Tag Archives: cloquet

Exit Dave Esse

13 May

In a spring of job-related bombshells in Cloquet, the fate of a high school hockey coach may seem like a minor affair compared to a controversy embroiling that city’s police department or the closure of an 85-employee match and toothpick factory, the last of its kind in America. But hockey is no small thing in Cloquet, and sometimes a coach’s plight can have far broader messages about the state of amateur sports and beyond. The tenure of Dave Esse, the hockey coach who amassed a 282-176-28 record over 17 seasons as the head coach of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, has come to an abrupt and highly suspect end.

Esse was a true throwback coach who demanded excellence at every turn, and would say so when players did not give their all. He was a street fighter, and not just in a metaphorical sense: once, following an on-ice altercation between Duluth East and Cloquet, he challenged Mike Randolph to a fight in the parking lot. His teams were rigidly defensive-minded and tough warriors, no matter the talent level. It was Esse’s way or the highway. He was a schemer of the highest order; it is Esse, not Randolph, who deserves Elk River’s ire for some of the more questionable decisions to come out of 7AA seeding meetings over the years. And when he got a team to buy in, they matched their coach’s image, as pesky and sure of themselves as anyone out there.

Esse’s tenure was a tale of two halves. His early years were a glowing success: six section final trips in eight years, four playoff wins in six tries against archrival Duluth East (despite usually being the underdog), and two State Tournament trips. In neither of those Tourney years were his Jacks the most talented team in 7AA, but they found ways, both through Josh Johnson’s goaltending and David Brown’s goal-scoring binge. This was Cloquet’s longest run of sustained quality, and the Jacks pulled it out with a combination of star power and feisty, relentless effort.

The later years were less kind, but this had much more to do with a precipitous drop-off in talent than anything behind the bench. The Jacks still put up a serious fight over those nine seasons, pulling a memorable playoff upset over Grand Rapids and twice taking 1- or 2-seed Elk River to overtime. Lists of the best coaches in the state often align with their teams’ on-ice accomplishments, leading some to wonder whether the praises heaped upon a Curt Giles or a Lee Smith are really due to any brilliant coaching maneuvers or merely the good fortune of having many skilled players come through their system. If those critics ever wanted an example of someone whose talent level wasn’t always there, but routinely got teams to play as more than the sum of their collective parts, Esse was their man.

If there was a knock on Esse, it was that some of his most talented teams didn’t quite find a way to get it done. The mid-2000s teams, more talented than 2005 Duluth East and deeper than 2006 and 2007 Grand Rapids, really should have found a way to win another section title or two. And with a coach so completely committed to a team system, parents of star players didn’t always think their kids were getting their due. This all blew up during the 2012-2013 season, when Esse had his one post-2008 team that was a realistic contender for a section crown. This attempted firing, an amusing scenario in which politically powerful father of two talented players tried to accuse the good old boys’ network of denying his goalie step-son playing time, ultimately amounted to nothing. The team, however, seemed remarkably flat after that flare-up. Its aftereffects lingered, too: not only did the sons of the father in question leave for juniors after that year, but so did Karson Kuhlman, the best player on that squad.

The incident that drove Esse out this past week bears some obvious similarities. The instigator in this case was the greatest hockey player to ever come out of Cloquet, a 16-season NHLer who came home after retirement to raise his kids. Said hockey player and his family built something of a reputation for themselves in youth hockey, earning ejections from arenas for their antics. But when the player’s son made it to high school this season, Esse decided to bring his old man on board as an assistant coach.

I was immediately skeptical. Was there any way this would end well? Perhaps Esse, as canny an operator as there was in high school hockey, thought his best chance was to bring the father into the fold, rather than having him grumbling from the outside. From the press clippings, it seemed like it worked out last season, and everyone said the right things. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The facts as we know them now are thus: Esse dismissed his troublesome assistant last week, and while the details aren’t all out here yet, retribution was, clearly, swift. “With great sadness,” Esse stepped down on Friday morning. At this point, I don’t blame the man for moving on.

The timing of this saga throws Cloquet hockey into tumult. After a run of successful youth teams, it looked as if the Jacks were about to announce their arrival back on the state scene. Now, their future is unclear, especially since a couple of the rising talents are the offspring of the man responsible for Esse’s ouster. Their father, after all, was one of the first Minnesotans to leave high school early for other hockey opportunities. Will they follow suit?

There will be plenty of time to sort out that drama, and to see who will want this job opening, given both the potential and the toxic dynamics surrounding it. This is a time to reflect on 17 memorable years of hockey in a town that loves the sport, whether Cloquet was going toe-to-toe with Duluth East and Grand Rapids for 7AA titles or fighting to prove that it could hang with more talented opponents. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat the ending of his tenure, either: Dave Esse’s fate is a sorry statement on the state of high school sports, and yet another incident of political power trumping a track record of exemplary efforts. He created some enemies, as any strong-willed person will over such a long time period, but he also has a legion of loyal former players who appreciate what he instilled in them. He deserved far better.

