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.

Active Former Hounds, 2020

This annual accounting of Duluth East graduates playing post-high school hockey necessarily comes with complications this season. Winter plans are up in the air for just about all of us, and plans could change in a hurry; any Covid disruptions will leave all sorts of questions over junior and college eligibility and just generally what young people are doing with their lives. There’s a lot more to say here, but for now, I’ll stick to my annual task. This post will, perhaps rather naively, assume things will go ahead as expected in 2020-2021, as that seems like the only sensible way to proceed. Here’s the list, with asterisks denoting players who did not play through their senior seasons at East:

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* One of the most elaborate, wandering careers of an ex-Hound came to a formal end this past season, as Fitzgerald retired from hockey to take a head coaching position with the Glasgow Clan of the English Ice Hockey League, the team he had played for the season before. Fitzgerald still makes the list, though, because he did appear in four games as an injury fill-in, accumulating no point or (more surprisingly) penalty minutes in the process. If this really is the end of the line, Fitzgerald’s 19-year career after his freshman year as a Greyhound included four seasons in the Canadian WHL, two seasons of shuttling between the ECHL and AHL, seven full seasons in the AHL, six in England, and a single NHL game.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* Forbort’s fourth season in the NHL took a bit of a twist, as he started the season on injured reserve and spent some time rehabbing with Ontario of the AHL. He was dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline, where he got into seven games before the playoffs started. He has a goal and an assist in those playoffs, where the Flames were eliminated this past week, ending what probably has to be the latest date in summer that any Greyhound has ever still been playing hockey from the previous winter’s season.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* After settling in with the Ducks a season ago, Welinski became an unrestricted free agent this past offseason and signed with the Flyers. He spent his entire 19-20 campaign back in the AHL, where he had a productive eight goals and 13 assists in a 42-game season. We’ll see if he can make his way back into the NHL regularly soon.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Toninato’s career took a step forward this past season, as he stuck in the NHL all season for the first time in his three years as a pro. The former Minnesota-Duluth captain put up four goals and seven assists in 46 games for the Florida Panthers, and also took part in his team’s abbreviated playoff run.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) After starting in Tulsa of the ECHL, Randolph played a few games in Sweden with Vasterviks before hanging up his skates. The Hounds’ coach’s son had a productive four-year career at Nebraska-Omaha and played two professional seasons in his career after high school. It’s fun to see that, eight years after their high school graduation, all three members of that great 2012 top line were still playing professional hockey.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) The former North Dakota forward completed a second productive season in the ECHL, racking up 42 points in 59 games. He now has 74 points across two seasons with the Orlando Solar Bears and should be able to continue his professional career if he so chooses.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Following his graduation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a years ago, Moore started his professional career with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the SPHL, where he logged eight goals and 11 assists from the blue line in 35 games. That productive performance, reminiscent of his high-scoring Hounds career, earned him a cup of coffee in the ECHL, where he played six games for Newfoundland and Adirondack.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) Davidson wrapped up a four-year career at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him. He scored a career-high 22 points as a senior and logged a solid 71-point career there.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) In his senior season at Northern Michigan, Beaulieu was once again among the most productive defensemen in Division-I hockey. He had 25 points to finish a 121-point collegiate effort, and certainly will have options to continue his career; in recent years, he and Toninato were certainly the Hounds’ most dominant players in the college ranks.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp, Beaulieu’s old sidekick from 2013 and 2014, finished out a four-year D-III career at St. Thomas (there’s a phrase we won’t be using for much longer) with six assists for 23 total collegiate points.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann logged a quality sophomore effort at D-III Williams in Massachusetts, where he put up 16 points in 25 games, good for fifth on his team.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann’s freshman season at St. Olaf saw him score a goal and collect six assists; those seven points, believe it or not, were good enough to tie for fourth on the team, just two behind the team leader, who had nine. Given that parity in talent, Altmann will certainly have his chances to slide into a more prominent role over the course of his career in Northfield.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Unsurprisingly, Donovan started his D-I career at Wisconsin primarily as a depth player, dressing for just two games as a Badger. The fact that he made it this far is a testament to his perseverance, and he’ll likely have more chances during his time in Madison, which, after a brief hiatus, has once again become a hotbed for Hounds.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-high school wanderings continued early in 2019-2020, as he put up just two points in a USHL stint and lost his place in Arizona State’s incoming class for this coming season. He started to find his old swagger again when he came home and played for the Minnesota Wilderness, where he put up 25 points in 28 games. Through his efforts, he earned himself a scholarship to Long Island University, the nation’s newest Division-I program. The upstart school could be the perfect opportunity for East’s greatest post-Spehar goal-scorer to make an immediate impact.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) After losing an entire season to injury, LaMaster jumped right back in and had a solid 10-point effort from the blue line with Sioux City of the USHL. He’s off to join the Donovan brothers in Madison this fall and play for the Badgers.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Mageau got into ten games in his freshman year at St. Thomas, where he put up four points. We’ll see if he can get more action as a sophomore and what the university’s plans might be as it prepares for its D-I move.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) The Bemidji State recruit had a second solid season in the NAHL, where he put up 34 points in 50 games for the Bismarck Bobcats. His collegiate career starts this year.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) In his second junior season, Lanigan logged four goals and eight assists with the NAHL’s Minnesota Magicians. He will be back in the NAHL this coming winter.

