MN HS Boys’ AA Rankings: 12/26/21

Due to an outage on the USHSHO forum, these rankings are appearing on here this week. They’ll get posted on the forum when it’s functioning again, but I know you’re all waiting…

A short week makes for relatively short work in the rankings world. I suspect we will not be able to say the same thing next week, as there’s a lot of good hockey on the schedule here. By request, I’ve added teams’ rankings from last week to the first line here, too.

1. Lakeville South (7-0) LW: 2

-I don’t love this, given the Cougars’ relative lack of competition, but they are winning by comfortable margins in games they should win. We’ll see if we can get another #1 who only lasts a week, as they now load up for some real battles on their hands: first against Maple Grove and quietly solid Stillwater in St. Louis Park, then a New Year’s Day 1-vs.-2 bowl game.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. #8 Maple Grove, Wed vs. Stillwater, Thurs vs. Holy Family; Sat at #2 Edina

2. Edina (6-1) LW: 3

-The Hornets were idle this past week, and have a fascinating Hockey for Life draw, taking on three of the most underperforming teams in AA to date. Does that make for easy pickings for the Hornets, or do some of these teams, hungry to prove their critics wrong, rise to the occasion? And then, of course, they follow it all up with Lakeville South. A juicy week, to say the least.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. Moorhead, Wed vs. Prior Lake, Thurs vs. #13 St. Thomas Academy; Sat vs. #1 Lakeville South

3. Andover (7-1-1) LW: 4

-The Huskies machined through a pair of 7AA opponents, shutting out Duluth East and Blaine and cementing their top spot in the section. It’s hard to critique much about how they’re playing right now, and they’ll be put to the test in Bloomington with a couple of huge games.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. #5 Cretin-Derham Hall, Wed vs. #6 Hill-Murray, Thurs vs. Rosemount

4. Roseau (8-1) LW: 5

-The Rams just keep rolling. As usual, their own holiday tournament doesn’t bring quite the competition of the big metro battles, but having to solve Mahtomedi will be a different sort of test than what they’ve had to do lately.

This week: Roseau Holiday Classic—Tues vs. St. Louis Park, Wed vs. Mahtomedi, Thurs vs. Minot (ND)

5. Cretin-Derham Hall (6-2) LW: 1

-The good news: the Raiders took down the top team in either class (albeit down a Plante), proving they certainly have the stuff to win the whole thing. The bad: they have to win their section to do that, and two losses to St. Thomas do raise some doubts for a program that needs to find its way in the playoffs. The Andover clash this week will say a lot for their positioning in these rankings, and Rosemount isn’t a free pass, either.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. #3 Andover, Wed vs. Rosemount, Thurs vs. Champlin Park

6. Hill-Murray (6-2) LW: 6

-The Pioneers didn’t put to rest any question over the direction of 4AA with a narrow win over White Bear, but they won the game nonetheless, and are in command of the race for the top seed—a position that suddenly makes it look like they might get Gentry Academy in the semifinals, not the finals. Andover is the big headliner this coming week, and we’ll see if they can show some offensive ability, which has been hit-or-miss so far.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. Rosemount, Wed vs. #3 Andover, Thurs vs. Cloquet

7. Wayzata (4-3-1) LW: 7

-The Trojans marched past Eden Prairie, further solidifying their top ten standing. They have a relatively easy draw in St. Louis Park, with no ranked teams, though their opponents are respectable enough that they could sneak past them if there’s an offensive power outage.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. Holy Family, Wed vs. St. Michael-Albertville, Thurs vs. Rogers

8. Maple Grove (5-2-1) LW: 8

-No action for the Crimson this past week; I’m still waiting for a better read on this team. To that end, they have a pretty interesting draw in St. Louis Park, as they seek to turn the tables on last season’s loss to Lakeville South when they were ranked #1, get a potent Benilde team, and get a potential trap against STMA after all of that.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. #2 Lakeville South, Wed vs. #9 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Thurs vs. St. Michael-Albertville

9. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (4-4) LW: 9

-Handled Holy Family, which does nothing to change their status here. The Maple Grove game is the headliner this coming week, though none of their opponents are pushovers.

This week: St. Louis Park Tournament—Tues vs. Rogers, Wed vs. #8 Maple Grove, Thurs vs. Stillwater

10. Centennial (5-1) LW: 11

-The Cougars keep quietly sneaking up the table with consistently good, though not eye-popping, results, most recently a solid win over respectable Rosemount. Unfortunately, their Bloomington draw isn’t going to give us much of a better sense of where they stand.

This week: Bloomington Tournament—Tues vs. Champlin Park, Wed vs. Cloquet, Thurs vs. Blake

11. Grand Rapids (8-3) LW: 12

-The Thunderhawks rolled past Cloquet and saw their game against Denfeld get wiped out. Having played more games than most, they now enter a relative lull in the schedule, but the game this week is certainly one worthy of some attention.

This week: Wed at Minnetonka

12. Chaska (7-1) LW: 14

-The Hawks blitzed a decent Shakopee team, which isn’t a bad sign. They’ve got a couple of quality opponents in their Hockey for Life draw, which will be pretty important from a ranking perspective, as their games against top 25 teams are minimal after this. The Eden Prairie game could well make or break their 2AA seeding fate.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. Totino-Grace, Wed vs. #14 Eden Prairie, Thurs vs. Lakeville North

13. St. Thomas Academy (4-4) LW: NR

-Following a brief hiatus, the Cadets return to the top 15 with a second win over Cretin. They do need to beat someone else of consequence to stay here, and fortunately for them, a very tough Hockey for Life slate gives them just the chance to do that.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. #14 Eden Prairie, Wed vs. Moorhead, Thurs vs. #2 Edina

14. Eden Prairie (4-4) LW: 15

-The Eagles failed to build on their big win over Edina with a loss against Wayzata, and the question now becomes whether that was a sign of their potential or merely a rivalry high-water mark. Games with a couple of teams right above them here should help give us an answer.

This week: Hockey for Life—Tues vs. #13 St. Thomas Academy, Wed vs. #12 Chaska, Thurs vs. Totino-Grace

15. Eastview (6-2) LW: NR

-I don’t know if this lasts, but for the moment, I think this is warranted: the Lightning’s two losses are to Lakeville South and Centennial, and they have two legitimate quality wins over Prior Lake and St. Thomas, so they deserve some recognition. They’ve got a decent chance of sticking for at least one more week, if only because they don’t play again until January 4.

This week: Idle

The Next Ten

Moorhead (5-5)

-The Spuds pulled out a vital one-goal win over St. Michael-Albertville, which they needed for section seeding purposes. They remain a mystery team, and have a chance to really make an impression against a Hockey for Life lineup including Edina, St. Thomas, and Prior Lake.

Stillwater (5-1)

-A win over Mahtomedi, while not earth-shattering, is a nice pickup for the Ponies. STMA, Lakeville South, and Benilde make for a pretty tough trio of games in St. Louis Park.

Elk River (6-4)

-Beat Anoka in their only action this past week, and should do the same to Brainerd this week. In very good shape for a top-3 seed in 8AA following Moorhead’s win over STMA.

St. Michael-Albertville (5-2)

-Fell to Moorhead, but looked plenty competitive in the process. They’re in St. Louis Park this week for a tough run against Stillwater, Wayzata, and Maple Grove.

Prior Lake (4-3)

-The Lakers found some life with the return of Sam Rice and a win over Minnetonka. From a rankings perspective, it’s only a first step in undoing the damage of the first month of the season, but it’ll be easier to forget that with a good showing against a pretty decent Hockey for Life slate including Lakeville North, Edina, and Moorhead.

Minnetonka (6-3-1)

-The Skippers failed to build on the previous week’s momentum, losing to Prior Lake and tying Chanhassen. Is this team a real contender, or just one of a jumble in a deep 2AA? This week’s Grand Rapids game will offer some clues.

Lakeville North (3-2)

-Plodded along with a win over Apple Valley. Games with Prior Lake and Chaska this week will tell us a lot more about this group.

Gentry Academy (6-1)

-I doubt I’ve ever dropped a team that won both its games in its week as aggressively as this. The Stars left a lot of question marks in a narrow win over Greenway, and with a couple of those very sketchy results now coupled with zero quality wins against Minnesota competition, it’s just hard to justify a high ranking here. Their game with Alexandria this week could be an interesting one.

Blaine (3-3-2)

-Got shut out by Andover, leaving a tenuous hold on a spot here propped up by that Maple Grove tie. The week ahead is a big one for seeding in their new section as they face off against Forest Lake and Duluth East.

Chanhassen (4-2-1)

-The Storm, after a tie with Minnetonka, win the straw draw for the final spot and make their first ever appearance in this top 25. They have some sort of two-game thing in Shakopee this week in which they play Tartan and the host Sabers.

