In my correspondence and conversations following Duluth East’s 6-2 loss to crosstown rival Duluth Denfeld on Wednesday, the word “embarrassed,” sometimes augmented by colorful adjectives, repeated itself often. Those with a stake in the future worried about the optics. Loyalists of former coach Mike Randolph, on a spectrum from grim observation to vindictive pleasure, lamented his absence. Some said they felt sick, and wondered whether all of this was actually worth it. None of these comments had anything to do with the score.
The proceedings at a packed Heritage Center were not an isolated incident. A ragged affair in Champlin Park the next night marked East’s eighth consecutive game with over ten penalty minutes. The Greyhounds took thirty minutes of penalties in a win over Superior, including a pair of five-and-game penalties for fighting. They took twenty minutes against Cloquet, the bulk coming on a two-and-ten after the buzzer at the end of a period. The gamesheet for the Denfeld game shows fifty-three minutes of penalties, and it may be missing a misconduct or two. It became hard to keep track as the referees dismissed a succession of Greyhounds to the locker room. Those statistics do not capture the full-game suspensions associated with game misconducts. The extent of the deterioration against Denfeld, which carried on past the bludgeoning behind the net through a series of gratuitous excesses as time wound down, exceeded that of any I have ever seen in high school hockey. One of the state’s great programs had become the Bayfront Bullies.
I am far from a scold about decorum. I have always had a soft spot for the Garrett Worths of the world, the kids who earn some right to be cocky with their performance; I relish the long tradition of Greyhound sparkplugs and enforcers, from Andrew Kerr to Alex Spencer to Ricky Lyle. I ate up just about every bit of the Cloquet game, from the intensely hostile crowd to the Hounds’ dogpile atop the Lumberjack logo at center ice after the overtime game-winner, all of which felt edgy but within that tradition. In isolation, I can stomach the Superior fight, which seemed to spark the team from its slumber that night; every team will go overboard from time to time. Referees will inevitably get some things wrong, and sometimes the other team is the obvious aggressor. But when a trend emerges, so do the more fundamental questions.
The questions have complicated answers. After a few years of mediocrity, the hunger to win can slip; stakes lower and focus fades, and hockey becomes one big romp with the boys instead of the pursuit of a section title or a next level opportunity. There remain some parents who will make any excuse for their spawn, and some will even egg on that general mediocrity. The players who do care deeply can get frustrated or sucked into crimes of passion as they boil over. These kids have also gone through two years of Covid hell, and I am convinced a more virtual and isolated life has only fueled certain antisocial tendencies, only led more people to retreat inward and then explode in anger when reality intrudes on that inner world. Perhaps no group has suffered more than kids currently in adolescence, who have a hard enough time navigating those waters in normal times. And, yes, in the absence of the unflinching taskmaster and disciplinarian who ran this program for decades, a man who had no qualms about ordering even his greatest players to the bench when they crossed the line, a new culture was bound to emerge. At times that new culture has actually felt freer, but now that looseness is showing its ugly dark side.
In a December post I said I would not judge new coach Steve Pitoscia much this season. I did not want to nitpick about penalty kills or line-rolling as he learned the ropes. He is getting some flak he does not deserve; he played no role in his predecessor’s ouster, and, whatever history may exist between the two men, he has only said the right things in public about him. Even the greatest coaches cannot control everything, as incidents from Hill-Murray to Eden Prairie have shown this season. But if this is the baseline, we will need to see improvement. I was not around for the years preceding Mike Randolph’s tenure, but the tales I’ve heard of those days—two coaches lasting two years each, a program mired in undisciplined chaos—could sound eerily like the present unless things change.
After the Cloquet game, I was halfway done with a piece on this team’s halting progress, on how I was still enjoying myself, even as the product bore little resemblance to the East hockey of five years ago. My loyalty to the institution and the many great people who are a part of it remained strong. Those fundamentals are still there, and somehow, if healthy and composed, this team could still pull a surprise or two in sections. (If they do, the cheeseburgers are on me.) But this week, the results on the ice seem secondary to the escapades in a program that has, for so long, stood for so much more.
And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for—the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.
