Tourney Reflection 2021

A few hundred fans tuck in along one side of the rink. A few feeble mom yells ring out here and there. A student section of five makes as much noise as it can for the camera. Piped-in noise fills the void, draws more attention to the absence of the world we know. A late-night drive down Seventh Street finds the scene dead. Along comes litigation (unsuccessful) and a mask mandate (sporadically enforced). Groaning institutions built to keep things as they are try to adapt to challenges on the fly. This is the 2021 State Tourney, a strange simulacrum of the most Minnesotan of events. Never has it been like this before, and may it never look like this again.

The 2021 Tourney upended so much of what we assume. It turned Hermantown into the plucky fan favorite upstart and gave redemption to an Eden Prairie team haunted by the near-misses of the past decade. The Class A titlist opened a new era of hockey, the charter school with a not-so-subtle focus that turned a scattered collection of talent into an absolute machine. The two Section One entrants made finals, while the North bowed out early on. Protocols robbed us of two of the state’s great programs, and their absence will forever loom over our memories this year. But the games went on.

The Tourney’s hockey is great but its mystique comes from its pageantry, its simmering energy, the statewide jersey bingo game and the hormones seeping down from the upper deck, the rising cadence of chants and the high school girl scream that arises anytime the puck gets across the blue line late in an important game. Season ticket holders pass traditions down generations, while parties begin in hotel rooms and restaurants and on bus rides to St. Paul. Sure, Lou Nanne and Dave Wright and Jim Carroll were still there, and it all still ended with a video of great hair. Alas, a comfy couch and some Chad Greenway commercials only go so far. But the games, at least, went on.

The 2020 Tourney closed out normal life before the pandemic came to consume everything, and the 2021 version was a signal that this long, dark tunnel is nearing its end. It stripped away everything but the hockey, and thankfully, the hockey delivered. A bleach-blonde crew from Dodge County darted through the field with the elusiveness of its star, Brody Lamb. Little Falls’ feel-good story took home one win and may have nabbed some second if not for zebra intervention. East Grand Forks followed the necessary formula to make things interesting in the de facto Class A championship game, but Gentry Academy’s freight train eventually built up too much momentum, just as it did in every big game the Stars played. Every AA game had at least some level of intrigue into the third period, and the quarterfinals kept me glued, even as the favorites found their way through. Lakeville South, powered by an incisive top line and some surging sophomores, made its deepest run to date.

The most lasting on-ice memories came through Eden Prairie’s two great overtime affairs. Friday’s clash with Maple Grove, the renewal of a youth rivalry that featured the Tourney’s most hyped squads, provided the fastest pace and wildest two minutes of Tourney hockey I can remember. It will go down as one of the greatest games ever played, and sparse crowd will only add to its mystique: who among us made it in for that epic affair? Saturday night offered a more muted but equally nervy sequel, this time with a second extra session to drag the season on deeper into April. In both games the Eagle stars would not be denied, and a senior class that twice saw its dream fall short on Saturday night fulfilled its promise. Lee Smith, the finest players’ coach of his era, asked his ones to win it for him, and win it they did.

The exhaustion and punishment of the Tourney seemed even more obvious this season. First, there was Zam Plante, his face beet-red after fourteen straight minutes on the ice. Zam and his junior varsity Hawks were as gutted as any team after their loss, a quest to keep their teammates’ dream alive that encountered just a bit too much Lamb. In the overtime affairs, Carter Batchelder poured it all out: he put his team on his back in the Maple Grove game and willed his way through the championship game as his body failed him. After the title-winning goal, Jackson Blake looked more anguished than elated, his conquest bringing about a final great release. This was a year of perseverance, of powering through both small annoyances and great uncertainties, of finding ways to win in spite of the troubles that consumed so many of us.

In my own little corner of Tourney life, it is much the same. Among the Youth Hockey Hub crew there are few laments over limited credentials or deprivation of the usual pleasures. We just find new ways to make do and have fun with it, sprawled on a couch in Lowertown. A year of Zoom was adequate preparation for a livestreamed tailgate, and phone calls took the place of press conferences. I miss the spontaneous meet-ups with old friends, but my phone steadily explodes throughout the week and leaves me feebly trying to keep up. I feel more plugged in but less able to appreciate it all, wired into a network rather than full sensory immersion. It is a feeble imitation, but the failure to match the past is no reason not to push in on net with a Barrett Hall power move.

If feels discordant to watch the final day in shorts, this Tourney creeping later than it should, and I head home less tired than ever, spared the usual grind of arena entries and exits and long nights out, freed to keep up on life beyond hockey (yes, Minnesota, it does exist) through morning runs and a Thursday off day. I would say next year will bring us back to normal, but for all the pretense of tradition, no Tourney is ever quite normal. Certain patterns imprint themselves in our minds, come to define this week, but the hockey world shifts beneath us every year. It hurtles along, and we adapt or we die. But along the way there are still signposts, still some anchors in a liquid world that give it order, give it continuity, give off that warm sense of home among one’s own people. This Tourney managed some of them in spite of it all, and next year I will appreciate the rest more than ever.

