State Tourney Preview 2016

It’s finally time for Minnesota’s most important holiday: the boys’ state high school hockey tournament, which begins at 11:00 on Wednesday. Needless to say, there’s plenty of reason for excitement.

You can find me covering the Tourney in lots of places:

Twitter: @KarlEastHockey

Cold Omaha podcast preview with Danny Ryan, Tony Scott of Youth Hockey Hub, and myself:

Quarterfinal game capsules for MNHockeyProspects: Class A | Class AA

Predictions with State of Hockey News:

Longer updates, press conference commentary, and arguments with random anonymous people on the Forum:

Also, check out the Dave LaVaque’s Star Tribune story on Wednesday about the 20th anniversary of the Greatest Game Ever Played, the five-overtime affair between Duluth East and Apple Valley in 1996. I had a minor assist in its creation.

Finally, you can also find me (and a few other Forum members) at McGovern’s on Saturday afternoon after the Class A championship game. Come join the party if you’re around.

To whet your appetite, here are some of this tournament’s biggest storylines:

Who are these people, anyway? No Edina. No Duluth East. No Hill-Murray. No Moorhead or Roseau. You have to go back to 1954 to find the last Tourney without one of those five. Even Lakeville North, which has become a regular and seemed a safe pick to come out of 1AA, is nowhere to be found. This AA field is a mix of throwbacks and newbies, with Eden Prairie being the only real regular entrant in recent years. Grand Rapids, celebrating its 15th berth, is the most regular entrant, but this is only their third of the two-class era, meaning they’ve finally caught up with Rochester Century on that front. (Sorry, Thunderhawks, we wounded Hounds have to get our digs in here and there.) The Halloween Machine is back for the first time in nine years, as is 80s power Burnsville; Anoka, whose best years were in the late 90s and early 2000s, has also unexpectedly crashed the party. On the other end of the spectrum, Farmington makes its AA debut, while Stillwater is suddenly among the favorites in its second State trip.

Can Anyone Stop the Hawks? If the AA field is highly unpredictable, A is just the opposite: Hermantown is a clear favorite, and would seem to be on a collision course with Breck in the final. If ever there were a time for the Hawks to end their long run of second-place finishes, it’s this year—though, of course, I said that last year, too. Barring a Thief River Falls upset of Breck, Hermantown’s road to the title will also go through two private schools, which would really be a nice touch for our old friend Bruce Plante. Hermantown has come a long way in the past few years, going from a plucky upstart trying to hang with St. Thomas to the goliath of Class A

Casey Time This year’s whacky section playoffs drained the Tourney of some of the state’s top talents, but one will be there in primetime: Casey Mittelstadt of Eden Prairie, the top player in the state and arguably the best in his age group in the nation. His talented Eagle team hasn’t always jelled, so if they are to win a third AA title in eight years, it’s likely on the shoulders of the junior Gopher recruit. There’s some debate over whether Eden Prairie deserved the top seed, but in a Tourney with no Edina or private schools, they’re certainly the ones with the targets on their backs.

Debuts on the Big Stage The less predictable Tourney field means the state will get a chance to see many of the top players who might not get as much recognition on the regular circuit of top teams. Isaac Johnson of Anoka is one of the state’s top juniors, while Farmington defenseman Tyler Jette got a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination as something of a sleeper. Ethan Johnson is the heart and soul of Thief River Falls, and the Prowlers will have to ride him as far as they can. Even Stillwater’s stars, such as the Cates brothers and Jesse Bjugstad, should get a little more attention than they did while steamrolling through the weak Suburban East Conference.

Late-Night Intrigue The best two quarterfinals, as is often the case, look to be the late night battles between the 4 and 5 seeds. In Class A, it’s a clash between two private schools that look pretty similar on paper, with debutant St. Paul Academy squaring off against surging St. Cloud Cathedral. In AA, where the privates have been shut out of the field for the third time in six years, we have an all-North battle, as Bemidji and Grand Rapids collide. This one should be great, even if it deprives the North of two cracks at the crown, and sets up a potential classic between the winner and Eden Prairie on Friday night. (Is there anything better than North vs. Metro on a Friday night?) It’s an excellent clash in styles, as Bemidji’s depth and steady defense collides with Rapids’ star power.

Enjoy the Tournament, follow along, and I’ll do my best to share my thoughts as I make my way through this crazy, fantastic week. See you at the X!


Karl’s 2015 State Hockey Tournament Coverage

Happy State Tournament week! Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know for four days of nonstop hockey.

I’ve posted game capsules on each of the quarterfinals, complete with players to watch, to Here they are: Class A | Class AA

Brackets are available from the MSHSL here: Class A | Class AA

Throughout the Tournament, I’ll be tweeting from @KarlEastHockey, and will give longer updates on the Forum, including notes from most of the press conferences. Life has conspired so that I may miss a handful of games this Tourney for the first time in eight years, but I’ll try to give some forewarning if and when that happens. As usual, there will be some sort of reflection essay at the end.

