State Tournament Look Back: 2012

As usual, I’ll wrap up my annual hockey coverage with a look back to the Tourney from a decade ago, complete with a snapshot on the careers of participants after high school, with breakdowns on both Division-I players and those who played after high school in any venue.

The 2012 Tourney might just be the most memorable one I’ve ever seen. Upset Thursday was one of the most dramatic days of quarterfinals ever, St. Thomas Academy cemented its status as the foremost power in Class A, and Grant Besse’s heroics put an exclamation point on a storybook run for Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the aftermath of Jack Jablonski’s paralyzing midseason injury. It was a Tourney that padded the event’s mystique, and the amount of front-end talent on display that weekend was particularly memorable.

Class AA

The 2012 Tourney is most memorable for the defeat of all four seeded teams in the quarterfinals. In some respects, it wasn’t a total shock: this was a loaded Tourney field. All eight entrants were ranked in the top 11 in the state heading into sections, and seven of the eight were the top seed in their respective sections, the lone exception being a powerful Benilde-St. Margaret’s team that came out of a loaded section 6AA and decisively knocked off second-ranked Minnetonka to make the Tourney.

Against that backdrop, the first of the upsets is one that, in retrospect, seems less shocking than it was at the time. Maple Grove had been a force all season and obliterated Blaine 15-1 in the 5AA final, but their talent level was not otherworldly. Wily Hill-Murray, in reload mode after a senior-heavy team fell short the previous season, had more than enough skill to match them. And sure enough, after conceding an early goal, the Pioneers went to work and scored five times in a row, with Zach LaValle having a hand in four of the tallies. The Pios finished off Maple Grove 5-2 and advanced to the semis.

If the first upset was an impressive showing by an underrated team, the second one was a good, old-fashioned theft of a game by a star goaltender. Moorhead senior Michael Bitzer would win the Frank Brimsek Award in 2012, and his quarterfinal performance helped cement his reputation as one of the greatest high school goal tenders of his era. Powerful, grinding Eagan was title favorite, but they lacked the finishing touch to get by Bitzer, and in short order they too were on their way to Mariucci. The loss set back what was, on paper, Eagan’s best team ever.

Matching a new State entrant with a skilled blueblood often ends in an upset; great goalie performances happen. But the upset in the third quarterfinal looks just as jarring ten years later. Duluth East had been ranked number one most of the season, its core almost entirely intact from the AA runner-up edition from the season before. The Hounds’ sole regular season blemish was an ugly Hockey Day loss to Minnetonka, and while there were some warning signs down the stretch that they were perhaps doubling down too much on an elite top line instead of relying on the whole team approach that won them the Schwan Cup Gold, they were the clear top seed in the field. Their opponent, Lakeville South, boasted eventual Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos but otherwise attracted little attention despite a top-10 caliber season. The Cougars’ speed gave the Hounds fits, and the top-ranked team had no answers as the pressure mounted. Down went arguably the best East team of the new millennium, and South, improbably, advanced to the semifinals.

The final game of the day would be hard-pressed to top the three before, but this matchup, which looked good on paper, lived up to its billing as well. For long stretches it looked as if a very young, reloading Edina team would pull it out and suddenly become the favorite for an unexpected title. But Benilde had the air of a team of destiny, and despite the Hornets’ 19-6 shot edge in the final frame, Christian Horn’s goal in the final minute of regulation sealed a Red Knight win.

Moorhead failed to generate much offense in the semifinal with Hill-Murray, but an early Cody Rahman goal seemed, for a spell, like it might be all Bitzer needed. He held up under the Pioneer attack into the third, but Conrad Sampair had other ideas, scoring first to tie the game, and then to win it just 1:51 into overtime. Meanwhile, in the second semifinal, Lakeville South’s luck ran out: Benilde, now the prohibitive favorites, put up five goals in the first period and proceeded with a 10-1 obliteration. South would slip out with third place honors the next night, while Duluth East marched through the consolation bracket.

