With the Elite League around the corner and a bunch of summer scrimmages in the book, hockey doesn’t seem so far off. It’ll still be a little while before I start seriously digging into preseason ranking research, but there’s been enough idle speculation that I can offer a few thoughts at this point.
On paper, this looks like it’s a pretty easy year to distinguish the early frontrunners in Class AA, and they’re the two teams that met in last year’s title game. Edina and Lakeville North both return hosts of front-line talent at every position, with Edina getting the early nod due to their depth and momentum. Add in a pair of relatively easy sections, and they’re both primed for another March showdown. The Hornets stand on the brink of the state’s greatest run since Bloomington Jefferson in the early 90s, while relative upstart North will look to peak with its best squad ever.
Beyond those two, though, it gets muddled. As usual, 6AA contributes a bunch of top-ten contenders. Benilde-St. Margaret’s has a stockpile of quality players, but lacks the truly elite forwards of the past couple years; they will likely have to adapt their freewheeling playing style to succeed in 2015. Wayzata, on the flip side, needs to find a bit more scoring punch without abandoning the defensive solidity that has become the hallmark of Pat O’Leary’s regime. But they’re not the only two contenders there, and I could trail on through each of the Metro sections, but the point would all be the same: things are pretty open for the taking. The same could be said for 8AA in the state’s northwest, where Roseau suffers heavy graduation losses. The real question is how well these teams can compete with Edina and North.
In the far northwest, meanwhile, a preseason Mr. Hockey favorite has passed up an opportunity to play a full season in the USHL to stick around in high school. Warroad’s Jared Bethune has chosen to play a before-and-after in the USHL, an arrangement used periodically by some players who want the best of both worlds; last season, Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson and Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu took that route. With a top line featuring Bethune and Kobe Roth, Warroad will put up some huge numbers, and is right there in the running for a Class A crown. Northern communities certainly aren’t immune to the early departure, but at times there is something in some of these towns that keeps kids at home when others might leave. It’s a trend especially revealing in players like Bethune and his Warroad predecessor T.J. Oshie, who are not natives of the town, but fell for it anyway. For good or ill, things often run a bit deeper outside of the Metro area.
The allure of that depth may have played some role in the offseason’s most significant coaching shift, as Dave Aus left Blaine after 13 seasons and moved up to Brainerd. He took Blaine to six state Tourneys over that time, building on the base of the Bengals’ 2000 Tourney win the year before his arrival on the scene. The past few years had ended in playoff frustration, however, and Aus elected to head north for an entirely different type of challenge, as he looks to take a rebuilding Warrior squad and get them to State for the first time ever. This first season may be lumpy, but there’s some decent talent in the Brainerd youth ranks, and 8AA could be ripe for the taking before long. The Blaine job, meanwhile, falls to Chris Carroll, a longtime Bethel assistant who will try to get the Bengals back atop 5AA and end that section’s ugly Tourney drought over the past five years.
Farmington and Forest Lake will also welcome in new coaches this coming season, while East Ridge has brought in a big name in former Wild captain Wes Walz to build up their young program. Up on the east side of Duluth, however, there will be no change: Mike Randolph returns for a 26th season, despite having passed retirement age from his teaching duties. His forward corps got a boost with the addition of former Marshall Hilltopper Luke Dow, a small but shifty forward who put up huge numbers with the State runner-up East bantams two seasons ago. The mini-exodus from Duluth Marshall this summer cuts against the usual transfer trends in high school hockey, and the departures of Dow and Denfeld-bound Cam McClure sap some serious scoring from what would have been (and still well could be) the best Marshall team since their run of three straight Class A 2nd place finishes in the mid-00s. Whether it’s a disinterest in shelling out private school tuition when Hermantown blocks the road to State or something deeper, the Toppers have a rare opportunity to play the underdog card this winter.
Dow’s arrival at East, meanwhile, adds a new element to a crew of forwards that already returns most of its bigger contributors from last season. With the Altmann brothers Nick and Ash, Brian Bunten, and Ryan Peterson back in the fold, the Hounds should have two very productive lines; add a deep group of seniors with some experience and the usual infusion of a few quality bantams, Randolph has no lack of resources up front. East’s hopes at a seventh straight Tourney berth, however, likely hinge on the defense in front of goalie Gunnar Howg. Gone are the days of Nate Repensky, Meirs Moore, Phil Beaulieu, and Alex Trapp ruling games from the blue line and putting up huge points. This being Duluth East, there is depth and some talent here; they just need to sort it all out, and meld the parts into a cohesive hole.
For a second straight year, the team best-positioned to end the East run is Elk River. Jake Jaremko and Reggie Lutz lead the attack up front, while Matt Kiersted is the best defenseman in 7AA; their youth teams have been at least as good as East’s in recent years. Amsoil Arena has been a house of horrors for the Elks the past two seasons, though, and getting over the hump may take something extra. Grand Rapids, meanwhile, should have a thrilling top line, and their defense can only get better from where it was last season. If they can fill the gap in goal and generate some depth, they’ll be right up there with the big guns. Further down the charts, Cloquet looks to be rising back toward contention, and St. Michael-Albertville is also climbing into respectability. While Andover and Forest Lake may be on the downswing, they have the numbers to keep the middle tier of the section crowded.
Amid all this speculating about the future, I need to give a nod to the past: Glenn Rolle, the coach who first brought hockey glory to Duluth East High School, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93. Coach Rolle led the Hounds from 1953-1967, earning four State Tourney berths and a 1960 state title; you can find a more thorough accounting of his tenure in this post from last summer’s series on East hockey history. Like so many of the midcentury Minnesota greats, Rolle was an Iron Ranger, growing up in Eveleth in its hockey glory days. He served in the military, graduated from the University of Illinois, and taught in Hermantown before making his way down the hill to a new high school on East Fourth Street. His teams did not always have the overwhelming talent of their Iron Range rivals, but depth and discipline allowed them to compete, and East slowly began to churn out hockey talent, first to UMD, and then beyond. He also served as AD during his time at East, and continued to teach after his retirement from hockey. Just two years ago, he managed to trot out on to the ice at a ceremony honoring the 1960 team at the Heritage Center. He and Bob Fryberger are the twin founding fathers of Duluth East hockey, and without that base they built, nothing would quite be the same.
Speaking of things not being the same, my hockey coverage this winter is in for a change. I’ll be operating out of Minneapolis for the next two winters. Being a Duluthian to the core, I’ll miss my hometown, but there’s much to be said for a venture down into the midst of all the Metro madness, and Duluth East’s travel schedule ensures that I’ll still see plenty of the Hounds. I’m excited to wander through many of the Metro-area rinks, and it’ll be interesting to see how things look from down in the tropics. Time to start the countdown and ready myself for some Elite League scouting. It’ll be hockey season before we know it.