In my correspondence and conversations following Duluth East’s 6-2 loss to crosstown rival Duluth Denfeld on Wednesday, the word “embarrassed,” sometimes augmented by colorful adjectives, repeated itself often. Those with a stake in the future worried about the optics. Loyalists of former coach Mike Randolph, on a spectrum from grim observation to vindictive pleasure, lamented his absence. Some said they felt sick, and wondered whether all of this was actually worth it. None of these comments had anything to do with the score.
The proceedings at a packed Heritage Center were not an isolated incident. A ragged affair in Champlin Park the next night marked East’s eighth consecutive game with over ten penalty minutes. The Greyhounds took thirty minutes of penalties in a win over Superior, including a pair of five-and-game penalties for fighting. They took twenty minutes against Cloquet, the bulk coming on a two-and-ten after the buzzer at the end of a period. The gamesheet for the Denfeld game shows fifty-three minutes of penalties, and it may be missing a misconduct or two. It became hard to keep track as the referees dismissed a succession of Greyhounds to the locker room. Those statistics do not capture the full-game suspensions associated with game misconducts. The extent of the deterioration against Denfeld, which carried on past the bludgeoning behind the net through a series of gratuitous excesses as time wound down, exceeded that of any I have ever seen in high school hockey. One of the state’s great programs had become the Bayfront Bullies.
I am far from a scold about decorum. I have always had a soft spot for the Garrett Worths of the world, the kids who earn some right to be cocky with their performance; I relish the long tradition of Greyhound sparkplugs and enforcers, from Andrew Kerr to Alex Spencer to Ricky Lyle. I ate up just about every bit of the Cloquet game, from the intensely hostile crowd to the Hounds’ dogpile atop the Lumberjack logo at center ice after the overtime game-winner, all of which felt edgy but within that tradition. In isolation, I can stomach the Superior fight, which seemed to spark the team from its slumber that night; every team will go overboard from time to time. Referees will inevitably get some things wrong, and sometimes the other team is the obvious aggressor. But when a trend emerges, so do the more fundamental questions.
The questions have complicated answers. After a few years of mediocrity, the hunger to win can slip; stakes lower and focus fades, and hockey becomes one big romp with the boys instead of the pursuit of a section title or a next level opportunity. There remain some parents who will make any excuse for their spawn, and some will even egg on that general mediocrity. The players who do care deeply can get frustrated or sucked into crimes of passion as they boil over. These kids have also gone through two years of Covid hell, and I am convinced a more virtual and isolated life has only fueled certain antisocial tendencies, only led more people to retreat inward and then explode in anger when reality intrudes on that inner world. Perhaps no group has suffered more than kids currently in adolescence, who have a hard enough time navigating those waters in normal times. And, yes, in the absence of the unflinching taskmaster and disciplinarian who ran this program for decades, a man who had no qualms about ordering even his greatest players to the bench when they crossed the line, a new culture was bound to emerge. At times that new culture has actually felt freer, but now that looseness is showing its ugly dark side.
In a December post I said I would not judge new coach Steve Pitoscia much this season. I did not want to nitpick about penalty kills or line-rolling as he learned the ropes. He is getting some flak he does not deserve; he played no role in his predecessor’s ouster, and, whatever history may exist between the two men, he has only said the right things in public about him. Even the greatest coaches cannot control everything, as incidents from Hill-Murray to Eden Prairie have shown this season. But if this is the baseline, we will need to see improvement. I was not around for the years preceding Mike Randolph’s tenure, but the tales I’ve heard of those days—two coaches lasting two years each, a program mired in undisciplined chaos—could sound eerily like the present unless things change.
After the Cloquet game, I was halfway done with a piece on this team’s halting progress, on how I was still enjoying myself, even as the product bore little resemblance to the East hockey of five years ago. My loyalty to the institution and the many great people who are a part of it remained strong. Those fundamentals are still there, and somehow, if healthy and composed, this team could still pull a surprise or two in sections. (If they do, the cheeseburgers are on me.) But this week, the results on the ice seem secondary to the escapades in a program that has, for so long, stood for so much more.