Uncharted Territory

For the first fifteen years or so of my time following Duluth East hockey, I had the pleasure of generally watching this sport at its peak. For the next two, I watched a lot of ugly hockey, but at least much of that was by design. Now, I am rubbing my eyes in bafflement at an 0-6 start, willing to give away my kingdom for a clean breakout. How does a program that ruled northeast Minnesota for decades pick up the pieces?

Duluth East 2021-2022 hockey opened after a profoundly weird offsesason that saw the exit of Mike Randolph as head coach and an exodus of players from a program that for so long had been a destination. Into the void stepped Steve Pitoscia, who combined a long East pedigree as a bantam coach with a stint in junior hockey, a solid résumé worthy of the position. But recovery from what this program has undergone over the past two years or so will take longer than a few games and require more than some fresh vibes. Duluth East hockey is in a strange, difficult place, and the task ahead is not one for the faint of heart.

I intend to cast very little judgment on Pitoscia and his staff this season. They are new, and many of the greatest high school coaches never would have gotten anywhere if they were judged on their first season alone. Pitoscia has the unenviable position of following a larger-than-life icon whose final stanza at East left a very sour note, both for those who supported him and those who opposed him vehemently. No rational observer can pretend the talent level here is what it has been, thanks to both a slip in the product coming out of the youth system and an exodus, both pro- and anti-Randolph, over the summer. As far as I’m concerned, the new staff is free to do as much tinkering as it would like, and I ask only for signs of progress.

The talent is not all gone, either. A junior core of Cole Christian, Grant Winkler, and Aidan Spenningsby is a decent foundation, and sophomore Thomas Gunderson looked sharp before promptly suffering an injury. We await the return of Wyatt Peterson, who showed some offensive potential as a freshman last season and has yet to play a game. There are enough other respectable defensemen that the blue line corps could be a relative strength. In goal, Zander Ziemski has had a couple of yeoman’s performances, holding up under heavy barrages and at least giving his team some chances. No one will claim this is a top seed contender, but they have enough to be a very pesky section team that could pull an upset or two.

In the games to date, the tales of woe are mounting, one after another. A Thanksgiving road trip to the Twin Cities gave the Hounds two season-opening losses, a tight contest with White Bear Lake whose final score made it look lopsided and a lopsided affair with Chaska whose final score made it seem somewhat tight. The home opener against Grand Rapids provided its share of hope; while Rapids dominated for about a 25-minute stretch in the middle of the game, East held serve in the first period and mounted a plucky comeback late in the third that made it genuinely interesting. Giving the top team in 7AA a good run in the playoffs suddenly seemed very possible.

The good feelings did not linger. A home game against Bemidji should probably have been the first win, but the game slipped away late and wound up in an overtime loss. A weekend trip to Wayzata offered nothing in the way of bright spots. The snowball rolling down the hill then collected the Forest Lake game, which had some strong play early and a 2-1 lead after two before a four-goal burst in the third buried East yet again.

One suspects that half the battle will be mental going forward, as the team tries to find itself in this murky new territory. Perhaps a remnant of Mike Randolph’s black magic lingers in the Heritage Center, one final curse cast to haunt the program that drove him out. But one thing concerns me more than any game that got away against Forest Lake or any humbling against Wayzata: the current peewee and bantam teams have all started poorly, an almost baffling lack of success given the size of the youth program. At this rate, this team could be one of the better Hounds editions of the next few years. This leads me to ponder several possible futures for Duluth East hockey.

The first sticks with an old phrase I used when talking about predicting high school hockey: “the Edina of the north.” Among Minnesota high school programs in urban areas, only the Hornets compare in their ability to stay good decade after decade, defying the seeming laws of urban expansion and family moves. But it hasn’t been entirely consistent: take the start of the decade of the 00s, for example, when, under a relatively new coach named Curt Giles who’d gone to state in his first season there, the Hornets then went six years in which they only once made a section final and never went to State. East’s descent is already probably lower than that (the Hornets did not have a losing season in that stretch), but even the most dominant program in the state hits the occasional lull. Waves come and go, and by the late 00s, the Hornets were setting the bar again.

But maybe a better comparison is Bloomington Jefferson, starting around the same point in time. The Jags were, of course, the preeminent program in the state in the early 90s, and remained one of the top two or three through into the early 00s. Their bleed was long and slow: first the defection of Greg Trebil and some talent to Holy Angels, then the retirement of Tom Saterdalen; later, some teams that might have won other sections got stuck behind that return-to-glory Edina. They were still quite good, and consistently ranked. But as the 2010s went on that started to slip away. Now, they are often a punching bag, proud of their history but potentially looking at a merger with Bloomington Kennedy, which has struggled even more. Despite some committed alumni and some okay youth talent, a return to glory in the current environment looks like a real reach. West Bloomington is now one suburb among many, a pleasant enough place but no singular attraction for hockey.

That brings us to another possible future, one that reaches even further back: Minneapolis Southwest, long the class of Minneapolis hockey and a state champion in 1970. Southwest is still a pretty well-regarded public high school, situated among the affluent neighborhoods that surround Lake Harriet; as demographic changes have come to other parts of Minneapolis, it has, if anything, seen only a greater concentration of resources. But the pressures on other programs in Minneapolis had a direct effect on Southwest. Its hockey identity is dead; while it lasted longer than the rest of the Minneapolis schools and is the primary feeder for Minneapolis hockey, it has now merged with all of them to field a single team. The good hockey players in the area frequently wind up at private schools, if they stay in the city at all, and hockey just isn’t as big of a part of the community culture. Southwest hockey is a relic of history, and the sport rarely more than a feel-good story in the city, and while there are ways to imagine that changing—the resources are there, in a way they may not be in Bloomington—they are still a long way off.

There are reasons to think all of these are possible. The east side of Duluth still has a bunch of lakefront and ridgetop real estate, a bit of new construction and a some grand old history. It has the committed alumni base and the picturesque youth rinks, and the youth association is making some changes at the squirt level that accept a changing reality. It should continue to have decent numbers and the demographics that support hockey, perhaps even some growth if certain real estate trends persist. On the other hand, the east side of Duluth is no Edina clone: it includes swaths at more middle and even lower incomes, and shares a district with Denfeld. Does East just become a feeder for some of its neighbors? Can Denfeld stay viable, or will the East identity be the casualty of a merger? These are the longer-term questions that concern me much more than a bad goal conceded to Bemidji.

For the players on this year’s team, though, these questions are far off in the mists of the future. They need to get healthy, they need to find some combinations that work, and they need to accept that they now have the ability to write this next chapter of Duluth East hockey. There is far too much here, past and present, for the Hounds to roll over dead.

Exit Mike Randolph

And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for—the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.

-George Packer

Mike Randolph’s tenure at Duluth East ended not in victory or defeat. In fact, it came in a season in which the Hounds did not play a playoff game. It revealed itself not in one of those emotional roller coasters of hugs and tears on the ice after a big game, but in an odd whimper and a hushed-up meeting with school administrators. The caginess of the whole affair showed how high the stakes were, and how vicious the voices involved could be. Few people feel comfortable being the face of the defense when the sharks are circling, and few are willing to be the prosecution after the axe has come down.

Mike Randolph was one of the most intense coaches to ever stalk the bench of a hockey arena. The ability of players to adapt to that reality both made them and broke them. Some kids would skate through brick walls for him; some said he made their high school years a living hell. It was his show, his formula. His control over every aspect of the game allowed him to pull strings that others would not, and occasionally to get more out of less than any other coach in Minnesota. He rewarded those who met his standard, and those who did etched themselves into the collective consciousness of several generations of kids passing through a school on the east side of Duluth, their coming-of-age rites of passage in packed arenas in Duluth and St. Paul come playoff time.

Over the years I have worked hard, sometimes painfully hard, to offer a voice of detached neutrality when it comes to Mike Randolph. In part that’s who I am, and in part it has served my purpose of staying on good terms with just about everyone around a sport that, for me, is a diversion and an escape, not the serious business of life beyond the rink. This position is at odds with many people I interact with, including both Randolph himself and many of the kids and parents involved in the game. Those lives overflow with devotion and passion in the pursuit of a singular goal. The ability to delight in that world and yet still be able pull oneself out of that cave and see beyond it is not a common gift.

In some ways, my side gig as a hockey commentator was always building until this moment. Never have I been more nervous to send out a Tweet as when I got the go-ahead to share the news of his Randolph’s resignation with the world. On the next day I felt a queasiness my sometimes-weighty day job has never given me when I got to be the fly on the wall at a meeting that supportive current players asked for with their coach. It was raw and emotional: disbelieving kids, parents in search of a solution, and the grizzled coach pulling fewer punches than in his carefully crafted statement to the press a few days later. Randolph left the door open for a return if the political winds were to turn, but he knew the odds were not in his favor, and he told the gathered crowd as much. Some of the players tried to rally, but the reply one of them received from a school board member showed exactly where that course was going to go. There were still glimmers of Randolph’s old scheming, but he himself knew it was time to move on.

