Tag Archives: duluth east

Snowbound Hounds

13 Feb

Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.

At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.

The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.

The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.

Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.

We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.

7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.

Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?

Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.

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One More Piece

13 Jan

As the Duluth East boys’ hockey team concludes an adventurous homestand, now seems an appropriate time for a midseason assessment. The team sits at 10-3-2 through 15 games, a showing that has them firmly in the top ten but hovering outside the very top tier of teams. Two of those losses are to the top two teams in the state, with a narrow loss to Andover in overtime and a much less narrow defeat at the hands of Minnetonka in early January. (The less said about the other loss, the better.) 1-1 ties with Eden Prairie and Blaine, on the other hand, seem to peg the Hounds accurately at this point in the season: right on par with a couple of teams that have the talent to go deep into March, but still in search of that missing ingredient to tip them over the top.

The rap on this squad so far has been its inconsistent offensive output. While they have occasional outbursts—seven goals against Stillwater, six against Grand Rapids, five against Lakeville North—they have a lot of plodding, low-scoring games. Midway through this past week’s Grand Rapids, when the Hounds were sitting at three goals in their past 80 minutes against weaker competition, speculation began to mount if their shot conversion rate could be historically bad. East has outshot every opponent this season save Minnetonka, but rarely do they put them away, and at times have to fight back from unexpected early deficits. This isn’t a wild surprise to anyone who’s watched Duluth East hockey over the years; excepting seasons when they have overwhelming offensive talent such as last season, the Randolph-Olson-Toninato teams at the start of the decade, and the dynastic mid-90s Dave Spehar teams, Greyhound hockey under Mike Randolph plays defense first. The team works its systems all season long, all with an eye to late February.

By mid-January, however, things should start to settle into form, and after half a season of endless tinkering, Randolph appears to have settled on several, if not all, of his lines. Ricky Lyle and Jonathan Jones are a heavy combination on the second line, which comes out against other teams’ top units, and with Logan Anderson centering things, they’ve got some offensive flair, too. Jacob Jeanette is becoming a force on the third line, and they’ve got some cards up their sleeve thanks to their depth, with Exhibit A being Zarley Ziemski, who came up to varsity to log a hat trick against Stillwater. The power play, while fairly pedestrian statistically so far, has started generating much better looks since Ryder Donovan moved to the circle, leaving Frederick Hunter Paine alone atop the umbrella.

On one front, the Hounds have improved: they are finally nearly healthy. There was a moment of collective fear in the Heritage Center when Paine went down clutching his side early in the Minnetonka game. After a two-game absence Paine returned to the lineup against Eden Prairie, and while he wasn’t quite throwing his weight around to the fullest extent, his presence was obvious. With all due respect to Ryder Donovan, Paine is unique on this team: he’s the only true offensive defenseman, and his physical play can change a game’s dynamics. He would have been very difficult to replace.

With Paine returning to health and Jayson Hagen also entering the lineup for the first time after a lengthy injury, East’s defense is finally rounding into form. Senior EJ Hietala has stepped up into a steady role, and sophomore Garrett Johnson has emerged as a reliable contributor with some offensive ability. Depth on defense was my biggest concern heading into the season, but if the Eden Prairie game is any indication, this team can feel fairly confident in its top six. None of them are going to light up the scoreboard the way Luke LaMaster did a season ago, but no one is asking them to do that; they just need to make smart decisions within the system and choose their moments to jump into the play.

Goaltending was another question mark heading into the season, and Randolph stuck with a three-man rotation through much of the season. Now, however, an injury to Lukan Hanson and raw statistics appear to have temporarily settled the matter: Brody Rabold has come out of nowhere to claim the starting job, and continues to put together strong performances. Randolph’s notoriously short leash come back out if Rabold ever hits a road bump, but for the time being, they appear to have a reliable goalie.

If the situation in back is indeed solidifying, this team’s fortunes down the stretch will rest on its offensive production. The elephant in the room here is Donovan, whose 22 points lead the team but still don’t seem quite commensurate with his many talents. His line, which lately has also featured Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker, needs to start carrying more of the scoring load for this team to make a deep run. The kid has a lot of pressure on him, but the skillset and effort are there; now, it’s just a matter of finding some chemistry and making smart choices as the stakes get ever higher. As good as Andover has been, and as dangerous as Cloquet can be, I think 7AA is East’s to lose if they can find this final piece of the puzzle.

