Tag Archives: minnetonka

Summer Hockey Notes 2018

28 Jul

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.

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Tourney Reflection 2018

14 Mar

I’ve been to every AA Tourney game for ten years running, but this one drained me more than any of them. From emotional investment in my alma mater to the rigors of running commentary for Youth Hockey Hub to a simple desire to delight in every possible moment of Tournament finery, this one took its toll. It was worth every second. Even my knees are bruised from wedging into Xcel seats, the battle wounds of a Tourney well-lived.

2018 ended with a Lake Minnetonka boat party in both classes, as two first-timers ascended to their thrones. The Class A quarters did enough to tease us with upsets, though none delivered; the first day of AA saw three methodical wins from the top seeds and the start of a fourth before the Centennial Cougars roared to life, stunned St. Thomas Academy, and broke their section’s decade of despair in St. Paul. After that, it was all nervous tension, with intrigue in every single late-round game.

This Tourney came to its zenith on Semifinal Friday, always my favorite day of the Tourney: the quarterfinals always have something of a carnival atmosphere, with teams just happy to be there and hair on display, and the Championship Saturday has its own mystique that brings in the winner and the loser. Friday, however, is all business, where dreams are either dashed or passed along to primetime. Class A delivered the goods yet again in the afternoon, as Orono burst out to a 4-goal lead before Mahtomedi blew all the way back, only to see the Spartans finish them off in overtime. Next to me in the stands, Chase from Mahtomedi rode the waves of emotion down and up and then into a crash, but bounced back to chat up the Mora girls in front of us for the nightcap. Helping the rebound was the stunner in game two: down went Hermantown. For the first time this decade, the Hawks would miss the Class A final, their streak undone by a hard-hitting core of Cardinals from Alexandria. While the Cards’ parade to the box on Saturday kept them from being able to interrupt Orono’s steady push, they certainly sent the state their message.

The evening session began with a match-up that has become synonymous with the Tourney, the very phrase saying it all: Duluth East-Edina on a Friday Night. East answered the first Edina punch and refused to crumble as the Hornets piled on, and the giants of the north continued their great run against the state’s foremost hockey power. Scrappy Centennial again threatened to upend the Tourney in the second game, but Minnetonka kept churning away, and once they got one, it was no surprise when four more followed. Those Skippers kept the momentum rolling into Saturday. The stars came to play in this Tourney, with Bobby Brink slicing, Sammy Walker dicing, and Garrett Worth sniping. But for my money the difference-maker was the Minnetonka top defensive pair of Josh Luedtke and Grant Docter. They were the fulcrum for the Skippers’ seamless motion machine, their fluid breakouts doing just enough to break through the Duluth East barricades that had turned back the Hornets the night before.

A deep run by one’s alma mater only adds to the drama, and I did my part for the cause when I defended Duluth East pride with a bubble hockey win over some Minnetonka kids before the championship. We’ve been here before in my time as an East fan, but this one had the infectious spirit of a deep run where we loyal Hounds knew we had a very good chance. Out came the former players, the familiar faces among parents, and some alumni I hadn’t seen in years. I met some Red Wing guys with no direct tie to Duluth East who nonetheless proudly sported their Greyhound gear, and shared a couple drinks with the legendary Blackout Todd. I even had brushes with some Hounds in the student section like Tommy and Superfan Sam, who now get to learn how deeply the Hound hockey legacy can linger.

The Tourney mixes and matches us with people from beyond our own little tibes. I spent the Thursday night upset next to a diehard Cadet and directly in front of a box of Centennial moms, their reactions to events a perfect yin and yang. The next night, the box was home to some vicious Edina squirts, while in front of us, a dignified Hornet couple who appeared to have mistaken a hockey game for a night at the opera sniffed at our primal reactions to Greyhound goals. But even the Cake can join the fun: an Edina dad at McGoverns passed along a gift, and I consoled a Hornet alumnus friend who came down to visit for the second AA game on Friday. Toss in a couple of Tourney Virgin friends who fed our motley collection toward the back of Section 108 that night, and we had our own little party under way. “Why so sleepy?” we chanted at the Fairview Health ad when it appeared on the screen for the umpteenth time. Why? Because we’ve given it all in our nonstop hockey carnival, and it’s time for a good, long rest.

Not yet, though: the cast of characters goes on. There was The Lady, a posse of private school coaches at Grand Seven, and the St. Thomas parents. There were the familiar faces down the row playing the quarters game, and the press corps friends who sought out Danny and I in the lower bowl: Randy from Hibbing, Tim from Moorhead, and Zach from White Bear, the only one to bring us cookies. (Perhaps the Hockey Gods will smile upon the Bears in thanks for your kindness, Zach.) Some of the old hands stopped by, too: Dan from Plymouth,  the Bemidji guy who jokingly sought my autograph on his printout of my game previews, the Saturday session break with the Ryans, and Eric and Kara, who snuck away from their newborn for a little while to maintain a tradition. Finally, I owe a shoutout to my normal Thursday dinner date at the St. Paul Grille, whom I missed this year because he was too busy doing his part with a team on its way to a state title. I’m sure I’ve left off someone who should be on this list, and if you’re not here there’s always room for more.