Will Fisher (’18 D) After bouncing around some in his first year of juniors, Fisher found a home with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League, where the defenseman put up 22 points in 45 games. He’ll join the D-III ranks back home this year when he starts in at St. Scholastica.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney’s story is one of resilience, and a demonstration of the depth of the Hounds of his era: while never really a top-nine forward at East, he had a strong enough campaign in the NA3HL (47 points in 37 games) to have a cup of coffee in the NAHL and make his way to Gustavus Adolphus, where he’ll play D-III this coming season.

Ryder Donovan (’19 F) The 2019 Mr. Hockey finalist and 4th-round draft pick jumped right in at Wisconsin and became a fixture in the lineup, where he logged five points in 32 games. We’ll see if he advances into a more prominent role now that he’s settled in.

Ricky Lyle (’19 F) The West Point-bound Lyle made the jump to the Madison Capitols of the USHL in his first year out of high school and put up 16 points in 41 games. He’ll make his way east for D-I hockey this fall.

Hunter Paine (’19 D) Paine, like Lyle, jumped in to the USHL and had no trouble amassing himself some penalty minutes. He’s committed to Air Force, and is currently listed as playing one more year of juniors before heading to Colorado Springs.

Jonathan Jones (’19 F) Jones got into a single game for the Minnesota Wilderness of the NAHL.

Logan Anderson (’20 F)* Anderson forewent his senior year in high school and had a respectable USHL debut with Des Moines, where he had 12 points in 44 games.

Jacob Jeannette (’21 F)* Jeannette, who left East after his sophomore year, played intermittently in Waterloo of the USHL, where he put up seven points in 23 games.

A number of names left the list this past year: while not listed as officially retired, Cade Fairchild did not play in 19-20 after a long career that featured three-seasons in North American minor leagues, five seasons in Europe, and five NHL games. Class of 2013 forwards Conner Valesano and Alex Toscano wrapped up three years of Division-III hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, while Luke Dow chose not to play college hockey after three seasons in juniors. Defenseman Alex Spencer did not appear in any games for Wisconsin-Superior as a sophomore, and Reid Hill also dropped from the list after an abbreviated junior career.

We’ll see what havoc Covid causes for hockey plans this coming season, both in high school and beyond, but for now, this is where they all stand.

Tourney Reflection 2020

The sun came out on St. Paul this year, an early arrival of Minnesota spring. It’s Tourney Time, it seemed to say; time to roll through all the normal routines for that first full week of March. Danny’s dinner party Tuesday, Cossetta’s on Wednesday, St. Paul Grille on Thursday, Friday at New Bohemia, Grand Seven between sessions on Saturday. The rotation of familiar faces here and there, the friends I may see just once a year but feel like I’ve known since birth now. It’s all automatic, a vital corrective to a season from hell for a Greyhound, a reminder that there is still order in a chaotic world. I may have the schedule down to clockwork, but no one can ever script the pieces that come in between.

In a year where three powerhouses headlined Class A, a west wind blew in form the east side to steal the show. Mahtomedi, so long the second fiddle program, stormed back from a late deficit against Delano in the quarterfinals and had full belief from there. They snuffed out the glow of Warroad’s return to the Tourney and played the perfect game for 50-plus minutes against Hermantown, only to see a lead slip away. But in a season in which no team could dominate from start to end, the resilient took the spoils. The Zephyrs went back to work in overtime and wrote themselves a Hollywood finish: Colin Hagstrom, broken leg and all, fought his way back to carry his Zephyrs to their first ever crown. He accepted his Herb Brooks Award from his old teammates the Paradise boys, whose agony was among my defining memories from a season ago.