And so the Hounds head into the home stretch. With the long homestand at an end, East meanders west this upcoming week into 8AA territory to face Brainerd and Moorhead. The rest of the season features a bunch of good-but-not-great metro squads that will be good tests of their ability to put away mid-level teams, plus two road rivalry contests against section opponents who are also in that tier in Cloquet and Elk River. The regular season will end with a bang, as they face another front-end opponent in Maple Grove. The tinkering period is coming to an end, and now this East team will have to rise or fall on the strength of the players it has.

Reload Mode Hounds

12 Dec

A few games into the high school hockey season the hype phase begins to fade and reality sets in: we begin to learn what teams actually have, and how far they might go. The preseason puzzle on the east side of Duluth tried to figure how the Greyhounds would reload in the absence of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, Ian Mageau, and a number of other members of a deep senior class. Fresh off a return to their perch atop 7AA, a victory over Edina in a memorable clash of goliaths, and the bitter taste of a state championship game loss to Minnetonka, northeast Minnesota’s hockey bluebloods are looking to fill those gaps and take care of some unfinished business.

The 2018-2019 Hounds are off to a solid, if not exactly flashy, start. This is in part to due to their opponents—White Bear Lake and Wayzata both look tough in the early going, to say nothing of a front-line Andover team—and in part due to Mike Randolph’s coaching system, which always looks for consistent control instead of gaudy scorelines, especially as the team tests combinations and works its systems in the early going. Since a near-disaster in the first three minutes of the season against White Bear they’ve been stout defensively, and stayed that way throughout a back-and-forth affair with now-second-ranked Andover, which ended in an overtime loss in front of a packed house at the Andover Community Center on Saturday.

Luke Kron’s game-winner was a key moment for the Huskies, who had never beaten East before in their history. Their goaltender, Ben Fritsinger, is the real deal, while the top line of Kron, Charlie Schoen, and Nick Dainty had its moments of dominance. They are a deep group on a mission for their first Tourney berth. But from an East perspective, the loss is hardly cause for concern. It was an overtime loss in December; their lineup is less settled than the highly experienced Huskies, and as the game built and the bench shortened, it was the Hounds who carried more of the play. If the top line can finish its chances and the defensemen can rein in floaters who sneak in behind them, they’ll be tough to beat. History tells us the Hounds will improve as the season goes along; will they stay true to form, and how does Andover counter?

Randolph’s typical tinkering will likely continue into January, but the early returns do little to seed any doubt that the Hounds are right back among the state’s best despite their graduation losses. Deep programs often do better than observers might expect after graduating a very successful senior class, in large part due to the quality of many players who were buried on the depth chart the season before. The early contributions of a junior like Charlie Erickson, who would’ve seen a regular shift on any lesser team a season ago, or of a senior such as the giant Jonathan Jones, are an immediate testament to that maxim. The Hounds are playing four lines with regularity, and cycling through a host of defensemen as they look for the group that will get ice time in February and perhaps beyond. With no shortage of options, they are right among the state’s top teams in a season where few to no AA teams look like the East, Edina, and Minnetonka super teams of a season ago.

Mike Randolph has played goaltender roulette and started three different tenders over the first four games. Back around the start of the decade, Randolph’s handling of his goalies was a subject of some criticism, and not without some justification. The goalies, often left on an island watching action at the other end of the ice for long stretches, were often called upon to make only a few saves on breakaways, and their performance in those moments—and mental makeup as they tried to withstand them—could lead to swift hooks and cratering confidence. In recent years, however, Randolph seems to have gotten the goalie game right.Seniors like Gunnar Howg, Kirk Meierhoff, and Parker Kleive weren’t guaranteed anything, but won their respective jobs in open competition and were the no-doubt starters down the stretch and through strong playoff runs. Whether the wheel finally stops on veteran Lukan Hanson, upstart Konrad Kausch, or the unheralded Brody Rabold, someone will need to seize the opportunity.

