Tag Archives: hockey

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.

Exit Bruce Plante

13 Apr

Farewell, dear Bruce: one of high school hockey’s most colorful and recognizable coaches has decided to head for the exits. He led the Hermantown Hawks for 28 years over two stints as head coach, went to 13 Class A State Tournaments, won three titles, and produced an NHLer of a son along the way. Bruce, 68, goes out on top, having claimed his second consecutive title just a month ago.

When I first started attending State Tournament press conferences in 2012, Bruce immediately stole the show. He was passionate, he was insightful, and he was downright hilarious, with some memorable quip coming out of his mouth with every other line. What more could you ask for out of a coach? He did it all with his heart on his sleeve, and it wasn’t hard to see why his players loved him and usually managed to stay loose in big games. His feisty teams that hung with St. Thomas Academy teams drowning in D-I talent channeled their coach full-stop, and the sight of Bruce chasing the referees all over the ice after St. Thomas topped the Hawks on a questionable series of class late in the 2013 title game will always be among my State Tournament favorites.

The News Tribune’s write-up tells some of the early details about Bruce that got lost in his later coaching success. It’s a superb redemption story, as a man coming out of a divorce and a drinking problem put it all together to become a community pillar, as recognizable a face as any in a town on the rise. His players were always approachable, respectful, and shared in more than a little of that infectious charm. Mike Randolph at Duluth East is probably the only other coach in the state who is deeply wrapped up both in the history and as the present-day face of his program as Plante was at Hermantown.

Bruce will go down as a program builder, a person who took a school that had been a hockey afterthought and turned it in to a power. It was a slow but steady process, as they first broke through with a second place run in the ‘98 Tourney, built their way into a Tourney regular, went through year after year of agony as runners-up, and then finally started claiming crowns at the end. He had some perks, to be sure: Hermantown runs right up against a busy commercial corridor in one of Minnesota’s larger cities, and (unlike that neighbor, Duluth) has ample tracts of undeveloped land for new single-family housing on large lots. As history has shown us, this is the exact formula for building a great program, and few have done it without such favorable conditions. (At about the time the announcement came, I happened to be driving around Hermantown for work purposes, and it was hard not to notice the amount of new home construction under way.) A variety of situations with neighboring school districts also helped the Hawks along. Still, it takes a committed leader to guide that process over many years, and Bruce was a steadying influence every step of the way.

Bruce won by inspiring confidence in his players and turning them loose. While he could at times be creative tactically, he never seemed to fancy himself a chess master, unlike some of his fellow longtime Duluth area coaches. Instead, he just lets his forwards fly and apply constant pressure. It’s fun hockey to play and watch, though perhaps worth noting that it is much easier to win with this style in Class A than in AA, and if there were a few playoff games that his Hawks probably should have won but didn’t, they came against big, tough defensive squads, as with the East Grand Forks team that knocked them off for a second straight year in 2015.

I can’t write this column without mentioning the controversy that plagued the Hawks in Bruce’s final years. After years of being the plucky upstart against Class A’s private powers, Hermantown suddenly became that power themselves. The Hawks’ advantages were obvious, and the program came to enjoy a combination of perks that no other Class A public school could claim. The 2017 Tourney, in which they frankly did not play anywhere near their potential throughout three games (two of them against vastly less skilled opponents) but still won it all anyway, seemed to underscore the tiredness of it all. While I’m not in the “Hermantown must move up!!!” camp—it’s their program to run as they see fit—I was a little disappointed that someone I’d come to like a lot seemed stuck in a rut of denial.

Hermantown will stay in A for at least two more years, though, and while they will still be a power, Bruce’s successor will start out with a slight down cycle in Hawk talent. This program has become big time, and the pressure will be on, both from inside and out of Hermantown. The position should attract some big names. For now, though, I suggest we take a moment to drop the class warfare and the pressure of the post and stop to honor Bruce, who was as rich a character as there was in high school hockey. Whether we know it or not, we’ll miss him.

State Tournament Reflection 2017

15 Mar

We’ve finished our annual four-day whirlwind through St. Paul, an exhausting marathon that goes by in the blink of an eye. From a neutral’s view, this 2017 Tourney rises above any in recent memory: this was hockey at its most thrilling, and rarely did it allow me to turn my eyes away from the ice. When I did, it was mostly to marvel: at the size of the crowd, the ushers in futile pursuit of beach balls, Section 207 coming together again. Even the warmups have become required viewing, the hair sometimes making me wonder if I’d stumbled into a fashion show with some hockey games on the side. But that was all still only a part of the Tourney experience: it was a weekend of countless connections, as I put faces to a lot of message board acquaintances and darted about the arena to film little spots and frequent a few favorite establishments around the X. Sleep is a scarce commodity this weekend, but why would I want to waste any of it?

The defining AA moment, as it so often does, came on Friday night. It was North against Metro, power against power, and the Halloween Machine went blow for blow with Mr. Hockey. Zach Stejskal stoned Eden Prairie time and again, a surprise hero emerged in Connor Stefan, and the lone goal off the stick of Casey Mittelstadt went into his own net. Mighty Casey, thrice denied the state championship that would have given him the highest station in Eagle lore, stumbled to the boards and slumped in tears. His agony was a sight I’ve now seen many times from some of the state’s greatest, but it never grows any less raw.