Mike Randolph’s tenure at Duluth East ended not in victory or defeat. In fact, it came in a season in which the Hounds did not play a playoff game. It revealed itself not in one of those emotional roller coasters of hugs and tears on the ice after a big game, but in an odd whimper and a hushed-up meeting with school administrators. The caginess of the whole affair showed how high the stakes were, and how vicious the voices involved could be. Few people feel comfortable being the face of the defense when the sharks are circling, and few are willing to be the prosecution after the axe has come down.
Mike Randolph was one of the most intense coaches to ever stalk the bench of a hockey arena. The ability of players to adapt to that reality both made them and broke them. Some kids would skate through brick walls for him; some said he made their high school years a living hell. It was his show, his formula. His control over every aspect of the game allowed him to pull strings that others would not, and occasionally to get more out of less than any other coach in Minnesota. He rewarded those who met his standard, and those who did etched themselves into the collective consciousness of several generations of kids passing through a school on the east side of Duluth, their coming-of-age rites of passage in packed arenas in Duluth and St. Paul come playoff time.
Over the years I have worked hard, sometimes painfully hard, to offer a voice of detached neutrality when it comes to Mike Randolph. In part that’s who I am, and in part it has served my purpose of staying on good terms with just about everyone around a sport that, for me, is a diversion and an escape, not the serious business of life beyond the rink. This position is at odds with many people I interact with, including both Randolph himself and many of the kids and parents involved in the game. Those lives overflow with devotion and passion in the pursuit of a singular goal. The ability to delight in that world and yet still be able pull oneself out of that cave and see beyond it is not a common gift.
In some ways, my side gig as a hockey commentator was always building until this moment. Never have I been more nervous to send out a Tweet as when I got the go-ahead to share the news of his Randolph’s resignation with the world. On the next day I felt a queasiness my sometimes-weighty day job has never given me when I got to be the fly on the wall at a meeting that supportive current players asked for with their coach. It was raw and emotional: disbelieving kids, parents in search of a solution, and the grizzled coach pulling fewer punches than in his carefully crafted statement to the press a few days later. Randolph left the door open for a return if the political winds were to turn, but he knew the odds were not in his favor, and he told the gathered crowd as much. Some of the players tried to rally, but the reply one of them received from a school board member showed exactly where that course was going to go. There were still glimmers of Randolph’s old scheming, but he himself knew it was time to move on.
Later that evening, on a blissful summer night on the grounds of Glensheen, I stumbled upon a former East hockey parent. She extolled Randolph’s impact on her son’s life and shared the reprehensible and false things some detractors asked her to accuse him of to get him removed. A friend with her, meanwhile, had the exact opposite perspective: he lamented his son’s treatment in his time with the program and said he felt relief upon hearing the news of his resignation. The three of us hashed out a healthy conversation about what the man meant and where the program should go next. I am pleased that I have been able to have these conversations face-to-face with people over the past several years. (The grandstanding from anonymous social media or message board users is another story, and one I happily ignore.) The future of Duluth East hockey depends on them.
I got to know Mike some over the years. I wouldn’t call us intimates, but he was certainly willing to spill out his thoughts when he had the time, and he was bracingly honest when he did so. In those interactions he was only ever gracious, and would offer unsolicited praise for players past and present, including some whose parents I knew to be critics. He had a lot of fun doing what he did. Whatever else Mike Randolph might be, he is a marvelous storyteller possessed of a vicious dry wit. To anyone who enjoys high school hockey, the chance to watch him scribble schemes on napkins and to pick his voluminous memory was a trip down a rabbit hole that was hard to escape. A series of long nights on the town during his last State Tournament at East will forever rank among my favorite high school hockey memories. (I hasten to note that Randolph was completely sober for these encounters, as he has been for many years; he was merely out to suck up the atmosphere of that special week in March.) Over those nights, I saw with my own eyes his ability to pre-script dramatic games, and I got some windows into just how viciously some people treated him. The comparatively drama-free and successful mid-to-late 2010s felt like a valediction to a long career, as a battle-scarred man found peace, received his due, and delighted in the relationships he was building with his players. But history is rarely that easy.
