Tag Archives: hockey

2017-2018 Preseason Notebook

19 Nov

After 255 high school hockey-free days, the puck drops on the 2017-2018 regular season the day before Thanksgiving. The fun starts early, as the opening weekend includes two excellent tournaments featuring some of the state’s finest, and just about everyone else will be under way over the next two weeks, too. I’ll devote a full post next week to a Duluth East season preview, but here’s a heap of things I’ll be looking at right off the bat this season.

You can find additional coverage from me here: Preseason AA Rankings | Preseason Podcast

Early Season Storylines

Can anyone catch the Hornets and Hawks?

Edina’s assemblage of talent is up there with the best teams they’ve ever produced, and that is, of course, saying something. They were already in contention for preseason favorite before they added Demetrios Kouzmontzis, who tore up the fall Elite League, and now that Blake McLaughlin has defected to the USHL, Sammy Walker is the favorite for Mr. Hockey. The sky is the limit for the defense, and if they live up to their potential, this team won’t be giving up more than 15 shots on goal most nights. If they can get respectable goaltending and Curt Giles can instill enough physicality in a somewhat small forward group, they’ll be hard to stop.

In Class A, meanwhile, two-time defending champion and eight-time defending finalist Hermantown is number one yet again. But, for what it’s worth, they do look more beatable this season: they lost a ton of talent, and these next few classes, while still elite by A standards, aren’t quite on the level of the past couple. They’ve got two top-end forwards in Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and the defense is rock-solid, but they don’t quite have the overwhelming depth of the past two seasons. That leaves a couple of other teams with some genuine front-end talent and deep defenses within striking distance, most notably St. Cloud Cathedral—though they’ll have a battle to get past Alexandria in a tough 6A.

The 2AA Free-for-All. There’s a lot to like about Minnetonka’s depth and talent, but they’re no sure thing in 2AA, which is once again the most loaded in the state at the top. Four-time defending section champ Eden Prairie is right there behind them with a deep offense and a coach who can usually get his team to lock down. Holy Family, after falling a goal short in last season’s section final and enduring an offseason filled with comings and goings, still boasts a potent top line and a strong defense. The second tier in the west metro is also very strong, so we’ll be set for an entertaining run here.

The Hill-White Bear War. Stillwater has interrupted one of the state’s great rivalries these past few seasons, but with Ponies in a reload year, White Bear and Hill-Murray have a chance to collide in 4AA again. Both combine a few veteran talents with exciting youth at their core, and if these two make it through to the 4AA final, Aldrich Arena will be a zoo. On paper they’re both maybe a year away from state title contention, but if the kids grow up quickly enough, both could be in the equation. Which of them will show the most potential early on?

Last year’s Class A Tournament: fluke or new reality? Fans were treated to the most entertaining Class A tournament in years, if not ever, last season, as the entrants from 1A, 3A, and 5A, long punching bags for the favorites, were all highly competitive. 1A is wide open after defending section champ Northfield got shifted to 4A, while Luverne is the prohibitive favorite to repeat in 3A. 5A features a North Branch team that has a chance to be this season’s MAML behind Brady Meyer, so long as a high-scoring top line can get some support; Pine City, which returns a deep group, may be their most serious obstacle. The metro area, meanwhile, will have to prove it has a real Tournament contender: Orono has some good talent but didn’t make it out of a section quarterfinal a year ago, and Mahtomedi is deep but needs some players to take the next step. There might be a gap for a rare surprise in 2A or 4A.

Chasing the Northern Frontrunners. Hermantown, Duluth East, and Moorhead are all clear favorites to make their way back to St. Paul, but nothing is guaranteed, as there are large chase packs in both AA sections.  In 7A, Greenway and Virginia may be somewhere in the equation if there are any cracks in the Hawks, though the odds remain long. 8A, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a decent two-team race. East Grand Forks is another top-end Class A team with a rock-solid defense, and Warroad, led by another Marvin, brings back a lot and will look for its first trip to St. Paul since 2010.

Games to Watch in the First Few Weeks

Youth Hockey Hub opener. Outside of Edina’s Lake Conference games with Minnetonka, there are only three regular season games among the top five. Two of those come in the first weekend of the season, as St. Thomas Academy collides with Moorhead and those Skippers. Games against Tonka could well decide the top five, as they’re the only ones who play all of them. It’s a great four-team showcase, as the Spuds look to pick up where they left off last March and take care of some unfinished business, the Skippers look to join the state’s elite under a new coach, and the Cadets try to prove they can overcome their recent playoff upsets. Lakeville North is also in here to play spoiler.