Sorry, Mr. Mittelstadt: this Tournament belonged to the North. Roll your eyes if you like, Metro friends, but we Northerners are stewards of a hockey legacy that dates back to its birth in this state, and when we bust through to claim the crown again, it renews the deepest of traditions. Victories for 218 keep a great rivalry alive, even as populations shift and the game changes. Greater Minnesota had its best Tournament in recent memory, its success showing that hockey is alive and well in all corners of the state, not just the few west Metro enclaves that have frequented Saturday night in recent years. That should be cause for pleasure, no matter one’s tribal loyalties.

Moorhead’s sniping Spuds had the easiest trek through the early rounds, though they succumbed to their usual title game fate. The future, however, is free from warts, and Tatertown will yet become Titletown, someday. Lakeville South repeated its 2012 feat and pulled a first-round upset, albeit on a less grander scale; they quietly put together a very tough Tourney, and the impeccably dressed A.J. Bucchino will likely guide his Cougars back to State before long. Eden Prairie, pushed hard in every single playoff game, found a way against Wayzata and rebounded with enough grace to pull out third place. The defending champs showed us how little records matter when a team buys in to a scheme, while 5AA carried on as 5AA.

The inevitable may have happened in Class A, but not without spectacular theater.  The small-school tournament stunned with its remarkable slate of quality games, not a snoozer in the bunch. None impressed more than the MAML Moose, whose day one upset and second-to-last-second stunner over Northfield made them this season’s darlings. Somehow they managed to top it all in the finale: a 2-0 lead over an unstoppable force that rocked Class A like it never has before, a pair of overtimes, and a charmed goal reversal. It wasn’t to be, their two lines’ legs reduced those of moose plodding through mud by the end, but the echo of that bass drum through the X will linger long. This was the Tournament that turned a lukewarm fan into a true believer in Class A, and one that showed that even a MAML or a Luverne can give a giant everything it can handle with enough strategy and pluck.

The paradox of the Tournament: it’s a tradition-rich homage to youth, and in the span of twelve hours on Friday, I felt both ends of the spectrum, both young and old. The ticket lady ignored my request for an adult ticket and gave me a student one, while an adventure to the 200 level made me feel like an obsolete dinosaur lost in a cloud of hormones. Enough people picked me out at bars or in the concourse that I felt like I must have been around forever, while sitting in the stands instead of the staid press box freed me to be a silly kid brandishing a potato and joining in the Moose chant in the Class A final. It was a delight to rejoin the fans who give this event its atmosphere, and to have a front-row seat to the elation in Grand Rapids, so infectious that even an East grad mustered a few Olés. Rapids was a roller coaster team; one that, since it last took the stage at the X a year ago, learned some important lessons off the ice and came together as a unit on it. Their top line will go down in the annals as one of the best, but a much-maligned defense rose to the occasion, and when Eden Prairie kept the Orange Trinity in check, the second-liners picked up the mantel.

Trent Klatt gave his Thunderhawks faith, and they knew what they had to do: as with the solemn Northern pact around the Tourney, one must carry the burden for the group when another falters. For all the top-end talent on the ice this year, the most memorable moments came from the scrappers, the Stefans, the muckers, the Moose. All those old clichés ring true, and even when I’ve said everything I think I can say about the joy of these games, it all comes pouring out again. The summer will be long and we all need our rest, but is there any question where we’ll be again next March?

State Tourney Preview 2017

6 Mar

It’s that time of year again: I’m set for a week of fun and games, with a road trip south to delight in 16 hockey games, the wonders of the 200 level, reunions with old friends, press box popcorn, and visits to Cossetta’s and McGovern’s and St. Paul Grill between sessions or for the after-party. (Friends of the Forum and the podcast: see you at McGovern’s after the Class A championship on Saturday.)

As usual, I’ll be tweeting here. (Mostly random insights and observations; there are 50 other people to tell you the score.) Enjoy a Tourney preview podcast here, and capsules on the quarterfinal matchups beneath this article. We’ll have some additional content on Youth Hockey Hub as the Tourney goes along, including podcasts after Thursday and when it’s all over on Sunday, and I’ll be along with my usual reflection essay, too.

Here are a few of the storylines carrying us into this Tournament:

Casey and the Eagle Legacy In 2009, Nick Leddy won a state championship and Mr. Hockey for Eden Prairie. In 2011, Kyle Rau repeated that feat. Now, Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps the greatest of the three, looks to take his place alongside those NHLers in high school hockey lore. The Eagles hit some bumps in the road early in the season, but Mittelstadt announced they’d be running the table after a winless Schwan Cup, and they haven’t lost since. Eden Prairie is on a roll, and are a more complete team than the star-dependent one that lost to Wayzata in last year’s final. Can they handle that pressure and deliver? Their first road block: that very Wayzata team that beat them a year ago, whom they’ve drawn in a first round game that should make for some great atmosphere.

