Summer Hockey Notes 2018

Last weekend’s Summer Hockey Festival at Braemar Arena in Edina offered a brief dose of hockey for those of us in need of some midsummer action. Twenty teams battled it out over the course of three days, giving the world its first real looks at Janne Kivihalme-coached Lakeville South, a somewhat improved-looking Grand Rapids, and a bunch of kids in bantam or other teams’ breezers who have made their way to a new hockey home for 2018-2019. Watching these sorts of tournaments always comes with a grain of salt, as rosters are incomplete and coaches are sorting through what they have, but they’ve also proven to have some decent predictive power in the past.

Duluth East eased any worries of a drop-off following the graduation of the likes of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, and Ian Mageau with a strong second-place showing. Ryder Donovan looked every bit a Mr. Hockey frontrunner, and the top line of Donovan, Ricky Lyle, and Brendan Baker was tenacious and displayed strong chemistry. Upcoming bantams like Jacob Jeanette and Zarley Ziemski were noticeable in their Greyhound debuts, and the bevy of players looking to claim their spots in the pecking order beyond the top pair on defense largely held their own. The 2018-2019 Greyhounds will be big, tough, and in-your-face. While they still have some sorting to do on the back end an in goal, their forward depth and front-line talent will keep them near the top of the heap this coming season.

Still, the Hounds were not even the best team in their own section at Braemar over the course of the weekend. That title belongs to Andover, which rolled through to a championship. Last season, the Huskies’ top line pairing of Charlie Schoen and Nick Dainty grabbed headlines, and will likely lead the way in their senior seasons. But this time around, it was the rising juniors such as defenseman Wyatt Kaiser and the line of Hunter Zinda, Luke Kron, and Harrison VanderMey that turned my head. The Huskies’ depth will have them sitting pretty in preseason rankings, and with an early December meeting between the Huskies and Hounds, the 7AA dogfight will name its frontrunner early on.

The third power in 7AA, Cloquet, also had a solid showing in Edina. The Jacks, in my mind, are a step behind East and Andover in both star power and depth, but not so far in either that they don’t have a fighting chance at winning the section. There is also the small matter of their head coach following Kevin Smalley’s third arrest for driving while intoxicated and subsequent ouster. Just one year after an abrupt end to a long coaching career, Cloquet will endure another change at the top. There is a fair amount of politicking going on behind the scenes in all of this, and the outcome will have a lot to say about the future of Lumberjack hockey.

Elsewhere, there are rumblings of a power shift in the West Metro. Minnetonka, the defending state champs, will begin the season as #1, and have only reloaded. But beyond that, there are questions. Edina, down a couple of players to early defections, will try to put together a redeem team; while there’s still plenty in the tank for 2018-2019, the future beyond this season is as uncertain as it’s been in 15 years for the Hornets. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, after a two-year down cycle, is on the up and up, and Blake is looking to make waves and fill the void left by Breck’s decline in a certain private school niche. Eden Prairie has more Mittelstadts, Wayzata has the predictability of Pat O’Leary hockey, and Holy Family has had another successful offseason shopping spree. Cretin-Derham Hall, which is not in the West Metro but is stuck in a section with teams that are, will have its best team since Ryan McDonagh roamed the Raider blue line over a decade ago. After a period of relative public school power, the pendulum may be swinging back toward some of the privates in the Metro. The mix of rising contenders and the staying power of the old guard could give 2AA and 6AA as many as 10 teams in the top 25.

Usually, early defections to junior hockey to come from schools that don’t have great odds at a Tournament berth, or from teams that are so deep that they can stand to lose a player or two and still be front-line contenders. This season, however, the relatively low number of departures to date are instead sapping some teams that otherwise might have been home runs. Maple Grove, for example, could have been the next super team if not for three defections this offseason. While the Crimson may still be the frontrunner in 5AA, that squad is not what it could have been. Moorhead could have been a shoo-in in 8AA with Ethan Frisch; without him, 8AA starts to get murky. If Ben Helgeson bolts from Hill-Murray, the Pioneers will still be favored in a thin 4AA, but are more likely than not to continue a State Tournament losing streak that now sits at eight straight. The deep AA sections seem to get stronger while the thinner sections grow weaker.

While the wars brew in the West Metro, much of the rest of the Metro is more predictable. Andover has assumed frontrunner status on the north side, the east in need of someone to emerge to challenge Hill’s supremacy, and the Lakevilles are once again the default top two in 1AA. If I had to find a source of unexpected intrigue, I’d point to 3AA, where rising Rosemount may have enough pieces to win the thing, and Eagan should see its stock climb as well. St. Thomas Academy remains the frontrunner there, but is in need of a jolt to break out of its lengthening string of playoff upset losses.