To whet your appetite, here are five of the better storylines heading into this Tournament:

Chasing the Jags

Bloomington Jefferson won three straight titles from 1992-1994, and the 1993 champions went undefeated. No AA team has achieved either of those feats since, but there’s a very large possibility of one of them happening this season. Smart money is on Edina, despite being the two-seed, to win a third straight championship, while the one team to beat them this season, Lakeville North, enters the Tourney 28-0. This sets up the possibility of a mouth-watering final, a rematch of last season’s convincing Hornet win. If it’s those two on Saturday night, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.

Northern Hope?

Bemidji and Duluth East are this season’s two northern AA entrants, and they open up against two teams that are not exactly Tourney fan favorites—Edina and St. Thomas Academy, respectively. The arena will be behind them, but they both face very long odds; Edina is the cruelest first round opponent imaginable for Bemidji in their first visit to State since 1985, and East is the surprise team in the field—if East can ever really be a surprise—and will have its hands full with STA’s skilled forwards. Still, both are playing well right now, with Bemidji shutting out everyone in their path through 8AA and East showing sizeable improvement over the season and a knack for pulling out the close ones. We’ll see if either one can carry the 218 pride this season.

Is This Finally Hermantown’s Year?

Five straight second place finishes will strain anyone, and Hermantown coach Bruce Plante might just go ballistic if the Hawks fail to clinch the Class A crown this season. This is the best team they’ve had over this stretch, and there’s reason to suspect they could roll through the field in a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas Academy at its best. Still, there are plenty of possible roadblocks, from the East Grand Forks team that took them apart last season to surging Mahtomedi to one of those dreaded private schools, Breck. Still, this is a golden opportunity for the Hawks to put all those demons to rest.

Star Power

If you want to see many of the top talents in the state, this is a good year for you. The six Metro AA teams have 19 combined D-I committed players, with plenty more to come. Seven Mr. Hockey finalists will be on hand, along with a handful of others who could have easily made the cut. Edina and Lakeville North are about as deep with stars as it gets these days, while it’s no surprise to see Hill and St. Thomas putting out a bunch; the AA quarterfinal nightcap matches two of the best, Blaine behemoth Riley Tufte and Eden Prairie wunderkind Casey Mittelstadt. Mahtomedi junior Jack Becker and Breck junior Chase Ellingson should finally get some recognition this weekend, too. I could go on and on.

A Stacked Field

When Hill-Murray has a strong regular season and still gets stuck playing the top-ranked team in the state in the first round, you know we’re in for some good hockey. Six of the top seven teams, according to nearly every AA ranking, are in the Tournament, and the two northern teams have some intrigue around them as well. The top four in Class A are also there, and St. Cloud Apollo isn’t a pushover, either. It doesn’t get much better than that; the 2012 AA Tourney is about as close as it’s come. That year, in case you’ve forgotten, saw the four seeded teams all go down in the quarterfinals. That seems a longshot this season given the strength of Edina and Lakeville North, but the potential is there for an awful lot of good hockey.

I hope you’ll join me for part of the way, either virtually or in person at the Xcel Center. There will also be a Forum meet-up at McGoverns on Saturday afternoon after the conclusion of the Class A title game and any Bruce Plante press conferences. Enjoy the games.

Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches, Part II

As promised, here’s part two, including sections 6AA-8AA and all of the Class A coaches that I have something to say about. Part One is here.

Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Pauly, now entering his 24th season coaching, is a high school hockey institution. He first took the Benilde job at the time when many private schools were on the rise, and he took his opportunity and ran with it, building the school up from nothing and having the ambition to quickly make the jump to AA. He left Benilde for a brief tenure at Minnetonka, where he also lifted that program to one of its two State berths in the past 20 years and set up a foundation for future success. His return to Benilde brought continued steady improvement, as the Red Knights are now the west side’s preeminent private hockey school. His teams play up-tempo, exciting hockey that lets players flash their offensive skills, though sometimes this has obvious consequences on the other end of the ice, with halfhearted defense and goalies hung out to dry. He’s a driven man; no one works the refs harder, and as the head of the Coaches’ Association, he’s been one of the most vocal defenders of high school hockey against other development models. That fire gets him into some trouble, but he’s certainly been one of the most influential coaches of the past two decades.