Later that evening, on a blissful summer night on the grounds of Glensheen, I stumbled upon a former East hockey parent. She extolled Randolph’s impact on her son’s life and shared the reprehensible and false things some detractors asked her to accuse him of to get him removed. A friend with her, meanwhile, had the exact opposite perspective: he lamented his son’s treatment in his time with the program and said he felt relief upon hearing the news of his resignation. The three of us hashed out a healthy conversation about what the man meant and where the program should go next. I am pleased that I have been able to have these conversations face-to-face with people over the past several years. (The grandstanding from anonymous social media or message board users is another story, and one I happily ignore.) The future of Duluth East hockey depends on them.

I got to know Mike some over the years. I wouldn’t call us intimates, but he was certainly willing to spill out his thoughts when he had the time, and he was bracingly honest when he did so. In those interactions he was only ever gracious, and would offer unsolicited praise for players past and present, including some whose parents I knew to be critics. He had a lot of fun doing what he did. Whatever else Mike Randolph might be, he is a marvelous storyteller possessed of a vicious dry wit. To anyone who enjoys high school hockey, the chance to watch him scribble schemes on napkins and to pick his voluminous memory was a trip down a rabbit hole that was hard to escape. A series of long nights on the town during his last State Tournament at East will forever rank among my favorite high school hockey memories. (I hasten to note that Randolph was completely sober for these encounters, as he has been for many years; he was merely out to suck up the atmosphere of that special week in March.) Over those nights, I saw with my own eyes his ability to pre-script dramatic games, and I got some windows into just how viciously some people treated him. The comparatively drama-free and successful mid-to-late 2010s felt like a valediction to a long career, as a battle-scarred man found peace, received his due, and delighted in the relationships he was building with his players. But history is rarely that easy.

I’ve heard out many parents who did not like Randolph, and I have listened with ears wide open as others talked around me. Their critiques ran the gamut, from line combinations to mind games to some less savory rumors unrelated to hockey. (In 2021, as one of the few non-parents in the pandemic-limited arena, I heard little else.) When I also struggled to see the logic in some of Randolph’s tactical or personnel decisions, I tended to agree with them, and frankly that was not an uncommon occurrence over the past two years. But it was also interesting to see how, once a parent developed an initial beef, perhaps one with some merit, all of the rest tended to follow. It was almost amusing how the same critiques in the same exact phrasing would filter their way down through the rumor mill from year to year. If Randolph was to be guilty of one thing he was to be guilty of everything, a black and white world with little room for Greyhounds in between.

Randolph was no doubt hardened by the attacks upon him over his career. He had an ego, as will most anyone who is driven to win, and was proud of what he had achieved. He surrounded himself with assistants who were full believers, almost exclusively ex-players who bought in to what he preached and sought to replicate it throughout the system. Loyalty, above all else, became central to the Duluth East program. Many people circle the wagons when under duress, and the strain only seemed to grow over recent seasons, the coaching staff set against a growing camp of bitter skeptics. At what point, I wondered in one late-night discussion with a hockey confidante, was the atmosphere around the program too toxic to endure without a change, whatever Randolph’s merits as a coach?

By 2021, it seemed like Randolph’s supporters felt they had to whisper their actual feelings to me in private lest anyone overhear something that went against this brewing narrative. Given the imbalance in what I was hearing, I was almost stunned when I saw the number of current players and parents who showed up to support the man wholeheartedly at the end. The media narrative since Randolph’s fall has likewise been mostly supportive of the coach. Figures large and small have lamented the power of parents to bring him down, and East players from down the years have blasted the softness and blindness of those who, in their minds, could not see Randolph’s tough love as the demanding standard that could illuminate the path to greatness. I don’t quite buy the argument that Randolph is someone whose style got left behind by the times; some very recent classes, including many of the current underclassmen, appeared to value his frank talk. I also know and respect some parents from much earlier years who still nurse hard feelings. Something much deeper and more fundamental was afoot.

The question throughout the drama has been whether Randolph’s purported sins should cost him his job. I have only been able to look at the evidence before me, which at this point is little different from the same things I have been hearing for 15-odd years, supplemented by a few emails from past parents who saw in a new school district administration a fresh opportunity to take the man down. There were some rumblings about the booster club, but a district official, I am told, said there were no lingering issues there at a parents’ meeting after his resignation. Opacity denies us closure. The late-stage pandemic further removed any drama from the final act; I expect the school district is all too pleased its meetings are still on Zoom, depriving us the board room drama that erupted last time around. At some point, the district will, hopefully, comply with the data requests made by the media regarding the complaints against Randolph, and we may learn from the source material if there is anything truly salacious within them. Until then, we are left in a cloud of doubt, sorting through stories that call him the most powerful influence on the lives of some and a source of misery for others, struggling to reconcile the fact that both can be true.

In the moments when hockey has seemed to overwhelm other commitments in my life, I’ve often stopped to wonder why I, a Duluth East alumnus who never skated for the program and the owner of a rich and satisfying life beyond hockey, became such a devoted follower of this sport at this level. The reason, I think, circles back to Mike Randolph: not necessarily to the man himself, but to the idea behind this sometimes brilliant, sometimes intimidating, sometimes flawed human. Life roughed up Randolph in his early years, a tale he told in his final statement: limited resources, his father’s stroke, the care he received from his own high school coach. He bypassed many other roads to wed himself to the little corner of the world that made him, a place where he saw an opportunity and pour out his soul for over three decades. He wrote himself into the lore of a Minnesota tradition and took none of it for granted, scrapping every step of the way, always demanding more.

Perhaps he erred along the way; perhaps his ambition at times took him too far. But the idea he stood for, that glimmer of the worthy pursuit: that lodged in the mind of more than a few teenage strivers in need of some discipline, some fuel for the drive. Thanks for the memories, coach. The young men you formed include a few who never even played for you.

The End of the Mike Randolph Era

Mike Randolph’s tenure as head coach of the Duluth East boys’ high school hockey team is over.

The news is not a total shock to anyone who has followed the events of the past few months. The school district had engaged a private investigator to poke around the program following a heap of parent complaints, and the rumor mill swung back and forth from week to week: he was done for, he was fine, or no one knew what was going on. Randolph has been through the ringer in his time with the Hounds; he’s been through countless questioning parents and a purge that removed him from his job for a year before an intense campaign swung a school board election and helped return him to his longtime post. This time, however, he has chosen to make his exit rather than go through it all again.

Let’s get the record out there first: 658 on-ice wins (third-most all-time; 646 of those at East), 18 State Tournament trips (second-most all-time behind Edina’s Willard Ilkola, who has 19), and two state championships. Six second place finishes, four third place finishes, three consolation titles, and a hand in some of the most memorable games ever, such as the Duluth East-Apple Valley five overtime affair in 1996 and the East-Eden Prairie three overtime final in 2011. His presence, both through tactical innovation on the ice and in his fight for his job off it 18 years ago, has driven the narrative around high school hockey far beyond the shores of Lake Superior. With the exception of the 2003-2004 sabbatical, he has been coaching Duluth East hockey my entire life.

I will embargo some of the other things I know until a longer retrospective next week; a planned press conference on Friday will, I expect, provide some added juice. I will also acknowledge there is much I do not know, and may never know, about what happened behind closed doors. I have a lot of thoughts that will take some time to process, and will take some time to filter back through the thousands of conversations I’ve had over the past 16 years with people regarding Mike Randolph. Love him or hate him, he is a fascinating figure, one whose story winds its way through just about every theme one could possibly associate with high school sports, from the glory to the pain and every emotion in between.

The open coaching job is a fascinating one. It’s a position with one of the most illustrious programs in the state and no shortage of history to draw upon. There is some talent to work with, and while we cannot pretend that it is still 1996 or even 2016 (a fact that has been difficult for some to accept), the long-term fundamentals of the program are pretty solid, and a new coach will have a chance to build on deep foundations. On the flip side, this program is also a hornet’s nest, and I will be fascinated to see how long a honeymoon the new regime gets. Duluth East is hardly alone in this; Randolph is just one of several fairly prominent coaches who have headed for the exits this offseason, and while the details vary from place to place, the roots of the purge are always the same. I do not envy anyone who takes a head coaching job these days, and rather hope the next Hound head man is not someone with any immediate tie to the program and the mess it has been the past few years. School board, if you’re reading this, go get someone from the outside with a proven track record.