Elite League rosters also came out this past week, and unsurprisingly, Minnetonka and Duluth East dominate the list for most players. The usual debates over the number of younger players taken have ensued, and there was also some justified angst over seeming competitive imbalance when the Team Southwest roster was revealed. What good does it do anyone to load up a Metro Elite League team like that? At any rate, we’re just over a month from the beginning of that action, which provides another teaser of what’s to come. Until then, we have a summer to enjoy.

On a closing note, this Tweet may be the most Northern Minnesota Hockey thing I have ever seen, and it is marvelous.


Wild Development Camp Notes, 2015

This past Saturday, in front of 3,500 souls all too pleased to spend a summer afternoon in a frozen arena, a collection of Minnesota Wild prospects showcased their skills in a scrimmage at the Xcel Energy Center. It was a first look at the Wild’s 2015 draft picks, a chance to revisit a few other prospects who’ve been in the system for a few years, and an opportunity for a handful of unsigned invitees to make a splash. Most were born between 1993 and 1997, though there were a handful of elder statesmen. The game featured two running-time 30-minute halves and an eight minute 3-on-3 overtime with stops; Team Green defeated Team White 6-3 with an empty-netter near the end of regulation, an accurate reflection of the chances throughout.

The most NHL-ready player there—perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as he’s just signed a serious NHL contract—was Mike Reilly, who, as usual, ruled the ice with his offensive rushes. He added a crushing hit on Joel Eriksson Ek, and should have every opportunity to make the opening day roster. Barring any trades, his addition will only accentuate the Wild’s offensive-minded D corps, but in the hands of a good coach and the right scheme, that need not be a weakness.

This was the first real viewing of Eriksson Ek for Minnesotans, and he didn’t disappoint. His size and lack of physical presence were issues, but no one was more artful than the 2015 first round pick. He paired up especially well with Jordan Greenway, the NTDP product whom the Wild took in the second round. Greenway (alas, no ties to Coleraine there) was a physical force, good in tight space and on the cycle, and he and Eriksson Ek had natural chemistry. There may be a future between those two. The third member of their line, Zack Mitchell, didn’t rule play quite as much, but got the first goal of the game when he tapped in an Eriksson Ek pass, and added a snipe in the 3-on-3 overtime. The 2014 draft pick had a solid year with the Iowa Wild, though lacks the ceiling of many of the others on the ice Saturday.

One of the more intriguing players on hand was Louie Nanne, the ex-Edina Hornet burdened with a name that led to some (justified, though sometimes overboard) cries of nepotism when he was drafted in 2012. Nanne smartly chose a road less traveled, and he didn’t look out of place in the prospects game, with his smooth skating his finest asset. Still, his puck control still left something to be desired, and his penalty shot try was a dud. While he’s a clear D-I player, I’d still be stunned to see him get anywhere near the NHL.

Keeping with the theme of wandering Edina products, Jack Walker was among the standouts on the day. His wheels were among the finest, and he flew all over the place, though he couldn’t convert on a breakaway. He was the smallest player on the ice at 5’9” 170, but is no defensive liability, and he has a future somewhere. At eighteen, he still has some time to beef up, too.

Still, WHL leaps are hardly a golden bullet. Jared Bethune, the prodigal former Warroad Warrior and ex-UMD commit, was the one undrafted 1997 birth year, and it showed. Hunter Warner was also fairly anonymous, showing none of that physical prowess that made him a star at Eden Prairie.

Avery Peterson, the pride of Grand Rapids, slid smoothly into Team White’s offensive attack, joining Reilly on a slick passing play with Sam Warning to set up the first of his team’s two regulation goals. If anything, Peterson was too unselfish, a rare crime in this game. Warning, meanwhile, displayed that trademark speed and aggression that made him a staple at the University of Minnesota. With some consistency, he could still have a future at a high level.

Jack Sadek, last seen in this arena lifting a state championship trophy, was the only played coming straight from high school, but he had zero trouble making the leap. He was composed in his own end, leading those silky breakouts that made him a star at Lakeville North, and after he got knocked to the ice early in the scrimmage, he popped right back up and returned the favor. If he can add that physical side to his game, he’ll be a steal as a 7th-round pick for the Wild.

Sadek was one of several defensemen with Minnesota ties who had fine showings. Carson Soucy, the two-way UMD blueliner, was a consistent force, showing aplomb for jumping into the play while staying strong in his own end. Zach Palmquist was another player with a vintage effort, composed and steady. Rogers native Logan Nelson, who went the WHL route and is now in the ECHL, showed good patience and got down to block a few shots.

Rounding out those with Minnesota ties on the rink, Gopher Robin Hoglund brought the physical goods and created a few chances. Mario Lucia was quiet for parts of the game but also had some dominant shifts, singlehandedly bringing the pressure as he forced his way through the Green defense.