Lee Smith, Eden Prairie Smith makes for an interesting contrast to Pauly; he’s not one to actively grab the spotlight, and he doesn’t really have a distinctive style. What he does do, however, is get more out of his top players than any other coach. From Leddy to Rau to Spinner and Snuggerud, his teams revolve around those big guns, and the supporting cast usually knows its role and makes for a cohesive unit. His teams don’t do many memorable things when they don’t have those front-end stars in their primes, but when they do, few deliver as consistently and reliably. More often than not, favored, senior-heavy teams struggle with the pressure. Smith’s don’t, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Brian Urick, Minnetonka Urick seems to have a good handle on how to build a deep, successful team; there is no over-emphasis in any one particular area, and he’s had a couple of truly great teams. Minnetonka, which had been up-and-down in the past, is now a regular in the title conversation. That has only manifested itself in one trip to State, and that in a year when they had an overwhelming array of talent, though 6AA is very unforgiving. He has been outcoached tactically on occasion in big games.

Pat O’Leary, Wayzata O’Leary is one of the shortest-tenured coaches on this list, but he’s already made a distinct mark with his heavy defensive emphasis. His Wayzata teams just don’t give up much, period. He appears to be personable and well-liked, and as a young guy, he could have a long career ahead of him. The unsurprising flip side to the defensive emphasis is a lack of offensive dynamism, despite some considerable talent coming through. We’ll see if that evolves as the years go on.

Noel Rahn, Holy Family Rahn has done a good job of attracting talent to the Fire, and his players attract attention by putting up some big numbers. The move to AA was an ambitious one that probably helped that process, though it has also made it difficult to break through against the deeper suburban teams. They’ve also had some trouble keeping some of the top players they’ve attracted around until graduation. It’s all a work in progress, so we’ll see where the Fire go in the coming years.

Mike Randolph, Duluth East I could, of course, write an entire book about Randolph, who built East up from relative mediocrity and has kept the Hounds near the top of the heap for a quarter century. He couples his intensity with a complete command of the details of the game, and as a result is a very hands-on coach, always tinkering and correcting and looking for some little edge. He has learned things and evolved over the years, though there are certain constants to his complex systems that keep East relevant even when front-end talent dips. Defense comes first, the special teams are always excellent, and his teams are physical without going overboard. His weaknesses are, basically, his strengths in excess: he can be hard on his players, and try to pull too many levers instead of just turning them loose. This can create the high-pressure environment that will rub some the wrong way, and a number of his teams have caved under that pressure. Still, it’s hard to argue with the supreme confidence and the consistency of the results.

Dave Esse, Cloquet Esse does well with a program that doesn’t always have an overwhelming array of talent, and usually gets his Lumberjacks to play a complete, defensive team game. No high school coach works the trap as well as he does, and he gets his teams up for big games against rivals. In the years when he actually has had front-end talent, though, it hasn’t always come together. His fieriness has also gotten him into a brief bit of trouble.

Gordie Roberts, Elk River Roberts has the difficult task of filling Tony Sarsland’s boots; even when he wasn’t successful, Sarsland was such a distinct and memorable character that he casts a long shadow. Roberts is much more even-keeled; he’s not one to do anything radical, and has had his teams playing fairly well down the stretch, only to see things end in heartbreak two straight years. We’ll see how he responds to that, and how he evolves as time goes on.

John Rothstein, Grand Rapids Rothstein pushed the pace a bit more than his predecessor, Bruce LaRoque, did in his long stint in Rapids; the result was serious over-exposure of a thin defense. It’s still early, though, and Rapids has enough upcoming talent to make some noise.

Mark Manney, Andover It’s been up-and-down for this program, but Manney has gotten some good runs out of middling talent when they all buy in and play good defense.

Andy Lundbohm, Roseau The size of the program means Lundbohm has some challenges that most AA coaches don’t. He expects his big players to carry the load and leans on them, which is probably necessary to compete with the deeper teams out there. There were some rocky moments in the past few years, but the team held its own with some much deeper teams at State in 2014.

Jon Ammerman, Moorhead Ammerman succeeded Dave Morinville this past season, and will have to replicate his defensive success to keep up the Spuds’ strong tradition in 8AA. It’s too early to say much here. Seemed to be well-regarded in his brief stint in Windom.

Dave Aus, Brainerd (formerly of Blaine) Blaine won State the year before Aus showed up, but they’d yet to really establish themselves as a consistent contender. Under his oversight, Blaine achieved that, and is now a top-ten team year in and year out. The playoff results often did not always match regular season success, especially in his last few years in Blaine, when things seemed to snowball some. The Brainerd job should prove a very different sort of challenge, but the program has some potential, and Aus’s lack of stylistic rigidity should be a plus there.

Roy Nystrom, Albert Lea Like Lorne Grosso, Nystrom is an institution in southern Minnesota hockey, and usually does a good job of keeping his teams relevant, despite a fairly thin talent pool. He’s one of those people that make high school hockey unique, plugging along in a southern Minnesota town and putting out an entertaining squad, year after year.

Derrick Brown, Luverne Brown is very raw, but he has the confidence of someone looking to build something serious in the state’s southwest corner. He’s one worth watching.