Grand Rapids vs. Greenway. This classic Itasca County rivalry figures to be the first game I attend this season. The Thunderhawks are, of course, the defending AA state champs, but will look nothing like the group that won a title a year ago. They return a number of their depth players at forward and they’ve got a goalie who can steal one in Gabe Holum, but there are a lot of question marks beyond that. They head into the Snakepit to face an interesting young Greenway team that has two D-I commits on its roster. Both have a lot to prove, and should come into this one hungry.

Wayzata’s early run. As usual, the Trojans host the Turkey Trot on the season’s opening weekend, which features a toss-up game with Maple Grove and a follow-up with either Holy Family or Edina, the top-ranked team they’ve eliminated from the playoffs the past two seasons. After that, they take a road trip north to face Hermantown and Duluth East. The 2016 champs have their usual remarkable depth, but we’ll see how their two top-end forwards jell with their defensive style, and if they’ll spend a portion of this season wandering in the wilderness as they did a year ago.

Blaine vs. Centennial and Maple Grove in mid-December. The first round of 5AA battles comes fairly early, and the Bengals, with a strong leading duo of Bryce Brodzinski and Will Hillman, will get a chance to prove they belong up there with preseason section favorite Centennial and defending champ Maple Grove.

East Grand Forks at Orono. An early collision between hyped teams that will have implications for the Class A top 5. The Green Wave doesn’t have a ton of returning scoring, but does have a stout defense, while Orono is deep and had a lot of success at the youth level.

The wait is finally over. Let’s play some hockey.

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Primaries, Facebook Fights, and Park Planning: A Duluth September Political Roundup

17 Sep

When I can sit out on my front porch in mid-September and write, rest my sore knees beneath trees frosted in hints of red and orange, bask in sun and Lake Superior breeze, that’s Duluth at its finest. Writing about politics seems vaguely dirty for a day like this, but I am nothing if not duty-bound, and have a document with some fiction in it open right now too. Here, then, is a roundup of recent political happenings in Duluth, which is an example of Duluth at its finest, not at its finest, and various places in between, depending on where one sits.

A Few Primary Election Comments

Busy life events kept me from making an immediate response to last week’s primaries, so I’ll toss out a few comments on the results here. The major takeaway was the dominance of the Duluth DFL, despite my rumblings about possible cracks last week. Zack Filipovich, the only at-large city council candidate to receive a party endorsement, was well clear of the field; in the Fourth District, Renee Van Nett, who was not DFL-endorsed but was two years ago as a school board candidate and certainly was the closest to the center of the party of the three candidates, ran comfortably ahead of incumbent Howie Hanson and Tom Furman, and as she’s certainly better positioned to collect the votes of the eliminated Furman, Hanson is probably toast. At-large incumbent Barb Russ, who was not DFL-endorsed this time but was four years ago and is certainly more of an established DFL figure than any of the others in the field, surprised me by running second. And while her margin over Janet Kennedy and Rich Updegrove was slim, and promises a tight fight in November, it’s certainly a strong showing.

The only other point I’ll make is a repeat of an old mantra that lawn signs do not win elections. Signage for Updegrove would make one think he was going to compete with Filipovich for the top spot instead of finishing fourth; Jan Swanson, who had some strong concentrations of signs in certain neighborhoods, did not build on that support elsewhere. On my reconnaissance run through a bunch of west side neighborhoods, it was hard not to think Loren Martell would make it out of the primaries in the school board at-large race, while Dana Krivogorsky was doomed. Instead, she eked past him.

I’m not sure how much good it will do her: while Martell’s voters will almost certainly flip to Krivogorsky and Harry Welty, those two ran far behind the two DFL-endorsed candidates. As noted in my preview, I find it more than a little paradoxical that people in DFL circles think this district has serious equity issues and is suffering for its six-period days, and then proceed to summarily ignore, if not straight-up denigrate, the only candidates who are actually proposing concrete solutions to these problems. I’m not saying I agree with their solutions across the board, but the rigidity with which people inhabit their camps based on old Red Plan fault lines—whether they supported or opposed it—is sad.