Alex Tuch, the 2014 first-rounder and current Boston College Golden Eagle, dangled about the rink at times, and found the back of the net in a breakaway on the 3-on-3. Another standout was Ryan Graham, an undrafted Canadian playing in the WHL. Graham was a one-wrecking crew on the forecheck and worked as hard as anyone on the ice. Another WHL invitee, Carter Rigby, did a good job of carrying his line, showing good control in tight space. Michael Vecchione, a name some Gopher fans may remember from the 2014 national championship game against Union, likewise used some flashes of strength to showcase his skills for the Wild brass. The various Swedish defensemen named Gustav (Oloffson and Bouramman) both jumped into play, at times doing a bit too much, though.

A few other players made their way on to my notepad with occasional flashes, but this limited viewing is short enough that I’ll avoid further sweeping judgment. Without much context from other teams’ camps, it’s also hard to measure where all these Wild stack up. They’ll do it again Tuesday night (6:30 start; free admission to the X), so if you need some ice in your July, head on down. Otherwise, we’ll check in with these kids in fall to see where they’re playing, and who’s a threat to crack the lineup in the future.

Ties that Bind: Louie Nanne and the Minnesota Hockey Fishbowl

This blog has had too much politics lately. Time for a change of pace: hockey season is just around the corner! The NHL and NCAA hockey begin in the next month, junior leagues are already kicking off, and the Minnesota high school Elite League season started last weekend. But in the midst of all the new arrivals, there was also a departure: Louie Nanne, a University of Minnesota recruit, announced he would not be coming to the Gophers.

If you have any familiarity with Minnesota hockey, you’ll recognize that name. Louie’s grandfather, Lou, is Minnesota hockey royalty. As a Minnesota Gopher, North Star, North Star General Manager, and longtime commentator for the Minnesota High School tournament, it’s hard to think of any other person who’s given as much to hockey in this state over his lifetime. He also comes across a genuinely kind and caring person, willing to chat with anyone about anything hockey-related.

His grandson committed to Minnesota back in 2011, but his selection by the Gopher coaching staff quickly came under intense scrutiny. Louie Nanne’s high school numbers at Edina were decidedly pedestrian. He is a good skater, there are plenty of testaments to his excellent work ethic, and most people who viewed his status from some distance thought he could have been a decent lower-line, high-energy forward at Minnesota. Problem is, those sorts of players practically never commit before their junior years in high school—on the contrary, teams usually find them in junior leagues. In reality, the commitment made a lot of practical sense for the Gophers: due to the family’s wealth, Louie could probably pay his own way to Minnesota, freeing up precious scholarship money for other recruits. But, of course, that reasoning doesn’t sit too well with many hockey fans, who tend to be staunch believers in measuring players on merit alone.

The flap over the Gophers was only the start: in the 7th Round of the 2012 NHL draft, the Minnesota Wild snapped up Nanne. The NHL draft is quite the crapshoot by the time it gets to the 7th round, but even so, the cries of nepotism were out in full force: what were the Wild doing wasting a draft pick on Nanne when there were so many other players with better credentials left on the board?

However justified the criticism might have been, it made Louie Nanne’s life miserable. As his former Edina teammates marched to the state championship, Louie spent his senior year in Penticton, British Columbia, playing in the British Columbia Hockey League. At first, Nanne explained the move in terms of his hockey development, but it isn’t too hard to suspect other forces at work, and a later interview seemed to confirm those suspicions. He toiled away in relative obscurity, and has now announced that he won’t be a Gopher. It would be easy to decry the critics who bullied Nanne away, or, for that matter, to say Nanne shouldn’t have let a bunch of anonymous critics on social media wreck his dream of playing for the Gophers.

In reading Nanne’s decommitment note, however, a different story emerges: one of a kid who needed to leave home to come into his own. He grew up a prince of Minnesota hockey, and while that afforded him plenty of fame and advantages, it also burdened him with endless scrutiny and expectation. The community-based focus of Minnesota hockey (and I use that term broadly, so as to encompass even the D-I colleges with their loyal fan bases) often exacerbates that pressure, and it is visible, to varying degrees, in just about any program in the state. Many of us hockey commoners here in our Minnesota fishbowl don’t always see just how mentally difficult it can be to grow up as one of the bigger fish in that fishbowl, and only recently, with the proliferation of AAA youth hockey and player departures for junior leagues, have we come to realize there’s a much bigger hockey world out there.

It was especially interesting to see some of the NCAA-vs.-Canadian Major Junior arguments break out on the forum I moderate. Our members whose primary interest is in NCAA hockey tend to be pretty ambivalent about whether players stay in high school or go to U.S. junior leagues; they think the players’ development for college is more important than some fluff about “devotion to community” or a “well-rounded high school experience.” They tend to be dispassionate, well-measured observers of the high school scene. But when a few other commenters began to talk up the benefits of the Canadian route (as opposed to the NCAA) over the past year, the NCAA backers came out with their guns blazing, fiercely defending the college experience. Hockey has gone global, and the worldwide competition for a limited number of spots in the highest levels makes short shrift of all of that “community” stuff.