Les Larson, Breck Despite a successful tenure to date, I just don’t have much to say about Larson. He isn’t very distinct. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also a perk of running the premier Class A program in the southern half of the state.

Mark Loahr, Totino-Grace Has had a very long tenure with many wins and numerous State berths, though he hasn’t been nearly as aggressive in building his program as some of the other private school coaches.

Jeff Poeschl, Mahtomedi A long-tenured coach, Poeschl has helped build arguably the strongest Metro Class A public program, and could be a real beneficiary of St. Thomas’s move to AA. I don’t know his work well, but he appears to be well-regarded.

Tony Couture, Little Falls Jared Festler and Ben Hanowski will help one’s coaching career, but Couture has done a nice job with a small-town program, building it into relevance and making State in 2012 without any such stars.

Bruce Plante, Hermantown Plante is the ultimate player’s coach. Easygoing and easy to play for, he turns his players loose and gets the best out of them, making for great team cohesion and some genuinely fun hockey. He’s overseen the growth of his program into a state power, and has Hermantown in a very good place going forward, with resource advantages that no Class A public school can match. I will admit that I’ve never been terribly impressed with his tactical chops, and while his shtick is amusing, his private school rants probably became a distraction after a while. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is great when the environment is loose and upbeat, but may not help when trying to escape a frustrating string of 2nd-place finishes.

Brendan Flaherty, Duluth Marshall Flaherty built up Marshall from doormat status in the mid-90s, and his teams have been consistently relevant for the better part of a decade, with the best teams coming when they had a couple of legitimate stars to lean on. Beyond that, nothing much jumps out; he’s not especially creative, and will look to rely on his above average depth on hand to wear down thinner Class A opponents. He’s a sharp contrast to the other Duluth area coaches, most of whom are distinct characters.

Kevin Smalley, Duluth Denfeld Smalley is one of the few people on this list who’s never been to St. Paul in March, but he does well for himself, all things considered. He coaches a feisty team that, while not especially talented, gets itself up for big games against local competition, giving these teams fits with some regularity. His teams are a bit rough around the edges, and that shows when playoff time comes around, but if he keeps at it and shores up a small youth program, he’ll get there in time.

Tyler Palmiscno, East Grand Forks Palmiscno has done it by the book these past two seasons, relying on depth and great defense to win a state title. The wheels fell off against St. Thomas in 2013, but he obviously learned from that, and the confidence this past season was obvious. There’s enough talent left in the chute that he could go on a run and really make a name for himself, though some other strong 8A teams will have something to say about that.

Al Oliver, East Grand Forks assistant (formerly of Roseau) Despite not being an active head coach, Oliver is just too good of a character to be left off the list. He brings the intensity and fire, making up for his lack of a hockey background. He’s learned a few things over the years, too: while not a tactician by trade, EGF’s style bears a lot of resemblances to the great Roseau teams from 06-08, particularly in its defensive emphases. The man just screams “northern Minnesota hockey.”

Tim Bergland, Thief River Falls Bergland is not one I claim to know well, but I’m impressed just about every time I see his teams in action. His teams are scrappy and fight hard, consistently entering the Class A top ten, even though they’re not blessed with great riches. Whatever he’s doing up there, he’s doing something right. Also coached in Fergus Falls toward the tail end of their run of six straight tourney berths in the late 90s/early 00s.

Jay Hardwick, Warroad He has a couple of very talented players, but Hardwick’s Warriors were arguably the 2nd-best team in Class A last season despite not being able to match the depth of East Grand Forks. There’s something to be said for that, and he bears watching in the coming seasons.

Karl’s State Hockey Coverage

Greetings from Minneapolis, where I’m settled in with some old friends on the eve of the 2014 Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament.

For preview capsules of all eight quarterfinals, check out these posts of mine on Class A | Class AA

For the third straight year I’ll have a press pass to the Tourney, which means I can add some insights that the general public might not see. When I get to the Xcel Center tomorrow, I’ll set up a thread on the forum where I’ll post updates, with quotes from press conferences and random observations (some enlightening, some less so). For the 140-character versions of these things, plus observations on the number of free cookies I’m eating, check out my Twitter feed here.

 From a big picture perspective, here are six of the more compelling storylines this year:

Cinderella Stories In each class, there was a monumental upset of a private school power by an unheralded school in sections, as Orono took down Breck, and Stillwater edged past Hill-Murray. For their trouble, those two teams have drawn the top seed in each class. Orono will need another great performance by goalie Jonathan Flakne and hope for a few breaks against East Grand Forks’s smothering defense. Stillwater, on the other hand, took it to White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray for long stretches of their upset wins, and while a game against Edina in primetime is a tall order for a school making its first Tourney appearance, they’ll have a shot if they play the same way.

