in creating my subjective ones, but completely ignore this one. (I’m sure an effort to look at its past ability to predict playoff results would back this up.) And while I’d love it if the MSHSL were to contract out Lee Pagenkopf’s PageStat or MyHockeyRankings (or *my* hockey rankings), these aren’t really realistic options at this point in time. (Though seriously, MSHSL, you know where to find me if you want me.) Given the finicky nature of some of these algorithms, and the different and ultimately subjective weights they can give toward things like strength of schedule or margin of victory while ignoring raw head-to-head results, I lean away from this option, and instead toward another:

Mandate that all teams within a section play each other once in a game that contributes to section standings. Right now, schedules are built around conferences, which are, for the most part, useless relics left for us by football, which doesn’t even use a conference system anymore. This is dumb on many levels, and leaves us with some ugly controversies when teams don’t play all of their section opponents, or play them a different number of times. Silly flaps between programs like Eden Prairie and Holy Family, which refuse to play for political reasons, lead to a lot of guesswork, use of competing forms of logic, and grievances. There is no quality control in scheduling, and the seeding process inevitably suffers.

Under this model, teams would play a sort of league schedule where they play their section opponents once. Home venues would rotate by year. Teams could schedule additional meetings with their section rivals, if they so choose; it only makes sense in the case of longstanding rivalries, and especially for the Greater Minnesota teams that face long travel times. Those additional meetings, however, simply wouldn’t count toward section standings. Section standings could then rely on a consistent point system just like a college conference, with tiebreakers such as head-to-head record or goal differential on hand to break any ties. (The goal differential one would need to have limits, though; top teams running up scores on the bottom of the section shouldn’t determine seeds.) We’d have a simple, clear order at the end, and a playoff structure to resolve any disputes.

I don’t expect change anytime soon, but sooner or later, the clamor for transparency should become too loud to ignore. With the complete death of conference relevance, hockey has a chance to adopt an added dose of sanity. So, much as I enjoy munching on my popcorn as 7AA undergoes its annual explosion, I’ll gladly forego that for the sake of a system that makes more sense.

Little Things

15 Feb

I’ve had a good and busy week so far, one filled with reminders of why it is I do what I do, and how exactly we have to go about doing it. This goes beyond the day-to-day tasks of work and hockey and other activities, as the world around me finds ways to take small steps forward in a very long game.

This article by George Monbiot, a British activist and radical, circulated through my planning network earlier this week. Monbiot makes a  case that caters to left-leaning readers (this is The Guardian, after all), but it goes deeper, reaching toward a sphere of life both sides of the political spectrum have come to neglect. He’s talking about building “thick” networks of people to share things and ideas and generally just support each other, allowing them to escape the anomie of lonely modern lives and bring up the standard of living. He also makes the necessary point that a large welfare state can indeed “leave people dependent, isolated, and highly vulnerable to cuts.” This isn’t government-driven at all. Regulation alone won’t save us. Monbiot follows up his diagnosis with a refreshing array of real-world examples of British communities pulling together to build participatory little democracies that make life happier for a lot of people. To underscore the nonpartisan nature of the pitch, this actually sounds a lot like the “Big Society” that Tory ex-Prime Minister David Cameron gave some attention, even if it was never central to his agenda. Influential Britons left and right seem to understand what their politics has been missing.

If only we could say the same of the American system these days. But, instead of looking to party brass or public intellectuals, maybe we can look a little closer to home.

Take Monday’s Duluth News Tribune story on the new OMC Smokehouse in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Alone, the lede here doesn’t seem too unique: some successful local restaurateurs have decided to open up a second  restaurant. But this is more than that. The Hanson family’s first restaurant, Duluth Grill, is both a social and culinary institution. Sure, Duluth Grill checks all those eco-friendly and locally-sourced boxes, which any localist will like. But it’s so remarkably popular because it makes damn good food, and anyone who goes there can just taste the difference between it and the competition. I’m not sure anywhere better encapsulates Duluth than Duluth Grill, with its lack of pretention (a former Denny’s!), broader ethos, and ability to deliver a remarkably good product.

Duluth Grill and OMC Smokehouse don’t aspire to just make good food, though; their success in the kitchen allows them to take the lead in the building of one of those dense networks. They’re part of a broader project to remake a neighborhood, and to give life to an area that still feels decidedly Rust Belt. The decision to locate OMC right on Superior Street in Lincoln Park underscores a commitment: this neighborhood can once again be a thriving hub of business, and the leadership from places like Duluth Grill, Frost River Trading Company, and Bent Paddle. The city, with its loan programs targeting local business growth, gets it. This is a chance to revitalize a neighborhood in the best sense of that phrase, and to fill it with new life.

Sticking with Lincoln Park, another DNT article over the weekend highlighted the efforts to bring teachers into students’ homes and build community schools in ISD 709. This is a welcome change of pace from talking about the existence of the gap between the east and west side schools, and a foray into actually doing something to address it. Schools can only do so much with the cards they’re dealt; as I’ve noted before, the west side schools actually don’t do terribly considering the poverty, barriers, and broken homes that plague too many of their students. That reality, however, is no excuse for not trying to do everything within their power to improve outcomes, and this effort to get teachers into homes is an excellent step toward creating a community that can prove demography is not destiny. It’s a simple but crucial step, one that acknowledges the value of humanity and building ties over cramming people into a something formulaic and hoping it spits out good little workers in the end.

