A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, As Told by High School Hockey

Want to know the socioeconomic health of a Minnesota town or city? Look no further than its high school hockey teams.

The comparisons are almost too easy to make. The first high school hockey Tourney was in 1945, so the evolution of Minnesota’s sports crown jewel tells the story of postwar American urbanism as well as any economic study. The history of the Tourney and its participants is the same as the history of local economies, from manufacturing collapse to suburban growth to rebirth along economically segregated lines. This is my attempt to tell that story.

Hockey is an expensive sport, and even though Minnesota keeps things relatively cheap with its community-based development model and plethora of municipal rinks, hockey success still tends to follow affluent areas. Wealthy areas with growing populations are typically the places to look for waves of hockey success. The exception to this rule has long been small northern towns—though even here things still more or less line up, with the Iron Range falling off from its early dominance along with the decline in mine employment while towns with more diverse economies (Grand Rapids, Bemidji) or an anchor industry (Polaris in Roseau, Marvin Windows in Warroad) remain relevant despite their size.

To study these trends more properly, I divided all high schools in the state into several categories: (1) Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; (2) First-ring suburbs—that is, suburbs built in the first wave of suburban migration, from the 1940s-1960s; (3) Second-ring suburbs—suburbs that were built up from the 70s-90s; (4) the urban “periphery,” which includes suburbs/exurbs settled in the past 20 years and small towns in that area that have become part of the Metro as it expands; (5) Twin Cities private schools; (6) small Northern towns; (7) northern city schools—that is, schools that are part of small metro areas such as Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks; and (8) the rest of Greater Minnesota, which I realize is a very large catch-all category, but fits together for our purposes due to its relative lack of AA hockey success (with some exceptions) unless given its own weak section.

From there, I looked at the number of State Tournament entrants from each region by decades since the Tournament’s inception in 1945. I ignore the Class A Tournament/Tier II tournaments that began in 1992, as their teams are not necessarily reflective of the strengths of teams in each section relative to the state as a whole. In a perfect world I would have studied teams’ records and ratings over the years—as any sports fan knows, the best team doesn’t win every year, and sometimes a single dominant team can hide the successes of other good teams trapped behind them in their section—but that data just isn’t available for the early years. I’ll present a line graph of each region’s Tourney berths by decade, and then sprinkle in maps of the Twin Cities Metro area by decade.

Tourney Apps by Category tc45-55

Metro Area State Tourney Entrants,1945-1955. Number indicates State Tournament berths; numbers after semicolons indicate State Championships. Click images for enlargements.

In 1950, most of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area population lived in the Twin Cities themselves, though there was a growing ring of suburbs such as Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Roseville, and South St. Paul. Minneapolis’s population peaked in the 1950 Census, with 521,718 residents; St. Paul’s peaked a decade later, at 313,411. At the time, the cities’ hockey conferences were highly competitive; while St. Paul Johnston established itself as the Twin Cities’ preeminent public hockey school and the one Metro team that could go toe-to-toe with the powers of the North, there was relative parity beyond that, and things were always competitive.

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1956-1965

The second half of the twentieth century saw the gradual hollowing out of the inner city. Minneapolis lost 29.39% of its population between its peak year and 1990; St. Paul lost a more modest 13.14%, but the damage was real, and the hockey teams reflected it. By the 1970s, the Minneapolis section had largely devolved into a 2-team race between two of the most affluent schools, Southwest and Roosevelt; similarly, St. Paul was largely ruled by Johnson and Harding. But not even they were safe. Southwest won Minneapolis’s last big-school Tourney berth in 1980; Johnson managed to scrape together two berths in the 1990s, though they came out of weak sections and did nothing once they got to State. All of the Minneapolis public schools now co-op into one middling program; three St. Paul public high schools field hockey teams, with Johnson the only one coming even remotely close to some rare playoff success.

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1966-1975

The first-ring suburbs were the early beneficiaries of the cities’ decline. Edina’s triumph in the famed 1969 title game, the one in which Warroad superstar Henry Boucha limped off hurt following an allegedly dirty hit, was the first title for a suburb, and ushered in an era of superb competition between the suburbs and the North. Alongside mighty Edina, South St. Paul established itself as a Tournament regular; Mounds View, Henry Sibley (of Mendota Heights), Irondale, and the Roseville and Bloomington schools all left their mark on the Tourney in the 70s and 80s.