I’ve heard out many parents who did not like Randolph, and I have listened with ears wide open as others talked around me. Their critiques ran the gamut, from line combinations to mind games to some less savory rumors unrelated to hockey. (In 2021, as one of the few non-parents in the pandemic-limited arena, I heard little else.) When I also struggled to see the logic in some of Randolph’s tactical or personnel decisions, I tended to agree with them, and frankly that was not an uncommon occurrence over the past two years. But it was also interesting to see how, once a parent developed an initial beef, perhaps one with some merit, all of the rest tended to follow. It was almost amusing how the same critiques in the same exact phrasing would filter their way down through the rumor mill from year to year. If Randolph was to be guilty of one thing he was to be guilty of everything, a black and white world with little room for Greyhounds in between.
Randolph was no doubt hardened by the attacks upon him over his career. He had an ego, as will most anyone who is driven to win, and was proud of what he had achieved. He surrounded himself with assistants who were full believers, almost exclusively ex-players who bought in to what he preached and sought to replicate it throughout the system. Loyalty, above all else, became central to the Duluth East program. Many people circle the wagons when under duress, and the strain only seemed to grow over recent seasons, the coaching staff set against a growing camp of bitter skeptics. At what point, I wondered in one late-night discussion with a hockey confidante, was the atmosphere around the program too toxic to endure without a change, whatever Randolph’s merits as a coach?
By 2021, it seemed like Randolph’s supporters felt they had to whisper their actual feelings to me in private lest anyone overhear something that went against this brewing narrative. Given the imbalance in what I was hearing, I was almost stunned when I saw the number of current players and parents who showed up to support the man wholeheartedly at the end. The media narrative since Randolph’s fall has likewise been mostly supportive of the coach. Figures large and small have lamented the power of parents to bring him down, and East players from down the years have blasted the softness and blindness of those who, in their minds, could not see Randolph’s tough love as the demanding standard that could illuminate the path to greatness. I don’t quite buy the argument that Randolph is someone whose style got left behind by the times; some very recent classes, including many of the current underclassmen, appeared to value his frank talk. I also know and respect some parents from much earlier years who still nurse hard feelings. Something much deeper and more fundamental was afoot.
The question throughout the drama has been whether Randolph’s purported sins should cost him his job. I have only been able to look at the evidence before me, which at this point is little different from the same things I have been hearing for 15-odd years, supplemented by a few emails from past parents who saw in a new school district administration a fresh opportunity to take the man down. There were some rumblings about the booster club, but a district official, I am told, said there were no lingering issues there at a parents’ meeting after his resignation. Opacity denies us closure. The late-stage pandemic further removed any drama from the final act; I expect the school district is all too pleased its meetings are still on Zoom, depriving us the board room drama that erupted last time around. At some point, the district will, hopefully, comply with the data requests made by the media regarding the complaints against Randolph, and we may learn from the source material if there is anything truly salacious within them. Until then, we are left in a cloud of doubt, sorting through stories that call him the most powerful influence on the lives of some and a source of misery for others, struggling to reconcile the fact that both can be true.
In the moments when hockey has seemed to overwhelm other commitments in my life, I’ve often stopped to wonder why I, a Duluth East alumnus who never skated for the program and the owner of a rich and satisfying life beyond hockey, became such a devoted follower of this sport at this level. The reason, I think, circles back to Mike Randolph: not necessarily to the man himself, but to the idea behind this sometimes brilliant, sometimes intimidating, sometimes flawed human. Life roughed up Randolph in his early years, a tale he told in his final statement: limited resources, his father’s stroke, the care he received from his own high school coach. He bypassed many other roads to wed himself to the little corner of the world that made him, a place where he saw an opportunity and pour out his soul for over three decades. He wrote himself into the lore of a Minnesota tradition and took none of it for granted, scrapping every step of the way, always demanding more.
Perhaps he erred along the way; perhaps his ambition at times took him too far. But the idea he stood for, that glimmer of the worthy pursuit: that lodged in the mind of more than a few teenage strivers in need of some discipline, some fuel for the drive. Thanks for the memories, coach. The young men you formed include a few who never even played for you.
Mike Randolph’s tenure as head coach of the Duluth East boys’ high school hockey team is over.
The news is not a total shock to anyone who has followed the events of the past few months. The school district had engaged a private investigator to poke around the program following a heap of parent complaints, and the rumor mill swung back and forth from week to week: he was done for, he was fine, or no one knew what was going on. Randolph has been through the ringer in his time with the Hounds; he’s been through countless questioning parents and a purge that removed him from his job for a year before an intense campaign swung a school board election and helped return him to his longtime post. This time, however, he has chosen to make his exit rather than go through it all again.