AA’s wide-open field lived up to its billing, from a seesawing thriller between Blake and Maple Grove to an eye-popping upset from a St. Thomas Academy team that bore little resemblance to their star-studded title contenders of the past. Semifinal Friday, ever my favorite night of the Tourney, provided two thoroughly fun affairs, as Eden Prairie did enough to hold down high-flying Blake and Hill-Murray rallied past plucky St. Thomas in overtime. Like their Metro East conference brethren, the Pioneers only doubled down when they coughed up a lead. That set the stage for Hill’s triumph on Saturday, a complete team effort that left no doubt they had earned their crown. The big-game black jerseys came through again for Bill Lechner and his Pioneers, the team that peaked above the parity at the right time.

As always, a few kids played their way into my memory. Warroad’s duo of Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay redefined aesthetic beauty in a quarterfinal against Hutchinson, and Joey Pierce was often an unstoppable force for Hermantown. Ben Steeves of Eden Prairie, new to Minnesota, marveled that the Tourney had lived up to the hype and more. Some years back, when I lived near Lowry Hill, I’d often see a kid up the block in his backyard rink; that kid, it turns out, grew up to be Joe Miller, who gave Blake its first brush with Tourney success. But the headliners in 2020 were the showstopping goaltenders, first Tommy Aitken and then Remington Keopple, but most dramatically in the diminutive form of Ben Dardis, another Zephyr whose tears from a season ago turned to ecstasy on Saturday afternoon.

This Tourney was a homecoming of sorts for me: after three years in exile, I made my way back to the press box, a convenience that spared me the tedium of lines and tickets and fueled me with an endless supply of cookies and popcorn. I’d made peace with watching the Tourney among the fans—how can’t I love the opportunity to climb on bandwagons and brush up with other grassroots lovers of the game?—but I felt a certain vindication in watching from on high once again. For once, they Youth Hockey Hub contributors were all in a row; despite weekly podcasts and calls, Tony Zosel and I had never sat together and watched games together before. I also got to brush shoulders with the grandees of the press box: Harry, who saunters down the row to take names for the press conferences and share his little glimmers of optimism, as he has since probably the very first Tourney in 1945; Fran, the reliable pilot of the elevator; and Julie, our guardian who broke out her pep band bingo card on Friday night. They are the quiet heroes of the Tourney who work behind the scenes to keep it humming along, the necessary antidote to the bureaucracy and painfully repetitive ads that otherwise afflict this event.

Trent Eigner of St. Thomas took time to thank the media in a press conference: high school hockey wouldn’t be what it is without the hype machine, he told us, and needs us to tell its story. If that’s my contribution here, I’ll embrace it, and I find myself in plenty of good company. This writer was delighted to meander through a series of book tours: I attended a signing with Tony at Zamboni’s for his Jersey Project and stopped by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson’s prime location in the hall to the Expo, where they hawked Tourney Time; in the concourse, I met Matt Jasper of Home Ice fame. We live in a golden age of high school hockey coverage, and perhaps, someday, I can throw a cover in front of a collection of my own sprawling work that now spans a decade.

As always, there were some moments of poignance to pierce through the chaos, the flashes that make this essay easy to write. I brought a longtime friend along on Saturday, a Tourney Virgin who ate it all up and let me see it with fresh eyes again. Late on Friday night, Josh from Warroad nursed his sorrows at the Liffey and reminded me how much this game means in those small towns up north. After they won it all, Bill Lechner and his Hill boys lifted their wheelchair-bound assistant, Pat Schafhauser, to the dais so he could share his deserved piece of the glory. And as I packed my bag late Thursday night, I looked down to see Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges, alone, slumped into the boards. He gazed up and around the arena after the rest of the Spuds had made their way up the tunnel in defeat, searing that scene in his memory forever. On the opposite side, a few Moorhead moms took note, waited him out, and offered a loving applause when he finally left the ice.

One man who is no stranger to such reflection is Lechner, the dean of Minnesota high school hockey, now twice a champion in convincing form. Lex has sky-high expectations for his team, yes, but that demand is just as sincere off the ice, and he conveys it with patience and a graceful humor, a pithy wisdom I can only aspire to. If I am ever to be a coach, let me be a Bill Lechner, the steward of a Pioneer tradition that long predates even his lengthy tenure. And for this Hill team, victory truly was an affair that spans generations: Charlie Strobel and Dylan Godbout’s fathers were on the 1991 title-winning team. This is the Tourney’s gift, fathers down to sons, whether on the ice or in the stands, an offering we can make even as we move further and further away from those glory days.