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7AA Takes Shape

7 Feb

Duluth East had been rolling along in the second half of its season, with wins in eight of nine games heading into a section showdown in Elk River on Saturday. That run came to an end with a dull thud, as the Elks imposed their will in a 4-1 win. The victory gave the Elks the top seed in 7AA, and consigned the Hounds to a 2-seed and a likely road through Grand Rapids to make a ninth straight section final.

Saturday’s result probably says more about Elk River than anything, and revealed a team well-built to resist a team like East. They’re deep and break out smoothly, building from that great defense in back; the Hounds’ signature forecheck and puck control game never really got off the ground. The Elks were remarkably disciplined, which is a major testament to new coach Ben Gustafson, who appears to be a significant upgrade. This team could be a lippy and loose at times in recent seasons; a stupid major penalty cost them a three-goal lead in the section final just two seasons ago. And where last season’s team might have folded after a seeming goal was waved off and East immediately followed it up with a shorthanded goal, this Elks group had an immediate response. They didn’t take a single penalty the entire game, thereby avoiding an improving Hounds power play that can pile on the pressure, even if its overall numbers aren’t remarkable. Their stars came to play as well, with their D-I defensemen, Nick Perbix and Benton Maass, scoring the two early goals and a healthy Jax Murray controlling play for long stretches.

The biggest bright spot in defeat for East was Kirk Meierhoff, the goaltender who has come into his own as a senior; the line of Jack FitzGerald, Austin Jouppi, and Brendan Baker, a pleasant surprise all season, had a decent effort, too. Any other effort to take anything out of this one as a Hounds fan probably starts by noting that Elk River was at the peak of its game, while East was not. The Hounds’ top line in particular spent much of the game running around its own zone; a handful of shifts aside, many of their rushes forward degenerated into failed dangles through a dominant defensive corps. Those moves may work against Superior, but the team game wasn’t quite at the level it needed to be. If Elk River has a weakness, it’s probably in goal, yet they failed to put much rubber on a goaltender who only lasted ten minutes in the playoff meeting between these two last season. The Olympic ice sheet in Elk River is not friendly for a team that relies on setting up a forecheck and closing down space. The return of injured Logan Anderson could help shore up the forward depth as well. Despite being outplayed for long stretches on Saturday, it was still a very tight game until late in the 3rd, and the Elk faithful around me was leery of East popping a quick one on a breakaway.

The Hounds rebounded on Monday night with a 5-1 win over Cloquet, an effort similar to their 5-0 blanking of the Jacks back in December. This time they had no trouble keeping the forecheck rolling, and clean rushes for the boys in purple were few and far between. This Lumberjack team has done a good job of cleaning up on the second tier in 7AA, but is too young and too thin to hang with the likes of the Greyhounds at this point in time. If nothing else, it restored order for East, and reminded me why this is still one of the most enjoyable rivalries out there, even with one team in solid control. A large crowd packed in under the arched wooden ceiling in Cloquet, and the two student sections went at it relentlessly, showing both their love for their teams and creative disdain for the opposition. (Anytime the renditions of “The Wheels on Your House” come out, it’s probably an entertaining night.)

7AA seeding will be pleasantly free of drama this season. Elk River has been its most complete team since day one, and while East’s win over Grand Rapids flipped the 2 and 3 seeds, it doesn’t alter a whole lot in the big picture. Rapids, winners of six straight since its loss to East; they’ve played no one in the top 15 over that stretch, though they do have Moorhead this coming weekend. Duluth Marshall’s second season in AA, much like its first, has me raising an eyebrow at their performance down the stretch, as losses to Andover and Cloquet have likely consigned the Hilltoppers to a 6-seed. Andover has a lot of losses, but has also had its share of respectable showings against good teams, including a tie to Grand Rapids.

In the end, though, this is a three-team race for the title, as has been the case over the past several seasons. Elk River has set the standard and remains the most complete team in the field, but must exorcise its Amsoil Arena demons. Grand Rapids has its front-line skill, and will have to ride it to heroics in big games. That leaves the Greyhounds as something of the wild card, which seems weird to say in a season where their ranking has barely budged all season long. But when they’re on their game, they can roll a deep group and frustrate any opponent. Do that, and they have a shot; after that, they could use a step up from some of their top players on the highest stage. East’s top players have been there before, just two short years ago; can they find that level again? Over the next month, we’ll learn the answer.