Saturday night, meanwhile, belonged to one Grant Besse. He scored his first goal just over eight minutes in, and a second less than two later. Guentzel, Hill’s star, at first looked like he might be able to carry his Pioneers through a blow-for-blow fight, but the Hill power play, with Guentzel alone atop an umbrella, may well have been his team’s undoing. Defensively, the Pios had no answer for Besse’s speed the other direction: the first shorty gave him his natural hat trick late in the second, and after Hill clawed a goal back, he promptly got a second. The exclamation point came with just under three minutes left, when Besse lasered home his third shorthanded goal and fifth total goal of the game. The finish was a coronation for Besse, whose performance in the modern State Tournament has few modern era rivals not named Dave Spehar. The crown was Benilde’s, the storybook season marred only by a strange kerfuffle over Jablonsky’s allowance on the ice for the celebration.

Class A

In Class A, 2012 brought the second of three championship showdowns between Hermantown and St. Thomas Academy. This time around, the undefeated Hawks earned the top seed, while St. Thomas slotted in second, Breck third, and Thief River Falls fourth. None of the lower seeds really had a chance. Little Falls and Duluth Marshall, both back in the Tourney after brief absences, did not have the talent of their entertaining counterparts from a few seasons earlier, and lost by twin 7-0 scores to St. Thomas and Breck, respectively. In the evening quarterfinal session, Hermantown dispatched of Rochester Lourdes, while Thief River Falls marched past new Ulm.

Things got better in the semis. St. Thomas and Breck, winners of the past four Class A tournaments, went back and forth in a nervy affair. David Zevnik made Peter Krieger’s second period goal stand up, and the Cadets advanced to the final by a 1-0 score. In the second game, Hermantown staked itself to an early lead and similarly seemed to be holding on in a tight one before the game erupted four minutes into the third. Two quick goals put Thief River on top, but Hermantown answered right back just a minute after the Prowlers’ second score, and Jared Thomas hit paydirt with 5:15 left to lift the Hawks to a third consecutive state title game.

This one did not go well for Hermantown. After giving the Cadets all they could handle the previous season, the undefeated Hawks got pummeled this time around. St. Thomas scored twice in the first and three times in the first ten minutes of the second, and the rest was academic. It wound up as a 5-1 final, and the Cadets claimed their second championship in a row and their fourth in Class A. The chorus of cries for their graduation to Class AA grew louder, most notably in some biting remarks from Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, but the Cadets’ status was clear: far and away the best team in Class A in 2012. In retrospect, the talent gap appears glaring, and the Cadets may have been the best team in either class.

That dominance would continue as the state looked ahead to the following season: in Class A, the two finalists were on a collision course for a third straight year. The AA powers’ positions weren’t getting any weaker, either, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Duluth East would all return in search of redemption in 2013. But not everything was preordained: the Benilde dynasty this Tourney seemed to herald did not come to pass, as the senior-loaded Red Knights would lose in sections the following season, and (as of this writing) have not been back to State since. Lakeville South’s quarterfinal win also heralded the rise of the Lakeville schools, long State Tourney doormats, as serious contenders over the next decade, while the full arrival of Maple Grove would take a bit longer. But in 2012, the show belonged to Besse, to Jablonski, to the Red Knights, and to the St. Thomas machine.

We Are Who We Are

As a sports fan, I have always made it my priority to accept reality for my favorite teams. Talent levels are what they are, no matter what wishful beliefs we may hold. Acknowledgment of this reality is far from defeatist; it is, instead, an invitation to adjust to the relative strengths and weaknesses of an inevitably flawed team. From that point, I tend to keep some faith because I have seen enough to know the improbable can happen; there is almost always a pathway to an upset or a surprise run, no matter how thin. Hope springs from self-knowledge, and a commitment to rise up in spite of any limitations.