I also spent more of this Tourney brushing shoulders with kids still in school than I ever have. “The Tourney is kind of our thing,” one of our Eveleth friends told us, as true a statement as there ever was. I made my annual Friday night circuit of the 200 Level, a sure way to make oneself feel like a fossil, and found myself googling cell phone games I’d never heard of. The Tourney is a jarring study in emotion that only teenagers can produce, from schoolboy raunchiness in the upper deck to some antics on the ice, from Joe Paradise’s selfie celly to Edina’s Jake Boltmann setting up Centennial goalie Travis Allen for a one-timer as they mucked around during a stoppage in third place game garbage time. And then, on the other side, sheer raw emotion: the remarkable poise amid tears of joy and pain for Joe Molenaar, Minnetonka’s winner of the Herb Brooks Award who lost his father all too soon.

That weight hit me again in the postgame reception area, where the Hounds players emerged from the locker room to meet their families and dedicated fans. I’ve seen kids’ season-ending tears dozens of times now, written of their moments of realization in Tourney Reflections past, but this was one where I needed to repeat certain phrases over and over again to get myself to believe them. Six years ago, I failed to find the right words for a distraught Jake Randolph in the bowels of the X; this year, I found some of that wisdom that hockey has taught me. It’s all over now, and spring is upon us yet again. But yet it isn’t over, and never does really end for those of us who lived it for four days in March. We are the heirs to something transcendent, and we must never forget it.

A Whirlwind Week of Hockey

17 Jan

Between the past two Saturdays I attended seven hockey games in eight days, an exhausting string even for someone who watches as religiously as me. It was blistering tour featuring all of northeast Minnesota’s State Tournament contenders, plus a pair of Lake Conference powers who came north to visit. I enjoyed long nights and raucous arenas, not to mention connections with friends old and new at all of them, except for the one in Hermantown, where I instead had the misfortune of being surrounded by Hermantown parents displaying typical Hermantown parent behavior.

It all got off to an inauspicious start, as Minnetonka came to play Duluth East on Saturday the 7th. After a start to the season defined largely by consistent efforts, the Hounds were MIA from puck drop at the Heritage Center, and the Skippers pummeled them to the tune of 6-0. It was one of the ugliest losses of the Mike Randolph era—an inordinate number of said losses do seem to come against Minnetonka—but it shows how far things can all go to pieces when a normally disciplined team lapses. The Skippers, meanwhile, looked like world-beaters, and while they have potential, they’ve failed to back that up with any consistency. They are a perplexing program, one with perpetual talent but just one trip to state in the past ten years. Maybe this new rising generation will be the one that changes things, but I’ll wait until March to draw conclusions.

The Hounds were again on my calendar for Monday for their crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld, and in the early stages, they again looked nothing like they should. Slowly, however, the offense took over, and while it took a few power plays that sent Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley into cahoots, the final shots (54-15) showed the completeness of the Greyhound domination from the middle of the first period on. Denfeld goalie Benjamin LaFont gets credit for keeping it somewhat close, a feat he repeated during Thursday night’s 5-1 loss to Hermantown. This has been a dark year for the Hunters, with just two wins to their name and no junior varsity. After stringing things along for a few seasons thanks to a handful of strong bloodlines and transfers, the bottom seemed to have fallen out. But this week’s rivalry games showed a group of Hunters that still have their pride intact, and look stout enough to at least make things interesting in the 7A playoffs.

“Interesting” is not normally a word associated with the 7A playoffs these days, and the Hermantown Hawks reminded us why on Tuesday, when they outlasted AA power Grand Rapids for a third straight win over the Thunderhawks. This was the most entertaining game I’ve seen all year, a back-and-forth, open affair brimming with emotion. A coaching chess match came to the fore in the second period, when Rapids’ Trent Klatt started looking for ways to get his elite threesome at forward—Blake McLaughlin, Micah Miller, and Gavin Hain—away from Hermantown’s Ryan Sandelin-led top line. Sandelin and company contained the Big Three whenever they were on the ice together, and Bruce Plante was wily enough to keep up in the line-matching game. Hermantown, meanwhile, exploited the mismatch of the second lines, and Logan Judnick’s goal held up as the game-winner. The Hawks were clinging to life in the late stages as the Big Three surged forward, but did enough for a 4-3 win, and some frustrated Grand Rapids defenesemen started a scrum in the corner after the buzzer sounded. It was a painful error: two of them were given game misconducts, and had to miss Thursday’s contest with Duluth East.