New Kids on the Block There are three first-time Tourney entrants in Class A, which is pretty rare. Two of them, Monticello and Northfield, will face uphill battles in the first round, but the other, Delano, has some serious talent, and is probably the only thing standing between Hermantown and a second straight championship. Ben Meyers alone is worth the price of admission, and the Tigers have started to spread their scoring around, which they’ll need to keep pace with the Hawks. We’ll see if they can deliver on the biggest stage, and if their defense can hold up against a relentless Hawk assault. All three newbies play in the morning session on Wednesday, along with Mahtomedi; as all four are fairly large Class A schools somewhere on the edge of the Metro, the place should be packed and filled with new energy.

Suburban Fringe Speaking of those schools on the edge of the Metro, this year’s edition certainly throws light on the changing geography of the Tourney. (See this post from a few years back for more.) There are no first ring suburbs in the Tourney this year, and even the second ring—depending on how one defines it—has little to no representation, even after years of domination. There’s no Bloomington, Burnsville, or Anoka now; hockey success has moved outward, to Plymouth, Maple Grove, the south side of Lakeville, Delano, Northfield, et cetera. This doesn’t mean the more built-out burbs are doomed; old faces like Edina, Minnetonka, and White Bear Lake have good shots of returning in the coming years. But it does show the steady march of outward growth. The exceptions closer to the city are the private schools, where, curiously enough, we have more AA privates than Class A privates for the first time ever.

The North Remembers It’s been ten years now since the North last won a AA title, but northern fans have reason for excitement, as the North has produced two seeded teams on different sides of the bracket for the first time since seeding began. Grand Rapids has the feeling of a team of destiny after its dramatic run through 7AA, and their top line is one of the most impressive collections of talent this state has put out in a while. If they can get past Maple Grove and land a Friday night date with Eden Prairie, the X will rock even more than it did for their semifinal collision last season. Out west, Moorhead returns after a three-year absence, and has some thrilling front-end talent of its own, including a flashy all-junior top line and sophomore star in the making Ethan Frisch. They have a tough quarterfinal battle with Hill-Murray ahead of them, but are well-built to make an impression this March.

Protect this Net One thing that jumped out at me immediately regarding the AA field: everyone has a strong goalie. Jake Begley of Hill-Murray is the best-established star and the likely winner of the Frank Brimsek award for the state’s top senior goalie, but he has plenty of company. Thursday’s nightcap will feature two with great higher-level potential in Grand Rapids’ Zach Stejskal (assuming he gets the nod over the equally capable Gabe Holum) and Maple Grove freshman phenom Ethan Haider. Reid Waszczenko of Wayzata was the star of the Trojans’ run through sections, Isaiah DiLaura of Lakeville South holds down the Cougars’ stout back end, and Atticus Kelly of St. Thomas Academy has been the Cadets’ security blanket. Eden Prairie’s Nick Wiencek and Moorhead’s Lance Leonard are probably the least hyped of the group, but put up very solid numbers. The two serious Class A contenders are also in great shape; Cade McEwen doesn’t get tested much for Hermantown but delivers when he does, and Jackson Hjelle has come up big for a Delano team that has allowed a lot of shots on goal at times.

I hope you’ll follow along and join in the fun when you can. Quarterfinal capsules below:

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Class A

MONTICELLO VS. #2 DELANO

11:00 Wednesday

Two State Tournament debutants meet to get things going, as Monticello will look to withstand the Delano offense. Despite being only 20 miles apart, there is no recent history here.

Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (21-6-1, #14, 1-seed in 5A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 3-1 over 3-seed Chisago Lakes

-The Moose face a tall order in their first Tourney trip. It’s a two-pronged attack up front, with Ben Ward (5) and Nick Zwack (17) leading the offense. Troy Dahlheimer (18) is next on the points list and Casey Chiodo (9) is a strong goal-scorer, while Honza Stibingr (11) leads defensive corps. Tyler Klatt (33) will get the nod in goal. They gave St. Cloud Cathedral a pretty good game late in the regular season, so it’s not impossible to seem them hanging in there against Delano, but they have yet to face this caliber of offense this season.

Delano (24-3-1, #3, 1-seed in 2A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 2-0 over #2 Breck

-The Tigers arrive on the State scene with a fun team to watch. Maine-bound Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Meyers (27) paces the state’s most prolific offense this season—they average 6.5 goals a game—and Michigan Tech recruit Brian Halonen (26) and John Keranen (7) are his longtime sidekicks. They’ve started to spread the scoring around some lately, with John Ylitalo (12) scoring plenty and Garrett Pinoniemi (37), a St. Cloud State-committed freshman, starting to show his potential. Andrew Kruse (9) leads the way on the blue line; though depth and ability to break out from the back will the thing to watch here. Junior Jackson Hjelle (29) is in net. They gave Hermantown a one-goal game in December, albeit with a lopsided shot margin; if anyone has a chance here, it’s the Tigers.

NORTHFIELD VS. #3 MAHTOMEDI

1:00 Wednesday

As in the first game, this one features two larger Class A public schools somewhere toward the outskirts of the Metro; this one features a newbie against a young but talented regular that is a mild surprise. There is no recent history here.