Aside from a goaltender, the players who will be most essential to East’s rise over the course of the season will be its remaining front-line stars. The team boasts a top-notch defensive pair of Carson Cochran and Frederick Hunter Paine, as tenacious a net-front presence as the state can offer in Ricky Lyle, and of course Ryder Donovan, who has a chance to join the pantheon of East all-time greats. Donovan is projected to go in the first three rounds of the NHL draft, which would be the highest position of any Hound who played his senior year at East since Rusty Fitzgerald in 1991. (A very achievable 50-point season would put him in the top five Hounds since we have statistics; a difficult but not impossible 75 would get him into third, behind the possibly untouchable pair of Chris Locker and Dave Spehar.) The bevy of quality players and the steadiness of the system will ensure that East continues to look like one of the deepest teams in the state. But to truly separate themselves, the Hounds need a huge season out of Donovan, and his breakaways and laps skated around opponents need to turn into points. Lyle and Brendan Baker will be his wingmen, and with Jack Fitzgerald’s expected return from injury against Cloquet, the lower lines should fall into place.

This team’s potential reminds me of past Hounds editions such as 2012-2013 or perhaps even 1997-1998: groups that had graduated more top-end talent the season before, but still had a couple of major stars, and still had the customary program depth to make a deep run into March. Solid team defense, quality special teams, and steady improvement can turn dreams into reality. If the top line scores the way it can, the second line, anchored by Logan Anderson, should be productive as well. A couple of inexperienced defensemen will need to take steps forward; after a few scary opening minutes against White Bear Lake, the early returns on the rebuilt blue line corps, particularly its top four, are encouraging. (Jayson Hagen waits in the wings as a reinforcement when healthy, too.)

Before March, however, is Cloquet: on Thursday, East renews its longtime rivalry with the Lumberjacks, and rarely has this never-predictable rivalry been more up in the air. Cloquet opened the season hyped as a third highly-ranked 7AA squad beside East and Andover, but the early returns have been an utter disappointment. The Jacks are 1-5, and while most of the losses have been fairly close games with good teams, they have not looked in sync in any facet of their game. East went winless in the teams’ two meetings a season ago, and this rivalry has a way of flattening any talent gaps and erasing any momentum. It will be an instructive game for how both teams handle a chaotic, playoff-like atmosphere, and could invite the emergence of some unsung heroes. As the tinkering continues, the real tests begin to mount, and we’ll learn more about where these Hounds truly stand.

Active Former Hounds, 2018

3 Sep

As I do every year, here’s a check-in on the post-high school hockey careers of all active former Greyhounds. The numbers all come from HockeyDB. Asterisks denote players who left East early.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* Fitzgerald’s lengthy career, which has included long stints in the WHL and AHL, a single NHL game, and the past four seasons in England, continued much as it had before. The now 33-year-old defenseman continues to amass the penalty minutes, though his 181 this past season was his lowest total in a decade. Maybe he’s mellowing with age.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* The former Gopher defenseman, another early departure who had a cup of coffee in the NHL, completed a second season with Rogle BK in Sweden. This coming season he’ll be making his way back to the Russian KHL, where he spent two seasons earlier this decade back when he first came over to Europe.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* Forbort’s second full season in the NHL was as very similar to his first, with the exact same point total (18) and comparable penalty minutes. Now 26, he’s established himself as an NHL regular top four defenseman, and made good on his much-hyped days as a Greyhound.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* Welinski made his NHL debut this season, appearing in ten games for the Anaheim Ducks (including three in the playoffs) and collecting two assists in the process. The former UMD Bulldog spent the remainder of his season with the San Diego Gulls in the AHL, where he was highly productive, with 10 goals and 24 assists in 51 games, making him their fifth leading scorer. He should continue to get his chances to stick in the big show this coming season.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato was the second former Greyhound to make his NHL debut this past season, as he appeared in 37 games for the Colorado Avalanche. He played a lower-line depth role and had just two assists, but became a fixture in the Avalanche lineup, and perhaps the production will follow now that he’s established himself somewhat. He also had 12 points in 35 games for the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) The ever-consistent Randolph rounded out his four-year career at Nebraska-Omaha with a 26-point season, equaling his production on a deeper team his freshman year, and finishing with 97 in his career. The former AP Player of the Year then signed on with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL, where he played in 11 games before the season wrapped up. We’ll see where his professional career goes from here.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Olson once again was a lower-line fixture for North Dakota in his senior season, collecting 12 points as he wrapped up his Fighting Hawk career. Like his former linemate Randolph, he made the jump to the ECHL upon the conclusion of his college career, and appeared in eight games for the South Carolina Stingrays.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore continues to be a semi-regular presence in the lineup at the D-I Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where the defenseman had four points in 19 games. One of the highest-scoring Hounds defensemen of all time now heads into his senior season at RPI.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano had a second steady season at UW-Stout, where he led the Blue Devils’ three-man Duluth East Class of 2013 contingent with 11 points and cut down drastically on his penalty minutes.

