If you had told me ten or even five years ago that I might be relatively pleased with a 1-4 start out of a Duluth East boys’ hockey team, I would have run away in terror. I also would have dreaded to know what happened in the interim, and my darkest guesses would probably resemble something like what East has gone through these past three years. It has been a long, unpleasant tunnel, but suddenly, despite losses, the team looks like it could do some good things. “Duluth East hockey is fun again!” I exclaimed out of the blue midway through a competitive showing against Wayzata this past Saturday.
I don’t want to oversell this start. 1-4 is still 1-4. White Bear Lake and St. Thomas Academy, and even Wayzata, are all plenty beatable, and a top fifteen team probably would have pulled out one of those. The Hounds have lost to an offensively challenged Grand Rapids team, a seventh straight defeat against a section rival they once owned, and will likely have to solve that tight Thunderhawk defense and goaltending to go anywhere in 7AA. And that, of course, is before the get to the elephant in the section, an increasingly dynastic Andover program that returns its top line from a state championship a season ago.
And yet there is promise. The Hounds play at a lively pace with good tempo, and have proven they can skate with three teams that are in the top ten or at least around it. The top line of Cole Christian, Thomas Gunderson, and Noah Teng has shown some quality flashes against good teams, and if it builds its chemistry, it could round into one of the better units in the state. Wyatt Peterson and his sophomore sidekicks, Ian Christian and Caden Cole, could give them some scoring depth, which has been in short supply in recent years. A grinding third line, if it sticks to its game, could play a vital role. A defense with four three-year-plus players—Grant Winkler, Henry Murray, Grady Downs, and Aidan Spenningsby—is a real strength. Newcomer Kole Kronstedt looks smooth in goal, safely filling what looked to be a void. The schedule has a bunch of winnable games coming up that could let them find some confidence, along with a few state powers sprinkled in as measuring sticks.
This team has no glaring flaws, and the ones that do exist seem fixable. Discipline, their bete noire a season ago, still simmers beneath the surface as a challenge that requires management, exemplified both in the occasional parade to the box and just in the occasional ill-advised pinch out of a defense that otherwise looks relatively good. The offense must also find ways to turn shots into goals, to break down rigid defenses and finish the golden opportunities that do appear before them. Cleaning up those two challenges will leave the Hounds competitive on any given night.
Sometimes not having glaring flaws, however, makes it hard to find the pick out the opportunities that could move a team from the realm of the merely good to the great. The talent is not on Andover levels, nor does the depth match the West Metro powerhouses. Perhaps the senior stars, like Cole Christian and Grant Winkler, can put this team on their backs; perhaps breakthroughs by some of the younger talent can move them toward a reliably dangerous offense. Perhaps the veteran defensemen can lock down in front of strong goaltending to create a real fortress around the net. Perhaps the special teams, brutal a season ago and modestly better through five games but still with plenty of room for growth, can become the source of strength they have so often been in Duluth East history. Some combination of these things will need to fall into place to put together a strong season; to have a shot at Andover, they will need all of them, and maybe more.
Beyond any individual performances or newly discovered discipline, though, I sense that this team needs to learn how to win. Duluth East playoff success is a childhood memory for this group: only Grant Winkler, as an injured eighth grader, has been on an East team that won a section quarterfinal. These players have never beaten Andover or Grand Rapids, or even Forest Lake, in high school. Without being in the locker room, I don’t know if that self-confidence can come from cranking up the stakes and pushing the team to the brink, as was the method under the old regime, or if they can drain away all the pressure that comes with high-stakes high school hockey and just go out there, be loose, and have fun. The answer may vary for different players, or in different moments. But unlocking that formula will be the key for second year coach Steve Pitoscia and a program looking to regain its stature after a few years in the wilderness.
There are enough pieces, enough opportunities, for this team to stop winning moral victories and turn them into actual victories. It all starts this Tuesday in Forest Lake, the place where the last East dynasty ended, and where perhaps some sort of return to high school hockey contention can begin.