Northfield (19-5-3, #13, 1-seed in 1A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 3-2 (2 OT) over 3-seed Red Wing

-The Raiders are unusually balanced for an unseeded Class A team, with 6 forwards over 20 points in the regular season. Jacob Halvorson (22) is the big goal-scorer, with Grant Sawyer (5), Jackson Cloud (11), and Nicholas Kvernmo (9) all having productive years. Griffin Loecher (8) and Jack Fox (3) are their top two defensemen, and Ryan Bielenberg (1) has been very solid in goal. They didn’t play many games outside of southern Minnesota, especially in the second half of the season, but a two-goal loss to St. Cloud Cathedral and a tie against Sartell suggest they’re capable of hanging in there against Mahtomedi.

Mahtomedi (15-11-1, #5, 2-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

Key section win: 3-1 over #4 St. Paul Academy

-The Zephyrs are back at State following a mild upset of St. Paul Academy in 4A. Luke Posner (2) is the clear star here, with more than double the points of any of his teammates, but they have fairly good depth beyond that. Their next four scorers include one player in each class, from senior to freshman: Matt Vannelli (15), Charlie Bartholomew (27), Dylan Lallier (28), and Colin Hagstrom (4). Sophomore Bailey Huber (32) won the goaltending job over the course of the season and has been hot down the stretch, including some of their big wins. This group doesn’t have the top-end skill of a Delano, but it is battle-tested, with a very tough schedule for a Class A team, and has some chance of making the semifinal interesting.

LUVERNE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

Luverne draws the short stick and gets saddled with Hermantown in the first round. These two met at State in Luverne’s 2014 visit, and while Hermantown won 6-3, it was closer than expected.

Luverne (22-5-1, #20, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2014)

Key section win: 5-1 over 2-seed Marshall

-The Cardinals are back in the Tourney after failing to make it with some top end talent the past two seasons. Junior Kasyn Kruse (14) is their star, and they have a bunch of respectable offensive options beyond him, including Nick Harder (9), Ben Serie (15), Jesse Reed (24), and Declan Beers (4). Kaden Erickson (1) has stabilized a goaltending position that was an issue for them in recent years. If St. Cloud Cathedral loses its semifinal, they could get themselves an interesting consolation round game against their former coach, Derrick Brown.

Hermantown (26-1-1, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 14 (8 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2007, 2016)

Key section win: 5-1 over #9 Greenway

-The Hawks have been as dominant as any team in the state this season, and enter the Tourney on a 26-game winning streak, and a 31-game streak against Class A competition dating to the 2015 championship game. This team has more front-end talent than any in Hermantown history, as Mankato recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist Ryan Sandelin (11) teams up with Jesse Jacques (8) on the top line, and Tyler Watkins (18) and Matt Valure (4) lead the second. Dylan Samberg (12), a UMD recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist, anchors the blue line, and has some quality company in Parker Simmons (13), Elliott Peterson (22), and Darian Gotz (14). Cade McEwen (35) is a Brimsek finalist in goal. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this team isn’t nearly as deep as last year’s state champs, though they are still deeper than anyone else in this field. Anything short of a championship will be stunning.

#5 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL VS. #4 EAST GRAND FORKS

8:00 Wednesday

Two Class A Tourney regulars collide for the right to face Hermantown in the semis. These teams tied 4-4 in a December meeting. East Grand Forks won their lone State matchup, a 2-1 game in a 2014 semifinal.

St. Cloud Cathedral (20-6-2, #6, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 7 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #8 Alexandria

-Two big-time forwards, Jake Van Halbeck (4) and Michael Spethmann (19), lead the Crusaders into battle. A couple of potent freshmen, Nate Warner (8) and Mack Motzko (18), provide some scoring depth, along with veteran Connor Beltz (11). Jeron Hirschfeld (10) is the standout in a fairly balanced group of defensemen. Jake Levinski (1) will start in net. They’ve played everyone but Luverne in the field and have the Cardinals’ former coach, so there won’t be any secrets here, though if they win this first round game, their Hermantown meeting wound up an ugly 7-1.

East Grand Forks (17-8-2, #7, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

State championships: 2 (2014, 2015)

Key section win: 5-1 over 3-seed Warroad

-The 8A champion hasn’t lost a first round Tourney game since 2006, but will face their largest test in a while this season. This East Grand group doesn’t have the firepower of their back-to-back state champions, though there are some kids on this team who have done it. Two lines handle most of their scoring, with productivity from Nick Lund (14), Hunter Olson (8), Coby Strauss (21), and Bauer Brown (9). Defenseman Casey Kallock (18) might be their top player, and they’ll bring the usual Green Wave grinding style. Tucker Brown (30) is the goaltender. If they get through Cathedral they do have a strong track record against Hermantown, albeit with far more talented teams.

Class AA

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #2 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

11:00 Thursday

Two teams from the south metro meet to start off the AA Tournament.

Lakeville South (18-8-1, #18, 2-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 3 (first since 2012)

Key section win: 3-1 over #8 Lakeville North

-It all builds from the back for the Cougars, who are back in the Tourney for the first time since their 2012 first-round stunner over Duluth East. Sam Malinski (21) and Wisconsin recruit Josh Ess (10), both defensemen, are two of their top three scorers, while Bradley Golant (3) and Cory Checco (19) lead the forward corps. They have a strong goaltender in Isaiah DiLaura (35). This isn’t a high-scoring team, but with respectable depth and their strength in back, they can control the pace of games. They’re probably getting the least hype of anyone in this tournament, but as long as they can sneak a few in, they could be a quiet upset threat.