Jack Forbort (’13 F) Forbort also had a respectable sophomore campaign at Stout, where he had eight points in 25 games.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano matched his longtime teammate Forbort in production in his sophomore year, and also put together a healthy heap of minutes in the sin bin.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Davidson put together a strong sophomore campaign at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts. He collected 20 points, good for sixth on his team, as it amassed an 18-9-3 record. While he never put up big points as a Hound due to their depth during his time there and an untimely injury his senior season, his productivity beyond high school is no surprise to anyone who remembers his work rate on the ice.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) While Beaulieu had a strong freshman year at Northern Michigan, his sophomore effort was a true breakout campaign, as he led the nation in scoring among college defensemen. He scored 11 goals and added 31 assists for 42 total points. Add this career to the pile that was entirely predictable based on the way he controlled games during high school.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp’s sophomore year at St. Thomas saw more limited playing time, with nine total games and no points to his name.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann had a strong third season in the NAHL, collecting 27 points in 58 games with the Minnesota Wilderness in Cloquet. The 2015 Greyhound captain parlayed that success into a D-III opportunity at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) Nick Altmann’s younger brother also played for the Wilderness this past season, and put up six goals and six assists in 38 games.

Luke Dow (’16 F) Dow, another member of the Greyhounds’ Wilderness club, had the most productive season of any Greyhound currently playing junior hockey, as he finished third on the team with 42 points. Another strong season should lead to a college opportunity of some sort, so we’ll see where he winds up.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) After appearing for the Wilderness in four games, Donovan spent most of the season lending his steady defensive presence to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre of the NAHL, where he had eight points.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) Spencer divided his NAHL time between Shreveport and the Wilderness, where the defensive defenseman finished with 10 points across 54 games. He’ll join D-III Wisconsin-Superior this coming winter.

Reid Hill (’17 D) The only addition to the list this season from the Class of 2017, Hill spent his season in the NAHL, where he got in four games with the Wilderness (if you’re counting, that’s six ex-Greyhounds who played at least one game there last season), but spent most of his time with the Janesville Jets, and put up seven points.

That does it for the 2018 edition of this feature. We’ll check in again next summer.

Summer Hockey Notes 2018

28 Jul

Last weekend’s Summer Hockey Festival at Braemar Arena in Edina offered a brief dose of hockey for those of us in need of some midsummer action. Twenty teams battled it out over the course of three days, giving the world its first real looks at Janne Kivihalme-coached Lakeville South, a somewhat improved-looking Grand Rapids, and a bunch of kids in bantam or other teams’ breezers who have made their way to a new hockey home for 2018-2019. Watching these sorts of tournaments always comes with a grain of salt, as rosters are incomplete and coaches are sorting through what they have, but they’ve also proven to have some decent predictive power in the past.

Duluth East eased any worries of a drop-off following the graduation of the likes of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, and Ian Mageau with a strong second-place showing. Ryder Donovan looked every bit a Mr. Hockey frontrunner, and the top line of Donovan, Ricky Lyle, and Brendan Baker was tenacious and displayed strong chemistry. Upcoming bantams like Jacob Jeanette and Zarley Ziemski were noticeable in their Greyhound debuts, and the bevy of players looking to claim their spots in the pecking order beyond the top pair on defense largely held their own. The 2018-2019 Greyhounds will be big, tough, and in-your-face. While they still have some sorting to do on the back end an in goal, their forward depth and front-line talent will keep them near the top of the heap this coming season.

Still, the Hounds were not even the best team in their own section at Braemar over the course of the weekend. That title belongs to Andover, which rolled through to a championship. Last season, the Huskies’ top line pairing of Charlie Schoen and Nick Dainty grabbed headlines, and will likely lead the way in their senior seasons. But this time around, it was the rising juniors such as defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and the line of Hunter Zinda, Luke Kron, and Harrison VanderMey that turned my head. The Huskies’ depth will have them sitting pretty in preseason rankings, and with an early December meeting between the Huskies and Hounds, the 7AA dogfight will name its frontrunner early on.

The third power in 7AA, Cloquet, also had a solid showing in Edina. The Jacks, in my mind, are a step behind East and Andover in both star power and depth, but not so far in either that they don’t have a fighting chance at winning the section. There is also the small matter of their head coach following Kevin Smalley’s third arrest for driving while intoxicated and subsequent ouster. Just one year after an abrupt end to a long coaching career, Cloquet will endure another change at the top. There is a fair amount of politicking going on behind the scenes in all of this, and the outcome will have a lot to say about the future of Lumberjack hockey.