Our annual thread tracking early departures from Minnesota hockey over on the forum counted a record number this upcoming season, and it drew any number of responses: some lament the trend, many shrug and say “it is what it is,” and some make no effort to conceal their glee at the signs of erosion of the “restrictive” development model. As Louie Nanne can attest, there is a lot to be said for life outside the fishbowl. Players move around enough that it is easy to shed past baggage, and if they wind up in unpleasant situations, it’s not hard to get out. The lifestyle is a pretty big draw as well, with twenty-some boys whose lives are all wrapped up in the same dream all away from home for the first time. This doesn’t even touch on development, which I wrestled with in a post a few months ago.

Still, as I wrote in that post, there is a lot to be said for the cultural power of hockey in Minnesota, and no one knows that better than Louie’s grandfather, Lou. Even as his grandsons all embark on different hockey paths (another left for a U.S. junior team, and a third is staying in high school for his senior year), he keeps on covering the high school tournament year after year. Like most any parent or grandparent, he may have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to his own offspring (see his past comments more or less assuming another grandson would be a Gopher, when that does not appear terribly likely now), but he still cares deeply about the state of the sport beyond them.

In fact, hockey tends to grow not in spite of family ties, but because of parents’ care for their kids, and things snowball from there. Bob Fryberger donated a rink to Duluth East High School so that his sons would have a place to play; the rest is history with that program. Most of the prominent youth and high school programs are the same way, with fathers raising their sons to love the sport as much as they did. Things haven’t really changed, even if the more obvious recent examples are a little more exclusive. J.P. Parisé built up the Shattuck program for his son, Zach. Bernie McBain wouldn’t have founded Minnesota Made if not for Jamie.

As much as the landscape may change, hockey will never get rid of those family ties. They are a double-edged sword that keep the sport going and drive people to hate it when they see bias at work. It can only be managed, not eliminated, and requires the due diligence of every hockey parent. The question for hockey parents, then, is a simple one: are we in it only for our sons, or are our sons only part of the equation? Hockey is one part an individual quest, and as Louie Nanne shows us, sometimes we have to take a leap of faith to find ourselves. But it is also fundamentally a team sport, and every hockey boy knows he needs to have his teammates’ back, just as they have his. Sometimes the individual and the team-centered sides of hockey are in conflict, and this is, of course, why it can make for such good preparation for the rest of life.  Because there is no realm of human life where they aren’t sometimes in conflict.

Lou Nanne, for one, understands that. Since he’s a part of that same tradition, I suspect Louie Nanne does as well, or at least will soon enough. He has his dream and he has his roots, and he wouldn’t be whole without them both working in tandem. For the health of the sport he loves, he can’t afford to neglect either one.

Hounds Hockey History VI: Lonely on Top (1999-2003)

This is the sixth post in a series on the history of Duluth East hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.

Replicating the success of the 1994-1998 seasons would be difficult for any program or coaching staff. East hockey was on top of the world, and on paper, there was no reason to suspect East might not continue its dynasty for the next several years; while the pipeline of talent was perhaps somewhat diminished, it was still on par with most of the state’s top programs. But the world of high school hockey was changing, and the Hounds’ great run faced obstacles past dynasties could not have imagined.

The first great change was the regularization of early departures for other hockey opportunities. There had been a steady trickle of players to Canada and junior leagues such as the United States Hockey League (USHL) throughout the 1990s, as players such as Jamie Langenbrunner sought longer seasons against tougher competition. But departures became normal in the late 90s, and East suffered its first prior to the 1999 season, when star defenseman Patrick Finnegan forewent his senior year to play in Canada’s Ontario Hockey League (OHL). East would go on to lose a single defenseman before each of the next three seasons as well. At first, coach Mike Randolph was philosophical about the talent drain; “I would love to have [Finnegan] on the team for another year, but this is what he thinks is best for him and I hope it works out for him,” he told the Duluth News-Tribune.¹ But as the defections mounted, Randolph changed his tune. “I don’t think he’s ready to make that kind of a step,” Randolph says of Jon Hedberg in a 2000 John Gilbert column examining the new trend.2 It was a refrain he would return to with future early departures, and his opinion rankled observers who thought he was only trying to hold on to his players.

Randolph’s opinion, while controversial, was based off of premises that were, at least, plausible. In an interview with writer John Rosengren, he listed off six players who “wanted to take the fast track” to a D-I scholarship, but “not one succeeded.”3 Among the East early departures, Finnegan flamed out in the OHL, and Tom Sawatske, who left East for the U.S. National Training and Development Program after his sophomore year in 2000, struggled to catch on at the University of Wisconsin, and had to go back to the USHL before closing out his college career at Notre Dame.4 Of course, it is impossible to know what would have become of these players if they’d stayed in Duluth, and the debate over player development paths will go on until the end of hockey. But the landscape for high-profile players had shifted, and Randolph and East hockey would have to cope with the steady drain of talent in order to succeed.