This Is Why We Don’t Waste Our Time on Internet Rants, Kids

The other bit of Duluth political news last week, if it can really be called that, was a flap between city council president Joel Sipress and DFL district chairman Justin Perpich. Sipress and Perpich exemplify one of the fault lines in the DFL that I thought could fracture this coalition, as they are on opposite sides of the debates over the merits of mining projects on the Iron Range. I’m sure there is some backstory as to how things got to this point, and I don’t really care to know all the details; in short, Perpich criticized the failure of the anti-mining group Duluth for Clean Water to disclose its campaign spending on a Facebook post by Sipress’s wife, and the council president, who found the characterization of Duluth for Clean Water as some sort of dark money organization misleading, told Perpich to “go fuck himself,” among other things. Perpich promptly shared this private Facebook message with the press.

No one really looks good here. Perpich’s posts seem awfully petty, and the ultimate financial disclosure does appear to debunk any claim that Duluth for Clean Water is getting lots of money poured into it by non-Duluthians. (Unsolicited advice to pro-mining camp: trying to sound like you’re the resource-poor is side in this debate is…not going to get you much sympathy with the general public.) On the other hand, this was also a city council that recently generated enough pressure to get Linda Krug to step down from the council presidency when she used her bully pulpit to harangue a colleague on the council. Difficult as this may be to remember in the Trump Era, we traditionally have had higher standards for politician conduct in public, though of course this runs into the question of whether or not a form of messaging that Facebook calls “private” is actually private. Hence the lesson that was beaten into me from a young age, which Sipress has just learned the hard way: never, ever, ever assume that anything you share with anyone on the internet will remain private.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly offended to learn that a politician uses the occasional vulgarity, but other people have different standards, and anyone in the public eye should probably be aware of that. (And, since I’m on a roll, some unsolicited advice for the anti-mining camp: gallivanting up to the Range to tell people you do not know that their lives aren’t *that bad*  or treating anyone who supports mining as an idiotic simpleton seems like a pretty safe formula for turning onetime union Democrats into Trump voters. How each side in this debate frames its case can make all the difference in the world.)

At the risk of sounding like the grumpy young millennial scolding the old people around him on how to use the internet, this sort of thing is exactly why I go to great lengths to avoid political junk on Facebook. This isn’t to say I never engage, and the line between politics and the rest of life isn’t always clear. We all need some cathartic moments, too. But these days I find myself increasingly frustrated with the number of people I observe spending large parts of their day devoted to internet political drivel, no matter the flavor.

In an effort to generate something resembling positive discourse out of this rant-fest, I recommend the following litmus test for anyone who wants to post anything political on Facebook:

  1. Is my post a call to immediate action, or is it more of a general lament detached from any ability to influence anything?
  2. How many times have I made this same exact point in recent memory?
  3. Does this post contribute anything new or insightful, or am I merely regurgitating someone else’s work, or an opinion that anyone who actually knows me knows I already hold?
  4. Will this post inspire hard feelings (particularly of the personal variety) from people who will see it, and if so, is this cause so important to me that I am willing to risk that relationship?
  5. Are the people I am engaging colleagues or good friends/family who I know will take my opinion seriously and respond in kind, or is this Fred who I haven’t seen since high school graduation?
  6. Is the voice I am using in this discourse the same I would be willing to use to the face of someone who is the subject of my rant?
  7. Have I ever been guilty of whatever it is I’m currently charging my political opponents with?

Or you could, you know, just close Facebook and go outside or read a book or something. Or, if you really must stare at political things on screens, just explore the archives of a much more interesting and nuanced blog.

On the Flip Side: Democracy in Action

Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at the Lower Chester warming house to discuss the future of that small park tucked in between 15th Ave. East and Chester Creek. In winters, it is currently home to several rinks run by the Congdon hockey association, which needed a new home when the Red Plan paved paradise and put up a parking lot next to Congdon Elementary. In summer, the main rink becomes a skate park, while the rest of it sits rather forlorn and patchy; a few neighbors spared no details in describing the lurid activity that takes place there some nights. There was a hint of everyone crammed into this grossly inadequate space: neighbors with kids who wanted the playground, some with said kids in tow; hockey parents, with a few hockey player kids also in tow and wandering the park; older neighbors who’d lived next to the park since the Wilson Administration or something like that; plus some kid for whom this sort of meeting is a perfect confluence of interests. Someone took it upon themselves to engage the skateboarders rolling around the rink, too. (The neighbors, incidentally, said the park’s upkeep had improved immensely since they moved in a few years back.)