Age may or may not bring wisdom, but it does at least bestow knowledge of a somewhat pickier body. I packed my bag with healthy snacks and at one point took a moment to wander off down Seventh Street alone to clear my mind, keep my focus. Over four fifteen-hour days, I need it. I’ve just turned 30, but this week is always a draining swing back through stages of boyhood, from eight-year-olds at the Expo to sixteen-year-olds in the 200 level, my brush with a rash of fantasy drafts and off-color chants. On Friday night I made my annual circuit of the upper deck to fully absorb the inanity and insanity; later, I made my circuit through Eagle Street and McGovern’s to find my people toward the end of each night, a reminder that things don’t really change all that much from one stage of life to the next. The boys are all here for the party, in whatever form it may take, and next year we’ll live once again for those four days in March.

Tourney Preview 2020

Yes, Minnesota, it’s Tourney Time. (Not to be confused with the excellent new book by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson of the same name.) Danny, Tony, and I put together our annual podcast yesterday, which includes an interview with LaVaque, and we’ll be ready for the party. First, though, I present my usual rundown of storylines and quarterfinal game capsules:

The Season of Parity After a chaotic regular season, the AA section tournaments had surprisingly few upsets, with a regular power having a somewhat down season, St. Thomas Academy, being the only real surprise in the field. That leaves us with six of the top eight teams in the final regular season poll at State, plus another (Maple Grove) that spent some time in that neighborhood over the course of the season. This Tourney may not promise any of the heavyweight clashes between 1-3 loss teams that have punctuated some recent affairs, but anyone in this field seems capable of beating anyone.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt To underscore the previous note, the AA quarterfinals include two matchups that took place on the season’s final day and saw the lower seeded team win. Blake is the 2-seed but faces Maple Grove, who beat the Bears in what was a vital win to wake up an offense that had been moribund late in the season. Hill-Murray, meanwhile, knocked off Moorhead in their traditional late season meeting; the rematch is a fun nightcap between two Tourney institutions and the two top goalies in the state. In a different sort of rematch, Eden Prairie and Lakeville South reprise their three-overtime affair from a season ago in the second quarterfinal. Even in Class A, where there is generally less history between teams, we have a Monticello-Hermantown clash for the third time in four years.

Class A’s Big Three It’s worth noting that Monticello has given Hermantown good games in those two previous meetings, and Hutchinson is respectable for a 3A entrant, too. But it’ll be a shock if the first three Class A quarterfinals produce winners not named St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown, and Warroad. The Warriors, by virtue of a win over Cathedral, have the perk of the top seed, though the winner of Delano and Mahtomedi isn’t exactly a free pass to the final. That leaves Cathedral and Hermantown, who tied each other in a regular season thriller, on a collision course in the semis. In a season in which the top Class A teams are loaded with star power and have been atop the rankings all season, we could be headed for a couple of great games.

Fine Lines There’s only one Mr. Hockey finalist forward in the AA field, and while Eden Prairie’s Ben Steeves is a fine player, he’s also not on some different level from the players around him. No AA team can win on the back of one star this year, but a lot of teams do have good top lines who could tip the balance. Gess-Triggs-Johnson for Moorhead, Steeves-Blake-Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie, Miller-Sabre-Best for Blake, and the Pierre-Strobel combo for Hill Murray: if one of these groups can take over a game, they can carry their team a long way. It’s a bit different on the Class A side, where Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi are the stars of their respective shows, but St. Cloud Cathedral also brings the dominant line approach.

Someone New? Six of the eight entrants have never won a AA Tourney, though there’s some range in there between the total newbies like Blake and Andover and the St. Thomases and Moorheads of the world who know their way around St. Paul but don’t know what Saturday night success looks like. One of the old hands, Hill-Murray, hasn’t had a lot of Tourney success in their past few appearances, either. Even Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite and frequent finalist over the past decade, has some recent struggles to overcome. No one comes marching into this tournament with the swagger of a recent champion, so we’ll see who can find that edge in the next week.

Now, capsules for each quarterfinal:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL

11:00 Wednesday

-The Tourney opens with the defending champs taking on the lowest-rated team in the field. Cathedral has won all five meetings between these two dating back to 1997.

Mankato East (14-13-1, Unranked, 4-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section wins: 5-3 over 1-seed Dodge County, 5-3 over 3-seed Mankato West

-The Cougars had an up-and-down season, but the most talented team in 1A put it together at the end and made its way back to State for a second time in three years. Junior Layten Liffrig (22) is their big star, and Matthew Salzle (6) is also plenty productive and carried the goal-scoring load in sections. There’s a gap after that, but Jake Kazenbach (23) is their next highest-scoring forward, and they’ve got a couple of quality junior defensemen in Brett Borchardt (8) and Jake Schreiber (11) who can contribute offensively as well. There are some pieces to work with here and they may be even better next season, but this quarterfinal will be a long shot.

