We Are Who We Are

As a sports fan, I have always made it my priority to accept reality for my favorite teams. Talent levels are what they are, no matter what wishful beliefs we may hold. Acknowledgment of this reality is far from defeatist; it is, instead, an invitation to adjust to the relative strengths and weaknesses of an inevitably flawed team. From that point, I tend to keep some faith because I have seen enough to know the improbable can happen; there is almost always a pathway to an upset or a surprise run, no matter how thin. Hope springs from self-knowledge, and a commitment to rise up in spite of any limitations.

That hope was hard to find at times during this past Duluth East hockey season. It opened with an 0-8 start, and while that was the most difficult portion of the schedule, losses in winnable games against Forest Lake and Bemidji set the team irreparably far back in the section race. The team endured a myriad of injuries, a long Covid pause, and had players lose time for some other reasons, too. In the stands, we joked about Mike Randolph’s parting hex. 7AA’s imbecilic section seeding system left them with a tough playoff date; with a slightly better seed they could have at least made Amsoil, though I don’t think a team that wins seven regular season games has too much ground to complain. The Denfeld debacle and its aftermath cast a pall over the season’s final weeks and led some observers, myself included, to question the point of it all. The team seemed to spiral out of any progress it had made.

And there had been progress: in between those two ugly stretches they rattled off a month of .500 hockey. The Hounds lost four one-goal games to top 15 teams and lodged a respectable tie with Blaine, even as that one signature win would not come. In the section quarterfinal with Grand Rapids, they looked like a reasonably threatening team for a period, popping the first goal and coming close to a second that would have totally changed the tenor of the game. But in the second, a familiar plot line emerged. The Hounds took two more major penalties on which they gave up three goals, and the season was over.

It was a yearlong trend. According to Minnesota Hockey Hub, the Hounds took 310 penalty minutes in 2021-2022. As of the day after their quarterfinal defeat, that was second-most in Class AA, with Gentry Academy claiming the dubious crown. There is a clump of three other teams in the low 290s, and no other team above 270. The average number of penalty minutes for the other teams in 7AA was 221, and that appears high when compared to other sections. (The lowest total, by far? Hill-Murray, at 138.) We can nitpick about bad calls here and reputations among referees there, but this is far too much smoke for there not to be a fire. Combine it with an abysmal 65% penalty kill and it was a formula for disaster that once again came home to roost in the playoffs. The discipline must improve, period.

As always, though, I turn the page and thank the team’s seniors: Tyler Smith, who became a reliable defensive rock on the blue line amid turmoil; Lars Berg, ever the instigator; Wyatt Zwak and Dylan Erickson, who earned their way to regular playing time; and a supporting cast that included Ben LaMaster, Fletcher Dirkers, Eli Fresvik, Kayden Miller, and Dain Fladmark. They have been through the ringer over the past few years, their times at East nothing like senior classes before them, and we appreciate their contributions.

The underclassmen provided some entertainment, too. Cole Christian’s artistry, when he is on his game, is a great pleasure that I try not to take for granted after watching it for three seasons. Noah Teng took major strides toward being a very productive high school forward, and Wyatt Peterson adds to the gaggle of young talent. Aidan Spenningsby continued to show his versatility, and Makoto Sudoh is growing into a genuine power forward. Grant Winkler offers next-level potential on defense, and in a season when every other defenseman spent some time on the shelf, Henry Murray was the one constant presence. I do not know what Grady Downs’ future holds, and I believe it was correct for him not to play the remainder of this past season. But his reckless abandon also made for some pretty entertaining hockey at times, and I do not think anyone should be eternally defined by one incident at age 17. If there can be a redemption story here, I am all for it.

Next season seems a critical one to the post-Randolph era at Duluth East. Barring defections (an all-important disclaimer after recent seasons), they return a lot of players from a team that wasn’t that far off from being respectable when it stayed out of the box. The top line looked legitimately potent against Grand Rapids, and a healthy Thomas Gunderson could be the X-factor for a dynamic offense. They have respectable depth and a veteran in goal; if they can round out the defensive corps, it too can be a strength. There are at least a couple of bantams who will slot in nicely to the openings that remain. Moreover, with Grand Rapids and Blaine set to lose a lot to graduation and no great bantam teams in the section, a high seed in 7AA looks ripe for the picking; only increasingly machine-like Andover, if their stars stick around, has more talent on paper. Duluth East’s wander through the wilderness could be due for an interruption.

There is a lot of time between now and November, however, and this team will have to convince me that it is more than it was at the end of this season. For all the talent, for all the close calls, Duluth East hockey is not in the place where it needs to be. It can get there again, but doing so will take more than the normal dose of effort. Let the work begin.

Uncharted Territory

For the first fifteen years or so of my time following Duluth East hockey, I had the pleasure of generally watching this sport at its peak. For the next two, I watched a lot of ugly hockey, but at least much of that was by design. Now, I am rubbing my eyes in bafflement at an 0-6 start, willing to give away my kingdom for a clean breakout. How does a program that ruled northeast Minnesota for decades pick up the pieces?

Duluth East 2021-2022 hockey opened after a profoundly weird offsesason that saw the exit of Mike Randolph as head coach and an exodus of players from a program that for so long had been a destination. Into the void stepped Steve Pitoscia, who combined a long East pedigree as a bantam coach with a stint in junior hockey, a solid résumé worthy of the position. But recovery from what this program has undergone over the past two years or so will take longer than a few games and require more than some fresh vibes. Duluth East hockey is in a strange, difficult place, and the task ahead is not one for the faint of heart.