For those looking for a walk down memory lane, here’s a selection of posts that have focused on him:

The Duluth East hockey history series, starting with the post that includes Randolph’s hiring in the 80s

Revisiting Randolph’s removal in 2003-2004

An appreciation amid the 2015 stunning run

On coaching decisions in a high-stakes program

Observing some of the cracks in the walls after the 2020 and 2021 seasons

More to come.

State Tournament Look Back: 2011

To continue my series of 10-year reviews of past State Tournaments, we revisit 2011 this season. It was a juicy one: a senior-dominated Eden Prairie team of destiny, a powerful defending state champion in Edina, an up-and-coming Duluth East team, and a few genuine surprises such as White Bear Lake. There were four championship bracket overtime games across both classes, plus two more frenetic, high-scoring affairs on the Class A side. The two finals were among the best in either class, with Kyle Rau’s iconic dive coming to be one of the most memorable moments in Tourney history.

Class AA

2011 featured a particularly competitive set of section tournaments. No one team dominated the regular season from start to finish, but Wayzata and Eden Prairie, guided by the state’s top two seniors (Tony Cameranesi and Kyle Rau) traded blows in 6AA over the course of the year. Eden Prairie, the preseason #1, got the last laugh when Rau scored in the second overtime in the section final. By the stretch run Hill-Murray had emerged as the consensus top-ranked team, but in one of the games of the decade, a scrappy White Bear Lake team came together at the right time, dodged an open net bullet in overtime, and went back to State courtesy of Mac Jansen. Defending champion Edina had to fight off an inspired Burnsville team to secure the 2AA title. A Blaine team reloading from a senior-heavy group toppled a top five Maple Grove team for a sixth trip to State in a row, while Grand Rapids fielded one of its deepest teams of the two-class era and saw a 1-0 lead with 1:30 left slip away into an overtime loss to Duluth East. And in another battle of two top ten-ish teams, Eagan held off defending 3AA champion Apple Valley 1-0 to earn a second ever trip to State.

The AA Tourney opened with the second-seeded defending champion Hornets, the star junior class that had carried them the year before now back as seniors, against Blaine. The Bengals weren’t the favorite they were some other seasons in that era, but after one period they were up 2-1, courtesy power play and shorthanded goals by two of the Brodzinski brothers, Michael and Jonny. Edina responded early in the second, though, with goals from Jake Sampson and Andy Jordahl, and generally controlled play from there. The Hornets were back in the semifinals, though not quite in convincing fashion.

Duluth East, which added a strong sophomore class to the now-juniors who had carried them to a fifth place finish the season before, drew the third seed and a meeting with surging White Bear Lake. The Hounds had the edge in play for much of the game, but for every punch, there was a counterpunch, and the Bears took the initiative in the third, very nearly securing that elusive first-round victory. Things settled down in overtime, however, and Zac Schendel slipped in the game-winner shortly into the second overtime. That five-frame affair was just one in a series of marathons for both teams: White Bear had played overtime in its section semifinal, both had played it in their finals, and both would play it again the next two days of the Tourney.

If the afternoon was entertaining, the night billing was something of a snoozefest. Lakeville North, fresh off an upset of Justin Kloos-led Lakeville South in the 1AA playoffs, was never really in the game with top-seeded Eden Prairie. In the nightcap, Moorhead stuck around with fourth-seeded Eagan, largely through the efforts of junior goaltender Michael Bitzer, who made 30 saves in a losing effort. While rarely seriously tested, the Wildcats took an early 1-0 lead and held it until just under five minutes left, when a second tally followed by two empty-netters led to a 4-0 final margin.

Friday night opened with a battle between Duluth East and Edina, the first of four semifinal clashes between the two powerhouses in an eight-year span. If not for what happened the next night, it would have been a true Tournament classic: two loaded teams playing at an elite level, probing back and forth in a tight affair. They traded goals early then settled in to an even battle into overtime, where an Alex Toscano shot caught a defenseman’s stick and soared behind Connor Girard three minutes and 54 second into the bonus frame. East headed to its first title game in 11 years, while a beleaguered Edina lost to Eagan in the third-place game.

The second semifinal, on the other hand, was not much of a contest. Eden Prairie went up 2-0 in the first through Luc Gerdes and Nic Seeler, and the Kyle Rau show followed that, as the Eagles ran the margin to 4-0 after two. The X emptied out as they finished off a 5-1 victory, and their deep senior class had a chance go out with a win for their Mr. Hockey winner, just as their team had done two years prior for Nick Leddy when many of these core players were sophomores.

The 2011 final was one of the greatest title games ever played. The Eagles and Hounds were evenly matched, trading chances back and forth, with Trevor Olson scoring twice for East and the Rath brothers, Mark and David, accounting for both Eagle tallies East defenseman Andrew Kerr put together a highlight reel of hits on Rau. Late in the 3rd, an injury to East defenseman Hunter Bergerson forced the Hounds to press a 4th-line forward, Kyle Campion, into regular shifts on defense. The game marched on through two overtimes and into a third, the two teams’ legs leaded and dragging. A dead-even game broke the only way it could: Rau dove and swatted at a loose puck, which trickled through goaltender JoJo Jeanetta’s legs, ricocheted off the pipe, off Kerr’s skate, and into the net.

Eden Prairie’s title was its second in three years, and the second for one of the most accomplished senior classes in recent high school hockey. It cemented Rau’s place in Minnesota lore and put the Eagles among the state’s elite, a place they would remain for the next decade. It was also a triumph for a group of seniors, many of whom could have played elsewhere during their senior seasons, but chose to come back and live out a dream together. They fulfilled that promise. East, meanwhile, would return almost entirely intact the next year in hopes of revenge; Eagan would return as well, while Edina would head into a quick reload to set the stage for future success.

Class A

In Class A, a relatively deep field emerged, albeit one with a clear pecking order. After two years of upsets at the hands of Mahtomedi, St. Thomas Academy returned to State, loaded as the top seed an in pursuit of a title. Hermantown, after a runner-up finish in 2010, was settling into a rhythm of producing consistent contenders for the crown. Two-time defending champion Breck made the dance as well, though they were somewhat diminished from the titlists of the previous two years. In section 8A, Thief River Falls pulled a mild upset of Warroad to head back to State, while in 6A, Alexandria went as a 5-seed in its section.

2011 turned in one of the most entertaining days of Class A quarterfinals in memory. While St. Thomas pasted New Ulm 13-2 and the Hermantown-Alexandria game is best remembered for a pregame skate to the line, the first day delivered two crowd-pleasing upsets for the first time in the seeded era. First, Hibbing, riding an emerging sophomore star in Adam Johnson, took down third-seeded Rochester Lourdes 4-0, an upset that relied on Johnson’s star power and a strong performance from Nathan Tromp in goal. And then, in the nightcap, Thief River Falls took down Breck 7-5 in a real crowd-pleaser of a game, with Breck building a 4-2 lead after two periods before the Prowlers erupted for four in a row. A late shorthanded goal from Tomas Lindstrom gave Breck some life, but an empty-netter sealed the Prowlers’ first championship bracket win since their 1965 state title.

The first semifinal had a similar flavor. Hermantown trotted out to a 4-1 lead over Hibbing . Adam Johnson then went off, however, scoring a natural hat trick in a span of three minutes over the late second and early third periods. The Hawks had the last laugh, though, as Andrew Mattson scored with just over a minute remaining, and an empty-netter sealed a 6-4 Hermantown win. St. Thomas, meanwhile, steamrolled Thief River Falls 5-0 in the second semi, though the Prowlers would rebound to win the third place game 3-0 the following day.

The 2011 Class A final was the first of three consecutive meetings between the Cadets and Hawks. On paper, it was a mismatch: Hermantown was a little on the young side, while St. Thomas was good everywhere in the lineup. But in the early going, it was all Hawks, as they wee up 3-0 7:05 into the game, largely through the efforts of Jared Thomas. St. Thomas turned up the pressure in a 19-shot second period; they pulled it to 3-2 before giving up another, then scored again with two minutes left in the period to head to the third down 4-3. Andrew Commers tied the game in the third, and the seesawing affair headed to overtime. There, Taylor Fleming proved the Cadets’ hero and gave the school its third Class A championship.

The game was only a preview of fun to come. Hermantown and St. Thomas would collide twice more in the final in the coming years, while Breck, while still a contender, would settle into a third-fiddle status in the following years. But 2011, in very dramatic fashion, belonged to Eden Prairie and St. Thomas Academy.

Incomplete

Tonight is the opening round of the 7AA playoffs, but I’m sitting at home. The Duluth East hockey season came to an unceremonious end on Thursday, March 11. In a cruel irony, I’d just come home from my first vaccine shot when I got the news. The Hounds were done for 2021, slayed by the virus, and while there was some back-room wrangling to try to pull off a game tonight, it came to nothing. The protocols won out, and the East season came to an end.