Publick Skoolz Rool For only the second time in the past 15 years, there are no private schools in AA. Class A, too, is down to only two privates this year, which ties the lowest total in the past ten Tourneys. Those two schools—St. Cloud Cathedral and Totino-Grace—meet in the first round, and they aren’t exactly traditional powerhouses, either. This leaves the heckling students in the upper deck with a bit of a dilemma, but Edina is always easy to tag as the villain, and it will be interesting to see if Hermantown starts wearing out their welcome in Class A.

Northern power in Class A? Northern teams are usually among the contenders in Class A, but with the dominance of St. Thomas and Breck over the past few years, none have won a title since Hermantown in 2007. The Hawks and East Grand Forks are odds-on favorites in Class A this year, meaning the trophy could be heading back up into the hinterland.

A Repeat in AA? AA hasn’t had a repeat champion since Bloomington Jefferson won three straight from 1992-1994, but Edina is the best-positioned team to do so in a while. The Hornets have everything you could ask for, and the downside to 3 top-5 teams going down in section playoff thrillers is a Tournament field with—on paper, at least—an easier path for the favorites who do make it through. For all their success, the Hornets have been an underdog in their three title runs during the two-class era, but have yet to close the deal in the years in which they’ve been favored.

The South Rises It was a good year for southern teams. In Lakeville North, 1AA has its first seeded team ever, and if the young Panthers can handle the bright lights, they have good odds of making the AA final. In Class A, New Prague grabbed the 3-seed and a fairly easy first round draw in Chisago Lakes, meaning a southern team has a good shot at a small-school semifinal for the first time since 2003. And then there’s undefeated Luverne, which has been saddled with Hermantown in the first round. Even if they get blown out, their season has been great for the traditionally hockey-poor southwest corner of the state, and should help boost interest in that area.

Gary Thorne I may be in the press box, but part of me envies those of you watching from home this year, as you’ll enjoy one of hockey’s greatest voices calling the action in the AA Tourney. Thorne’s play-by-play is synonymous with many of the greatest moments in hockey history over the past 25 years, and now he’ll set his voice to the memorable moments of the 2014 Tourney. Of course, he’ll be paired with the timeless Lou Nanne, now in his fiftieth year of providing Tournament commentary.

I hope you’ll join me for part of my week in the press box—though, of course, I’ll be abandoning my cushy perch and heading down to the stands for the 8:00 game on Thursday, when Duluth East takes on Eagan in its quarterfinal. It’s a great match-up between two very similar teams that play very tough hockey, and renews the classic north-versus-metro rivalry that helped build the Tourney. There’s something about that late-night game that lends itself to drama and intrigue—it’s gone to overtime the past two years—and it’s also a great time slot for the Twin Cities-based members of Greyhounds Nation, who should be free to join me in the stands for an impromptu reunion. No matter what the Hounds do, it’ll be a memorable four days, and it’ll be over all too soon. At that point I’ll be writing my annual reflection essay, and then it’ll be a long, hopefully warm, summer before we start the cycle again.

The Dynasty Lives

It was supposed to end last night. Five in a row was quite enough. The Elk River Elks had beaten the Duluth East Greyhounds during the regular season, and whatever the seeds said, everyone knew they’d had a slightly stronger season. The Elks were feted on Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, touted as a team returning to glory. When a star player left midseason, they pulled together. They weren’t remotely intimidated by the hostile environment in Amsoil Arena, keeping the mood light during pregame introductions and controlling the opening minutes of play. Star goalie MacLean Berglove was on top of his game; it took two rebounds for East to finally get a puck past him late in the second period, and the Elks had an immediate response just ten seconds later. It was a tight game at 2-1, but the Elks were in control. The clock ticked down on the Duluth East dynasty, and up in the stands, I was already writing a requiem in my head.

Not so fast.

East plugged away methodically for much of the third period, but despite a widening edge in shots, Berglove held firm. Then, with four minutes to go, a break: a penalty, the first one of the game. The refs had let the teams play, but Dylan Bouten’s takedown of East’s Alex Trapp was a bit too obvious to ignore. East’s lethal power play went to work, but the top unit, which included a wounded Jack Kolar, didn’t generate much. Out came the second unit, a line of three sophomores, including Alex Spencer, a converted defenseman whose primary purpose is to screen the opposing goaltender. Trapp very nearly found Spencer on a long breakaway pass, but the referees called it back. No matter, Hounds: back to work. With 2:08 on the clock, Spencer swatted a back-hander past Berglove to tie the game.

The clock ran out on regulation. Overtime. The Hounds smelled blood. Two minutes in, leading scorer Nick Altmann spotted daylight between Berglove’s pads, and fired his shot. I couldn’t see it from my angle, but I didn’t need to. It was bedlam at Amsoil. Sticks and gloves exploded in every direction, the student section toppled into a black-clad mass up along the glass, while Mike Randolph barreled out on to the ice to hug his student manager. The party went on through the awards ceremony and on into a frigid Duluth night, car horns echoing through the parking ramp and giddy kids hanging out of windows, jawing back and forth. The Hounds will head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year, and the fifteenth time in the past twenty-one.