Even for those who stayed at the high school level, the hockey world wasn’t quite the same. The MSHSL tournament had included private schools since 1975, but for the first 20 years of that stretch, Hill-Murray was the only private to consistently contend. That changed with the advent of the two-class tournament in the early 1990s. Class A had been formed to give small schools a road to the State Tournament, and while it certainly did bring glory to schools such as Warroad and the Duluth exurb of Hermantown, the possibly unforeseen beneficiaries were the private schools, a handful of which collected talent from various youth programs and cruised through the thinner Class A sections. Loyalists of the community-based model championed by Edina’s Willard Ikola, Bloomington Jefferson’s Tom Saterdalen, and East’s Randoloph were suddenly confronted by schools that operated in an entirely different manner.

The rancor caused by the rise of private schools is best illustrated by the Academy of Holy Angels, whose rags-to-riches hockey tale is detailed in a chapter in John Rosengren’s Blades of Glory. Greg Trebil, a longtime Bloomington Bantam coach, took the Holy Angels job, brought many of the top Bloomington youth players with him, and turned a weak program into a Class AA powerhouse overnight. The Duluth area, however, had its own mini-version of this story. After taking Duluth Central to Class A State in 1996, head coach Brendan Flaherty made his way across the street to Duluth Marshall. He took one of his top players with him, and several out-of-state transfers arrived to bolster the Hilltopper lineup.5 Players from the East program, backlogged with so much talent and led by a notoriously demanding coach, noticed they could have more playing time and a decent shot at the state tournament if they became Hilltoppers. And so Marshall began to build a contender, a process that drew players from around the region and angered rival programs. A 2001 incident in which a Marshall alumnus allegedly offered several players from Ely and other Iron Range schools “pretty girls” if they transferred to Marshall led many local teams to try to axe the Hilltoppers from their schedules, and many of the grudges lingered.6

Considering the steady stream of transfers into the East program during the Randolph Era, the Hounds could hardly claim to be innocent victims in the new hockey arms race. High school hockey free agency had begun much earlier with the adoption of open enrollment laws in 1988, and talent-collecting powerhouses were perhaps merely its natural culmination.7 But the Duluth East youth program, long carefully groomed for Randolph’s high school squad, was a primary feeder into Marshall. While the East youth program was deep enough to support two respectable high school squads in most seasons, the end of the Hounds’ monopoly on quality youth players from the east side of Duluth disrupted the program’s pipeline. East had outscored Marshall by an absurd 73-1 margin over their five games during the Golden Age, but the 1999 meeting was a more competitive 6-3 victory. East and Marshall would never play again.

In spite of the changes around them, the 1999 Hounds were a real contender in a deep Section 7AA. Freshman Nick Licari and junior Ross Carlson, both future Wisconsin Badgers, led the East attack, and the team also had a quality second line. The defense, however, was quite green, as was sophomore goaltender Dan Hoehne. Three of their five losses were to top-end teams, but East also lost to Hermantown for the first time in school history, and a defeat at the hands of Hibbing hurt their standing in 7AA. Elk River was the clear top seed in the section, while East, Hibbing, and Greenway all split their games against one another; in the end, the Hounds drew the short straw and were seeded fourth. They beat Cloquet in the quarterfinals (in a game held in Cloquet due to a scheduling conflict at the DECC), but Elk River toppled them in the semifinals, ending the run of five straight section titles.

The offseason brought about another change to local hockey, as East left the Lake Superior Conference to play an independent schedule. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a hockey-driven move. The conference actually dissolved that season, only to re-form in meetings to which the East activities director was not invited; East, Silver Bay, and Cook County were all thrown to the curb.8 9 East’s orphaned sports teams had to find new homes, and Randolph seized the opportunity to load up the schedule with many of the state’s top AA squads instead of local opponents. He explained the move in terms that bore a certain logic; blowouts against local teams were no fun and did little to develop East players, and as only a handful of area schools were left in Class AA, these games had little playoff relevance.10 More cynical observers, on the other hand, suspected a ploy to avoid playing Hermantown and (especially) Duluth Marshall, lest some other team supplant East as the top hockey destination in the area. East turned down later scheduling requests from Hermantown and Marshall,11 but both schools voted against East when the Hounds re-applied to the LSC at various points over the next decade.12 13 It appeared the East program’s powerhouse status had opened up rifts in the local sports community, and no side can claim much high ground in the subsequent squabbling. The Hounds were both the gold standard and a target for other local hockey programs, and East fans soon learned how lonely it was on top.

When Elk River shifted back south into Section 4AA, there was good reason to suspect the Hounds would be on their way back to the State Tournament after a one-year hiatus. The 2000 squad was a very young team, but with Carlson and Licari on the top line and promising talent in sophomores such as Sawatske, Tom Kolar, and Nick Nelson, they were clearly dangerous. The new independent schedule was likely the most difficult in the state, and while the team lost four regular season games, they were all against top-end squads. The Hounds went into the playoffs on a ten-game winning streak and finished off a decent Cloquet team to earn the program’s twelfth state tournament berth.