The shutdown denied us a satisfying narrative to close out a tumultuous season. 2021 saw a lurching preseason, a month-and-a-half delay in the start of games, a mask mandate and empty arenas, and mass midseason defections from the East senior class. At 6-8-2, the Hounds logged their second straight losing season after decades upon decades of winning. At the same time, they were playing their best hockey toward the end, as evidenced by a loss to Grand Rapids that was competitive until the end and a battle with Hermantown that was tied until a fateful single play that led to a major penalty on which it slipped away. When this team maintained its discipline, it was proving it could be a royal pain to its more skilled rivals. What was this season? Was it going to be the year the Mike Randolph regime finally crumbled into chaos, as a team rejected his intense demands? Was it going to be yet another tale of East rallying behind a radical game plan to pull a stunning upset? We will never know.

For all the drama, though, this team was exactly what I thought it would be coming into the season. They did not beat a single team I expected them to lose to, and they did not lose to a single team I expected them to beat. The only semi-exception was a tie to Cloquet, which was unfortunate after two earlier wins but no grand shock in a rivalry game that was played three times in sixteen games. The youth movement did not surprise me, though the commitment to a third man high did, somewhat; I expected East to establish lines that I might come to see for the next two or three years, rather than the rotating cast that at times had the team struggling to get the right number of players on the ice. By the second Hermantown game, when the team seemed a bit more ambitious offensively, I finally had my finger on the end goal, the ends behind the means. But we never got to see them.

And so, as always, I thank the seniors: Dylan and Brady Gray, Zarley Ziemski, Garrett Johnson, Matthew Locker, Caleb Keenan, and George Rolfe. Aside, of course, from those who have suffered directly from the virus, there are no people who have more of my sympathy over the events of the past year than those in their high school and college years who have lost vital formative times they will never have back. To these ones, who persevered through this season and so much more, it must feel like a cruel joke to see the season stolen away just as it seemed like things were lurching back toward normalcy.

If the young core returns, the future of East hockey looks pretty bright in a more normal 2021-2022. The defensive corps in particular appears promising going forward, with a bunch of kids who were really rounding into their roles coming back. (I hope the two who spent much of this season in a positionless sort of limbo can settle into more natural roles.) The Hounds return a handful of forwards with genuine skill, and there are reinforcements on the horizon from the youth program. Both young goaltenders played reasonably well, giving the program viable options for several years to come there. If the top-end players continue to progress and the team can round out its lower lines with some good, hard-working role players, the Hounds can be formidable next season.

My claim that this team basically played to its talent level might come off as a rationalization for mediocrity. Anyone who knows me, however, knows I have spent most of the past two years rolling my eyes at sloppy play and muttering things under my breath. I am, however, blessed with an ability to step back and see things for what they are, and the many hours I take to watch the top teams in the state every year and rank them gives me the sense of perspective over what is realistic. I also benefit from a long time horizon: few, if any, people have followed this program as closely over the past 15 years. This is not to say I will not arch my eyebrows at times, or that there have not been occasional failures during the Randolph era. There have been, among them the 2009 quarterfinal against Cretin-Derham Hall, the 2012 Lakeville South collapse, and the sorry limp toward the Forest Lake affair in 2020. But those were the exceptions to the rule.

The past three seasons have had an unusual level of chaos at Duluth East. Sure, complaints about Mike Randolph are not new, and universal approval is impossible. Through the middle of the past decade, though, the Duluth East program achieved relative peace. It was a welcome development, and one I lauded because it seemed like the kids and the coaches were just having a lot of fun. Not coincidentally, I was pleased with the on-ice result every single season from 2013 to 2018; even when the team fell short, I didn’t feel like they’d given anything less than they could have. That sense is gone now. In part this may just be a product of mediocrity, which no one is handling well, but the wheels started to wobble in 2019, when the team was quite good and I had few complaints about how they were playing at the end.

A lot can go into that shift, and I have no great interest in interrogating what changed at this time and in this format. (If you’re really interested, let’s grab a drink post-pandemic and chat.) I will observe only that Duluth East hockey has been at its best when it has combined great talent with coaching creativity and defined roles. The talent has been in relative short supply in recent years, no doubt, but that will happen from time to time, and hard work can still make up for talent gaps. The coaching creativity is a constant in this program, sometimes to the point of excess, but more often than not successful. What have been in short supply over the past few seasons have been the well-defined roles. And while I recognize that a coach needs to play around some to see what he has and that kids (and their parents) also need to be willing to accept roles, well, if these next few seasons are to be a Greyhound restoration, that stability is essential.

So I will watch these strange, East-less playoffs, and then look forward to a break after a season that took away too much of what I enjoy about this sport. (How delightfully transgressive that one night at the bar after one win felt.) Will the recent travails and empty feelings at the end be a sad interruption, just like we hope this pandemic is, or a sign that things won’t ever be as they were? We’ll be back here in November to start answering that question.

High Stakes on Skates

I am going to write this post in the abstract and avoid any names. I don’t think it’s any secret to those in the know who or what inspired this post, but I also certainly do not mean to cast any aspersions upon anyone, or to pretend like I know what’s going on in specific situations off the ice. I’m going to write this in vague language to try to provide a view from ten thousand feet and show how and why some situations come to pass.

I will start with some simple math. A youth program with five PeeWee teams will have about 75 PeeWee players, or roughly 37 per grade. There are 20 spots on a varsity hockey roster, which will span three and sometimes even four grades. That means that less than a third, maybe less than a quarter, of the kids who play PeeWee hockey in a youth system of that size will ever play varsity hockey. Some will drop out because they have other things they want to do with their time, whether in sports or activities of some sort; some will see the writing on the wall and step aside. A handful may go off to other high schools, though on the flip side, good programs also tend to import a few players along the way, too. But more than enough will still aspire to a spot on varsity. Most if not all of these kids will have played on upper-level youth teams, and many will have had some success there.

For those who do make it through, a coach needs a process. Some kids just aren’t that talented, and no level of extra skating or hours in the gym is going to change that. These are, simultaneously, both the easiest kids to cut and the hardest kids to tell they do not have a roster spot. A coach, however, does those kids a disservice if he indulges them in a fantasy, and he has an obligation to the other 19 kids on the roster to put the best team on the ice. By high school, most reasonable observers seem to understand we are not in this for participation trophies. This certainly does not give high school coaches carte blanche to run programs like military camps, and every now and then one sees a case for keeping a beloved if not great figure around for what he brings to the team in work ethic or camaraderie. But talent, at the end of the day, is the first great separator, and no one should ever judge a coach for using that as a deciding factor.

There are other ways to cull the herd, though, and they are valuable, if not necessary, in a larger program where there is relatively little difference between what we might call a number of replacement-level players. I don’t make it my business to know what kids do or don’t do off the ice (though sometimes one can’t help but hear things). But it is certainly a coach’s job to do so. An involved coach will know what kid’s grades are, will have some sense of how much he may party or smoke pot or treat other kids in school, and will certainly know how much work a kid is putting in during the offseason. After a little while, the coach will also know something about a kid’s mental headspace; whether he fights through challenges or crumbles in front of them, and whether he takes responsibility when opportunities emerge or blames his problems on outside forces.

When sorting among forty to fifty kids and deciding who gets playing time, these all strike me as perfectly valid data points. We may choose to weight certain ones differently; some coaches will be more forgiving and believe in second chances, while others will wield the iron hammer. Some will hand down cuts indiscriminately; some will provide a series of off-ramps through nudging and hard truths, perhaps offering manager roles or even encouragement to go play somewhere else to keep the hockey dream alive. How they communicate these decisions is essential, and once again, I am not in the locker room and cannot judge them. But the determinations in and of themselves are, once again, never going to be my source of complaint.

What is obvious is that parents are often the poorest judges of these factors. I am not a parent yet, so I can’t claim to know the anguish of learning that your kid just isn’t good enough, or see him caught in limbo and shuttling between varsity and junior varsity. I am sure it is even harder to learn that a coach is skeptical of your kid’s work ethic or off-ice activity, regardless of whether that determination may have any seeds of truth. I’m only tangentially aware of the desire for certain outcomes that comes after thousands upon thousands of dollars of investment and exposure to the hype machine of an inward-looking world (to which I confess I am a contributor) that can inflate an ego. I can only look at these situations with the eyes of an invested but fairly neutral observer.