Incomplete

Tonight is the opening round of the 7AA playoffs, but I’m sitting at home. The Duluth East hockey season came to an unceremonious end on Thursday, March 11. In a cruel irony, I’d just come home from my first vaccine shot when I got the news. The Hounds were done for 2021, slayed by the virus, and while there was some back-room wrangling to try to pull off a game tonight, it came to nothing. The protocols won out, and the East season came to an end.

The shutdown denied us a satisfying narrative to close out a tumultuous season. 2021 saw a lurching preseason, a month-and-a-half delay in the start of games, a mask mandate and empty arenas, and mass midseason defections from the East senior class. At 6-8-2, the Hounds logged their second straight losing season after decades upon decades of winning. At the same time, they were playing their best hockey toward the end, as evidenced by a loss to Grand Rapids that was competitive until the end and a battle with Hermantown that was tied until a fateful single play that led to a major penalty on which it slipped away. When this team maintained its discipline, it was proving it could be a royal pain to its more skilled rivals. What was this season? Was it going to be the year the Mike Randolph regime finally crumbled into chaos, as a team rejected his intense demands? Was it going to be yet another tale of East rallying behind a radical game plan to pull a stunning upset? We will never know.

For all the drama, though, this team was exactly what I thought it would be coming into the season. They did not beat a single team I expected them to lose to, and they did not lose to a single team I expected them to beat. The only semi-exception was a tie to Cloquet, which was unfortunate after two earlier wins but no grand shock in a rivalry game that was played three times in sixteen games. The youth movement did not surprise me, though the commitment to a third man high did, somewhat; I expected East to establish lines that I might come to see for the next two or three years, rather than the rotating cast that at times had the team struggling to get the right number of players on the ice. By the second Hermantown game, when the team seemed a bit more ambitious offensively, I finally had my finger on the end goal, the ends behind the means. But we never got to see them.

And so, as always, I thank the seniors: Dylan and Brady Gray, Zarley Ziemski, Garrett Johnson, Matthew Locker, Caleb Keenan, and George Rolfe. Aside, of course, from those who have suffered directly from the virus, there are no people who have more of my sympathy over the events of the past year than those in their high school and college years who have lost vital formative times they will never have back. To these ones, who persevered through this season and so much more, it must feel like a cruel joke to see the season stolen away just as it seemed like things were lurching back toward normalcy.

If the young core returns, the future of East hockey looks pretty bright in a more normal 2021-2022. The defensive corps in particular appears promising going forward, with a bunch of kids who were really rounding into their roles coming back. (I hope the two who spent much of this season in a positionless sort of limbo can settle into more natural roles.) The Hounds return a handful of forwards with genuine skill, and there are reinforcements on the horizon from the youth program. Both young goaltenders played reasonably well, giving the program viable options for several years to come there. If the top-end players continue to progress and the team can round out its lower lines with some good, hard-working role players, the Hounds can be formidable next season.

My claim that this team basically played to its talent level might come off as a rationalization for mediocrity. Anyone who knows me, however, knows I have spent most of the past two years rolling my eyes at sloppy play and muttering things under my breath. I am, however, blessed with an ability to step back and see things for what they are, and the many hours I take to watch the top teams in the state every year and rank them gives me the sense of perspective over what is realistic. I also benefit from a long time horizon: few, if any, people have followed this program as closely over the past 15 years. This is not to say I will not arch my eyebrows at times, or that there have not been occasional failures during the Randolph era. There have been, among them the 2009 quarterfinal against Cretin-Derham Hall, the 2012 Lakeville South collapse, and the sorry limp toward the Forest Lake affair in 2020. But those were the exceptions to the rule.

The past three seasons have had an unusual level of chaos at Duluth East. Sure, complaints about Mike Randolph are not new, and universal approval is impossible. Through the middle of the past decade, though, the Duluth East program achieved relative peace. It was a welcome development, and one I lauded because it seemed like the kids and the coaches were just having a lot of fun. Not coincidentally, I was pleased with the on-ice result every single season from 2013 to 2018; even when the team fell short, I didn’t feel like they’d given anything less than they could have. That sense is gone now. In part this may just be a product of mediocrity, which no one is handling well, but the wheels started to wobble in 2019, when the team was quite good and I had few complaints about how they were playing at the end.

A lot can go into that shift, and I have no great interest in interrogating what changed at this time and in this format. (If you’re really interested, let’s grab a drink post-pandemic and chat.) I will observe only that Duluth East hockey has been at its best when it has combined great talent with coaching creativity and defined roles. The talent has been in relative short supply in recent years, no doubt, but that will happen from time to time, and hard work can still make up for talent gaps. The coaching creativity is a constant in this program, sometimes to the point of excess, but more often than not successful. What have been in short supply over the past few seasons have been the well-defined roles. And while I recognize that a coach needs to play around some to see what he has and that kids (and their parents) also need to be willing to accept roles, well, if these next few seasons are to be a Greyhound restoration, that stability is essential.