St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1, #6, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 2 in AA (first since 2015); 8 in Class A

State championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Key section wins: 7-0 over 6-seed Bloomington Jefferson

-The well-balanced Cadets make their second AA State appearance. Senior Willie Reim (23) leads the team in scoring, but much of their forward talent is younger, including the Christy brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11), plus Payton Matsui (14). Two-way defenseman Robbie Stucker (2) will make an impression in the offensive zone, and they have good depth around him, too. They have strong goaltending in Atticus Kelly (30). The pieces are all there; the question with the Cadets, as is often the case, is whether they can hang in there against a physical opponent that doesn’t make any glaring mistakes.

HILL-MURRAY VS. #3 MOORHEAD

1:00 Thursday

Two State Tournament regulars meet in a quarterfinal with great potential. Moorhead won a February meeting between these two 4-3 in OT. Hill leads the State series 2-1, the most recent meeting being their 2-1 OT win in the 2012 semis.

Hill-Murray (19-5-4, #12, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 27 (first since 2015)

State championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 6-3 over #4 Stillwater

-This certainly isn’t the most talented Hill squad ever, but they play coach Bill Lechner’s signature tight defensive style. They do have a few flashy forwards, including Wisconsin recruit Ben Helgeson (14), the diminutive Brock Bremer (20), and Kyler Yeo (9), the son of the former Wild coach. Emmet Nath (27) has also had a productive year. The defense lacks a real standout, though Joey Petronack (12) was the most productive of the bunch, and they all know what to do within the system. Backing it all up is Jake Begley (1), arguably the top AA goaltender this season. This all makes the Pioneers a nasty draw, and if they can score enough, they’re a threat to go a long way.

Moorhead (22-3-3, #9, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 15 (first since 2013)

Key section win: 6-0 over #25 Roseau

-The Spuds are back at State after a three-year absence, and upsets have cleared their way to a top-3 seed. The offensive production is not especially deep, but Carter Randklev (6), Cole O’Connell (11), and Jack Stetz (21), make up a very dangerous top line. Sophomore North Dakota recruit Ethan Frisch (5) is one of the silkiest defensemen on display, and with Carson Kosobud (2), Parker Larson (22), and Carter Howell (13), the Spuds can lock down in back, as evidenced by three straight shutouts in the 8AA playoffs. Lance Leonard (30) had a strong season in net. They’ve been on a roll, and are undefeated in their last 18 games; if this young group can handle the bright lights, they have the pieces to play on Saturday night.

WAYZATA VS. #1 EDEN PRAIRIE

6:00 Thursday

Two longtime Lake Conference rivals collide in a juicy first round rematch of last year’s title game. Eden Prairie won the regular season meetings 8-2 and 4-2, and this series is dead even at 5-5 in its last 10 installations.

Wayzata (10-17-1, #21, 3-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

State championships: 1 (2016)

Key section win: 3-1 over #2 Edina

-The Trojans are one of the wackiest stories this season, as the defending state champs floundered to a 7-win regular season before rattling off three straight playoff wins, including an upset of Edina. They don’t have the forward depth of last season, but they do know how to play within Pat O’Leary’s signature defensive system, and Griffin Ness (22) and Colin Schmidt (3) can put the puck in the net. Andrew Urban (2) and Tyler Stevens (19) also had productive years. Grant Anderson (21), a Nebraska-Omaha recruit, is their star on defense, where Jack Carlson (20) also plays a leading role. Reid Waszczenko (1), despite a 1-win regular season, is a good goaltender who was the star of their run through sections. Stringing together enough wins to repeat will be a tall order, but it’s not too crazy to imagine them winning a game or two here.

Eden Prairie (21-4-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 10 (4 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 2-1 over #15 Prior Lake, 4-3 over #5 Holy Family

-The Eagles enter this tournament on a mission, with 15 straight wins since Casey Mittestadt announced they’d run the table. Of course it all starts with Mittelstadt (11), the certain Mr. Hockey winner and a generational talent, but there are plenty of others worth watching in the stable. Sophomore Gopher recruit Jack Jenson (18) joins Mittelstadt on the top line, while steady Nolan Sullivan (12) and agitator Hunter Johannes (27) carry the load on the second. Notre Dame recruit Nick Leivermann (4) is prolific from the blue line, and the rest of the defense knows its role and doesn’t try to do too much. For all the top-end talent, this team’s season came together when they started rolling three deep lines and grinding other teams down; they feel much more like a team than last season’s runners-up. Speedy Spencer Olson (5) anchors the third line, and Nick Wiencek (30) will be in goal. Discipline remains the mild concern.

#5 GRAND RAPIDS VS. #4 MAPLE GROVE

8:00 Thursday

The quarterfinals will close with a North vs. Metro battle, as potent Grand Rapids squares off against unheralded Maple Grove. There is no recent history between these two teams.