Elsewhere, there are rumblings of a power shift in the West Metro. Minnetonka, the defending state champs, will begin the season as #1, and have only reloaded. But beyond that, there are questions. Edina, down a couple of players to early defections, will try to put together a redeem team; while there’s still plenty in the tank for 2018-2019, the future beyond this season is as uncertain as it’s been in 15 years for the Hornets. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, after a two-year down cycle, is on the up and up, and Blake is looking to make waves and fill the void left by Breck’s decline in a certain private school niche. Eden Prairie has more Mittelstadts, Wayzata has the predictability of Pat O’Leary hockey, and Holy Family has had another successful offseason shopping spree. Cretin-Derham Hall, which is not in the West Metro but is stuck in a section with teams that are, will have its best team since Ryan McDonagh roamed the Raider blue line over a decade ago. After a period of relative public school power, the pendulum may be swinging back toward some of the privates in the Metro. The mix of rising contenders and the staying power of the old guard could give 2AA and 6AA as many as 10 teams in the top 25.

Usually, early defections to junior hockey to come from schools that don’t have great odds at a Tournament berth, or from teams that are so deep that they can stand to lose a player or two and still be front-line contenders. This season, however, the relatively low number of departures to date are instead sapping some teams that otherwise might have been home runs. Maple Grove, for example, could have been the next super team if not for three defections this offseason. While the Crimson may still be the frontrunner in 5AA, that squad is not what it could have been. Moorhead could have been a shoo-in in 8AA with Ethan Frisch; without him, 8AA starts to get murky. If Ben Helgeson bolts from Hill-Murray, the Pioneers will still be favored in a thin 4AA, but are more likely than not to continue a State Tournament losing streak that now sits at eight straight. The deep AA sections seem to get stronger while the thinner sections grow weaker.

While the wars brew in the West Metro, much of the rest of the Metro is more predictable. Andover has assumed frontrunner status on the north side, the east in need of someone to emerge to challenge Hill’s supremacy, and the Lakevilles are once again the default top two in 1AA. If I had to find a source of unexpected intrigue, I’d point to 3AA, where rising Rosemount may have enough pieces to win the thing, and Eagan should see its stock climb as well. St. Thomas Academy remains the frontrunner there, but is in need of a jolt to break out of its lengthening string of playoff upset losses.

Elite League rosters also came out this past week, and unsurprisingly, Minnetonka and Duluth East dominate the list for most players. The usual debates over the number of younger players taken have ensued, and there was also some justified angst over seeming competitive imbalance when the Team Southwest roster was revealed. What good does it do anyone to load up a Metro Elite League team like that? At any rate, we’re just over a month from the beginning of that action, which provides another teaser of what’s to come. Until then, we have a summer to enjoy.

On a closing note, this Tweet may be the most Northern Minnesota Hockey thing I have ever seen, and it is marvelous.

Greyhounds Reunited

15 Jul

After I finish this post, I’m going to put away the computer, grab a notebook, and start to write every memory I have from this past weekend. It’s something I’ve done on a handful of occasions before, a stream of consciousness for my eyes only, and a task undertaken only after events that left me with so many interactions I wanted to preserve that I couldn’t think of any other way to capture it all. The occasion of my Duluth East High School ten-year reunion was more than enough inspiration this time around.

A reunion for a public high school in northern Minnesota makes for a noticeable contrast with my Georgetown reunion last year, the last time I felt compelled to do this. The range of life experiences is much broader, the number of paths trodden more evident in what goes said and unsaid. This time there was no Ritz, no tents on lawns, no huge dose of patronage from another former class to those of us who were new to the reunion game. There was, however, an afternoon at a brewery, a range of after-parties, and some run-ins with the East Class of 1988 and the 2008 grads of the late, great Duluth Central, both of which had their reunions this weekend as well. Ten years allows for more changes than five, and while there’s been an increase in facial hair and piercings and some measure of maturity (sometimes), personalities haven’t moved all that much in a decade.