St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1, #4, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2019)

Key section win: 8-1 over #8 Alexandria

-The Crusaders are back to defend their title and loaded with the star talent to achieve it. Blake Perbix (27), Jack Smith (20), and Nate Warner (8) form a lethal top line. Mack Motzko (18), back from his one-year adventure in Minnetonka, works with Cullen Hiltner (6) to provide a supporting cast. The defense, led by Reid Bogenholm (2), Jon Bell (4), and C.J. Zins (15), can also move the puck well and contribute to the cause. That said, this team has coughed up a few goals in recent games against top competition, so the pressure is on for them to lock down and keep the heat off goaltender Grant Martin (35). If they can withstand the Hermantown attack, they’ve shown they have the experience in big moments to pull out the repeat.

MONTICELLO VS. #3 HERMANTOWN

1:00 Wednesday

-The Moose and Hawks meet for the third time in four seasons at State, with the Hawks eking out a 2OT win in the state championship game in 2017 and winning 4-2 in 2018.

Monticello (19-7-2, #12, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section win: 6-4 over 3-seed Pine City

-The Moose return for a third Tourney in four years, this time after being the clear favorite in 5A for much of the season and were competitive in losses to a few top ten Class A teams. Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is their top offensive player, but they’ve had fairly good offensive balance, with Brian Cornelius (11), Wilson Dahlheimer (22), and Gunnar Sibley (21) all putting up quality seasons. Chase Bocken (34) is a scoring threat from the blue line, alongside Jacob Sorensen (10). Nash Wilson (33) will need to be on top of his game for the Moose to give Hermantown another good run. They lost in running time in their game to Cathedral and will need to show a bit more than they did in that game to go anywhere this week.

Hermantown (21-3-4, #3, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 16 (last in 2018)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 6-0 over #9 Duluth Denfeld

-The behemoths of Class A return after a one-year absence. They’ve done it with star power, with Blake Biondi (27) among the Mr. Hockey frontrunners up front and junior Joey Pierce (18) one of the most complete blueliners in the state. They have good depth up front, with Zach Kilen (10) and Ethan Lund (24) serving as Biondi’s sidekicks on the top line and an all-junior line of Aaron Pionk (11), Aydyn Dowd (6), and Cole Antcliff (14) providing the secondary punch. Jacob Backstrom (32) is the goalie. The Hawks did blow a 3-goal third period lead in a regular season tie with Cathedral and lost their last two games against AA competition, so there’s some question about their ability to respond when caught up in the moment of a big game. But there’s no doubt this group has the talent to bring back its third title in five years.

HUTCHINSON VS. #1 WARROAD

6:00 Wednesday

-Warroad makes its return to the X and faces a team with whom they have a surprising amount of Tourney history. The Warriors won a 2009 quarterfinal 7-1 and a 1997 quarterfinal 7-3.

Hutchinson (19-8-1, #17, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (last in 2009)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato

-The Tigers head to State with one of the stronger resumes of a 3A champion in recent memory. Like many southern teams, they rely on the star power of a few players. Austin Jozwick (9) is far and away their leading scorer, and Hayden Jensen (11) is a clear number two; after that, they have a jumble of players with point totals in the teens. Austin Hagen (33) has had a strong season in goal. This team gave Delano and Orono reasonably competitive games in their Wright County clashes and rolled through 3A, so it’s not out of the question that they keep it close with the rather unknown Warriors, but it will be a tall order.

Warroad (26-2, #1, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 21 (8 one-class, 13 in Class A; last in 2010)

State championships: 4 (1994, 1996, 2003, 2005)

Key section win: 4-0 over #2 East Grand Forks

-One of the Minnesota’s most iconic programs returns to State after a 10-year absence, and they’ve done it in style, losing only to rival Roseau during the regular season and controlling a very good East Grand Forks team in the 8A final. Grant Slukynsky (27) had an electric senior season, while freshman wunderkind Jayson Shaugabay (17) combines with him to create one of the top lines in Class A. Anthony Foster (19) and Owen Meeker (23) also put up plenty of points, though this team lacks the top-to-bottom offensive depth of Hermantown and Cathedral. Their defense, led by Blake Norris (5) and Carson Reed (37), has been rock-solid, while Zach Foster (35) has been reliable in goal. If their lower lines can hold up against some of the deeper teams in this field, they have the front-end flair to claim their first title in 15 years.

