It is never easy to say goodbye at the end of a great run. None of it quite feels real, even if we know this was it, that everyone must ultimately go their separate ways for the world to go on. This season’s Duluth East boys’ hockey team went on one of those runs, exceeding every expectation I had and bringing me a barrage messages from hockey friends across the state: are we really going to see those black jerseys and red breezers in St. Paul again? (The jerseys aren’t black anymore, I patiently explained.) Suddenly it seemed possible, a rebirth at hand. But the time for those goodbyes arrived abruptly, one step before a team could reach its ultimate dream.
But if it wasn’t going to be a storybook ending, it was still a tale to remember. A 5-1 December win over Andover served notice that Duluth East hockey was back, and a 6-0 blitz of Grand Rapids slew any demons with that old rival. The team was potent, fun to watch, going off on lesser competition and rattling off a 17-1-1 stretch ahead of the section final. Two improbable wins near the end, a dramatic comeback against Champlin Park and a defensive survival against powerful Rogers, gave off team of destiny vibes. This team didn’t have top five talent, didn’t run some genius scheme, but it just seemed rock solid from top to bottom, free to play good hockey, a whole host of good things running together and building toward playoff success.
I had my lurking doubts that I didn’t dare voice too loudly. The less charitable interpretation of the Champlin Park and Rogers games would suggest they struggled with a borderline top 15 opponent and couldn’t quite skate with one of the state’s elite. The offense was clearly a beat off after Thomas Gunderson’s injury in the final game of the regular season, and though he gave a valiant effort in the section final, the prolific top line never quite got on track against Andover. The regular season meeting had perhaps given the impression that the Hounds could skate stride for stride with the Huskies, but when Andover’s three bringers of doom came off their leashes in the second period, there was no keeping up. The Hounds started to press too hard, while the Andover defense, noticeably improved since their December effort, swatted aside the comeback push. Before long it had spiraled out of reach, a rare laugher of a playoff defeat for a good Hounds team, and a tough pill to swallow after all they had built. For all the steps taken this season, the final one was a bridge too far.
It is the nature of these season wraps to linger on what could have been, but what simply was did the job this year. Coach Steve Pitoscia and his staff buried the ghosts of last season and built a team that played exciting, clean, consistent hockey. The ever-ratcheting pressure of the Mike Randolph years was conspicuous in its absence; this team was going to win or lose with what it had, no more, no less. What they had was considerable, and such a positive season should dispel much of the peddling of decline and fall, or any instinct toward exodus at the youth level. This group can now confidently build toward the future now, and while the East of the mid-90s or even the mid-teens can’t be remade overnight, they can continue to build the foundations and open the doors for another virtuous cycle of upcoming and inbound talent.
As always, I thank the seniors. There are the four defensemen, all varsity players for at least three seasons, who leave behind a large hole: Grady Downs, the puck-eating redemption story; Aidan Spenningsby, the dangling sparkplug; Henry Murray, so often the steady rock who blossomed into a great high school defenseman this past season; and Grant Winkler, who played five years for the Hounds, by the end becoming the two-way force at the center of everything the team did. Nathan Teng was the fan favorite, Hunter Cooke put in the work, and Boden Donovan had his bursts that sometimes reminded me of another Hound who once donned number 22. (How strange will it now be to have the Hounds without a Donovan boy?) Makoto Sudoh developed into a true horse, logging heavy minutes and making his presence felt. And Cole Christian was the true catalyst, a long way removed from his pretty freshman dangles as he exploded with a monster senior year that I’d hoped would get him more Mr. Hockey Finalist consideration but at the very least showed the world what he is capable of.
With belief in this program restored, next season looks bright, even without Christian and the four stalwarts on D. The team brings back an interesting array of offensive toys, including Gunderson, Wyatt Peterson, Noah Teng, Caden Cole, and Ian Christian. Kole Kronstedt offers stability in net, and his backup, Drew Raukar, will also be back in the fold. There are a few other pieces worth a look from the ranks of the JV and the swing liners, and a respectable season from the bantams provides added reinforcement. Moreover, 7AA is in flux, with comings and goings amid opt-ups and an excess of teams to begin with. Andover will remain the favorite as long as it is still in the section, but it does have to replace its sublime trio, which is no small feat. Grand Rapids will be on the young side, down the rigid back side that kept it relevant this season; Blaine’s rebuilding road is long, Coon Rapids still has some gap to close, and Rock Ridge has to prove it can hang in AA. Even with the defensive rebuild at hand, East is in good shape to be right there again next season.
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I close this postmortem on a personal note. After three straight rough seasons, I had begun to wonder if it was time to start taking some steps back from this East hockey fixation of mine. I have plenty of other demands on my time, so many things I want to do, and producing content on bad hockey felt less and less compelling. The team’s success this season helped correct for some of that, of course. But it went much deeper.
This was the sort of season that took all of that blather about community in hockey, the sort of thing we reserved skeptics are supposed to shrug off or pick at, and made it real. It came through Mom Bus road trips and late night beverages with the dads, via chaotic karaoke and casual warm-ups at Clyde. Whether through the works of the old hands looking to restore a program to its former glory or the newcomers seeing it with fresh eyes, and by all accounts through the concerted effort of a very tight group of boys, it all became what so many of us dream a sport can be. And in that final week, which was among the toughest I have ever lived, hockey became a balm and an escape for me, the final result in no way dimming the glow of a brilliant ride. Thank you, fellow Greyhounds, for a winter to remember, and even for those who are moving on, let’s come back together again next season. These goodbyes, it turns out, are never truly the final word.