My Duluth East reunion was a healthy mix of people, old quirks and new insights all coming out, most carried by genuine desires to see one another, if only for a little while. Some came from across the country, some from down the street; some I hadn’t seen in ten years while others are regulars, and there really wasn’t much of a correlation between those two. It was a tidal wave of memories, all brought back. As an afternoon event turned into evening marathon, a few friends slipped off here and there, if only for a momentary escape, looking for their own little breath of freedom or reflection or chance to simply marvel in the perfection of a summer Duluth day. I pushed through until the inevitable end of the night at the Reef, and saved my own moment of solitude for a hike back to my own cathedral, that spot I’ve been escaping to since my days as Greyhound when I need it, on the following day. It’s not what it once was: a recent windstorm decimated its more frail pillars, and the trail, such as it is, now avoids the tall grass and loops around it. But that is no loss. It is only the way of things, as this hometown evolves and as the march of time makes short work of us all.

As I hiked, I stopped to marvel at how much a part of me my city has become, as the kid who spent his childhood memorizing the minutiae of world geography has become a staunch defender of tradition and local culture from the little pocket of a city where he grew up. Not a new thought, but still one that can strike me in its more defining moments. Culture can mean high culture, such as literature or the classical music many of us participated in, but it can also mean the shared rituals of sports teams or even the adventures into questionable activities that, in those formative years, take on an added edge that one starts to lose as one moves through one’s twenties. That culture is mine, and mine to defend and tend to going forward. I’ve become a Duluthian through and through.

While my perception of my Georgetown days has undergone some evolution since my graduation, my thoughts on my time at East are basically unchanged from a 2014 reflection on those four years. High school remains one of the more formative eras in my life, even as someone marked by other places and events, and it now seems only natural that I settle in here and look forward to raising some of my own little Greyhounds. Perhaps a curious evolution for someone with no shortage of ambition, but sometimes the most ambitious pushes we can make don’t follow conventional paths. Our stories, wherever they have taken us since, all have their roots here, and the initial participants in that drama, no matter where they may be now, are forever seared into the script. Take it away, Octavio Paz:

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, something untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall–that of our consciousness–between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question…

The vision of the adolescent as a solitary figure, closed up within himself and consumed by desire or timidity, almost always resolves into a crowd of young people dancing, singing or marching as a group, or into a young couple strolling under the arched green branches in a park. The adolescent opens himself up to the world: to love, action, friendship, sports, heroic adventures.

May these weekends help us to never lose that openness to the world. Time for me to write, and hold on to another dose of that ever-so-powerful nostalgia.

Tourney Reflection 2018

14 Mar

I’ve been to every AA Tourney game for ten years running, but this one drained me more than any of them. From emotional investment in my alma mater to the rigors of running commentary for Youth Hockey Hub to a simple desire to delight in every possible moment of Tournament finery, this one took its toll. It was worth every second. Even my knees are bruised from wedging into Xcel seats, the battle wounds of a Tourney well-lived.

2018 ended with a Lake Minnetonka boat party in both classes, as two first-timers ascended to their thrones. The Class A quarters did enough to tease us with upsets, though none delivered; the first day of AA saw three methodical wins from the top seeds and the start of a fourth before the Centennial Cougars roared to life, stunned St. Thomas Academy, and broke their section’s decade of despair in St. Paul. After that, it was all nervous tension, with intrigue in every single late-round game.

This Tourney came to its zenith on Semifinal Friday, always my favorite day of the Tourney: the quarterfinals always have something of a carnival atmosphere, with teams just happy to be there and hair on display, and the Championship Saturday has its own mystique that brings in the winner and the loser. Friday, however, is all business, where dreams are either dashed or passed along to primetime. Class A delivered the goods yet again in the afternoon, as Orono burst out to a 4-goal lead before Mahtomedi blew all the way back, only to see the Spartans finish them off in overtime. Next to me in the stands, Chase from Mahtomedi rode the waves of emotion down and up and then into a crash, but bounced back to chat up the Mora girls in front of us for the nightcap. Helping the rebound was the stunner in game two: down went Hermantown. For the first time this decade, the Hawks would miss the Class A final, their streak undone by a hard-hitting core of Cardinals from Alexandria. While the Cards’ parade to the box on Saturday kept them from being able to interrupt Orono’s steady push, they certainly sent the state their message.