The plan presented by the Parks Department went a long way toward accommodating all parties. The details aren’t all settled yet: the pleasure rink is not in the current plan, the playground location was the subject of some debate, and anything that emerges here is going to take money, none of which is currently budgeted. But when one attendee suggested closing down 15th Ave. in front of the park to create more space that could accommodate everyone, there seemed genuine consensus from all parties. (Except, perhaps, the city’s Public Works Department, but we can work on them.) It was a heartening moment, and a reminder that democracy really does work best in cramped little town halls, not in the far more cramped world of the things pecked out by internet warriors on a cell phone keyboard at odd hours of the night. Once again, Duluth provides a renewal of faith.

Correction: A previous version of this blog post stated that Renee Van Nett received the DFL endorsement in the 4th District race. She did not, and the text has been updated to reflect this.

Active Former Hounds, 2017

9 Sep

As has become an annual tradition, here’s my 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)* There’s no quit for Fitzgerald, who just wrapped up his third season playing in England, the past two coming with the Sheffield Steelers. He continues to pile up respectable point totals, and, after a second consecutive season with 197 of them, has now amassed 3,421 penalty minutes over a 16-year professional career. It’s pretty safe to say that one’s a record for an East alum.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* After two years in the Russian KHL, Fairchild took his services to the Swedish Hockey League, where he was the third highest-scoring player on the team as a defenseman—two points ahead of a teammate who is another 1989-born Duluthian, former Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly. It continues a long career of productive play from the blue line for the former Gopher and momentary NHLer. His Rogle BK team had a rough year, finishing second from the bottom in the Swdish table.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* After making his NHL debut in 2015-2016, Forbort took a big step forward this past season, as he stuck in the big leagues for a full 82 games. He was third among their defensemen in scoring, and tied for the team lead in penalty minutes and plus-minus. And when that guy you’re tied with in plus-minus is Drew Doughty, that’s a pretty good sign. Forbort has arrived, and doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* Welinski had a solid first full year of his pro career, and joins the ranks of productive Greyhound defensemen in that level. He was the second highest-scoring defenseman on the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, and one figures it’s only a matter of time before he gets the call.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato concluded a strong NCAA career by captaining UMD to a runner-up finish, and was named NCHC Defensive Player of the Year in the process. He was used in a more and more defensive manner as his college career went on, often matched against opponents’ top lines; this depressed his offense somewhat, though he was still one of the more imposing net-front presences in college hockey. He was drafted by the Maple Leafs, whose recent signing spree made spots hard to find. Once he reached free agency, though, the Avalanche snapped him up immediately, and he has himself a two-way contract to begin his professional career. We’ll see if and when he joins the ranks of ex-Hound NHLers.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) An injury slowed Randolph’s junior year at Nebraska-Omaha, but his 23 points were still among the higher totals for Maverick forwards amid a middling season. Next up, he’ll get a chance to wrap up his college career in style.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Olson stepped into a bigger role as a junior at North Dakota, where his 16 points more than doubled his combined total from the previous two. He should continue to be a regular contributor in the lineup in his final season in Grand Forks, as his team looks to rebound from what was (by their standards) a bit of a down year.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore’s sophomore season at RPI saw him shuffled in and out of the lineup some, as he had just two points after a more productive freshman year. If he can hold up defensively, he’ll stay in the lineup with his offensive skills.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano was part of the great Greyhound movement to UW-Stout, where he was one of three freshmen from the Class of 2013 to come in this season. With 13 points and 44 penalty minutes, he had the most eventful year of his three teammates.