East had finished the regular season ranked third, but when Elk River and Eden Prairie both went down in sections, a team with only four seniors entered the State Tournament as the battle-tested favorites. East opened the Tourney against Roseau, which was coached by Aaron Broten and returned much of the previous year’s dominant championship squad. The Hounds put together a controlling performance in a 4-1 win, a feat they would repeat in the semifinal against a talented Edina team. The young Hounds made it look easy, relying on their depth to apply relentless pressure.

It all came crashing down in the final, when the Hounds faced Blaine. Though the Bengals had taken their lumps during the regular season, they were clearly the more talented team; with three future NHLers, the senior-loaded squad had hit its stride in the playoffs. The Hounds’ defense was shredded by the speedy Blaine forwards, and the game quickly spiraled out of control. The 6-0 laugher put an ugly final word on an otherwise successful season, and it would be another eleven years before the Hounds made it back to the State Tournament’s Saturday night game.

The 2001 season brought about another change to the Duluth-area hockey world, as Cloquet replaced longtime coach Tom McFarlane with one of his assistants, Dave Esse. Esse would go on to lead the Lumberjacks to their most sustained period of success; counting the title game loss to East under McFarlane in 2000, the Jacks would participate in seven out of nine 7AA championships from 2000-2008, winning twice along the way. But under Esse, the Jacks saved their best performances for games against East. When he took over, Cloquet hadn’t beaten East in seven years, yet they went 13-7-2 against the Hounds over Esse’s first eight years, including a 4-2 mark in the 7AA playoffs.

Given the youth of the 2000 runners-up, there was good reason to expect the 2001 Hounds would make their way back to St. Paul. Juniors Licari, Nelson, and Kolar led the offensive charge, while Colorado College-bound senior Weston Tardy headed a deep defense in front of third-year starter Dan Hoehne in goal. While the 01 Hounds lost seven regular season games—the most by an East team since 1987—the intensity of the schedule was probably the primary culprit. East beat Edina and Hill-Murray twice each, along with several other prominent programs, and an early-season rout over Park Center involved a memorable scrap. However, the Hounds’ offense abandoned them in a handful of key games down the stretch, including a 4-0 loss to a talented Greenway squad that claimed the top seed in 7AA, a 1-0 shutout against Cloquet (the Jacks’ first win over East since 1994), and a 2-1 loss to Moorhead.

As the second seed in 7AA, East was on a collision course with Cloquet in the section semifinals. The Jacks certainly could not match the Hounds’ depth, but they played stout defense in front of star goaltender Josh Johnson, and late season wins over East and Greenway had them playing their best at the right time. Nothing went right for East in the game, and they fell 4-1, despite a 29-15 shots edge. Try as they might, they could not solve Johnson or turn back Esse’s disciplined, opportunistic squad.

The forward corps returned largely intact in 2002, a year in which Kolar and Licari—the latter now in his fifth varsity season—were both Mr. Hockey finalists. The defense was a bit thinner than in the previous year, and Hoehne’s graduation left a hole in goal that East filled with transfer Dustin Aro, himself displaced by a transfer to his old school, Elk River. Aro earned some revenge in the second game of the season, as East eased past the defending state champion Elks, 4-3. The regular season followed a similar script to the previous year: many close games with top-end teams, a couple of sketchy losses to Brainerd and Hastings down the stretch, and a 15-6-4 regular season record.

It was enough to earn the top seed in a talented 7AA, and East beat a top ten team, defending section champ Greenway, in the semifinals to set up a rematch with Cloquet. They’d tied and beaten the Jacks during the regular season, but with Johnson in goal and a similar defensive game plan to the previous year, Cloquet hung tough. The Hounds never could solve Johnson, and a shorthanded third period goal was enough to tip the Jacks back to the Tourney. The 2002 final was Mike Randolph’s only loss to date in his 15 section finals as East head coach.

After two straight State Tournament misses, Randolph faced one of his greatest challenges in 2003, as the Hounds had to replace their offensive core from the previous season. With an inexperienced group of forwards that lacked any real standouts, East unsurprisingly struggled to score in the early going, and Randolph rotated his lineup extensively in search of a winning combination. The Hounds also ran through several goalies before settling on junior Jake Maida down the stretch, and though they were fairly deep and strong on defense, it didn’t translate into wins against East’s rigorous schedule. Mid-January found the Hounds sitting at 3-8-4, their 50-year streak of winning seasons in serious jeopardy.