Let’s get the record out there first: 658 on-ice wins (third-most all-time; 646 of those at East), 18 State Tournament trips (second-most all-time behind Edina’s Willard Ilkola, who has 19), and two state championships. Six second place finishes, four third place finishes, three consolation titles, and a hand in some of the most memorable games ever, such as the Duluth East-Apple Valley five overtime affair in 1996 and the East-Eden Prairie three overtime final in 2011. His presence, both through tactical innovation on the ice and in his fight for his job off it 18 years ago, has driven the narrative around high school hockey far beyond the shores of Lake Superior. With the exception of the 2003-2004 sabbatical, he has been coaching Duluth East hockey my entire life.
I will embargo some of the other things I know until a longer retrospective next week; a planned press conference on Friday will, I expect, provide some added juice. I will also acknowledge there is much I do not know, and may never know, about what happened behind closed doors. I have a lot of thoughts that will take some time to process, and will take some time to filter back through the thousands of conversations I’ve had over the past 16 years with people regarding Mike Randolph. Love him or hate him, he is a fascinating figure, one whose story winds its way through just about every theme one could possibly associate with high school sports, from the glory to the pain and every emotion in between.
The open coaching job is a fascinating one. It’s a position with one of the most illustrious programs in the state and no shortage of history to draw upon. There is some talent to work with, and while we cannot pretend that it is still 1996 or even 2016 (a fact that has been difficult for some to accept), the long-term fundamentals of the program are pretty solid, and a new coach will have a chance to build on deep foundations. On the flip side, this program is also a hornet’s nest, and I will be fascinated to see how long a honeymoon the new regime gets. Duluth East is hardly alone in this; Randolph is just one of several fairly prominent coaches who have headed for the exits this offseason, and while the details vary from place to place, the roots of the purge are always the same. I do not envy anyone who takes a head coaching job these days, and rather hope the next Hound head man is not someone with any immediate tie to the program and the mess it has been the past few years. School board, if you’re reading this, go get someone from the outside with a proven track record.
For those looking for a walk down memory lane, here’s a selection of posts that have focused on him:
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.
Duluth East’s 2019-2020 season came to an ignominious end on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss at Forest Lake in the 7AA quarterfinals. I could go through the litany of “first X since Y year” milestones that this season gave us, but I think that’s been hashed out enough elsewhere. Safe to say it was not an end result that left anyone very happy in the Duluth East camp, and we now have a longer than usual wait to see Hounds on skates again.
The first half of the season had its peaks and valleys, but the Hounds looked basically like what I thought they would be at the start: a borderline top twenty team, capable of some nice wins over teams like Blaine and Minnetonka but also blown out by Andover and Lakeville South. After a quality tie with Prior Lake in mid-January, the Hounds sat at 7-8-1, and I ranked them #24; hardly world-beaters, but respectable, and probably reflective of their talent level. I can work with this, I thought; get everyone on the same page behind a game plan and the Hounds could at least extend all of their historic streaks and take a crack at Andover at Amsoil with confidence in their roles and nothing to lose.
Things mostly went off the rails from there. First a snowstorm hit, and then a vicious bout of the flu; the team played just one game between January 14 and February 1, then finished with a marathon of seven games in 11 days. Tactically, East doubled down on the world’s most passive forecheck, and games became slow, plodding affairs. There were still some glimmers—a beatdown of Cloquet, an upset of Maple Grove, a late comeback to salvage a tie against Brainerd—but the hard-to-watch moments far outnumbered them and left East on the road against a Forest Lake team that had just beaten them for the first time ever.
The Hounds’ trap made its way down I-35 Tuesday night, and while the Great Wall of Greyhounds across the blue line held up, they generated nothing offensively. Even the greatest of schemes can still be vulnerable to the occasional display of star talent or the efforts of a stray forechecker to force a defenseman into a turnover. The latter was exactly what happened on Forest Lake’s lone goal on Tuesday night. When the Hounds failed to score on a five-minute major, I knew the season was over. An embarrassing scrum at the end was only a cherry on top.