The evening session began with a match-up that has become synonymous with the Tourney, the very phrase saying it all: Duluth East-Edina on a Friday Night. East answered the first Edina punch and refused to crumble as the Hornets piled on, and the giants of the north continued their great run against the state’s foremost hockey power. Scrappy Centennial again threatened to upend the Tourney in the second game, but Minnetonka kept churning away, and once they got one, it was no surprise when four more followed. Those Skippers kept the momentum rolling into Saturday. The stars came to play in this Tourney, with Bobby Brink slicing, Sammy Walker dicing, and Garrett Worth sniping. But for my money the difference-maker was the Minnetonka top defensive pair of Josh Luedtke and Grant Docter. They were the fulcrum for the Skippers’ seamless motion machine, their fluid breakouts doing just enough to break through the Duluth East barricades that had turned back the Hornets the night before.

A deep run by one’s alma mater only adds to the drama, and I did my part for the cause when I defended Duluth East pride with a bubble hockey win over some Minnetonka kids before the championship. We’ve been here before in my time as an East fan, but this one had the infectious spirit of a deep run where we loyal Hounds knew we had a very good chance. Out came the former players, the familiar faces among parents, and some alumni I hadn’t seen in years. I met some Red Wing guys with no direct tie to Duluth East who nonetheless proudly sported their Greyhound gear, and shared a couple drinks with the legendary Blackout Todd. I even had brushes with some Hounds in the student section like Tommy and Superfan Sam, who now get to learn how deeply the Hound hockey legacy can linger.

The Tourney mixes and matches us with people from beyond our own little tibes. I spent the Thursday night upset next to a diehard Cadet and directly in front of a box of Centennial moms, their reactions to events a perfect yin and yang. The next night, the box was home to some vicious Edina squirts, while in front of us, a dignified Hornet couple who appeared to have mistaken a hockey game for a night at the opera sniffed at our primal reactions to Greyhound goals. But even the Cake can join the fun: an Edina dad at McGoverns passed along a gift, and I consoled a Hornet alumnus friend who came down to visit for the second AA game on Friday. Toss in a couple of Tourney Virgin friends who fed our motley collection toward the back of Section 108 that night, and we had our own little party under way. “Why so sleepy?” we chanted at the Fairview Health ad when it appeared on the screen for the umpteenth time. Why? Because we’ve given it all in our nonstop hockey carnival, and it’s time for a good, long rest.

Not yet, though: the cast of characters goes on. There was The Lady, a posse of private school coaches at Grand Seven, and the St. Thomas parents. There were the familiar faces down the row playing the quarters game, and the press corps friends who sought out Danny and I in the lower bowl: Randy from Hibbing, Tim from Moorhead, and Zach from White Bear, the only one to bring us cookies. (Perhaps the Hockey Gods will smile upon the Bears in thanks for your kindness, Zach.) Some of the old hands stopped by, too: Dan from Plymouth,  the Bemidji guy who jokingly sought my autograph on his printout of my game previews, the Saturday session break with the Ryans, and Eric and Kara, who snuck away from their newborn for a little while to maintain a tradition. Finally, I owe a shoutout to my normal Thursday dinner date at the St. Paul Grille, whom I missed this year because he was too busy doing his part with a team on its way to a state title. I’m sure I’ve left off someone who should be on this list, and if you’re not here there’s always room for more.

I also spent more of this Tourney brushing shoulders with kids still in school than I ever have. “The Tourney is kind of our thing,” one of our Eveleth friends told us, as true a statement as there ever was. I made my annual Friday night circuit of the 200 Level, a sure way to make oneself feel like a fossil, and found myself googling cell phone games I’d never heard of. The Tourney is a jarring study in emotion that only teenagers can produce, from schoolboy raunchiness in the upper deck to some antics on the ice, from Joe Paradise’s selfie celly to Edina’s Jake Boltmann setting up Centennial goalie Travis Allen for a one-timer as they mucked around during a stoppage in third place game garbage time. And then, on the other side, sheer raw emotion: the remarkable poise amid tears of joy and pain for Joe Molenaar, Minnetonka’s winner of the Herb Brooks Award who lost his father all too soon.

That weight hit me again in the postgame reception area, where the Hounds players emerged from the locker room to meet their families and dedicated fans. I’ve seen kids’ season-ending tears dozens of times now, written of their moments of realization in Tourney Reflections past, but this was one where I needed to repeat certain phrases over and over again to get myself to believe them. Six years ago, I failed to find the right words for a distraught Jake Randolph in the bowels of the X; this year, I found some of that wisdom that hockey has taught me. It’s all over now, and spring is upon us yet again. But yet it isn’t over, and never does really end for those of us who lived it for four days in March. We are the heirs to something transcendent, and we must never forget it.