Jack Forbort (’13 F) Forbort was the second of the three East grads at Stout, and finished one point behind Valesano for a total of 12.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano rounds out the Greyhound threesome at Stout, where he had ten points as a freshman.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) A fourth D-III player from the Class of 2013 took a more adventurous route than his ex-teammates, as he went to Nichols College in southern Massachusetts. (Yeah, I had to look that one up, and it’s pretty rare that I don’t know where a college is.) He appeared to be his usual scrappy self there, with a respectable point total and a pile of penalties to his name.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) After a somewhat unusual junior career, Beaulieu’s D-I debut was exactly what anyone who watched him in high school would have expected. He put up 19 points from the blue line for Northern Michigan, and one would expect that total to go up further as he settles in.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp moved to the college ranks this past season and played for D-III St. Thomas, where he offered his usual reliable services as a freshman.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) For a second straight season, Altmann had a mid-teens point total in the NAHL, was also quite productive in the playoffs, and for a second straight season had a cup of coffee in the USHL. We’ll see how things play out as he moves toward the next stage.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) After a slow start with Bismarck in the NAHL, Ash moved to the Wilderness to join his older brother and a couple of other ex-Hounds, where he was somewhat more productive. There’s still some potential here if things pan out.

Luke Dow (’16 F) As Greyhounds go, the Minnesota Wilderness is to the NAHL as UW-Stout is to D-III. The third of four East grads to play in Cloquet this past season was also the most productive, as Dow put up 32 points, one of the higher totals among the forwards on a strong team. (Probably worth noting: Alex Trapp’s father, Chris, is the owner of the Wilderness franchise.)

Ryan Peterson (’16 F) The last of the four East grads playing for the Wilderness, Peterson put up 14 points in his post-high school debut.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Donovan landed with the Coulee Chill for his NAHL debut, where he was a productive and steady contributor from the blue line. He’ll be joining the Greyound Wilderness Club this coming fall.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) Spencer joined four fellow members of the Class of 2016 in the NAHL, though he went much further afield, as he wound up in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was his usual self there: big and physical defensively, no shortage of penalties, and the very occasional offensive contribution.

 

Dropping from the list this past season:

 

Matt Cooper (’09 G) The Hounds goalie who parlayed an impressive club hockey career into a minor league season in 15-16 has moved on, but it was a pretty impressive run

Hunter Bergerson (’11 D) Completed a steady D-III career with St. Scholastica and now has moved on.

Nate Repensky (’12 D) An injury-riddled career came to an unfortunate end for Repensky, as Yale announced he’d “retired from the sport.” He had a couple of quality seasons in New Haven, living up to his potential when he was on the ice, and his consolation prize is an Ivy League education, so things should work out just fine for the kid.

Andrew Kerr (’13 D) Sometimes hockey takes a back seat to life. Kerr, who was set to join the Greyhound party at Stout, suffered a brutal injury in a freak accident on a water trampoline last summer. His neck was broken, and there was serious question about his ability to lead a normal life. Now, just one year later, he is walking again, and getting to a point where approaches normalcy. In a different world he would’ve joined three of his fellow 2013 classmates at Stout, but instead, he’s starting in at UMD this fall. Whether in Menomonie, Cloquet, or right back in a supportive community on the east side of those Duluth, those ties seem to linger.

Dog Days of Summer

24 Jul

This past weekend brought the Braemar Summer Hockey Festival, a series of summer scrimmages in Edina that lack the team from Edina. The tournament’s name was only partially accurate, as issues with Braemar’s South rink forced some games over to the Bloomington Ice Garden. Still, it was more than enough to entertain us hockey-starved fans, and a rink is a welcome escape from a 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. I saw part or all of seven of the Saturday scrimmages, which featured 22-minute halves in pool play. I didn’t stick around for the Sunday playoffs, but that really isn’t the point here: it’s more of a chance to get a quick idea of where teams stand four months out from the start of the season.

There’s no shortage of reasons to put little stock in the results here. Some kids miss the games for a variety of reasons, rosters are far from set, and coaches are free to be experimental with little regard for scores. Elite League tryouts also coincided with the final day, which I suppose is convenient for the Greater Minnesota teams in town for the scrimmages, but drains some talent from the Sunday finals. Still, coaches’ Twitter rants to the contrary, they also can be pretty good predictors: last year’s included a semifinal Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie, arguably the top two teams in the state by the end of the season, and most of the teams that looked not very good there stayed not very good.