The turning point was a game against the eventual state champion, Anoka; East tied the Tornadoes with three seconds to go in the game and won it in overtime. The victory kicked off a six-game winning streak, and though East fell to Cloquet for a second time that season and was left with the 2-seed, they scraped out an 11-10-4 regular season record. It was also a very forgiving 7AA tournament, with no team far ahead of the pack, and Grand Rapids helped out the Hounds by knocking off top-seeded Cloquet in the semifinals. The Thunderhawks were a fairly thin team led by future NHLer Alex Goligoski, but they managed to hang in against the Hounds to force overtime. On the first shift of the extra session, Tom Knutson lifted East back to St. Paul.

The Hounds were clear underdogs heading into the State Tournament, but for two periods, it looked like they might slip by Anoka in the first round. They went into the third with a 3-2 lead, but the Tornadoes tied it halfway through the period and won it in the game’s final minute. The next day, East lost to Moorhead in their first consolation bracket game under Randolph. The two-and-out was hardly a happy ending, but given the relative lack of talent and the progress made from midseason on, it looked like a good building block for 2004. Before the Hounds could give any thought to the upcoming season, however, the school district dropped a bombshell on the program: it announced it would not renew Mike Randolph’s contract.

Next week: Coaching controversy, East hockey from 2004-2008, and an examination of the intense pressure placed on a high-profile program.

1 Pates, Kevin. “Finnegan Leaving: East Defenseman Will Forego Senior Year to Play in Canada.” Duluth News-Tribune. 19 June 1998. Web. 8 July 2013.

2 Gilbert, John. “Hounds Lose Hedberg to OHL’s Guelph Team.” Used Car Picks. Summer 1999. Web. 8 July 2013.

3 Rosengren, John. Blades of Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win. Sourcebooks: Naperville, 2003, p. 232-233.

4 “Wisconsin Loses Defenseman Sawatske; Suter Sets Deadline.” USCHO. 24 May 2004. Web. 8 July 2013.

5 Pates, Kevin. “An Eastern Power: Duluth East Should Rule 7AA, Lake Superior Conference Again.” Duluth News-Tribune. 26 November 1996. Web. 8 July 2013.

6 Nowacki, Jon. “Private Schools, Public Outcry—Duluth Marshall: The Northland’s Only Private School Hockey Program Is in Danger of Being Shunned over Allegations of Recruiting.” Duluth News-Tribune. 7 December 2002. Web. 8 July 2013.

7 Rosengren, p. 123-124.

8 Miernicki, Mike. “Local View: East Belongs in Lake Superior Conference.” Duluth News-Tribune. 15 March 2012. Web. 9 July 2013.

9 “LSC Set to Return for Another Year.” Duluth News-Tribune. 13 April 2000. Web. 8 July 2013.

10 Weegman, Rick. “A Case of Class Warfare: Duluth Marshall and Duluth East Are Both at the State Tournament—But Not Playing One Another.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 March 2005. Web. 8 July 2013.

11 Ibid.

12 Lubbers, Rick. “Here’s an Idea: Prep Showdown on Amsoil Ice—Bring the Area Top Four Hockey Teams under the Same Roof for a Holiday Tournament.” Duluth News-Tribune. 12 January 2011. Web. 9 July 2013.

13 Miernicki, op. cit.

On Developing Hockey Players in Minnesota

The NHL playoffs may be nearing their close, but the hockey season never really ends. For top-end Minnesota high school players, this means the junior league camps are just around the corner. The players will have to decide if they want to forgo the remainder of their high school careers for hockey opportunities in other cities. Some will do so to get out of, say, a bad relationship with a coach, but most will do so in pursuit of better “development” as a player. The better junior leagues have longer seasons and older players, which offer increased competition and challenges that may not be available in high school. Unsurprisingly, this also results in heated and vitriolic debates over which path makes the most sense; I’d guess that over half of the disciplinary actions I have to take on the hockey forum I moderate relate to these arguments.

The number of players choosing different development models shot up dramatically in the late 90s, and though it has since leveled off somewhat, the hockey scene will never be the same. Across the Twin Cities, a proliferation of summer hockey programs has given rise to several that have moved into the winter season and now, whether directly or indirectly, antagonize the Minnesota hockey model. (While the pre-high school, community-based youth associations technically have nothing to do with high schools, the two work in such concert that I will conflate them in this piece.) The new programs attempt to group together elite players on teams that play schedules that are far more intense than anything allowed by the powers that be—whose responses  to such challenges, as one might expect out of a many-layered bureaucracy, have often been rather slow and lurching. Canadian Major Junior leagues now eye young American players with relish, and there is something of a silent war going on between the Canadians and the proponents of high school and U.S. college hockey. (Playing Canadian Major Juniors leaves players ineligible for the NCAA.) The Alec Baer incident this past winter was probably only the opening round in an impending battle of development models.