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1976-1985

By the 1980s, however, things began to shift yet again. While Edina and the Bloomingtons often ruled the scene and the North had fallen off substantially, schools further afield in the Metro began to appear at State: Anoka, Apple Valley, and Minnetonka made multiple appearances, while Burnsville won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade. That trend only accelerated into the 1990s, with Blaine and Eden Prairie joining the fun. There were even some berths for far-flung schools out on the Metro periphery, such as Hastings, Elk River, and Lakeville. Blue-collar South St. Paul, still one of the most decorated programs in state history, made its last Tourney in 1996 before dropping to Class A, where it has done little; Richfield, a title threat behind Darby Hendrickson in 1991, now struggles to field a team.

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1986-1995

The decline of the first-ring suburbs becomes even more profound when one looks at which first-ring suburban schools have been doing all the winning over the past 25 years. 9 of the 13 berths from 96-05 came from Bloomington Jefferson and Edina, and all 9 from 06-15 belong to Edina. Edina is the exception that proves the rule here, the one first-ring suburb that has used its long-established prestige to maintain economic dominance and continue to attract young, fairly affluent families. In the late 1980s, blue-collar Bloomington Kennedy and Duluth Denfeld were every bit as good as, and often better than, their white-collar counterparts, Bloomington Jefferson and Duluth East. A decade later, Jefferson and East were the state’s premier powers, while Kennedy and Denfeld were struggling to stay relevant. Even the west side of Bloomington, home to Jefferson, has undergone some demographic change in recent years, though the Jaguars remain a relevant program despite the lack of State berths. America’s working class has been hollowed out, and its once-strong hockey teams have felt the strain.

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1996-2005

As populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have started growing again for the first time in 60 years, there have been encouraging signs for the inner city teams; Minneapolis and St. Paul youth programs are climbing toward relevance, and St. Paul Highland Park brought its dead program back to life in 2010. But the most important trend over the past 25 years in these cities and in the first-ring suburbs is the rise of private schools, which tend to be where most of these youth kids wind up playing in high school. (Most, I suspect, have gone to private schools their entire lives.) This might seem to throw off the whole theory, but on the contrary, I’d argue that this only underscores the divisions in 21st-century American cities. While the 1992 two-class split and the story of Greg Trebil (a wildly successful Jefferson youth coach who took over the Academy of Holy Angels in 1996 and brought several top Jefferson youth players with him) may also play roles, the 1990s saw the sudden appearance of the privates (excepting Hill-Murray, which has always been good). This trend fits in with broader narratives of a self-sorting society. Inner cities, while growing, are increasingly divided, with the ultra-rich and the mostly-minority poor split into different neighborhoods, and only a small “middle” class (often involving young people who have yet to start families) serving as a buffer in between. Hockey parents with the means to do so bail on Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and often on schools in Richfield, St. Louis Park, or Brooklyn Park as well. There will be no hockey success for inner-city public schools until inner cities find some way to retain or grow their child-bearing middle class families.

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2006-2015

So, what might we predict for the future? The second-tier suburbs will peak at some point, with greater success in rising exurbs like Stillwater, Orono, Prior Lake, and St. Michael. Inertia and hockey culture will carry on in places like Edina, and perhaps in some other places whose leadership or natural amenities keep property values high. Communities that build a genuine sense of place, as Edina has, will prove more stable in the face of natural cycles of urban growth and decline. Places along lakes or rivers, from Elk River to Stillwater to Minnetonka, seem likely candidates.

Naturally, there are factors that have nothing to do with urbanism that affect who heads to the State Tourney. The manner in which the State High School League draws boundaries, to say nothing of great coaches or freak individual talents, all play a role. (How many more state berths would exurban Elk River have if it hadn’t been stuck in a section with Duluth East over the past decade?) Decisions to open and close schools or youth programs will leave their mark, and there’s some chance that the repopulation of inner cities might eventually manifest itself in some way. We’ll also have to see how private alternatives to community-based youth hockey progress, and how these might eat into the pools that high schools draw from. But the correlation is undeniable, and I don’t think any of the above trends will do anything to undermine this whole picture.