So I will watch these strange, East-less playoffs, and then look forward to a break after a season that took away too much of what I enjoy about this sport. (How delightfully transgressive that one night at the bar after one win felt.) Will the recent travails and empty feelings at the end be a sad interruption, just like we hope this pandemic is, or a sign that things won’t ever be as they were? We’ll be back here in November to start answering that question.

Return of the Hounds?

Little did we know that a miserable February trip Forest Lake would be the last Duluth East hockey game until January 2021, an ugly wound left to fester for two extra months. The intervening period had little to offer from a high school hockey perspective: stop-and-start summer activity, a halfhearted bridge league, another lengthy pause right when it seemed like we might be ready to go. Now we have hockey, albeit in near-empty arenas and with ubiquitous masks, leaving the game a shell of the spectacle it should be. But it is hockey nonetheless, and as one of the fortunate few able to attend games, I am resolved to make the most of it.

The delay only added the mystery around a team in year two of an unfamiliar rebuilding cycle. While last season had its question marks at the start, the Duluth East senior class of 2020 was, at least, reasonably deep, and we had some idea of what we would get. Before things came apart toward the end, they basically were what I’d expected: a team ranked in the 20-25 range in the state, capable of some surprise showings against the state’s best and ugly defeats, a potential thorn but no front-line contender. Most of the leading scorers off last season’s edition have graduated and moved on.

Those departures might imply the team is due for an even darker 2021, but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. For starters, the program is still plenty deep, and another respectable senior class has stepped forward to fill some of the holes. Players like Dylan and Brady Gray and William Weinkauf aren’t going to put up massive numbers, but they are going to forecheck hard and apply a work ethic that can get results; Garrett Johnson has size and a hard shot, and Matthew Locker has settled into a steady role. Zarley Ziemski is capable of being a very productive high school player.

The real reason for excitement, though, comes in the younger classes. Kaden Nelson, the headliner in the junior class, has taken a step forward and looks like he can be a force up front; he leads the team in scoring through six games. There were flashes of brilliance from Cole Christian as a freshman, but it didn’t add up to a whole ton of production; now, he is starting to collect the points, and at times the offense seems to run strictly through his creativity. Several times a game, Christian leaves me laughing with delight as he does ridiculous things with the puck in tight spaces, his puck control on par with that of anyone who has come out of this program in my time watching. Freshman Wyatt Peterson showed some instant potential with the first goal on the season; Aidan Spenningsby and Henry Murray give the team the makings of a capable defense, showing flashes and collecting points. The versatile Grant Winkler, meanwhile, has a hint of Phil Beaulieu in his ability to play just about any role, and as a sophomore is starting to make this team his own. Two young goaltenders, Zander Ziemski and Dane Callaway, both have shown plenty of promising signs.

How good the Hounds actually are, though, remains a bit of a mystery. They are 4-1-1 through six games, but only one came against a front-line opponent, and while there are glimmers, there has been nothing sustained enough for me to think this is a top 20 team in 2021. The Hounds tied the best Denfeld team in decades out of the gates in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair. Their sole loss to date came at the hands of Grand Rapids, the frontrunner in 7AA, in which they came out in a painfully cynical forecheck. For a period it almost worked; they stuck around and created some halfway decent chances, but it swiftly became inane once Rapids went up, and the ultimate 3-0 result belied an effort that generated nothing in the way of offense and triggered my Forest Lake PTSD. Beyond that, the Hounds have plugged along against middling competition, logging wins over Superior, Brainerd, and Cloquet twice. They’re good, workmanlike showings, and help restore some degree of the order that slipped away late last season.

With that base of success to work with, they will now need to step it up in the coming weeks as the schedule grows more difficult. First up is Hermantown, as a long-running cold war lifts, at least temporarily; from an East perspective, one could hardly think of a worse season to meet the Class A juggernaut from the suburban swamp behind the mall once again. It will likely be ugly. After that they visit Minnetonka, and after a reset against some of the local competition they’re stuck with in a travel-limited season, Moorhead, St. Thomas, Roseau, and rematches with Rapids and Hermantown fill out a decent enough schedule given the circumstances.

Another Covid-era quirk means the Hounds basically already know their playoff fate. With 7AA splitting into northern and southern playoff brackets, East is all but assured the 2-seed in the north, making for a fourth meeting with Cloquet in the quarterfinals for the right to have a semifinal date with Rapids. The destination is clear enough; the path they take there is the only question, as we look for signs of progression and competitiveness. To do that, the program needs to resist the chaos and get players into roles where they’re set up to succeed. With that, we can get a sense of just how much this Hounds group could grow, and if we might be looking ahead toward a return to the lofty standards of the past.