Grand Rapids (20-7-1, #11, 4-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 16 (2 in a row)

State championships: 3 (1975, 1976, 1980)

Key section wins: 5-3 over #3 Elk River, 3-2 (2 OT) over #13 Duluth East

-The Thunderhawks had their ups and downs this season, but burst to life with a flair for the dramatic in the 7AA playoffs, and have the talent to make a deep run. The top line of St. Cloud-bound Micah Miller (20), North Dakota-bound Gavin Hain (8), and Blake McLaughlin (7) is as good as it gets in high school hockey. They don’t have a ton of depth beyond that, but the lower lines have been doing just enough. John Stampohar (24) is their rock on defense, and Michael Heitkamp (2) has also come on to help shore up the back end. Zach Stejskal (35) has been strong in goal, though they have last year’s playoff starter in Gabe Holum (30) waiting in the wings, too. This team did beat Eden Prairie in December, and even though there are shortcomings, someone needs to prove they can stop this top line.

Maple Grove (22-6, #10, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2012)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #7 Centennial, 3-0 over #24 Blaine

-The Crimson enter the Tourney without much fanfare, but were strong from start to finish and have some interesting talent. Sam Huff (19) is their big offensive threat, and he’s supported by a cast that includes Justin Kelley (9) and Jarrett Cammarata (16). They have some emerging sophomores in Trevor Kukkonen (4) and Tyler Kostelecky (5), and Jack Kelly (6) leads the D. Freshman Ethan Haider (33) is a star in the making in goal. If he can play well and the top line can take advantage of its opportunities, they can make their first trip to the semis. They’ll have to overcome 5AA’s ugly recent record at State, as the section has just one win this decade.

Semifinal Saturday

24 Feb

When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, Semifinal Saturday at the DECC was the premier hockey day of the year, far better than anything at the State Tournament. The yearly collision between Grand Rapids, Cloquet, Duluth East, and some random metro interloper made for thrilling hockey every time, and even though East often wound up on the wrong end of things in those years, I could tell that I was a part of hockey at its pinnacle. The DECC, then a sterile home rink for the Hounds during the regular season, came to life. 4,000-plus fans would pack the place, and the Cloquet and Rapids fans would ally in support of whichever of the two was playing East. The student sections lined up across the long sides of the ice, maximizing opportunities for chanting horrible things back and forth at one another. The atmosphere was electric.

Perhaps most importantly, the hockey delivered. The East-Cloquet rivalry rose to its most vicious peak, as Dave Esse’s arrival in Cloquet brought about the Jacks’ longest run of sustained success. They ended East’s long winning streak over the Jacks in 2001, and handed Mike Randolph his first section final loss in 2002. East avenged that loss in a double-OT 2005 thriller, setting the stage for two memorable Cloquet wins in the Reid Ellingson-Ben Leis goaltending duel in 2006 and David Brown’s four-goal soul-crusher in 2008. It was a remarkable run of seven playoff games in nine years, all but one of them thrillingly tight, with Cloquet holding a 4-3 edge. Games beyond that rivalry delivered too, though, with East’s surprising run in 2003, and injured Tyler Johnson’s sudden appearance to boost Cloquet past Elk River in the final minute in 2007. Grand Rapids fans, of course, will forever treasure Patrick White’s overtime game-winner over the Hounds in that 07 session.

Lately, Semifinal Saturday hasn’t quite been what it once was. The trouble probably began around 2009, when Cloquet fell off a cliff talent-wise, and left the semis with two metro teams every year from 2009 to 2012. Over that same stretch, East also had a surge in talent that allowed the Hounds to dominate the section; their only close playoff games during that run were a 2009 semi with Forest Lake in which the Rangers’ goalie made 54 saves, and the 2011 section final in which they stole away a late victory from Grand Rapids.

Something else changed in 2011, though: Amsoil Arena replaced the dear, dumpy old DECC. At first blush it seemed like a win, as 7AA added a state of the art modern facility with more seating and a video board. In practice, though, Amsoil has diminished the 7AA playoff experience unless it features a section final between two northern teams. Amsoil has a remarkable ability to look empty even when attendance is pretty good, a fact attributable to those loud, ugly yellow seats with poor sightlines in front of the glass. Student sections wound up at opposite ends of the ice, nearly inaudible to one another. On Semifinal Saturday, Amsoil too often becomes a home to placid family outings, with a group of kids, dwarfed by the large UMD student section bleachers, yelling inaudibly in a corner.

There have been flashes since. There were three northern teams again in 2013, which helped boost attendance; that year gave us a genuine thriller between Elk River and Grand Rapids, and a renewal of the old East-Cloquet rivalry, albeit a pretty flat one. 2014 and 2015 featured some quality East-Rapids matchups, one of which delivered, albeit with snoozers in the other semi.

There is some hope that Semifinal Saturday could return to its former glory in the near future. First off, we have an East-Cloquet game this year. For the first time in a while, Cloquet looks like it’s on an upsurge of young talent; whether or not they can hang with East this season, there’s some hope they’ll bring new life to what has become a fairly predictable three-horse race. 7AA needs that East-Cloquet playoff rivalry to rise above the rest. Grand Rapids and Elk River, meanwhile, are two of the most skilled teams in the state, and will crash in the first semifinal of the day. Grand Rapids may be due for a drop-off in the not so distant future, but Hermantown yet come through to help carry the mantel of northern AA hockey, and even a young Marshall group could climb its way into the picture. With apologies to our southern 7AA friends, who mutually agree that this arrangement isn’t great, these games are so much better when they involve northern teams. It’s nothing personal against the South; merely our Northern pride as the region that built hockey in this state, and a solemn commitment to carrying that tradition forward.