Statewide trends reveal a more straightforward numbers game, as power has shifted from smaller towns to larger metro areas. In most of the North, culture allows teams to stay relevant and even thrive with smaller numbers, so long as the economy is stable. Duluth operates as a microcosm of the Twin Cities, with “inner city” Duluth Central now closed and working-class Duluth Denfeld fighting to stay alive, while exurban Hermantown grows, private Duluth Marshall consciously moves to collect regional talent, and Duluth East looks to follow the Edina formula and ride the considerable power of past prestige to stay on top of the heap.

There is one last elephant in the room here that I haven’t mentioned: race. Due to its cultural origins in Canada and Scandinavia, hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport. And, as recently as half a century ago, Minnesota was an overwhelmingly white state. But that is changing, and hockey has been slow to follow. Minneapolis proper was 98% white in 1950, and is now 63% white; most first-ring suburbs are now following the same demographic shift. On that note, I’ll make a bold claim: whichever suburb, town, or neighborhood manages to get the most minorities on skates is going to be the model for the future of Minnesotan urbanism. It isn’t that hockey is some magical vehicle to social equity, but it does have considerable cultural cachet, and its adoption by new arrivals would imply genuine integration and social cohesion. If anything is going to resist the unending push outward and into greater self-segregation (or even the privatization of hockey training, a story for an entirely different post), it is to be found here, where there is still low-hanging fruit. Any high school that can get a group of talented minority athletes together on a successful hockey team is going to break down any number of barriers, and will almost certainly win the hearts of the state. Inertia can do the rest.

In the meantime, enjoy the continued rise of the urban periphery and the private schools, and the continued relevance of the old powers with enough economic vitality to keep their numbers going. For everyone else, take it as a challenge to buck the trends and prove that other, more subtle factors matter, too.

Publick Skoolz Rule

The juiciest piece in political blog-land today was an article with the delicious title “If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by Allison Benedikt on Slate. I am not a regular reader of Slate, but the provocative piece set off any number of Facebook friends and many conservative commentators, who responded with equally delicious titles of their own, such as “Liberal Cites Virtues of Crappy Education.” So, the article was a smashing success: it got a lot of people to read it and comment on it, and the good folks at Slate are probably thrilled, no matter what they think of the argument. But sometimes it takes a healthy dose of hyperbole to get a good debate going, so here we go.

First off, it’s worth noting that the author’s intended audience is probably very liberal: she probably knows she’s only going to rile conservatives. Her true targets here are the liberals who extol the virtues of funding public education but bundle their own children off to private or otherwise exclusive schools that isolate said children from the “regular” people whom they claim to want to help. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in that stance, though it’s all relative: I may be all for public schools, but after a college course that had me doing work in a Washington, D.C. public high school, I now know there are schools that I could never send my children to in good conscience. Sorry, America: my loyalty to people I love will forever trump any cause of national greatness or abstract devotion to the human race. Judging by the response of even many ardent liberals to the column, most people out there agree, even if they don’t realize it.

And, of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to choose private schools that this article casually tosses aside. A religious bent is an obvious one, and people who respect for the freedom of worship shouldn’t have any qualms with religious schools. Some private schools offer programs or activities that just don’t exist in the local public schools, or are absurdly hard to get into—for example, a varsity basketball roster at a 3,000-student high school—and it makes complete sense for families to seek out such schools. (Unless, of course, the private schools start “stealing” the top-end athletes: then they’re the root of all evil.) I could trail on here, but the reasons are clear enough. I also admire the commitment of many people who choose to homeschool; naturally, there will be some parents who teach their kids kooky things or try to isolate them so much that they fail to socialize with their peers when eventually released out into the world, but the horror stories are overblown. Most of these people belong to cultures that are not entirely comfortable with mainstream American culture, and in most cases, I respect that diversity.