These are examples from just one neighborhood, but they go to show why I love this city, and why, for all its travails, it seems to be the perfect place to build the dense sort of community that can withstand any manner of swings beyond. The challenges, which range from that divided school system to a sudden spate of gun violence to a political consensus that seems to be breaking down as a center-left and an activist left left stake out territory, are all real. But these are little ways to build networks that can help to alleviate all of these troubles, and they can bring anyone on board because the basic tenets that support them–cleaned-up neighborhoods, good food, better student-teacher relationships, free chances to learn things, easier access to capital–are things that anyone can support.

I know a lot of people seem to be coming to this sort of worldview in reaction to our new President and his agenda, to the extent that we can distinguish one. I’m fine with that; I welcome fellow travelers however they come. That said, I do want to make something clear: personally, I’m not advocating for positions like this in reaction to broader national trends. I’m doing this because I fundamentally believe it is the right way to do things, no matter who is in power and what is going on in Washington. The intimacy of local politics (in the broad meaning of the word, covering any manner of relationships among people) will always have greater effect over the lives of people than the diktats of an increasingly powerful executive and unelected court system and a occasional input from a rump Congress. Taking part in these seemingly small activities will do much more to make things happen in actual human lives than posting another freaking article on Facebook about why the politicians you dislike are unlikable. (Over the past few weeks, I’ve stopped checking the news more than once a day, and find that I’m just as informed and now have far better uses for my time than I did before.)

Keep it simple. Start local. Start with what you can control. Make some sort of commitment in the next week. It doesn’t take much.

7AA Takes Shape

7 Feb

Duluth East had been rolling along in the second half of its season, with wins in eight of nine games heading into a section showdown in Elk River on Saturday. That run came to an end with a dull thud, as the Elks imposed their will in a 4-1 win. The victory gave the Elks the top seed in 7AA, and consigned the Hounds to a 2-seed and a likely road through Grand Rapids to make a ninth straight section final.

Saturday’s result probably says more about Elk River than anything, and revealed a team well-built to resist a team like East. They’re deep and break out smoothly, building from that great defense in back; the Hounds’ signature forecheck and puck control game never really got off the ground. The Elks were remarkably disciplined, which is a major testament to new coach Ben Gustafson, who appears to be a significant upgrade. This team could be a lippy and loose at times in recent seasons; a stupid major penalty cost them a three-goal lead in the section final just two seasons ago. And where last season’s team might have folded after a seeming goal was waved off and East immediately followed it up with a shorthanded goal, this Elks group had an immediate response. They didn’t take a single penalty the entire game, thereby avoiding an improving Hounds power play that can pile on the pressure, even if its overall numbers aren’t remarkable. Their stars came to play as well, with their D-I defensemen, Nick Perbix and Benton Maass, scoring the two early goals and a healthy Jax Murray controlling play for long stretches.

The biggest bright spot in defeat for East was Kirk Meierhoff, the goaltender who has come into his own as a senior; the line of Jack FitzGerald, Austin Jouppi, and Brendan Baker, a pleasant surprise all season, had a decent effort, too. Any other effort to take anything out of this one as a Hounds fan probably starts by noting that Elk River was at the peak of its game, while East was not. The Hounds’ top line in particular spent much of the game running around its own zone; a handful of shifts aside, many of their rushes forward degenerated into failed dangles through a dominant defensive corps. Those moves may work against Superior, but the team game wasn’t quite at the level it needed to be. If Elk River has a weakness, it’s probably in goal, yet they failed to put much rubber on a goaltender who only lasted ten minutes in the playoff meeting between these two last season. The Olympic ice sheet in Elk River is not friendly for a team that relies on setting up a forecheck and closing down space. The return of injured Logan Anderson could help shore up the forward depth as well. Despite being outplayed for long stretches on Saturday, it was still a very tight game until late in the 3rd, and the Elk faithful around me was leery of East popping a quick one on a breakaway.

The Hounds rebounded on Monday night with a 5-1 win over Cloquet, an effort similar to their 5-0 blanking of the Jacks back in December. This time they had no trouble keeping the forecheck rolling, and clean rushes for the boys in purple were few and far between. This Lumberjack team has done a good job of cleaning up on the second tier in 7AA, but is too young and too thin to hang with the likes of the Greyhounds at this point in time. If nothing else, it restored order for East, and reminded me why this is still one of the most enjoyable rivalries out there, even with one team in solid control. A large crowd packed in under the arched wooden ceiling in Cloquet, and the two student sections went at it relentlessly, showing both their love for their teams and creative disdain for the opposition. (Anytime the renditions of “The Wheels on Your House” come out, it’s probably an entertaining night.)