#5 DELANO VS. #4 MAHTOMEDI

8:00 Wednesday

-Two fairly regular recent faces in the Tourney meet in what should be a quality quarterfinal following three games with heavy favorites. Delano won an 8-1 consolation round game between these two in 2017.

Delano (22-6, #5, 2-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 3 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #19 Armstrong/Cooper, 4-2 over #18 Breck

-The Tigers once again went on a second half run and are making something of a habit of these Tourney appearances; this is the second straight season they’ve been the 5-seed. They can roll out three decent lines; Adam Brown (13) was their leading goal-scorer over the course of the season, and Gunnar Paulson (12) and Jesse Peterson (11), Michael Weber (17), and Trevor Oja (18) round out the list of scoring leaders. No one on the defense is a huge offensive force, but Jack Keranen (3) has been a reliable presence. Cade Lommel (35) was solid in goal in sections. Can they break through and win their first quarterfinal?

Mahtomedi (20-8, #7, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 12 (4 in a row)

Key section win: 5-1 over 6-seed South St. Paul, 2-0 over 4-seed Tartan

-The Zephyrs head to a fourth straight Tourney after cruising through Section 4A. Nikolai Dulak (9) is probably the most dangerous goal-scorer they’ve had through this run, while Adam Johnson (10) led the team in points. Ethan Peterson (6) and Ryan Berglund (7) are also steady contributors offensively, while J.D. Metz (11) is their defensive leader. They also enjoy the services of arguably the strongest goalie in the A field, sophomore Ben Dardis (32). A healthy Colin Hagstrom (4) could be a difference-maker here. Expectations this season aren’t what they were the past few seasons; can that help them break their seemingly eternal fate to be a semifinalist and nothing more?

MAPLE GROVE VS. #2 BLAKE

11:00 Thursday

-Blake makes its AA Tourney debut against a deep west metro team that pulled a mild upset to make this game. Maple Grove won a late regular season meeting 5-4 and leads the all-time series 2-0.

Maple Grove (20-8, #17, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2017)

Key section win: 3-0 over #14 Blaine

-Call it a study in perseverance: with an entire unit of elite players in juniors or at the NTDP and their biggest current star out hurt for the year, the Crimson found a way to avenge two regular season losses to Blaine and secure a Tourney berth. They’re one of the strongest skating teams in the state, but even strength offense has been a deficiency at times. Their leading scorer is defenseman Henry Nelson (12), a Notre Dame commit, and Cal Thomas (22) also put up good points as a D. The forward production comes by committee, with Sam Jacobs (21), Tyler Oakland (15), and Chris Kernan (27) leading that group. They’ve rotated goalies between senior Parker Slotsve (32) and junior Jack Wienecke (1), who had a 45-save shutout in the section final. This team did find a vital scoring touch in the season’s final week when they knocked off Blake; we’ll see if they can repeat that performance.

Blake (22-6, #5, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: First in AA (5 in Class A)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1 over #13 Edina

-The Bears make their AA Tourney debut on the heels of a dramatic overtime penalty shot from Gavin Best (8). Best’s linemates, Joe Miller (20) and Jack Sabre (9), form one of the more dynamic combinations in the state, and they get some scoring depth from the likes of Will Matzke (27) and Brett Witzke (6). Their mobile defense has plenty of talent as well, most notably via Ben Dexheimer (4) and Will Svenddal (19). Aksel Reid (30) mans the net. They can skate with anyone, so if they can get some scoring depth and find some consistency, the path is certainly there to make a final. They’ve already beaten Eden Prairie once this season.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #3 EDEN PRAIRIE

1:00 Thursday

-The Cougars and Eagles collide in a rematch of this very same quarterfinal a season ago, a triple-overtime thriller won by Eden Prairie. This will be their third Tourney meeting in the past four years, as the Eagles also won the 2017 third place game in overtime. They lead the all-time series 16-1, with much of that damage coming in the early days of South when they shared a conference.

Lakeville South (21-7, #8, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

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

-The Cougars had to scrape their way out of 1AA, but have shown flashes of front-line quality over the course of the season. Zack Oelrich (7) leads the team in points, while Cade Ahrenholz (16) is the leading goal-scorer. Cam Boche (4) also had a productive season, while Jack Novak (14) is an assist machine. Griffin Ludtke (3) and Jack Malinski (21) are their top defensemen, but this group has reasonably good balance across the board. Cody Ticen (30) came on strong in goal this season. This junior-heavy group has some Tourney experience and isn’t some run-of-the-mill mediocre Lakeville entrant, but we’ll see if they have the horses to stick with the most talented team in the state.