A couple of years ago, Section 7A shook things up by moving its semifinals from the Range to an evening session at Amsoil. Now, instead of heading home to rotate through radio feeds of five other metro-area semifinals, I get to go cover those. One of those games will involve Hermantown, so I’ll have a chance to get a nap in, but seeing the Range descend on Duluth is a welcome sight, and the nightcap, between Greenway and Hibbing this season, is as good as it gets. (I’m especially looking forward to that one after my coverage of their December meeting humbled me with the reception it got on the Range.) Here’s to another Semifinal Saturday, and one that will, hopefully, leave us with a few games to remember.

The Broken Section Seeding Process

18 Feb

At the end of the regular season in high school hockey, a factor that has little to do with on-ice results weighs on teams’ fates. This week, the coaches in each section meet in smoke-filled rooms to set the seeding for their respective section tournaments. (In most cases, this is now done electronically; in 7AA they literally do meet in a smoke-filled room at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley, a tradition sadly interrupted this season, when Duluth Marshall had the nerve to schedule a game for itself on the sacred Wednesday night.) The coaches cast preliminary seeding votes, view the results, debate and make cases for themselves if they think the first vote hasn’t been fair, and then vote a final time to decide who gets which seed. To avoid sabotage, coaches do not rank their own teams, and the highest and lowest vote for each team is thrown out. Even so, the process is messy, controversial, and is responsible for an average of 37 aneurysms per year among users on the USHSHO Forums.

The leading controversy this season, as it so often does, comes out of 7AA, where Cloquet leapfrogged Grand Rapids to claim the 3-seed. The storyline in 7AA all season long was that one of its three big contenders (Elk River, Duluth East, Grand Rapids) would claim the top seed, and thereby avoid having to play two games against top-flight competition to make the State Tournament. Cloquet, however, threw a wrench in things. I was at the Rapids-Cloquet game this past Tuesday, and it was as stunning a high school game as I’ve seen in a while, as the Lumberjacks jumped all over Rapids and forechecked them to death in a convincing 4-1 win. It was a coming-out party for a young Cloquet team, and an exclamation point on a sudden, ugly late-season turn that has an incredibly talented Grand Rapids team struggling to find answers.

Grand Rapids, interestingly enough, doesn’t lose much of anything with this arrangement: there’s not much distinction between being the 3-seed or the 4-seed in 7AA this season. With losses to Elk River and Duluth East, they knew they were going to have to go through the Hounds and Elks regardless. The order is just different there, and they play Andover instead of Duluth Marshall in the first round, which I’m not convinced is a drawback, either. Likewise, even if Cloquet beats Marshall a third time, they’ve earned themselves a date with Duluth East, who’s beaten them 5-0 and 5-1, respectively, this season. For Rapids and Cloquet, the actual difference is minimal.

Backers of top-seeded Elk River, on the other hand, are crying foul. Their squad’s reward for the top seed could well involve a semifinal meeting with a team that spent a fair amount of time in the top 5 in the state this season, and they’re understandably leery that the Rapids sleeping giant will awake at the wrong time. (Mixed in here, one suspects, is a fair amount of frustration over the location of the 7AA semis and final, an entirely separate issue that has also not treated Elk River well.) No one out there honestly thinks Cloquet had a better season than Rapids, but two of the factors that have long swung section seeding meetings—record in the section, and performance in the second of two meetings between teams—tipped the scales. The logic the coaches used shouldn’t have surprised anyone who’s paid attention to section seeding over the years, though that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things.

Over in 8AA there was controversy as well, but the reasons were entirely different. Bemidji had stumbled through the first half of their schedule, with four losses to section foes, before turning it on down the stretch. The Lumberjacks beat St. Michael-Albertville, who had been the presumptive 2-seed, in their only meeting, and also avenged an earlier loss to Roseau. In a section that was a total seeding mess, one might have thought that Bemidji’s late-season run and avoidance of truly bad results would boost them up to the 3-seed, perhaps even the 2-seed; that would certainly be true if we applied the logic the 7AA coaches seemed to use. Instead, the Lumberjacks were consigned to the 5-seed. That result that does have its own internal logic, as they lost twice to 4-seed Brainerd, but seems awfully harsh for a team that is playing well right now, is 3-3 against the teams immediately above it, and that most observers would agree is one of the two or three most talented in the section.