From that standpoint, I have a fascinating window. Parents of skilled players will grumble if the coach runs a deep lineup; parents of the fringe players grow angry if the bench shortens in the slightest. Running a more rigid system angers parents who prize the development gods above all others; playing run-and-gun hockey leads to disgust over the lack of discipline or coherence and grumbles about underachievement. I listen as parents who once lobbied to get their sophomores into the lineup come to laud seniors who pay their dues two years later. Deep parent friend groups form over years of youth tournament travel, and it can be hard to watch a good friend’s kid get squeezed out through the attrition process. (For that matter, it can be hard for kids to watch their friends go through the same process.) One parent starts to complain or picks up on a criticism from elsewhere, and before long a herd starts heading in a certain direction, even if one has no real beef around one’s own kid.

This especially true in an era when parenting, in a not unjustified turn against the cold distance of past generations, has drifted toward unconditional support instead of tougher love. No doubt there are some situations where a kid just gets a short end of the stick. But I know enough about the teenage psyche to know how easy it is at that age to feel aggrieved and tell oneself—and even fully convince oneself—that one is the victim of a grave injustice when the world does not move in the path of one’s dreams. (Some people, of course, never grow out of this phase.) A halfway intelligent parent knows this tendency and can see right through it. This is not to say coaches deserve unconditional support either, but that a clear-eyed parent can see the nuance there while at the same time having a very good idea of where their own kid should stand.

Last year, I took a phone call from an anguished parent who lamented that his kid was probably going to get squeezed out. He’d seen it happen to other kids in similar situations, and he was worried, because hockey was the thing that kept this kid going. (My co-workers looked on with wry smirks as I tried to politely acknowledge this guy’s concerns while edging him off the ledge.) I didn’t think quickly enough to articulate my response to that statement, but the simple truth is this: if hockey is how the kid is measuring his self-worth, something that has nothing to do with hockey is awry in that situation. Too often, the fixation on the path of dreams blinds people to the cold facts of reality, and the need to not put all of one’s pucks in one bucket. Hockey is not life, and never will be.

Greatness, by its very nature, implies that many will fall short of that standard. To play in a great high school hockey program in Minnesota is to accept that, for all of the broad community-based participation that goes into making it what it is, the spoils will go to those toward the top of Herb Brooks’ old pyramid. This is the price of glory. Are we crazy to saddle high school kids with such burdens, and does this obsession undermine the sport we claim to love? Perhaps; the ties it builds make the tough decisions much more painful than they would in a more transactional, free market hockey world. Decisions that would be business as usual in a AAA program feel like cuts to the heart in a high school.

That’s why the reward that comes at the end, in front of 18,000 in St. Paul, is something no other form of hockey can replicate. This is why some of us who have seen much of the world beyond Minnesota will forever see high school hockey as the pinnacle of the sport. It is an uncompromising process that can rip one’s heart out. The push it demands can bring out the worst in people. But it can also bring out the best, and over the years, that is what has made high school hockey exceptional.

Return of the Hounds?

Little did we know that a miserable February trip Forest Lake would be the last Duluth East hockey game until January 2021, an ugly wound left to fester for two extra months. The intervening period had little to offer from a high school hockey perspective: stop-and-start summer activity, a halfhearted bridge league, another lengthy pause right when it seemed like we might be ready to go. Now we have hockey, albeit in near-empty arenas and with ubiquitous masks, leaving the game a shell of the spectacle it should be. But it is hockey nonetheless, and as one of the fortunate few able to attend games, I am resolved to make the most of it.

The delay only added the mystery around a team in year two of an unfamiliar rebuilding cycle. While last season had its question marks at the start, the Duluth East senior class of 2020 was, at least, reasonably deep, and we had some idea of what we would get. Before things came apart toward the end, they basically were what I’d expected: a team ranked in the 20-25 range in the state, capable of some surprise showings against the state’s best and ugly defeats, a potential thorn but no front-line contender. Most of the leading scorers off last season’s edition have graduated and moved on.

Those departures might imply the team is due for an even darker 2021, but the evidence to date suggests otherwise. For starters, the program is still plenty deep, and another respectable senior class has stepped forward to fill some of the holes. Players like Dylan and Brady Gray and William Weinkauf aren’t going to put up massive numbers, but they are going to forecheck hard and apply a work ethic that can get results; Garrett Johnson has size and a hard shot, and Matthew Locker has settled into a steady role. Zarley Ziemski is capable of being a very productive high school player.

The real reason for excitement, though, comes in the younger classes. Kaden Nelson, the headliner in the junior class, has taken a step forward and looks like he can be a force up front; he leads the team in scoring through six games. There were flashes of brilliance from Cole Christian as a freshman, but it didn’t add up to a whole ton of production; now, he is starting to collect the points, and at times the offense seems to run strictly through his creativity. Several times a game, Christian leaves me laughing with delight as he does ridiculous things with the puck in tight spaces, his puck control on par with that of anyone who has come out of this program in my time watching. Freshman Wyatt Peterson showed some instant potential with the first goal on the season; Aidan Spenningsby and Henry Murray give the team the makings of a capable defense, showing flashes and collecting points. The versatile Grant Winkler, meanwhile, has a hint of Phil Beaulieu in his ability to play just about any role, and as a sophomore is starting to make this team his own. Two young goaltenders, Zander Ziemski and Dane Callaway, both have shown plenty of promising signs.

How good the Hounds actually are, though, remains a bit of a mystery. They are 4-1-1 through six games, but only one came against a front-line opponent, and while there are glimmers, there has been nothing sustained enough for me to think this is a top 20 team in 2021. The Hounds tied the best Denfeld team in decades out of the gates in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair. Their sole loss to date came at the hands of Grand Rapids, the frontrunner in 7AA, in which they came out in a painfully cynical forecheck. For a period it almost worked; they stuck around and created some halfway decent chances, but it swiftly became inane once Rapids went up, and the ultimate 3-0 result belied an effort that generated nothing in the way of offense and triggered my Forest Lake PTSD. Beyond that, the Hounds have plugged along against middling competition, logging wins over Superior, Brainerd, and Cloquet twice. They’re good, workmanlike showings, and help restore some degree of the order that slipped away late last season.

With that base of success to work with, they will now need to step it up in the coming weeks as the schedule grows more difficult. First up is Hermantown, as a long-running cold war lifts, at least temporarily; from an East perspective, one could hardly think of a worse season to meet the Class A juggernaut from the suburban swamp behind the mall once again. It will likely be ugly. After that they visit Minnetonka, and after a reset against some of the local competition they’re stuck with in a travel-limited season, Moorhead, St. Thomas, Roseau, and rematches with Rapids and Hermantown fill out a decent enough schedule given the circumstances.

Another Covid-era quirk means the Hounds basically already know their playoff fate. With 7AA splitting into northern and southern playoff brackets, East is all but assured the 2-seed in the north, making for a fourth meeting with Cloquet in the quarterfinals for the right to have a semifinal date with Rapids. The destination is clear enough; the path they take there is the only question, as we look for signs of progression and competitiveness. To do that, the program needs to resist the chaos and get players into roles where they’re set up to succeed. With that, we can get a sense of just how much this Hounds group could grow, and if we might be looking ahead toward a return to the lofty standards of the past.

Pandemic Rankings: Mascot Edition

In this week’s edition of random Sunday morning pandemic rankings, I rank and categorize every active boys’ high school hockey program’s mascot, plus a handful from recent history. We’ll roll through a bunch of categories before we get to the authoritative top 15.

Nameless Wonders

We start with the mascots that don’t exist: some co-ops have decided to not even bother with one. In some ways I prefer this to a meteorological or celestial phenomenon glued on top of a group of schools with their own unique mascots, which seems to be the standard operating procedure for co-ops.

Minneapolis

Minnesota River

The Inane

These schools take pride in stating the obvious.

Prior Lake Lakers

Detroit Lakes Lakers

White Bear Lake Bears

St. Francis Saints

Red Wing Wingers

Buffalo Bison

Elk River Elks

-This one is the winner of this category: not only is it inane, it’s grammatically wrong. The plural of elk is elk. Unless they were naming themselves after the fraternal organization, I guess, in which case their mascot should be a group of 70-year-old dudes running a bingo game or something.

Mixed Messaging

Am I supposed to be intimidated or amused by these ones? Nobody knows!

Stillwater Ponies

-There has to be a good origin story here.

Winona Winhawks

Grand Rapids Thunderhawks

-Slapping prefixes on to poor, unsuspecting hawks is a surprisingly common theme.

Thief River Falls Prowlers

-Is it a cat, or something more…questionable?

Burnsville Blaze

-Like Grand Rapids, a replacement for a now decommissioned Native American mascot; unclear if a reference to a fire or a subtle nod to the use of an illicit substance.

Kittson Central Bearcats

-Is it a bear, or is it a cat? Actually, the proper name for it seems to be a binturong!

Flocking to Boredom

Birds, for some reason, make for attractive high school mascots. With ten entries, “Eagles” is the most common name in the state, though the southern part of the state sure loves its cardinals.