Few regular season games were as anticipated as this one, as the Greyhounds welcomed in the team that ended their 7AA dynasty in exhilarating fashion the year before. The atmosphere at the Heritage Center was the best I’ve ever seen, and both teams had something to prove: East needed to win to show it belonged in the 7AA conversation, while a loss could consign Rapids to the 3-seed, despite their strong start to the year. With so many thrillers in recent memory between these two, it had the makings of another classic.

The game, however, didn’t offer much in the way of drama. Thursday was one of those defining Duluth East games, a dominant performance that offered Greyhound hockey at its finest. East went on the attack early and never let up, controlling the puck for long stretches yet still showing enough discipline to make the Rapids stars seem fairly pedestrian when they did go on the rush the other way. They unleashed a barrage on Rapids goalie Gabe Holum, and while he held the game to 1-0 for a period and a half, the floodgates burst loose late in the second. The 5-0 final was East’s finest statement to date, and after Elk River stumbled against Centennial on Saturday, they suddenly look like they’re right there in the heart of the 7AA race.

The Thunderhawks, meanwhile, face a conundrum. Their amazing top line carried them through a dominant December, but with just one win in five games before a recovery effort in their win over Cloquet on Tuesday the 17th, there are some cracks in the walls. It’s not hard to look good when a team returns a group of stars with incredible chemistry, but as the competition builds its own combinations and settles into its systems, it grows more difficult for a good AA team to thrive off sheer skill alone. If ever a team could, it’s this Thunderhawk group, but a concurrent decline in team discipline has been their bête noir. Trent Klatt has played with splitting up his now-somewhat-stoppable trio, a move I’ve judged as wise give the realities of AA hockey: one-line teams seldom win tough sections. But the Big Three have a chemistry together that’s hard to shrug aside, and Trent Klatt faces far more critical choices than he did a year ago, when he had the depth to run with the likes of East and Elk River. Few teams will be as interesting to watch down the stretch.

For East, the win was as much a display of talent as it was a win for the program’s famed systems. Mike Randolph teams are renowned for their offensive zone cycling and ability to shut down the opposition, but they’re at their very best when there are added wrinkles of creativity that display some of the natural skill on the team. We saw some flashes of that against Grand Rapids. Garrett Worth, the most technically skilled East forward since Jake Randolph, dangled all over the place. Ian Mageau was a physical force, disrupting the opposition and creating plays of his own, with three assists on the night. And while Luke LaMaster didn’t have a huge night on the scoresheet, his poise in his own zone started many a fluid Hound breakout. The machine work is all lovely and important, but it’s going to be these individual moments of brilliance that make or break this team’s playoff run.

Those top line Hounds had precious few chances to show their greatness against Eden Prairie on Saturday. Matched against Casey Mittelstadt and the Eagle top line, they were left in a mostly defensive role, which they filled with aplomb, though at the expense of some scoring chances. For its part, the East system held up well against the state’s most talented team. In a display of depth, the third line scored both goals, and the defensemen were equal to the task against Mittelstadt. The ending, however, was something no system can account for, as goaltender Kirk Meierhoff mishandled a lob in from the blue line by Nick Leivermann just ten seconds into overtime. It was an unfortunate twist for Meierhoff, who’s shown genuine improvement and been a bright spot for East this year, and recalled memories of some previous overtime affair between these two that ended on a crazy goal. But, no matter: the Hounds showed this week that they have the formula to run with the best when they’re on their game.

This was my second look at Eden Prairie on the weekend, as I’d seen them turn in a fairly pedestrian performance in a 3-1 win over Cloquet the night before. Under Lee Smith this season, the Eagles are the anti-Grand Rapids, deliberately avoiding heavy reliance on their stars in the service of a deep lineup and grinding performances. Perhaps it’s an attempt to atone for last season, when the Eagles lost the title game to a deep defensive team, and it’s not without risks, as games can stay tighter than they might be if they turned into a track meet. But winning it all in AA takes discipline, and with their new approach—and, one might add, with a certain hotheaded forward unavailable due to a misconduct the night before—Eden Prairie kept its poise and rolled its lines when East ramped up the pressure in the third period. Sure, East effectively shut down Mittelstadt, but the Eagles never panicked, and when a questionable call gave them a late penalty, they pressed in, creating a deluge of chances late in regulation before Leivermann’s fateful flip.

Perhaps these are all important turning points; perhaps these moments in January are just little skips that won’t be at all relevant when we look back in two months at the moments that defined these teams’ seasons. Either way, these teams delivered some of the cheapest, most entertaining theater available out there. We’re headed into the stretch run now, and it only gets better from here.