That hope was hard to find at times during this past Duluth East hockey season. It opened with an 0-8 start, and while that was the most difficult portion of the schedule, losses in winnable games against Forest Lake and Bemidji set the team irreparably far back in the section race. The team endured a myriad of injuries, a long Covid pause, and had players lose time for some other reasons, too. In the stands, we joked about Mike Randolph’s parting hex. 7AA’s imbecilic section seeding system left them with a tough playoff date; with a slightly better seed they could have at least made Amsoil, though I don’t think a team that wins seven regular season games has too much ground to complain. The Denfeld debacle and its aftermath cast a pall over the season’s final weeks and led some observers, myself included, to question the point of it all. The team seemed to spiral out of any progress it had made.

And there had been progress: in between those two ugly stretches they rattled off a month of .500 hockey. The Hounds lost four one-goal games to top 15 teams and lodged a respectable tie with Blaine, even as that one signature win would not come. In the section quarterfinal with Grand Rapids, they looked like a reasonably threatening team for a period, popping the first goal and coming close to a second that would have totally changed the tenor of the game. But in the second, a familiar plot line emerged. The Hounds took two more major penalties on which they gave up three goals, and the season was over.

It was a yearlong trend. According to Minnesota Hockey Hub, the Hounds took 310 penalty minutes in 2021-2022. As of the day after their quarterfinal defeat, that was second-most in Class AA, with Gentry Academy claiming the dubious crown. There is a clump of three other teams in the low 290s, and no other team above 270. The average number of penalty minutes for the other teams in 7AA was 221, and that appears high when compared to other sections. (The lowest total, by far? Hill-Murray, at 138.) We can nitpick about bad calls here and reputations among referees there, but this is far too much smoke for there not to be a fire. Combine it with an abysmal 65% penalty kill and it was a formula for disaster that once again came home to roost in the playoffs. The discipline must improve, period.

As always, though, I turn the page and thank the team’s seniors: Tyler Smith, who became a reliable defensive rock on the blue line amid turmoil; Lars Berg, ever the instigator; Wyatt Zwak and Dylan Erickson, who earned their way to regular playing time; and a supporting cast that included Ben LaMaster, Fletcher Dirkers, Eli Fresvik, Kayden Miller, and Dain Fladmark. They have been through the ringer over the past few years, their times at East nothing like senior classes before them, and we appreciate their contributions.

The underclassmen provided some entertainment, too. Cole Christian’s artistry, when he is on his game, is a great pleasure that I try not to take for granted after watching it for three seasons. Noah Teng took major strides toward being a very productive high school forward, and Wyatt Peterson adds to the gaggle of young talent. Aidan Spenningsby continued to show his versatility, and Makoto Sudoh is growing into a genuine power forward. Grant Winkler offers next-level potential on defense, and in a season when every other defenseman spent some time on the shelf, Henry Murray was the one constant presence. I do not know what Grady Downs’ future holds, and I believe it was correct for him not to play the remainder of this past season. But his reckless abandon also made for some pretty entertaining hockey at times, and I do not think anyone should be eternally defined by one incident at age 17. If there can be a redemption story here, I am all for it.

Next season seems a critical one to the post-Randolph era at Duluth East. Barring defections (an all-important disclaimer after recent seasons), they return a lot of players from a team that wasn’t that far off from being respectable when it stayed out of the box. The top line looked legitimately potent against Grand Rapids, and a healthy Thomas Gunderson could be the X-factor for a dynamic offense. They have respectable depth and a veteran in goal; if they can round out the defensive corps, it too can be a strength. There are at least a couple of bantams who will slot in nicely to the openings that remain. Moreover, with Grand Rapids and Blaine set to lose a lot to graduation and no great bantam teams in the section, a high seed in 7AA looks ripe for the picking; only increasingly machine-like Andover, if their stars stick around, has more talent on paper. Duluth East’s wander through the wilderness could be due for an interruption.

There is a lot of time between now and November, however, and this team will have to convince me that it is more than it was at the end of this season. For all the talent, for all the close calls, Duluth East hockey is not in the place where it needs to be. It can get there again, but doing so will take more than the normal dose of effort. Let the work begin.