Eden Prairie (21-5-1, #2, 2-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 12 (3 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #21 Minnetonka, 3-2 over #23 Chaska

-In a season when some of the state’s top recent teams dropped off, the defending runners-up are back for a sixth Tourney in seven years and a chance to atone for recent near-misses, from the blown lead against Edina a season ago to the failure to finish out a championship in the Casey Mittelstadt days. No team can match their six D-I commits, who include Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Steeves (6) and John Mittelstadt (9) on the top line. Junior duo Drew Holt (8) and Carter Batchelder (11) lead the second line. On defense, Luke Mittelstadt (27) and Mason Langenbrunner (22) will need to lead the way in front of Axel Rosenlund (30) in goal. The difference-maker down the stretch, however, was sophomore Jackson Blake (10), who gave their offense another dimension; if the chemistry is intact and they can score the way they should, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Their depth, while fine, is not quite on the level of an Andover or perhaps even a Maple Grove.

ST. THOMAS ACADEMY VS. #1 ANDOVER

6:00 Thursday

-The Thursday primetime bill features a first-time favorite against a Tourney regular who wasn’t supposed to be here. These two have never met.

St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2, #18, 5-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 5 in AA (4 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section wins: 2-0 over #16 Burnsville, 3-1 over #11 Rosemount

-The Cadets had their weakest regular season in years but went on a run at the right time, winning 13 of their last 14 to win 3AA as a 5-seed. First year coach Trent Eigner’s adoption of the Mike Randolph 2-3 has given more talented teams fits. Jackson Hallum (15) is their one legitimate front-line star. Jarod Wright (16) and Riley O’Brien (19) are next in line in productivity. Andrew Boemer (17) is their top scorer on defense, and McClain Beaudette (5) is a steady defensive presence. Senior Tommy Aitken (30) came on strong down the stretch and will be vital to their chances at an upset in their tough quarterfinal draw. Is a unique system and one player’s star power enough to break down the Huskies’ relentless attack?

Andover (24-3-1, #1, 1-seed in 7AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 8-1 over 6-seed Elk River

-The Huskies waltzed through the 7AA tournament with three straight shutouts and have barely been tested over the past month and a half. In some respects, that’s a testament to their quality: this is a team with excellent depth and skating ability top to bottom, and they were the most consistent team in AA this season. Wyatt Kaiser (5) is the top senior defenseman in the state, and Mitchell Wolfe (4) gives them a duo that is as reliable as they come in back. Up front they have no true superstars but the most depth in the state, with two interchangeable top lines and a quality third group. Luke Kron (7) may be the most complete of the bunch, Hunter Jones (11) is their leading scorer, Gunnar Thoreson (12) had a productive year, and Garrett Schifsky (17) is the leading goal-scorer and the rare junior star on this senior-laden squad. Will Larson (35) has done the job in goal when tested. Now, how will they hold up in their first trip to St. Paul, and against quality competition for the first time in a while?

# 5 HILL-MURRAY VS. #4 MOORHEAD

8:00 Thursday

-Two Tourney bluebloods meet in the nightcap in a battle that includes solid defenses and the state’s two best goaltenders. Hill won a late regular season meeting 4-3. They’ve split their four previous Tourney meetings, with the Spuds taking a 2017 quarterfinal 4-2. Hill leads the all-time series 17-11.

Hill-Murray (19-6-3, #7, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 30 (last in 2018)

Championships: 3 (1993, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-2 over #23 White Bear Lake

-The Pioneers weren’t always the most consistent team this season, but they come in with plenty of talent and boast a strong record against Tourney entrants. Sophomore Nick Pierre (7) is their star up front, and Charlie Strobel (27) also helps carry the load; Matthew Fleishhacker (14), Henry Eischen (6), and Dylan Godbout (17) give them some scoring depth across two lines. Their biggest strengths are in back, where Joe Palodichuk (2) had a very productive season and is supported by a deep, steady defensive corps. Brimsek finalist Remington Keopple (1) has the best numbers of any goalie in the Tourney. Their key will be generating enough offense to break a 7-game Tourney losing streak that dates back to the 2013 title game.