Apple Valley Eagles

Becker-Big Lake Eagles

Eden Prairie Eagles

New Ulm Eagles

Red Lake Falls Eagles

Rochester Lourdes Eagles

Totino-Grace Eagles

St. Cloud Apollo Eagles

Windom Eagles

Alexandria Cardinals

Coon Rapids Cardinals

Fairmont Cardinals

Luverne Cardinals

Redwood Valley Cardinals

Willmar Cardinals

Chaska Hawks

Hermantown Hawks

Faribault Falcons

Waseca Bluejays

East Ridge Raptors

-For the first several years of this school’s existence, I assumed this mascot was a dinosaur, and I was sorely disappointed when I learned it was just another stupid bird.

Osseo Orioles

St. Louis Park Orioles

Cat People

Like senile old ladies, high school mascots have way too many cats. Also, since when is a Royal a cat? All three teams named “Royals” are cats.

Chisago Lakes Wildcats

Dodge County Wildcats

Eagan Wildcats

Waconia Wildcats

Albert Lea Tigers

Delano Tigers

Farmington Tigers

Hutchinson Tigers

Marshall Tigers

St. Cloud Tech Tigers

Lakeville North Panthers

Park Rapids Panthers

Rochester Century Panthers

Spring Lake Park Panthers

Centennial Cougars

Lakeville South Cougars

Mankato East Cougars

St. Paul Como Park Cougars

Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars

Blaine Bengals

Legacy Christian Academy Lions

Providence Academy Lions

Hopkins Royals

Rogers Royals

Woodbury Royals

Shakopee Sabres

-Questionable, but their mascot is a saber-toothed tiger, so they get stuck here.

Dead Old Soldiers

Along with birds and cats, vague historic military references make for a large category.

Brainerd Warriors

Henry Sibley Warriors

-We’ll see if the name change for the high school changes the mascot. It wouldn’t hurt.

Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders

Greenway Raiders

Hastings Raiders

Northfield Raiders

Roseville Raiders

Crookston Pirates

Champlin Park Rebels

Moose Lake Rebels

St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders

Irondale Knights

St. Michael-Albertville Knights

Orono Spartans

Richfield Spartans

Rochester Mayo Spartans

Simley Spartans

St. Paul Academy Spartans

New Prague Trojans

Wayzata Trojans

Worthington Trojans

North Branch Vikings

Other Commonly Used Names

Say hello to various dogs, horses, frequently repeated animals, and meteorological or celestial phenomena. While not quite as common as all the birds and cats, these names evince little creativity.

Cambridge-Isanti Blue Jackets

Hibbing Bluejackets

-Is it one word, or two? The debate rages.

Andover Huskies

Owatonna Huskies

Pine City Dragons

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons

Blake Bears

Lake of the Woods Bears

Bagley Flyers

Northern Lakes Lightning

Eastview Lightning

Breckenridge/Wahpeton Blades

Forest Lake Rangers

Rock Ridge Wolverines

Wadena-Deer Creek Wolverines

Chanhassen Storm

Morris/Benson Storm

North Shore Storm

Sauk Rapids-Rice Storm

Breck Mustangs

Mora Mustangs

Mounds View Mustangs

Robbinsdale Wings

Academy of Holy Angels Stars

River Lakes Stars

Prairie Centre North Stars

Southwest Christian/Richfield Stars

Adding Some Color

Some of these just slap an adjective on a boring mascot, but even that makes things much better, and some of the best—Scarlets, Crimson—do generate pretty strong images. I still don’t know what a Green Wave is.

Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears

Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights

Minnehaha Academy Redhawks

Mound-Westonka White Hawks

Maple Grove Crimson

Mankato West Scarlets

East Grand Forks Green Wave

More Unique, but Nothing Special

At least someone tried.

LaCrescent Lancers

Holy Family Fire

Park (Cottage Grove) Wolfpack

St. Thomas Academy Cadets

Virginia Blue Devils

Sartell-St. Stephen Sabres

-In Shakopee, sabres are cats; in Sartell, they are swords.

Tartan Titans

-Bonus points for alliteration.

Riding Reputation

These ones would be in the previous category, but they get bonus points for being iconic in hockey.

Edina Hornets

Hill-Murray Pioneers

Duluth East Greyhounds

Roseau Rams

Historical/Local Relevance

Call these the honorable mentions: they often aren’t the most creative names on earth, but at least they have some obvious tie to the school or local community that just makes sense, and they get credit for that. Some honor local blue-collar or ethnic roots, or, in Minnetonka’s case, white-collar yacht-piloting roots.

Austin Packers

South St. Paul Packers

Rosemount Irish

St. Paul Highland Park Scots

Bemidji Lumberjacks

Minnetonka Skippers

Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers

-Marshall is, indeed, on top of a hill; I go back and forth on whether this one is creative or belongs in the inane category.

Princeton Tigers

-How many people in Princeton get the reference with this one?

The Top 15

15. Rochester John Marshall Rockets

-I just like this one for no apparent reason.

14. Proctor Rails

-If your town was built around a railyard, you might as well have some fun with it.

13. Monticello Moose

-The Moose chant at the X a few years back made this one legendary.

12. Duluth Denfeld Hunters

-Fun fact: not named after people going hunting, but instead for a guy named Hunting.

11. Fergus Falls Otters

-This one is just…fun.

10. Anoka Tornadoes

-As is this one.

9. International Falls Broncos

-Not named for the animal, but for famous son Bronko Nagurski. A few bonus points for history.

8. Little Falls Flyers

-Another name that honors a local of historical significance, Charles Lindbergh.

7. Warroad Warriors

-It may seem like a generic name, but the backstory and living culture here gives it some serious cred.

6. North St. Paul Polars

-Second-best mascot image. RIP.

5. Cloquet Lumberjacks

-The lumberjack dude is pretty hard to beat, and somehow the purple makes it that much more endearing.

4. St. Paul Johnson Governors

-Could go in the “historic/local” category, but this is the best of the bunch.

3. Mahtomedi Zephyrs

-The west wind is a winner, both as a mascot and now on the ice.

2. Ely Timberwolves

Best mascot image out there.

1. Moorhead Spuds

-Could it be anything else?

Pandemic Rankings: Greatest Duluth East Regular Season Games, 2006-2020

As we settle into hockey quarantine, I find myself plagued by a compulsion to continue to rank things on Sunday mornings. My first take: the most memorable Duluth East regular season games over the 15ish years I’ve been following Hounds hockey. I plan to do something like this every week of what would be the hockey season until I can rank actual hockey teams again, and I promise that not all future takes will not be this East-centric.

As usual, I’m going to list 25 entries, with a top 15 ranked and ten honorable mentions though I’ll put them in reverse order to add to the drama or something.

The Honorable Mentions

Edina 3, Duluth East 1, 2008

-A random game of no great consequence, but I just remember this as an incredibly well-played, fairly even game between the eventual runner-up and a Hounds team that was finding its stride defensively. Edina’s Marshall Everson was the difference-maker with two goals, including a late one to put East away.

Duluth East 7, Superior 0, 2018

-Like the Edina 2008 game, this game probably won’t be one most people commit to memory. It stands more in my mind as one of aesthetic near-perfection, with the Hounds’ control about as a total as a team’s can be. I also have a strange fondness for watching games at Wessman Arena, where the high bank of stands just let the total domination unfold before me. It was a beauty to watch. Garrett Worth scored twice in a four-goal first period, while Austin Jouppi had himself a hat trick by the end as well.

Duluth East 7, Elk River 0, 2018

-It’s not often you see a seven-minute power play, but this game managed to achieve that. Austin Jouppi scored twice to pace a relentless Greyhound attack that had the Elks in a dour mood by the third period. East’s play down the stretch in 2018, as repeated games from that era on here will show, was probably the most complete late-season showing by a Hounds team in my time watching the program.

Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2008

-Get used to seeing these two team names on this list. This version wasn’t the most dramatic of the bunch, but a key victory late in one’s senior year is a good bet for the list, and this one, decided by Dillon Friday’s dump-in goal from center ice, secured the top seed for the Hounds.

Cloquet 3, Duluth East 0, 2006

-The gameplay of this one wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but in my memory, it is the East-Cloquet rivalry at its most fevered pitch, a time when going into the Lumberdome was a legitimately scary experience for an East student. At one point, the Cloquet fans threw a golf ball across the ice at us; in response, the ever impartial Cloquet security people ejected a few East kids for no real reason. To be fair, we probably deserved it for some of the things we were yelling.

Duluth East 4, Cloquet 0, 2011

-Like the 2006 game, this wasn’t a real thriller, but Jake Randolph going off on the Jacks was memorable, as was the on-ice scrum at the end featuring East-to-Cloquet transfer Nolan Meyer and a sophomore enforcer-in-the-making in Andrew Kerr.