I intend to cast very little judgment on Pitoscia and his staff this season. They are new, and many of the greatest high school coaches never would have gotten anywhere if they were judged on their first season alone. Pitoscia has the unenviable position of following a larger-than-life icon whose final stanza at East left a very sour note, both for those who supported him and those who opposed him vehemently. No rational observer can pretend the talent level here is what it has been, thanks to both a slip in the product coming out of the youth system and an exodus, both pro- and anti-Randolph, over the summer. As far as I’m concerned, the new staff is free to do as much tinkering as it would like, and I ask only for signs of progress.

The talent is not all gone, either. A junior core of Cole Christian, Grant Winkler, and Aidan Spenningsby is a decent foundation, and sophomore Thomas Gunderson looked sharp before promptly suffering an injury. We await the return of Wyatt Peterson, who showed some offensive potential as a freshman last season and has yet to play a game. There are enough other respectable defensemen that the blue line corps could be a relative strength. In goal, Zander Ziemski has had a couple of yeoman’s performances, holding up under heavy barrages and at least giving his team some chances. No one will claim this is a top seed contender, but they have enough to be a very pesky section team that could pull an upset or two.

In the games to date, the tales of woe are mounting, one after another. A Thanksgiving road trip to the Twin Cities gave the Hounds two season-opening losses, a tight contest with White Bear Lake whose final score made it look lopsided and a lopsided affair with Chaska whose final score made it seem somewhat tight. The home opener against Grand Rapids provided its share of hope; while Rapids dominated for about a 25-minute stretch in the middle of the game, East held serve in the first period and mounted a plucky comeback late in the third that made it genuinely interesting. Giving the top team in 7AA a good run in the playoffs suddenly seemed very possible.

The good feelings did not linger. A home game against Bemidji should probably have been the first win, but the game slipped away late and wound up in an overtime loss. A weekend trip to Wayzata offered nothing in the way of bright spots. The snowball rolling down the hill then collected the Forest Lake game, which had some strong play early and a 2-1 lead after two before a four-goal burst in the third buried East yet again.

One suspects that half the battle will be mental going forward, as the team tries to find itself in this murky new territory. Perhaps a remnant of Mike Randolph’s black magic lingers in the Heritage Center, one final curse cast to haunt the program that drove him out. But one thing concerns me more than any game that got away against Forest Lake or any humbling against Wayzata: the current peewee and bantam teams have all started poorly, an almost baffling lack of success given the size of the youth program. At this rate, this team could be one of the better Hounds editions of the next few years. This leads me to ponder several possible futures for Duluth East hockey.

The first sticks with an old phrase I used when talking about predicting high school hockey: “the Edina of the north.” Among Minnesota high school programs in urban areas, only the Hornets compare in their ability to stay good decade after decade, defying the seeming laws of urban expansion and family moves. But it hasn’t been entirely consistent: take the start of the decade of the 00s, for example, when, under a relatively new coach named Curt Giles who’d gone to state in his first season there, the Hornets then went six years in which they only once made a section final and never went to State. East’s descent is already probably lower than that (the Hornets did not have a losing season in that stretch), but even the most dominant program in the state hits the occasional lull. Waves come and go, and by the late 00s, the Hornets were setting the bar again.

But maybe a better comparison is Bloomington Jefferson, starting around the same point in time. The Jags were, of course, the preeminent program in the state in the early 90s, and remained one of the top two or three through into the early 00s. Their bleed was long and slow: first the defection of Greg Trebil and some talent to Holy Angels, then the retirement of Tom Saterdalen; later, some teams that might have won other sections got stuck behind that return-to-glory Edina. They were still quite good, and consistently ranked. But as the 2010s went on that started to slip away. Now, they are often a punching bag, proud of their history but potentially looking at a merger with Bloomington Kennedy, which has struggled even more. Despite some committed alumni and some okay youth talent, a return to glory in the current environment looks like a real reach. West Bloomington is now one suburb among many, a pleasant enough place but no singular attraction for hockey.

That brings us to another possible future, one that reaches even further back: Minneapolis Southwest, long the class of Minneapolis hockey and a state champion in 1970. Southwest is still a pretty well-regarded public high school, situated among the affluent neighborhoods that surround Lake Harriet; as demographic changes have come to other parts of Minneapolis, it has, if anything, seen only a greater concentration of resources. But the pressures on other programs in Minneapolis had a direct effect on Southwest. Its hockey identity is dead; while it lasted longer than the rest of the Minneapolis schools and is the primary feeder for Minneapolis hockey, it has now merged with all of them to field a single team. The good hockey players in the area frequently wind up at private schools, if they stay in the city at all, and hockey just isn’t as big of a part of the community culture. Southwest hockey is a relic of history, and the sport rarely more than a feel-good story in the city, and while there are ways to imagine that changing—the resources are there, in a way they may not be in Bloomington—they are still a long way off.

There are reasons to think all of these are possible. The east side of Duluth still has a bunch of lakefront and ridgetop real estate, a bit of new construction and a some grand old history. It has the committed alumni base and the picturesque youth rinks, and the youth association is making some changes at the squirt level that accept a changing reality. It should continue to have decent numbers and the demographics that support hockey, perhaps even some growth if certain real estate trends persist. On the other hand, the east side of Duluth is no Edina clone: it includes swaths at more middle and even lower incomes, and shares a district with Denfeld. Does East just become a feeder for some of its neighbors? Can Denfeld stay viable, or will the East identity be the casualty of a merger? These are the longer-term questions that concern me much more than a bad goal conceded to Bemidji.

For the players on this year’s team, though, these questions are far off in the mists of the future. They need to get healthy, they need to find some combinations that work, and they need to accept that they now have the ability to write this next chapter of Duluth East hockey. There is far too much here, past and present, for the Hounds to roll over dead.