Putting myself in the shoes of a hockey parent, I understand the shift. If I someday have a kid who loves hockey, I doubt I’d hesitate to give him or her the best development opportunities my money can buy, and I wouldn’t hold an ambitious kid back from heading off to another league if it were a good fit. Sure, I love the high school game more than any other level, and in my perfect world, no kid would ever leave. But perfect worlds aren’t necessarily good guides for what to do in the real one, and I also can look at this game from a far enough distance that I have no desire to sacrifice the goals of others to the altar of community-based hockey.

Still, two issues leave me with some reservations.

The first comes from Herb Brooks, the Minnesota hockey legend and coach of the U.S. national team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Brooks envisioned hockey development as a pyramid, with a broad base of community-centered hockey propping up the top players. By its nature, this model is somewhat inefficient; it doesn’t allow the top players group together to maximize their development. But it also recognizes that culture matters, and that the long-term health of hockey in Minnesota requires attention to the things that make hockey more than a game. It is near-impossible to measure the value created by the bonds of community loyalty and the mystique of the ever-so-Minnesotan high school tournament, but it certainly exists, and I sincerely doubt the dream of playing for a team in Alberta or the 2004 Birth Year Team Minnesota Wolfpack Sponsored by Car Dealer X would be able to match the pull of playing for Edina or Roseau or Hill-Murray High. The reason football is so embedded in the American psyche is because its sole development model touches just about everyone who goes through a traditional American high school; kids who have minimal interest in the game still show up on Friday nights to join their friends in a rite that venerates the players but also lets each and every fan participate, an experience passed forward through schools and families and generations. The same is true for Minnesota hockey in many communities, and losing that cultural cachet in the interest of efficient development would be a real loss.

This is especially true for a sport that, due to high equipment and ice rental costs, has largely come to be the province of the wealthy. Hockey has big enough image issues as it is. In this day in age we like to pretend that any choices we make that are “best for our kids” don’t have any consequences beyond said kids. They do. People who act according to strict self-interest are naïve if they think others will not judge them for abandoning a community or having different priorities. I’m not saying it is right for those considering leaving to abandon their aspirations under communal pressure, but if they do not understand where the community is coming from, conflict will ensue. Culture matters.

The second issue has to do with the very notion of “development” itself. Many critics have wondered whether young hockey players are mature enough to leave home early, or whether the rigors of an intense training regimen will lead to burnout or injury. These are real concerns that have affected some players who seek different development paths, though they can be mitigated in various ways. Still, my questions are a bit more profound. We can justify just about anything claiming that it leads to better development, but development is such an abstract term that any serious contemplation of what it means requires some distance. Sure, more ice time will almost certainly make a player better, but we have a very limited grasp on the degrees to which it can help. At what point do we hit the point of diminishing returns, and can a different path fundamentally change the trajectory of careers that are also dependent on genetics and work ethics and other issues that pop up in life? Advocates of models have lots of anecdotes and select statistics they like to throw around, and plenty of them do make intuitive sense. But until someone can put together a study with a huge sample size that takes players and compares their career trajectories and isolates as many variables as is humanly possible, we are all groping around in the dark.

I can go even further on the development front. Does the arms race for better hockey development have an ending point, or will it simply go on until the end of time, with more and more opportunities that are less and less accessible to most anyone? On an even more existential level, is youth hockey always a means to an end, or is there more to it? Is childhood a constant progression from one step to the next, or does thinking of hockey players as crops to be grown and harvested somehow impoverish our understanding of them—and if so, in what ways?

I don’t pose any of these questions with the hope that they will lead anyone to have a sudden change of heart. I just hope people might consider them with as much objectivity as possible, instead of running away from them because they are too deep and complicated, or trying to cram knee-jerk responses into a preexisting worldview. Our inability to be completely objective is no excuse for not trying.

For the Minnesota kids who do choose to leave this offseason, I’ll be rooting for all of you. But I do have one simple request: remember where you came from. Even if you bounced around for a bit or didn’t quite fall in love with your particular program the way some people do, it is a part of you. If you love hockey, you are in some way indebted to the many people who keep it going at each and every level.

Take the example of Zack Fitzgerald—a player who is not from Duluth (his family moved there when his older brother, a future NHLer, was in high school), and left Duluth East High for Canadian Major Juniors after his freshman year. He has had a successful career as an enforcer in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL, and got into one game in the big show. Yet he spent his formative years in Duluth, and this summer will find him back home, running a hockey camp along with his older brother. There are countless ways to help, whether through volunteer work or philanthropy; God knows schools (both public and private) need all financial the help they can get. I’d also advise donors to look beyond one’s alma mater, as means allow; for example, the need for support at Duluth East, while real, is far less pressing than it is for the dwindling program of their crosstown rivals, Duluth Denfeld. Sustaining the hockey culture in Minnesota requires a broader perspective, and programs that get financially disadvantaged kids on skates can help in ways that go far beyond the rink. So long as the base of the pyramid remains solid, I am at peace with players pursuing their hockey careers in any way they see fit. And if that base isn’t solid, before long it won’t much matter which paths players take.