In a spring of job-related bombshells in Cloquet, the fate of a high school hockey coach may seem like a minor affair compared to a controversy embroiling that city’s police department or the closure of an 85-employee match and toothpick factory, the last of its kind in America. But hockey is no small thing in Cloquet, and sometimes a coach’s plight can have far broader messages about the state of amateur sports and beyond. The tenure of Dave Esse, the hockey coach who amassed a 282-176-28 record over 17 seasons as the head coach of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, has come to an abrupt and highly suspect end.
Esse was a true throwback coach who demanded excellence at every turn, and would say so when players did not give their all. He was a street fighter, and not just in a metaphorical sense: once, following an on-ice altercation between Duluth East and Cloquet, he challenged Mike Randolph to a fight in the parking lot. His teams were rigidly defensive-minded and tough warriors, no matter the talent level. It was Esse’s way or the highway. He was a schemer of the highest order; it is Esse, not Randolph, who deserves Elk River’s ire for some of the more questionable decisions to come out of 7AA seeding meetings over the years. And when he got a team to buy in, they matched their coach’s image, as pesky and sure of themselves as anyone out there.
Esse’s tenure was a tale of two halves. His early years were a glowing success: six section final trips in eight years, four playoff wins in six tries against archrival Duluth East (despite usually being the underdog), and two State Tournament trips. In neither of those Tourney years were his Jacks the most talented team in 7AA, but they found ways, both through Josh Johnson’s goaltending and David Brown’s goal-scoring binge. This was Cloquet’s longest run of sustained quality, and the Jacks pulled it out with a combination of star power and feisty, relentless effort.
The later years were less kind, but this had much more to do with a precipitous drop-off in talent than anything behind the bench. The Jacks still put up a serious fight over those nine seasons, pulling a memorable playoff upset over Grand Rapids and twice taking 1- or 2-seed Elk River to overtime. Lists of the best coaches in the state often align with their teams’ on-ice accomplishments, leading some to wonder whether the praises heaped upon a Curt Giles or a Lee Smith are really due to any brilliant coaching maneuvers or merely the good fortune of having many skilled players come through their system. If those critics ever wanted an example of someone whose talent level wasn’t always there, but routinely got teams to play as more than the sum of their collective parts, Esse was their man.
If there was a knock on Esse, it was that some of his most talented teams didn’t quite find a way to get it done. The mid-2000s teams, more talented than 2005 Duluth East and deeper than 2006 and 2007 Grand Rapids, really should have found a way to win another section title or two. And with a coach so completely committed to a team system, parents of star players didn’t always think their kids were getting their due. This all blew up during the 2012-2013 season, when Esse had his one post-2008 team that was a realistic contender for a section crown. This attempted firing, an amusing scenario in which politically powerful father of two talented players tried to accuse the good old boys’ network of denying his goalie step-son playing time, ultimately amounted to nothing. The team, however, seemed remarkably flat after that flare-up. Its aftereffects lingered, too: not only did the sons of the father in question leave for juniors after that year, but so did Karson Kuhlman, the best player on that squad.
The incident that drove Esse out this past week bears some obvious similarities. The instigator in this case was the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Cloquet, a 16-season NHLer who came home after retirement to raise his kids. Said hockey player and his family built something of a reputation for themselves in youth hockey, earning ejections from arenas for their antics. But when the player’s son made it to high school this season, Esse decided to bring his old man on board as an assistant coach.
I was immediately skeptical. Was there any way this would end well? Perhaps Esse, as canny an operator as there was in high school hockey, thought his best chance was to bring the father into the fold, rather than having him grumbling from the outside. From the press clippings, it seemed like it worked out last season, and everyone said the right things. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The facts as we know them now are thus: Esse dismissed his troublesome assistant last week, and while the details aren’t all out here yet, retribution was, clearly, swift. “With great sadness,” Esse stepped down on Friday morning. At this point, I don’t blame the man for moving on.
The timing of this saga throws Cloquet hockey into tumult. After a run of successful youth teams, it looked as if the Jacks were about to announce their arrival back on the state scene. Now, their future is unclear, especially since a couple of the rising talents are the offspring of the man responsible for Esse’s ouster. Their father, after all, was one of the first Minnesotans to leave high school early for other hockey opportunities. Will they follow suit?
There will be plenty of time to sort out that drama, and to see who will want this job opening, given both the potential and the toxic dynamics surrounding it. This is a time to reflect on 17 memorable years of hockey in a town that loves the sport, whether Cloquet was going toe-to-toe with Duluth East and Grand Rapids for 7AA titles or fighting to prove that it could hang with more talented opponents. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the ending of his tenure, either: Dave Esse’s fate is a sorry statement on the state of high school sports, and yet another incident of political power trumping a track record of exemplary efforts. He created some enemies, as any strong-willed person will over such a long time period, but he also has a legion of loyal former players who appreciate what he instilled in them. He deserved far better.