Moorhead (21-5-1, #3, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over 3-seed Roseau

-The steady Spuds may not have the depth of Andover or the star power of Eden Prairie, but they are a well-built team across the board. They continue their recent tradition of dominant top lines with the trio of Cullen Gess (14), Caden Triggs (27) and Carter Johnson (10), while Michael Overbo (19) gives their goal-scoring punch some depth. The Spuds do have some star power in back: Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Gramer (3) runs things from the blue line and Hudson Hodges (31) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. They’re liable to get outshot by some of the deeper, better-skating teams in this field, but they’re built to withstand some of that, and if they can impose their style on opponents, they have a shot at a deep run.

See you in St. Paul!

The Art of the Duluth Winter

I have enjoyed this winter. Of course, it has (knock on wood) cooperated more than most so far; after we took a beatdown from a snowstorm over Thanksgiving, it’s been relatively balmy, with a welcome lack of polar vortexes or repeat snow events. The addition of a remote starter to my driving life has also added a new dose of luxury. A pile of blankets and a good book gets me through the routine nights; visitors from afar, so common in and a round the holidays, help the cause as well. But in my fourth year back in this city, I’m coming to perfect the art of the Duluth winter, a necessary challenge for anyone who wants to make this city a true home.

As the absence of most other topics from this blog this time of year shows, much of that free time is devoted to hockey. I average of two games in person a week, plus a few more evenings where I’m home but have a game streaming in the background, and a few hours of podcast work every Sunday. The hockey life also means frequent phone calls with co-conspirators, periodic drinks with the parents before or after games, and the occasional trek to Eveleth or Grand Rapids to see one of the state’s grand old arenas and rub my shoulders against some new friends. From Thanksgiving to the first full week of March, I have a diversion that can get me through any amount of cold, and make myself a part of a sprawling, squabbling, loving community.

Hockey is just one element of my attack on winter, though, and the second these days is my continued progression into a reasonably capable cross-country skier. I’m out twice a week, gliding about the local trail systems: that usually means one evening on the lit course at Lester Park, plus a longer excursion to some other ski area on a weekend. Lester is a home course of sorts for me, as I grew up within walking distance of it, and my younger self would indeed sometimes just pick up his skis and hike over to plow around its lit loop, one of those delights of a Duluth childhood one can only appreciate after losing it. I’ve done the initial loops from the playground up through the first few cutoffs countless times, and I know the unlit Lester River loop so well that I now run it in the dark, its rises and falls encoded in my muscles, and I can pause to gaze down the moonlit slopes to the river below.

Still, I try to get out to different areas. Hartley’s circuits can grow a bit inane for someone seeking to do eight-plus kilometers, but the part of trail that rises up into the pines is magnificent near sunset, and I attempted it with a headlamp once this year and found I was far from alone. Out west, Piedmont provides a reliable loop, while the constant ups and downs of Magney-Snively afford magnificent views of the St. Louis River estuary. To the north is Boulder Lake, an old favorite of my dad’s; for the first time this year I did the entire system, including the prisoner’s dilemma forced by two trails at the end of an esker on the Ridge Runner trail. Up the shore, the Finns have left their mark: Korkki offers some adventurous hill work, while Erkki Harju in Two Harbors allows for some of the smoothest long, coasting downhills. Every course offers some different challenge, some new diversion that can vary with the conditions each week.

My special place remains the Northwoods system in Silver Bay, with its outlet on to Bean Lake and the ever-alluring Tettegouche connector through Palisade Valley, a trek that has become an annual tradition. Palisade Valley feels like a journey in a way no looping trail system can, a quest outward and back through winter in perfect repose. I made the trip in record time this year, even with the trail crumbling in places due to warmth. I pause briefly in the camp on Mic Mac Lake to gaze skyward and breathe in winter as deeply as I can, and linger a while longer on Bean Lake to reclaim life without that breakneck instinct, negotiate the peace between two competing but necessary forces. My furnace burns up all of my calories, and a stop at Cedar Coffee in Two Harbors is in order once again.

After that, it’s back to the blur. Mountain Iron on Monday, Aurora on Tuesday, Eveleth Wednesday, North Branch Friday. Two hockey games where I’ll make my circuit, have five people stop me to chat and fifteen tweets to answer. Board games on Saturday night; hearty meals, wine or stouts or a steaming tea. As February wears on, my reading turns to travelogues, and I might drift off on my couch on a sunny afternoon following some traveler through Delhi or Samarkand, a dose of escapism to feed my wanderlust. I plan a real-world escape sometime in April, in that grotesque Minnesota season when the hockey is done and the ski trails are slop but the weather has yet to release us for summer activities. That, for me, is the only truly challenging season in this city.

We all have our own coping mechanisms, and no doubt this city tries me at times. But I don’t live in Duluth to endure it. I live here because I want to love it.