The odds had rarely been longer. Yet somehow, this Hounds team that needed overtime to beat an awful Cambridge team in November found a way. Their coach, Altmann said, told them to “deny losing.” The finish was a carbon copy of their stunner over Grand Rapids in 2011, and not terribly far off from an even more excruciating upset of Cloquet in 2005. Randolph’s record in section finals speaks for itself: 15-1, those fifteen wins now tied for second-most in state history, behind only Edina legend Willard Ikola.

They did it with a team with only four seniors, and with only one returning player who had scored more than 15 points last season. Their offensive numbers were hardly dynamic, and the defense, while strong, had its occasional lapses. Goaltending was also a large question mark heading in, yet East got it done all the same.

To be sure, these Hounds were hardly the little sisters of the poor. They were in the top 15 all season long, and defenseman Phil Beaulieu is one of the state’s finest talents. His partner, Trapp, is also an elite high school defenseman, and the Hounds have their customary organizational depth, with no shortage of quality forwards. Yet once again, they are playing in March, while a host of quality teams will watch from the stands.

This East group found its share of improbable heroes, including Spencer and the scorer of the first goal, Bryton Lutzka. While talented, Lutzka prompted his share of head-shaking on my part over the course of the season; on Thursday night, he played his best game of the year. Before the third period, I joked with a friend on whether Beaulieu might just go out there and play the whole period. There was no need for that this season. Randolph had full confidence in his complete bench, and his bench bought what he’d been selling all season long. There are valid critiques that can be leveled at the storied coach, but a man doesn’t stay on the same job for twenty-five years without changing, and the current version of Mike Randolph seems to have struck the proper balance. His intensity is inspiring instead of overbearing, and his wry humor is peeking out more often; more than anything, he is having fun. And when a man can couple a life of hockey knowledge with a confident, fiery swagger, it’s no wonder when the results follow.

The Hounds will learn their opponent for Thursday’s quarterfinal on Saturday morning. For once, East will not be among the favorites; instead, they will head south with nothing to lose. It’s an unfamiliar position, but one in which East could thrive, so long as they stick to their game. While they have a couple of lopsided losses to top teams, they’ve also had a couple of very close games with them, and no one team stands head and shoulders above the rest in this field.

Elsewhere in the state, the playoffs have produced their share of thrillers. Eden Prairie beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s in double overtime to win the always difficult 6AA, while Roseau—whose population is smaller than the enrollment of Eden Prairie High—outlasted Moorhead in a back-and-forth barnburner. There was a fair amount of schadenfreude when St. Thomas Academy, the private school power that had overstayed its welcome in Class A, blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Eagan 4-2 in the 3AA title game. While not entirely unexpected, as the Cadets are a fairly young team, the loss meant at least one of my preseason predictions was right: AA playoffs really are an entirely different story. St. Thomas simply didn’t play deep and physical teams like Eagan in Class A, and beating that sort of team is going to require some adjustments from their default transition game and efforts to set up perfect shot. A few sections were less surprising, as emerging power Lakeville North rolled through 1AA, and an upset loss by Burnsville left Edina with smooth sailing to an eighth straight Tourney.

In Class A, the field may not necessarily be as strong as usual, but it is a unique one with a number of new faces. With St. Thomas in AA and Breck losing a stunner to Orono, only Hermantown remains among the class’s traditional powers. Top-ranked East Grand Forks barely scraped past an excellent Warroad team in double overtime, and another top-five team, Duluth Marshall, was stuck in the same section as Hermantown. That leaves the Hawks and East Grand Forks as odds-on favorites to meet in the final, but there is intrigue elsewhere. Undefeated Luverne rolled through 3A, and while they haven’t played anyone difficult all season long, they do have some talent, and have at least some chance of making some noise. Orono has already proven it can take down giants, and New Prague looks to be a dangerous, physical team as well. The Class A teams will kick off the action at 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, and after that, it’s four straight days of endless hockey. I’ll have an update on where to find my coverage of the Tourney in the coming days.

The Strange Case of Achiever Academy

Every hockey season, it seems like there is at least one huge event that momentarily overwhelms every other story, and turns my duties on the forum into a full-time job. Whether it’s as serious as a paralyzing injury or as laughable as a team’s self-pitying backup goalie scoring on his own net before skating off the ice and flipping off his coach, something happens every year that just makes us stop and ponder it all. This season’s catalyst is the girls’ hockey team at Achiever Academy, an inanely-named, Twin Cities-based private school.