7AA seeding will be pleasantly free of drama this season. Elk River has been its most complete team since day one, and while East’s win over Grand Rapids flipped the 2 and 3 seeds, it doesn’t alter a whole lot in the big picture. Rapids, winners of six straight since its loss to East; they’ve played no one in the top 15 over that stretch, though they do have Moorhead this coming weekend. Duluth Marshall’s second season in AA, much like its first, has me raising an eyebrow at their performance down the stretch, as losses to Andover and Cloquet have likely consigned the Hilltoppers to a 6-seed. Andover has a lot of losses, but has also had its share of respectable showings against good teams, including a tie to Grand Rapids.

In the end, though, this is a three-team race for the title, as has been the case over the past several seasons. Elk River has set the standard and remains the most complete team in the field, but must exorcise its Amsoil Arena demons. Grand Rapids has its front-line skill, and will have to ride it to heroics in big games. That leaves the Greyhounds as something of the wild card, which seems weird to say in a season where their ranking has barely budged all season long. But when they’re on their game, they can roll a deep group and frustrate any opponent. Do that, and they have a shot; after that, they could use a step up from some of their top players on the highest stage. East’s top players have been there before, just two short years ago; can they find that level again? Over the next month, we’ll learn the answer.

Farewell, Uncle Jack

5 Feb

This weekend, my Uncle Jack passed away.  He was always a welcome presence in my life, even if I never got to know him half as well as I should have. He was a man of great wit, and always a steadying presence in the midst of Maloney family holiday bedlam. Whenever one needed a breath of fresh air, one could usually find Uncle Jack tucked away somewhere, safe from the crush of humanity and at ease. And when he did move to insert himself into the middle of it all, it was often memorable: I remember the one year when, to everyone’s surprise, he was the life of the Annual Family Thanksgiving Political Debate, and had us all rolling in laughter. He passed with much of his extended family on hand, there for him in the end. He took his final breaths while wearing his bunny slippers, which he will also wear at his funeral.

My heart goes out to my Aunt Mary Beth, my cousin Paul and his wife Laura, and their children Luke and Emma, who didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with their grandfather. I wish I could have offered up more than a farewell card, send along with my mother as she hastened south to be with him this past weekend. This blog also lost a loyal reader, even though I’m sure that Duluth politics and high school hockey were never topics of great interest to him. He was dedicated to his extended family in his quiet, reliable way, and his absence will loom over future family gatherings. We’ll miss him, but we have much to remember him by, and he left a proud legacy.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Jack.

Save Youth Hockey at the Lower Chester Rinks

3 Feb

Every now and then, my work life and my hockey life collide. This is one of those times, as I learned this afternoon that there is at least some threat that the Congdon youth hockey program will lose the use of the Lower Chester rinks. This is a call to arms to defend Congdon youth hockey at Lower Chester.

The well-written Change.org petition makes a solid case, so I won’t re-hash the whole history or re-open my gripes about how the Red Plan blew up a neighborhood institution and one of the best-used public outdoor rinks in the city. (Oops, I just did.) But, out of that wreckage, some good came: the Lower Chester rinks, which had stopped fielding youth teams some time ago, found new life as the home for Congdon hockey. Lower Chester is perhaps the most storied youth rink in a town littered with hockey history. The Williams family, pioneers of American hockey, have their roots here; Mike Randolph and many in his great generation came from Lower Chester, too. Congdon hockey has seen its numbers grow, not shrink, since it moved to Lower Chester, so this isn’t an issue of declining numbers or lack of demand.

I won’t pretend to know much about the Neighbors of Lower Chester Park, the volunteer group that oversees the park that hosts the rinks. However, some of its members seem to think the rinks inhibit the park’s year-round usefulness. (In summer, it currently hosts a skate park that seems to do decent business, though  there seem to be grander plans of a playground or something in what little I can glean from the group’s meeting minutes.) Joel Sipress, the city councilor who represents the area, also alludes to some past tension between the hockey and the Neighbors in his response to the petition. If so, that’s unfortunate, and there are some bridges to mend. But it would be far more unfortunate if the Neighbors took out some spat with hockey association members on the dozens of kids who need a place to play.

Removing the rinks from Lower Chester would toss aside piece of history, and damage the truly unique outdoor neighborhood youth hockey model draws praise from non-Duluthian hockey people in all corners of the state. It would force out an association that has already gotten a raw deal from decision-makers, and force it to choose among such unsavory options as sharing an already busy rink like Glen Avon or Portman, raising the capital and finding the land to build new rinks somewhere, or disbanding altogether. As the city learned on a greater scale with the Red Plan, schemes that disrupt neighborhood hubs and ship kids off to wherever seems convenient wind up being disruptive, and are at odds  with any plan to build cohesive communities with kids at the center of their vision for the future. Tossing out a successful youth organization would make people like me who are looking to settle in this general area question whether the neighborhood actually wants young people who expect to have kids here. And while the Congdon youth program certainly draws from Duluth’s wealthiest pockets, its boundaries extend all the way into downtown; Lower Chester is basically the only rink remaining anywhere near the center of the city. If city leaders value any sense of equity in access to a key piece of Duluth’s cultural legacy, this rink is important.

There has to be a way to find common ground here. And if you need someone to bridge the planning and hockey worlds, I’m happy to help…