This team was depleted from the start. Two players left before the season for juniors, and a third, who barely played a season ago but would have been a top nine forward this year, also bolted. Between one midseason departure from the team and a couple of late season injuries, I calculated at one point that six of East’s top eight underclassman forwards from a season ago were not on the roster. Even with those injured players back, the theater of the absurd continued, with one player forgetting his gear in Duluth for the quarterfinal and Ryan Cummings, their rock on the blue line, going off hurt in that game’s first period. (How different could that major penalty have looked with him bombing away from up top?) In a season when the Hounds would have needed the stars to align even at full strength, they clearly did not. The magic of a 2014-2015-style run would not strike twice.
As always, I thank the seniors for their efforts: Michael Sutherland, Isaac Schweiger, Nolan Haney, Jack Fellman, Finn Hoops. I give a special shout to Cummings, who blossomed as a leader in a season where he could have stepped up; to Charlie Erickson, the one who had the talent to leave but stuck it out to be the leader of this team; and to Konrad Kausch, the goalie who played every minute of the season and made many valiant efforts, sometimes singlehandedly keeping East in games. I’d say they deserved better fates, but hockey has no regard for such deserts, and it is what it is.
I could wrap up this post here, but I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t offer up a comment or two on the civil war that plagued East hockey this season. Every team has its parent-coach tension, whether justified or not. This season, however, reached a whole new level. I know I can’t say much that will change many minds; what I have to say probably won’t make anyone happy. But, from my unique perch in the middle of all of this, I present a few offerings.
First, I like and respect Mike Randolph. I will never buy the claim that he’s just been in the right place and the right time and isn’t a formidable hockey mind. I can point to specific instances over the years where strategic or tactical changes were directly behind big wins. As the keeper of a massive heap of data and no real dog in the fight (I want this program to win no matter who coaches, and expect Randolph will be long gone if and when I ever have a personal stake), I don’t think the preponderance of evidence suggests his style systematically undermines post-high school careers, whatever ulterior motives may be pushing other narratives. The likes of Ricky Lyle, Hunter Paine, and Austin Jouppi are just the latest examples. I watch enough other teams that I know the things so many people in the East fishbowl think are unique to East and Randolph are not all that unique to East and Randolph.
Randolph and I don’t talk often, but when we do, he’s only ever been cordial and humble, and the two of us could trade stories long into the night. He loves what he does and his broad legacy for high school hockey has a reach that has extended beyond Duluth East; some of it will likely only come out after he retires. I’ve watched in disgust as other heap abuse (a word I do not use lightly; I’m not talking about grumbling at the bar or along the rail) directly on him and others in his family. There was time when it seemed like most past critiques had faded away; that he had adapted and found a way to thrive even as the world changed around him, and I was happy for him.
But, then, I also like and respect a number of Randolph’s detractors, past and present. I scratched my head at some of the personnel changes and the nonexistent forecheck, failing to see the design I had in the past. (At least the 2015 2-3 had an attacking impulse to it!) Things just seemed unsettled this season (and to a large extent last season too), and that trickled down and left a sour taste. I watched as people who had defended him in the past struggled to hide their frustrations as the losses mounted, and I had no counterargument for their gripes. As some of the most sober-minded observers I chatted with this season noted, in the end, so much of coaching comes down to communication: the ability to press the right buttons, to make decisive changes seem purposeful, to make kids believe in the mystique that has in the past surrounded this program. Despite rumors to the contrary, Randolph will be back next season, and mending this bridge is vital to the program’s near-term future.
This season did not bring out the best in East hockey. The old Greyhound exceptionalism was gone, and normalcy did not suit anyone well. It’s time to flush out the system and start anew; time to remember the singular dedication that made this program great before. It’s also time to manage a balance between hockey and life, and to put this joyous but silly game in perspective. Let’s try to have some fun again, and while we’re at it, let’s have both the school and the people in the program rekindle the fire and make some effort to get some people back into what was often a depressingly empty Heritage Center this past season. This, too, shall pass; this program’s fundamentals are too strong to let a few gripes do long-term damage. Time to enjoy some playoff hockey and look ahead to a fresh start next winter.
It’s been a season unlike any other for Duluth East. We knew coming in that the talent level wasn’t on par with previous seasons, and that this team would need to work more than any other to get the results it wanted. But the issues compounded from there. A blizzard in November disrupted the schedule from the start, and as vicious an attack of the flu as I’ve ever seen left basically the entire team and coaching staff in bed sick for over a week. The roster has bled a few players whose other priorities in life proved too much. Only a strong 4-1 finish in their last five will keep them from the program’s first losing record since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing has come easily for this group.