Achiever Academy, for those of you not following along, is a new player on the state high school scene. In fact, it looks nothing like any other high school with a hockey program in the state. It is a sports training academy that is attached to an accredited online high school. It offers training in multiple sports, though its flagship operation is in hockey. It is now in its second season fielding a boys’ varsity hockey team in the Minnesota State High School League, and added a girls’ team this season.

If you are not caught up in the hockey world, this may seem preposterous to you. It might seem like a thin cover for overzealous parents who toss aside academics out of their obsession with a sport. Plenty of hockey people had similar reactions, or at least raised their eyebrows. Achiever’s decision to join the MSHSL in particular came under scrutiny; as a year-round training program, they were certainly tiptoeing around the rules that clearly establish school sports seasons. As a school that drew in players from out of state, it seemed a bit odd that they were matching up with small-town public and tiny private school hockey programs in Class A, where some schools struggle to even field a team. The schooling method was naturally the subject of some derision, and charges of recruiting followed as well.

I had misgivings, but I figured the school deserved a chance. I’m very skeptical of online education—I’m young enough that I’ve had online components to a number of my classes in school, and I could count the number of times I found it genuinely enriching or comparable to a classroom experience on an amputated hand—but I think it can be of great use to kids who struggle in normal classroom settings, and indeed I heard at least one good story about a kid who was getting his getting his academic life back in order thanks to Achiever. Still, rumors about the academic program persisted, and as the season went along, it became clear that academics were only the tip of the iceberg.

Things started going sour in January, when it came out that Achiever’s financial state was far less stable than it was letting on. Their plan to purchase a financially troubled Vadnais Heights arena fell through, and the school teetered on the brink. It was rescued at the last second by a parent with deep pockets, who bought out the original owners. Several of the school’s sites around the Metro area were shuttered as the school consolidated.

On the ice, Achiever’s teams had their ups and downs. The boys’ team has been passably good; they’re not among the favorites to win their section, but they’re not totally out of the picture either, despite having to weather the departure of a couple of their players for other hockey opportunities. The girls, on the other hand, beat a number of the top teams in the state, climbed up to #4 in the end-of-regular-season Let’s Play Hockey poll, and were odds-on favorites for a State Tournament berth. They cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and were set for a section final showdown with St. Paul United.

They never got to play in that game. At least six girls on the team, it turned out, were ineligible. They have forfeited their entire season.

The ensuing scandal has rocked the hockey world, with a fair amount of vindictive glee on the part of Achiever’s critics. Most of the blame lands on the Achiever administration, coaching staff, and the parents of the ineligible players: with such widespread ineligibility, it clear this was a concerted effort to flaunt the rules, not an honest mistake. It is sad for the Achiever girls who did follow the rules—some, it is rumored, were ready to walk off the team in protest ahead of the section final when they learned they’d been scammed, but before the forfeiture became  formal—but everyone else, the sentiment goes, got what was coming to them all season long.

The MSHSL is in a bit of a bind here. In most matters they expect schools to self-report issues, as they should: they are much closer to the situations, and most activities directors aren’t in the business of sabotaging its mission. It doesn’t have the resources to investigate every single player, and it might be intrusive to give it such power. But in this case, catching the culprits required an anonymous vigilante rummaging around for the girls’ residency statuses and combing through their social media accounts. And while there were rumors all season long, and I expect to learn more in the coming weeks, the timing is a bit suspect as well. One wonders if the investigation would have gone anywhere had Achiever been a mediocre team, instead of a state title contender. It’s a troubling situation, and with online education only growing, this issue will likely dog the MSHSL in the coming years. (It already happened in soccer two years ago, with the similar Prairie Seeds Academy.)

Achiever hasn’t exactly been humbled by the proceedings, either. This past week, they announced plans to pursue legal action against Minnesota Hockey, which bars the formation of U.S. Hockey-sanctioned Tier I youth teams so as to protect the state’s community-based model. This brings into the open the presumed mission of this organization from the day of their foundation: the creation of a special program focused on the truly elite players in the state, one that puts hockey above all else in life, and focuses on national and international competition for the select few. Any noble intentions the Achiever founders may ever have had are long gone, and they are left waging an ideological war against the Minnesota hockey model, using the dreams of children as their weapon. Fortunately for the model, they’re doing a rather awful job of it, though I doubt that will keep them from digging in their heels and fighting on and on.

This isn’t to say that the Minnesota model is without its flaws; most of us have our critiques, and there will always be a space for outside organizations to fill the gaps that Minnesota Hockey and its affiliates cannot. Those affiliates, however, are much better served if they try to form a cooperative relationship with Minnesota Hockey and the MSHSL, or at the very least coexist, as Bernie McBain’s Edina-based Minnesota Made program usually manages to do. (Usually.) Achiever, on the other hand, took it a bridge too far, and is learning why the torch-and-pitchfork method of revolution has never been much of a winner.