Andover 7, Duluth East 1, 2020

-Ugly and not particularly surprising, given the teams’ respective talent levels, but this game was a decisive sign that East’s reign atop 7AA from 2018-2019 would be coming to a close.

Duluth East 6, Cloquet 1, 2009

-After a long string of frustration and tight games with their great rivals of the 00s, including a playoff thriller the Jacks won the season before, the Hounds busted out and buried Cloquet. It touched off a run of 12 East wins in a row over the Jacks before a loss in 2014 brought the rivalry back to a more competitive level. The fracas at the end was also the most dramatic of this era, with East leaving the ice before returning for the handshake line and a charming exchange of pleasantries between Mike Randolph and Dave Esse.

Andover 2, Duluth East 1, 2019

-This game was not a sign of things to come, as East avenged Andover’s first-ever win over the Hounds in sections, but it was a very entertaining, back-and-forth affair in front of a packed house in Andover. Luke Kron popped the overtime game-winner for the Huskies, temporarily avenging the section final loss the year before in this low-scoring game that started as a chess match but turned into a burnburner over time.

Edina 7, Duluth East 1, 2015

-I include this game simply for the shock value of how completely Edina dominated East, despite nine Hounds power plays. As I watched the stream from a couch in the Caribbean, I was ready to throw in the towel. A little over two months later, the Hounds would complete one of the most dramatic script-flips in the history of high school hockey.

The Top 15

15. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2017

-If Cloquet was East’s great rival in the 00s, then Grand Rapids took that title in the teens. This game drops down the list a bit because Grand Rapids was down a few players, and it sits sandwiched between the Thunderhawks’ thrilling section final wins in 2016 and 2017, but in this regular season meeting, the Hounds got some sweet, sweet revenge, who were paced by three-point nights from Garrett Worth and Ian Mageau.

14. Duluth East 4, Eden Prairie 3, 2011

-Add this to the string of games in this section that were fun, memorable, and a reverse of what would happen in the playoffs. In a game played at the newly opened Amsoil Arena, Dom Toninato won it for the Hounds in overtime, despite East being outshot 32-14. Toninato scored twice for the Hounds, while (who else?) Kyle Rau had two for the Eagles, including a tying goal with just under three minutes left in regulation. This one was just a sneak preview of the three-overtime thriller these two would give us that March.

13. Blaine 7, Duluth East 6, 2015

-This might have been the most dramatically see-sawing game I’ve ever seen. Blaine jumped out to a 3-0 lead, East fought back to go up 4-3, Blaine popped three more to lead 6-4, East tied it 6-6, then Blaine won it in overtime. While it was a loss, it was a sign of fight from an East team that was about to go on an epic playoff run. This was also the night some random dude named Danny Ryan sought me out and introduced himself to me. I had no memory of him when he re-introduced himself to me at the State Tournament a month later.

12. East 6, Cloquet 6, 2018

-Talent-wise, this was a game that shouldn’t have been this close, but it was also one of the most massively entertaining games I’ve ever watched. Cloquet came back from a 5-3 deficit to grab a 6-5 lead with 15 seconds remaining. The Hounds’ Brendan Baker then scored with three seconds and change left to salvage the affair. Two of the team’s five regular season blemishes in 2018 came at the hands of their rivals.

11. Duluth East 2, Cloquet 1, 2006

-Ryland Nelson’s overtime game-winner in front of thousands at the DECC avenged the 3-0 loss earlier this season and secured the top seed for East in one of the best seasons 7AA has ever had. The game was a nervy thriller, with Ben Leis making 36 saves for East in the win. He’d allow just one goal in the section semifinal matchup as well, but that time, the East offense drew a blank, and the Jacks collected the third of four playoff wins over East in the 00s.

10. Duluth East 4, Edina 1, 2013

-East’s seven-year reign over 7AA that began in 2009 could have easily come to an end in 2013, a season after the Hounds’ Tourney upset loss to Lakeville South. Rising Grand Rapids was at the Hounds’ heels, and the team came out to a pretty pedestrian start to the season. Then, in the second game of the Schwan Cup, the Hounds burst to life to defeat a favorite. The Hornets, however, would have the last laugh when these two teams met in a Tourney semifinal.

9. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2013

-If the aforementioned Edina win was the game that turned the 2013 season around, this late-season victory was the one that cemented the style of this Hounds edition. Their power play late in the season, which ran through defenseman Meirs Moore atop the umbrella, was perhaps the most lethal I’ve seen on a high school team: it hit 42% in the regular season that year, and this game was no exception, as Moore bombed away for an all-power play natural hat trick to overcome an early 2-0 deficit. This team wasn’t blessed with D-I talent (Moore and Phil Beaulieu were its only two), but those two defensemen and total team buy-in took this group a long way.

8. Duluth East 4, Maple Grove 1, 2012

-After beating #2 Minnetonka in the Schwan Cup Gold championship game, the top-ranked Hounds faced a second #2-ranked team the next week, and was every bit as convincing in victory. This one is lower in the rankings than the Minnetonka game since that Skipper team was legitimately better and because that game came in a tournament, but East’s puck control in this game was so thorough that it was what I had in mind when I picked a name for this a blog.

7. Grand Rapids 4, Duluth East 3, 2016

-An overlooked game, but an important one in retrospect: though Rapids had beaten East in the regular season in 2015, the Hounds’ win in sections that year showed they had something to prove. In regulation, it seemed like East might still have Rapids’ number, as the Hounds came back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits in the third period to force overtime. This time, however, the Thunderhawks found a way to win in overtime, which would set the tone for the next two section finals. East’s invincibility in close games against Rapids had come to a close. The unlikely hero for Rapids was defenseman Drake Anderson.

6. Minnetonka 9, Duluth East 3, 2012

-The great Hockey Day debacle: undefeated East went down in a heap at Pagel. There were a lot of asterisks at the time; East was down a bunch of players and the game had been moved indoors on fairly short notice due to bad ice on the planned outdoor rink, but it was the first warning sign that this dream season was not to be.

5. Duluth East 1, Cloquet 1, 2007

-Maybe the best-played of the great East-Cloquet duels of the late 00s that litter this list. The Jacks were down injured star forward Tyler Johnson, so if the Hounds were to grab the top seed in the section and avoid a semifinal clash with Grand Rapids, this was their chance. They didn’t quite do enough. The game was a goaltending clinic: Cloquet’s Reid Ellingson, that season’s Brimsek Award winner, made 53 saves, while East’s Ben Leis, no slouch in his own right, made 39. We thought this game would be a section final preview, but Grand Rapids had other ideas when it faced East in the semis.

4. Duluth East 1, Elk River 1, 2015

-The game I will forever remember as the 2-3 game: East, coming off a loss to Anoka and sitting at 10-9-2, the Hounds busted out their funky forecheck and played the clear 7AA favorite pretty even. Freshman Garrett Worth scored the Hounds’ lone goal, though we still need a replay on whether the Hounds’ effort in overtime went in the net. It was a preview of the Hounds’ double overtime win over the Elks in the 7AA final and the storybook playoff run that will follow. This was the night that turned the season around, and I walked out with a sneaking suspicion that this group might just pull something off.

3. Duluth East 4, Minnetonka 2, 2018

-A delicious clash and preview of the eventual state championship game. A strong second period was the separator for the Hounds, who rode two Garrett Worth goals to a 3-1 lead that they hung on to in the 3rd. They wouldn’t repeat the feat at State, but for one night in January, East rose to #1 in the state for the first time since 2012.

2. Duluth East 6, Minnetonka 2, 2012

-Another battle for the top spot between the Hounds and Skippers, but this one was even more decisive, with East running out to a 2-0 lead after one and a 5-0 lead after two. Back when the Schwan Cup was a sort of midseason championship, this game was a coronation for the East team that, when on its form, was the most dominant one the Hounds have produced since the golden age of the late 90s. Ryan Lundgren scored both first period goals, while Dom Toninato had himself a four-point night at the X.

1. Duluth East 5, Grand Rapids 0, 2014

-Grand Rapids had reason to believe 2014 would be the year the Thunderhawks finally broke through. They had Mr. Hockey winner Avery Peterson up front and Frank Brimsek winner Hunter Shepard in net, both as seniors, and the supporting cast was nothing to sneeze at, either. Heading into this game at the IRA Civic Center, it was time for a Rapids team that had fallen just short in the 2013 section final to make a statement against an East team that didn’t have the overwhelming depth of talent of previous years. Phil Beaulieu and friends, however, had other ideas. Before long, the rout was on. For shock factor in a hostile environment against a rival, this one takes the cake.