A large number of families, however, will simply say they want “what’s best” for their kids, and choose private schools for perceived academic advantages. To some extent these advantages are due to self-selection, but there are a number of private schools out there with more demanding academic programs, especially when measured against the weaker public schools out there. Somewhere, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, the other night, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two fathers of middle school kids. One of them said he had “heard nothing but good things” about the local public high school, but if a proposed charter school opens, that will immediately become his first choice for his daughter. Um, okay. This gets even more head-scratching when the discussion switches over to private schools, where tuition costs can go exorbitantly high. It’s not something I resent, but it does make me stop and wonder what exactly these parents are chasing. Having been through the whole rat race fairly recently, I’d counsel a series of deep breaths. A few more AP classes or even a slightly more prestigious college aren’t going to change one’s life prospects. Instead, it’s a matter of making the most of where one finds oneself, instead of subjecting oneself to the constant anxiety of needing to be the absolute best. There is such a thing as “good enough,” and so long as the kid in question has involved parents and is otherwise well-adjusted, most public schools not in economically destitute areas do the job.

Perhaps the most compelling arguments for alternative paths are the kids on both extremes of the academic achievement ladder. Special needs kids by definition need extra attention, and if the public schools can’t give that, those kids need to get out. (A huge part of Washington, D.C.’s education budget goes to paying private school tuition for such students who find woefully inadequate facilities in DCPS.) There are also some students who struggle in public schools for whatever reason and need a change in scenery or a new group of friends, though private schools are no guaranteed fix. (I am always amused by people who rant about the alleged depravity of public schools, as if one would not find sex, drugs, or alcohol at private schools. For that matter, it’s also interesting that both Benedikt and the Rod Dreher rebuttal seem to assume that deeply intellectual learning and less refined “educational experiences” are somehow mutually exclusive; while this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highest achievers. These are the kids who are not always challenged by normal public school pedagogy, and this bit of art from the Walker Art Center pithily sums up the dangers if they aren’t given an alternative. If you can forgive my lack of modesty, allow me to attest to this; there were certainly some moments in my public school education (mostly in the earliest grades) when I was bored and/or isolated because I learned things faster than my peers. This wasn’t at all damaging in the long run; I never got any crap from my classmates for it, and young me was all too proud of myself. But I can easily see how a little bit more of that sensation, or a somewhat less accommodating group of peers, could quickly lead smart students to want out. To that end, I’m a big proponent of tracking in public schools, as it groups kids in with peers of similar ability, sparing teachers the headaches of dealing with students of wildly different aptitudes for a particular subject.

Still, if possible, I think it’s good to keep these students in the same building as those for whom things don’t come so easily. Public schools at their best really can build community in a way that exclusive schools cannot, and lead to greater understanding of those people with whom we must share the planet. For example, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, I was forced to take “regular” government as a senior in high school, instead of the high-end version. I learned very little that I didn’t already know in that class, but I did get quite the civics lesson, as I found myself serving as a de facto T.A. to some of my classmates, trying to find ways to explain Constitution to them, and present my political views in a way that wasn’t over-intellectualized. I got to work with a class of kids I wouldn’t have seen at a private school, and the things I learned about them were probably more valuable than cramming the details of a few more Supreme Court cases into my head.

This, in far less provocative language, is the a valuable point that can be rescued from the Benedikt essay: there can be real upsides to going to school with people from different backgrounds. However, one really has to be open to those upsides going in: I remember a few other peers left in the same scheduling conundrum who were just bitter about the whole experience from start to finish. Throwing a bunch of people in a room together will not make them understand each other. It takes a little more work than that, and shutting down private schools isn’t going to do that work. Looking back on those culture shock experiences later in life, perhaps laughing at them, and admitting they were educational in some respect—that’s one thing. Telling an unwilling kid that “this will be good for you!” is quite another. One-size-fits-all approaches to education don’t work. Instead, I’d simply counsel a little less panic when it comes to question of school choice, and the flexibility and wherewithal to take something away from it all when it doesn’t live up to the ideal. With a few obvious exceptions, things will probably turn out alright anyway. And for people who can’t quite accept that, or have particular needs, there are, thankfully, other options.

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.