The coaches’ vote is a meat-making process that will, inevitably, lead to butthurt. I’m not terribly sympathetic to those who are upset, a position I will maintain even if my alma mater someday seems to draw the short stick in one of these controversies. (The fact that this hasn’t happened in recent memory has led to some laughable efforts to endow Mike Randolph with magical powers of ballot box stuffing or persuasion.) Teams just need to find ways to win, period. But I recognize it does affect things, and I can think of two ways that could remove some of the intrigue:

Use an algorithm to do the seeds. Plenty of people have designed algorithms that can spit out dispassionate rankings of high school teams. The Minnesota State High School league has even offered up one, QRF, as a valid criterion for making seeding decisions. I enjoy looking at computerized rankings, but this one is probably the worst of the bunch, to the point where I look at other algorithm-based rankings in creating my subjective ones, but completely ignore this one. (I’m sure an effort to look at its past ability to predict playoff results would back this up.) And while I’d love it if the MSHSL were to contract out Lee Pagenkopf’s PageStat or MyHockeyRankings (or *my* hockey rankings), these aren’t really realistic options at this point in time. (Though seriously, MSHSL, you know where to find me if you want me.) Given the finicky nature of some of these algorithms, and the different and ultimately subjective weights they can give toward things like strength of schedule or margin of victory while ignoring raw head-to-head results, I lean away from this option, and instead toward another:

Mandate that all teams within a section play each other once in a game that contributes to section standings. Right now, schedules are built around conferences, which are, for the most part, useless relics left for us by football, which doesn’t even use a conference system anymore. This is dumb on many levels, and leaves us with some ugly controversies when teams don’t play all of their section opponents, or play them a different number of times. Silly flaps between programs like Eden Prairie and Holy Family, which refuse to play for political reasons, lead to a lot of guesswork, use of competing forms of logic, and grievances. There is no quality control in scheduling, and the seeding process inevitably suffers.

Under this model, teams would play a sort of league schedule where they play their section opponents once. Home venues would rotate by year. Teams could schedule additional meetings with their section rivals, if they so choose; it only makes sense in the case of longstanding rivalries, and especially for the Greater Minnesota teams that face long travel times. Those additional meetings, however, simply wouldn’t count toward section standings. Section standings could then rely on a consistent point system just like a college conference, with tiebreakers such as head-to-head record or goal differential on hand to break any ties. (The goal differential one would need to have limits, though; top teams running up scores on the bottom of the section shouldn’t determine seeds.) We’d have a simple, clear order at the end, and a playoff structure to resolve any disputes.

I don’t expect change anytime soon, but sooner or later, the clamor for transparency should become too loud to ignore. With the complete death of conference relevance, hockey has a chance to adopt an added dose of sanity. So, much as I enjoy munching on my popcorn as 7AA undergoes its annual explosion, I’ll gladly forego that for the sake of a system that makes more sense.

Save Youth Hockey at the Lower Chester Rinks

3 Feb

Every now and then, my work life and my hockey life collide. This is one of those times, as I learned this afternoon that there is at least some threat that the Congdon youth hockey program will lose the use of the Lower Chester rinks. This is a call to arms to defend Congdon youth hockey at Lower Chester.

The well-written Change.org petition makes a solid case, so I won’t re-hash the whole history or re-open my gripes about how the Red Plan blew up a neighborhood institution and one of the best-used public outdoor rinks in the city. (Oops, I just did.) But, out of that wreckage, some good came: the Lower Chester rinks, which had stopped fielding youth teams some time ago, found new life as the home for Congdon hockey. Lower Chester is perhaps the most storied youth rink in a town littered with hockey history. The Williams family, pioneers of American hockey, have their roots here; Mike Randolph and many in his great generation came from Lower Chester, too. Congdon hockey has seen its numbers grow, not shrink, since it moved to Lower Chester, so this isn’t an issue of declining numbers or lack of demand.

I won’t pretend to know much about the Neighbors of Lower Chester Park, the volunteer group that oversees the park that hosts the rinks. However, some of its members seem to think the rinks inhibit the park’s year-round usefulness. (In summer, it currently hosts a skate park that seems to do decent business, though  there seem to be grander plans of a playground or something in what little I can glean from the group’s meeting minutes.) Joel Sipress, the city councilor who represents the area, also alludes to some past tension between the hockey and the Neighbors in his response to the petition. If so, that’s unfortunate, and there are some bridges to mend. But it would be far more unfortunate if the Neighbors took out some spat with hockey association members on the dozens of kids who need a place to play.

Removing the rinks from Lower Chester would toss aside piece of history, and damage the truly unique outdoor neighborhood youth hockey model draws praise from non-Duluthian hockey people in all corners of the state. It would force out an association that has already gotten a raw deal from decision-makers, and force it to choose among such unsavory options as sharing an already busy rink like Glen Avon or Portman, raising the capital and finding the land to build new rinks somewhere, or disbanding altogether. As the city learned on a greater scale with the Red Plan, schemes that disrupt neighborhood hubs and ship kids off to wherever seems convenient wind up being disruptive, and are at odds  with any plan to build cohesive communities with kids at the center of their vision for the future. Tossing out a successful youth organization would make people like me who are looking to settle in this general area question whether the neighborhood actually wants young people who expect to have kids here. And while the Congdon youth program certainly draws from Duluth’s wealthiest pockets, its boundaries extend all the way into downtown; Lower Chester is basically the only rink remaining anywhere near the center of the city. If city leaders value any sense of equity in access to a key piece of Duluth’s cultural legacy, this rink is important.

There has to be a way to find common ground here. And if you need someone to bridge the planning and hockey worlds, I’m happy to help…