Hockey Parity Run Amok, Plus Gary Thorne!

There are only three weeks left in the Minnesota high school hockey season left, but for all of the games played so far, we are no closer to finding an obvious favorite.

A simple attempt to run through the frontrunners in each class is a mess. Among the big schools in Class AA, perennial favorites Hill-Murray and Edina are near the top of the rankings as always—ranked second and third, respectively—but both have shown more vulnerabilities than usual, and neither is a safe bet to come out of their section: Edina’s loss to Burnsville earlier this month was their first section loss in years, and Hill needed overtime to get past archrival White Bear Lake two weeks ago.

Instead, the new AA top-ranked team is a total surprise out of Lakeville North. The Panthers have are unbeaten in their last sixteen, and are the best team to come out of 1AA—normally the state’s doormat—since a one-loss 1997 Rochester Mayo team, if not ever. They are carried by a top line made up of the three Poehling brothers have no obvious shortcomings, and have a star-in-the-making freshman goalie, but they’re also a very young squad, and we have yet to see how they’ll respond to have a target on their backs.

There are plenty of serious threats beyond those top three teams. #4 Wayzata has allowed the fewest goals of any Class AA team, and are playing the dominant defense we have come to expect out of teams coached by Pat O’Leary. Fifth-ranked Burnsville is very much in the picture, as is an Elk River squad that must confront some sudden adversity after the defection of forward Andrew Zerban to the USHL. Blaine has looked as good as anyone when they’re on their game, but the consistency hasn’t quite been there; likewise, a young St. Thomas Academy squad showed off their superb top-end talent in a win over Hill this past week, but has been on the short end of a number of close games against top teams. Add in some decent Duluth East and Eden Prairie teams to round out the top ten, and the AA field is as wide open as possible. Even Section 8AA, which had appeared to be the weak link in the class, picked up a quality win when Roseau knocked off Holy Family 3-0 on Friday night.

Class A isn’t much different. This class has been owned by three teams in recent years—St. Thomas, Hermantown, and Breck—but with St. Thomas moving up to AA and relative down years from the other two, the field is wide open. Section 8A has as good a race as any going, along with a superb contrast in styles; East Grand Forks is the best defensive team in Class A, while Warroad relies on the firepower of one of the state’s most explosive lines. The Warriors slipped by another top five team, Duluth Marshall, on Friday night; while they were outshot in the game, their disciplined defense and timely scoring made all the difference.

Marshall may be the deepest team in Class A, but their road to State goes through Hermantown. The Hawks have dropped three games against quality AA teams, but they remain undefeated against Class A opposition, and they’re still scoring in bunches despite their relative youth. But Class A goes beyond those top few this year; New Prague and Mankato West are neck-and-neck in a race for Section 1A, and while they haven’t played any of the top teams, scores against common opponents suggest they’ll be able to compete. Breck recently lost to Totino-Grace, one of two 4A frontrunners along with Mahtomedi; and even 3A, normally a sure quarterfinal win for their opponent, has an intriguing team in undefeated Luverne. The Cardinals are untested against the state’s elite, but unlike most of the teams to come out of their section in recent memory, they do have a few legitimate top-end players, and will be worth a second look down the stretch.

The end result is relative parity. We don’t have any runaway favorites this season that will be remembered among the state’s all-time greats, but that isn’t any great loss: instead, we two wide-open fields where no one is safe. This should make for a thrilling run over the next few weeks.

Minnesota hockey fans were given a real treat on Sunday as well, when the news came out that longtime ESPN and ABC front man Gary Thorne will call play-by-play at this year’s AA Tourney. Thorne is widely regarded as one of the two elite hockey commentators of the past twenty years (along with the delightful Doc Emrick), and called some of the NHL’s greatest moments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since NBC took over rights to the NHL playoffs about a decade ago, Thorne’s hockey duties have been limited to the NCAA Frozen Four and a bunch of video games. (While living in DC, I also got to enjoy his regular calls of Baltimore Orioles games on the Maryland Area Sports Network; he is among the easiest commentators to listen to for any sport.) Thorne couples his famous calls with a warm, lighthearted personality that would seem a good fit for a high school tournament.

Thorne’s arrival is a coup for the Tourney. It’s had its share of memorable voices over the years, from icons like Howard Cosell to Minnesota favorite son Wally Shaver in the 1990s. The lead men in recent years have been capable, but none of them quite had the flair for the dramatic of the greatest commentators, nor could they match the gravitas of their color partner, the timeless Lou Nanne. The prospect of a Thorne-Nanne combination is almost enough to make me want to stay home and watch, though I’m sure that urge will go away when it’s time to head down to St. Paul. I’ll have to settle for a recording, and perhaps a few words in the press elevator. His presence is one of those many little things that add up to make the Tourney into the cultural keystone that it is.