I’ve started and stopped this post about five times now, largely because any time I want to start to say something sweeping about this team, their next game immediately disproves it. After a sluggish start, they picked up some respectable wins against teams like Blaine and Lakeville North; after a brutal loss to Lakeville South, they upset Minnetonka. When the season seemed to be teetering on the brink this past week, they responded with a 5-0 shutout of rival Cloquet. Somehow, in spite of it all, they could yet go on a run in the playoffs, or they could be done in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.
In previous seasons Mike Randolph has tended to settle on a lineup by late January, but as with last season, the rotations have continued right into the season’s final weeks. The team still feels unsettled, and every time I get the sense I’m on to Randolph’s plan, it all crumbles and he throws in some other wrinkle. The one recent season that was somewhat comparable to this one, 2014-2015, involved a radical and successful tactical innovation that turned the corner; this group to date lacks such a defining shift. There has been some modest success with a 1-1-3 forecheck this season, but whereas the 2-3 in 2014-2015 could actually produce some serious offense, the 1-1-3 felt more like a Hail Mary to hang on for dear life. For now, the experimentation goes on.
The Greyhounds’ great challenge this season has been their poor showing in section play. There was no real surprise in a loss to Andover; and narrow defeats to Grand Rapids and the first Cloquet game, in which the team played relatively well, are defensible. Less so are the more recent losses to Forest Lake, a team largely carried by its goaltender, and an Elk River squad that is also at its lowest point in decades. In a year when 7AA is not among the better sections in the state, the Hounds have, curiously enough, found more success outside the section than in it. The Cloquet win was a sudden break from this trend; time will tell if it was too little, too late.
Through it all, the Hounds still have some pieces that can make a run. Charlie Erickson has put the offense on his back at times, and Zarley Ziemski can be a weapon. They found some December success behind a potent power play and offense from the points, and after the opposition caught on, there now appear to be some adjustments that are making it look threatening again. Konrad Kausch is capable of stealing a game when he is on form, and from a raw talent standpoint is the best East goalie in years. One of the rare glimmers in a season that often has me shaking my head is the play of freshman Cole Christian, whose shiftiness and vision portends a strong Hounds career, even if he could stand to double his weight and grow a few feet. Randolph’s decision to give a couple of freshmen top six forward minutes has its detractors, but as I think back to Keegan Flaherty stunning White Bear Lake in 2005 or Ian Mageau setting up Ash Altmann’s dagger to Edina in 2015, I have to recognize it’s worked before. I’ll never critique the search for answers; there just need to be clear answers at some point.
One gets the sense that, regardless of the talent level, half of this team’s challenge is mental. If they get off to a strong start, this team can roll past other decent teams and compete with the very best; if they fall behind early, things often snowball into unwatchable ugliness. Maybe their ever-scheming coach can press the right buttons to get them to believe in these last few weeks; maybe it’s all been overthought to death and has left us only with frustration. Teams like the 2014-2015 edition don’t come along every day, but at least there is a model, and for all the deserved credit we give the 2-3, that group twice had to come back from three-goal deficits to make its great run, which is something no coach can plan for. That group, riding some exemplary senior leadership and some star turns from younger kids, found the heart to win four straight games they had no right to win. This team will need to dig just as deep, if not further, to find its own measure of success over the next month.
Few things are as predictable in Minnesota high school hockey as Duluth East contention. The program boasts 67 consecutive winning seasons and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal game since 1993, by far the longest streaks of any team in high school hockey; it has appeared in 11 straight 7AA finals. A few games into the 2019-2020 season, all of that looked to be in jeopardy. It still may be, as one upset win doesn’t change everything. But the Greyhounds’ season is slowly taking shape, and as new players step up and Mike Randolph tries to find the right formula, they may yet have a say in the direction of section 7AA.