Just figuring out who is who in these scrimmages can be a chore. Some teams match their players’ jersey numbers to the ones they wore last season, while others do not; some lost so many players that it’s hard to guess anyway, while Prior Lake likes to go with football numbers. (Was that you in the #70 sweater, Jackson Jutting?) There are no roster sheets, unless one happens to receive one from the Holy Family Hype Department. There’s always a smattering of odd-colored breezers and socks that make it clear who’s new to each team, too: before long, they’ll get the proper garb.

The defending champions were in town, and with Blake McLaughlin back in tow for his senior season, all is not lost in Grand Rapids. They had a low-scoring weekend, looking fairly tame except when McLaughlin flipped a switch, as he did in the dying minutes of a contest with Chanhassen, scoring twice and very nearly setting up a game-winner. For a few minutes there was a hint of the old magic up front, and Rapids could still be a thorn in someone’s side. The 7AA foe they slew in dramatic fashion in last year’s semis, Elk River, also rolled out a very green cast and had a quiet weekend, though there were some flashes from some of the new kids to give hints of relevance.

One of the bigger winners of the weekend was Wayzata, which coupled some opportunistic scoring with the typical Trojan defense. They fought past Holy Family in one of the better games of the weekend, put an impressive beating on Lakeville North, and were the only team to seriously test eventual champ Duluth East. Of course I thought the Trojans looked good in last year’s edition of this competition as well, and they took a few eons to get back to that level during the season, though get back they did. The Fire, meanwhile, have no shortage of talent but have some sorting to do: the forward lines seemed unsettled beyond the clear top talents of Ben Almquist and Garrett Pinoniemi, they have a goalie situation to sort out, and their defense, which should be their rock, got caught out on occasion against Wayzata. Holy Family’s roster is a jumble of new transfers in and holes left by departures, and this evolving cast of characters at the school with the most open borders in the state may take some time to jell.

I didn’t see Eden Prairie, but there were some rave reviews of Chris Konin, a Rhode Island and New England prep school transplant and who logged a hat trick against Elk River. The post-Casey Mittelstadt era doesn’t look too worrying for the only team to play in the past five State Tournaments. Having experienced players makes a difference when others are more unsettled, and this may help explain senior-heavy Eastview’s somewhat surprising run to the final. (I didn’t get a firsthand look at the Lightning.) Veteran Bloomington Jefferson seemed hit or miss; they stuck with East for a half before the Hounds overwhelmed them, and they scuffled back and forth with Benilde for a spell before they put away a very raw Red Knight group. Ken Pauly is never a quiet man on the bench, but I’d never seen him as distraught as he was midway through Benilde’s 10-1 undressing at the hands of East, in which his defense left trucking lanes down the center of the ice. Neither Lakeville really stood out, so it will likely be a down year in 1AA, with South looking somewhat better than North in limited viewing. And while Prior Lake may have missed their most opportune window to break through in 2AA, there’s enough left to give some good teams fits.

The team that did the most for its preseason stock this weekend was Duluth East. The Hounds were far from complete in Edina: second line forward Nick Lanigan and defenseman Will Fisher were out hurt, and top line center Ryder Donovan, fresh off his commitment to North Dakota earlier in the week, went off hurt early in the final group stage game and did not return. They also had a bunch of kids in the Elite League tryouts. But one could be forgiven for not noticing: the Hounds steamrolled through the weekend, and were tested just once, by Wayzata in the semis on Sunday morning. Longtime linemates Donovan, Ian Mageau, and Garrett Worth looked lethal, all three complementing each other and imposing their will, but there was little drop-off to the second and third lines, with a smoother-skating Ricky Lyle turning heads (or was it just the helmet he pulled out of a time capsule?) and Brendan Baker seamlessly sliding into Donovan’s spot when he got hurt. The defense, lacking Fisher, was on the small side but plenty mobile and able to control the puck, while Lukan Hanson, the heir apparent to Kirk Meierhoff in net, was hardly tested in the games I saw.

This is all cause for pleasure in Greyhounds Nation, but they know as well as anyone that nothing is won in July. Experienced, system-driven teams like the Hounds are well-built to succeed early on while others are still sorting through their parts. Continuous improvement is the key, and the new kids in black bantam breezers have some growing to do, too. We have yet to see what some of their biggest competition at the top of the rankings, from Edina to Moorhead to St. Thomas Academy (to say nothing of the 7AA rivals nipping at their heels) have to offer. But at this point, what’s not to like? Let’s start the countdown to November.

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?