Embarrassed

In my correspondence and conversations following Duluth East’s 6-2 loss to crosstown rival Duluth Denfeld on Wednesday, the word “embarrassed,” sometimes augmented by colorful adjectives, repeated itself often. Those with a stake in the future worried about the optics. Loyalists of former coach Mike Randolph, on a spectrum from grim observation to vindictive pleasure, lamented his absence. Some said they felt sick, and wondered whether all of this was actually worth it. None of these comments had anything to do with the score.

The proceedings at a packed Heritage Center were not an isolated incident. A ragged affair in Champlin Park the next night marked East’s eighth consecutive game with over ten penalty minutes. The Greyhounds took thirty minutes of penalties in a win over Superior, including a pair of five-and-game penalties for fighting. They took twenty minutes against Cloquet, the bulk coming on a two-and-ten after the buzzer at the end of a period. The gamesheet for the Denfeld game shows fifty-three minutes of penalties, and it may be missing a misconduct or two. It became hard to keep track as the referees dismissed a succession of Greyhounds to the locker room. Those statistics do not capture the full-game suspensions associated with game misconducts. The extent of the deterioration against Denfeld, which carried on past the bludgeoning behind the net through a series of gratuitous excesses as time wound down, exceeded that of any I have ever seen in high school hockey. One of the state’s great programs had become the Bayfront Bullies.

I am far from a scold about decorum. I have always had a soft spot for the Garrett Worths of the world, the kids who earn some right to be cocky with their performance; I relish the long tradition of Greyhound sparkplugs and enforcers, from Andrew Kerr to Alex Spencer to Ricky Lyle. I ate up just about every bit of the Cloquet game, from the intensely hostile crowd to the Hounds’ dogpile atop the Lumberjack logo at center ice after the overtime game-winner, all of which felt edgy but within that tradition. In isolation, I can stomach the Superior fight, which seemed to spark the team from its slumber that night; every team will go overboard from time to time. Referees will inevitably get some things wrong, and sometimes the other team is the obvious aggressor. But when a trend emerges, so do the more fundamental questions.

The questions have complicated answers. After a few years of mediocrity, the hunger to win can slip; stakes lower and focus fades, and hockey becomes one big romp with the boys instead of the pursuit of a section title or a next level opportunity. There remain some parents who will make any excuse for their spawn, and some will even egg on that general mediocrity. The players who do care deeply can get frustrated or sucked into crimes of passion as they boil over. These kids have also gone through two years of Covid hell, and I am convinced a more virtual and isolated life has only fueled certain antisocial tendencies, only led more people to retreat inward and then explode in anger when reality intrudes on that inner world. Perhaps no group has suffered more than kids currently in adolescence, who have a hard enough time navigating those waters in normal times. And, yes, in the absence of the unflinching taskmaster and disciplinarian who ran this program for decades, a man who had no qualms about ordering even his greatest players to the bench when they crossed the line, a new culture was bound to emerge. At times that new culture has actually felt freer, but now that looseness is showing its ugly dark side.

In a December post I said I would not judge new coach Steve Pitoscia much this season. I did not want to nitpick about penalty kills or line-rolling as he learned the ropes. He is getting some flak he does not deserve; he played no role in his predecessor’s ouster, and, whatever history may exist between the two men, he has only said the right things in public about him. Even the greatest coaches cannot control everything, as incidents from Hill-Murray to Eden Prairie have shown this season. But if this is the baseline, we will need to see improvement. I was not around for the years preceding Mike Randolph’s tenure, but the tales I’ve heard of those days—two coaches lasting two years each, a program mired in undisciplined chaos—could sound eerily like the present unless things change.

After the Cloquet game, I was halfway done with a piece on this team’s halting progress, on how I was still enjoying myself, even as the product bore little resemblance to the East hockey of five years ago. My loyalty to the institution and the many great people who are a part of it remained strong. Those fundamentals are still there, and somehow, if healthy and composed, this team could still pull a surprise or two in sections. (If they do, the cheeseburgers are on me.) But this week, the results on the ice seem secondary to the escapades in a program that has, for so long, stood for so much more.

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.