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.