A casual observer probably wouldn’t recognize very many members of these new look Hounds. A huge senior class that featured several high-end talents graduated. Logan Anderson and Jacob Jeannette, who would have been two-thirds of a Greyhound top line this season, left for junior hockey. Charlie Erickson is only returning player who had double digit point totals last season, and Zarley Ziemski is the only other forward with anything resembling regular varsity ice time. The defense returns three semi-regular contributors a season ago, but none of them were really the leaders of that unit, and few things are harder to replace in high school hockey than an elite defenseman such as Hunter Paine. This is particularly true in the Duluth East system, which asks its defensemen to both be active in the offensive zone and hold up going the other direction when the forecheck breaks down.
That inexperience was clear in the Hounds’ first few games of the young season. They held up into the third period in games against solid teams from White Bear Lake and Wayzata, but things unraveled in the third period as their opponents wore them down and sprung odd-man rushes. After a win over Bemidji, a 7-1 loss to section rival Andover exposed these shortcomings in the extreme, and Randolph dug deep into his bag of mysterious game plans as the Huskies handed him his worst loss to a section opponent in 31 years behind the bench. Chastened, the Hounds came out looking much more like a traditional East team in a game against Cloquet, but those shaky moments on defense ultimately outweighed a sound forecheck and led to an overtime loss.
With a 1-4 record and no semblance of momentum, a battle with a top ten Blaine team this past Saturday looked to be a tall order. But the Hounds came out and showed they won’t go lightly. They paired the solid system play they showed in Cloquet with improved defensive performance and kept gameplay fairly even. Down 1-0 in the middle of the second period, the game could have slipped away, but instead the team went to work and collected two dirty goals before locking down, popping a pretty third goal, and adding a fluky empty netter to seal their finest win on the young season.
The Hounds’ formula for contention in spite of the changes is evident. Konrad Kausch has looked strong in goal, a vital backstop to the growing pains of a young defense. The top line of Erickson, Ziemski, and Finn Hoops is starting to generate some offense, and a second line anchored by Jack Fellman and Nolan Aleff has its moments of quality. The defense, for all its travails, combines some experienced seniors and a couple of underclassmen who are capable of putting up some points; Isaac Schweiger, inserted into the lineup for the Blaine game, was the unsung hero in that upset. Lest we forget, this junior class (plus Jeannette and Kausch) went on a run and finished second at PeeWee AA state a few years back, so the track record is there.
Elsewhere in 7AA, Grand Rapids opened with wins over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Minnetonka, proving their young guns are capable of playing with some of the state’s top teams. Cloquet has also looked respectable and will ride star Christian Galatz as far as possible. Forest Lake is undefeated as of this writing, which will boost their standing in the QRF system that seeds the section, though they have yet to play a difficult opponent and have a tie against lowly Park of Cottage Grove. Right now, though, everyone is chasing the Andover juggernaut, a group defined by superb team speed and an elite top defensive pair. In their win over East they also showed a newfound physicality, adding an aspect to their game that had been missing in overtime section final losses to East the past two seasons. Taking down the Huskies will require an even more perfect game plan than a season ago; a complete team effort that combines a great goaltending effort, a defense that limits odd-man rushes, and an opportunistic offense willing to scrap for anything.
For now, though, we can delay any requiems for Duluth East: when they put it all together, they can compete. A week of home games that include two respectable but beatable teams, Centennial and Lakeville North, will be telling. They have a heap of important section games in the second half of the season, and will also get more contests against the state’s elite, from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove. With continued game-by-game progress, they could yet be a contender at the end.
Winter has been
cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East
regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a
showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading
into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across
Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and
East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While
they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into
sections as any East team I’ve seen.
At my last check-in
on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a
few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the
start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal
road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake,
changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the
forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.
The Hounds have
responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they
have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top
20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid
takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a
demolition of Superior.
The defense, my
largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A
healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group,
and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is
smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the
offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which
do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can
do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size
of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and
Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it
has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll
opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.
Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.
We still need to
see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of
East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent
seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include
quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs
of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any
battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea
who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the
playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been
solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s
more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent
starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at
the worst possible time.
appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula
following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with
Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in
December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The
Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven
periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not
even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in
a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the
Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover,
the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime
in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a
slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man
rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations
are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.
has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The
first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team
in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make
in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a
Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more
concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any
team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about
what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies,
as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the
Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise
to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?
Enough with the
speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that
Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff
The Heart Attack Hounds struck again in the 7AA final. For a sixth straight year, this affair delivered playoff hockey at its absolute best, with late drama and overtime again winning the day. This section final invariably sends those of us in the stands through about as polarizing swing of emotions a team can inspire, but East found a way yet again.
The Hounds opened their playoff run looking like a team on a mission. Despite Grand Rapids’ struggles this season, there was a bit of intrigue in opening with a game against a team that had vanquished them the two previous seasons and an elite goalie. No such worries, as Garrett Worth scored 23 seconds in, Logan Anderson piled on two minutes later, and East was off to the races with a 6-0 win. The section semifinal performance was even more clinical, as they humiliated a Duluth Marshall team that had taken them to overtime in the regular season, 9-1. After five straight nervy section finals, this finally seemed like one in which the Hounds were comfortable favorites.
But if the East faithful expected an easier path, they were soon set straight. The final matched the Hounds with Andover, a young, speedy finesse team that arrived a season early under the diligent work of head coach Mark Manney. The Huskies withstood East’s early barrage, and their confidence began to build. East was a mess throughout much of the second period, with Andover springing an endless series of odd-man rushes. The deficit was two after the period, but it could easily have been more, despite what the shots read on the scoreboard. Uncharacteristic mistakes began to mount, from sloppy defense to selfish offense to fluky swings and misses and collisions among teammates. The game set off bad memories of the 2012 Lakeville South loss, in which East slowly but surely lost control against a speedy team that outworked them and created chance after chance in the other direction.
And so the Hounds began to chip away, and resigned themselves to dumping and chasing to break a trap. All three goals were of the dirty variety, with two tips off of Luke LaMaster shots, and a bank shot from behind the net by Ryder Donovan. The team just kept grinding and denying losing, to use an old phrase of Mike Randolph’s. As so often seems the case, an upset-minded team crumbled when the favorite began to surge. Once they tied it up, any doubt went away. The Hounds were going to rewrite a well-worn script, as they tied a section final with under two minutes to go for the third time in eight years, and finished off their opponent in the first overtime. This was the most excruciating of the bunch, thanks both to their heavy favorite status and the length of the overtime, but the Greyhounds were back on their game, and found a way yet again.
Mike Randolph, meanwhile, added to his legend as he locked up his 17th State Tournament berth. This was a season in which a head coach could have just taken off the leash and turned his team loose, and relative to some other good East teams, he did that with this group. But there were still some of those subtle tweaks he makes that help make a good team great. Of note: the late season flip of the second and third line centers, Logan Anderson and Brendan Baker. On paper it looked like a minor flip, but with Anderson on the second line, that group practically outpaced the top line in production in the late stages of the season, and Baker’s net-front presence on the gritty third line was a bonus, too. In the section final, Baker was credited with the goal that began the comeback, and Anderson took home the game-winner. East fans will know the Hounds work traffic in front of the net and tips more than anyone so that the team is ready to break down a packed-in defense in a playoff game, and sure enough, those two goals both came on tips.
As Baker and Anderson exemplify, the defining trait of this East team remains its depth. Two-thirds of the top line was held to zero points on Thursday night, but East won anyway. The one-loss 2012 Hounds probably had as much talent across three lines, but they didn’t achieve the balance of this group, especially late this season. Thursday night’s struggles notwithstanding, the defense also became far more solid as the season went on, and if they can revert to February form in St. Paul, the Hounds will stand a good chance. In goal, the Hounds just ask Parker Kleive not to lose things for them, and to date he has delivered, as he takes no chances and does what he needs to do. He was certainly not at fault for the closeness of the Andover game, and has earned his place among East State Tournament starters.
The Hounds now head to St. Paul, where they’ve landed the 3-seed and will face Tournament debutant St. Michael-Albertville. If the Hounds get past the Knights, that most epic of tournament matchups, East against Edina, looms for Friday night. If things go according to form, the last two rounds could be as good as ever, but history tells us to expect the unexpected here.
For now, though, Duluth East can bask in its restoration to the 7AA throne, and a 23rd State Tournament trip. A skilled senior class bookends its time at East with a second Tourney trip, and gets a chance to show how far it has come since 2015’s magical ride, when Worth beat Elk River in double overtime to win the section and Ian Mageau fed Ash Altmann for the goal that slew Edina’s dynasty. We’ll see what they can do for an encore.
Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.
East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.
Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.
But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.
Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.
Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.
Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.
East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.
Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.