For the better part of three decades, Duluth East hockey had a particular brand. Aside from the occasional exploits of a Dave Spehar or a Garrett Worth, there were certain things one could always expect out of those black jerseys. A tough, gritty style. A firm defense. A willingness to wear down the opposition, to outhit them and grind them up with an intense forecheck and a suffocating neutral zone. There were wrinkles here and there to adapt to the talent at hand, some of which yielded great results, but even in relative down years, people in the stands knew exactly what to expect.
In 2023, Duluth East hockey bears little resemblance to that age. Gone are the clogged neutral zones, the yells for the second forechecker to beat a hasty retreat back to the blue line. Even the black jerseys are gone. (Sorry, Coach, I’m going to struggle with that one for a while.) This team is a group of racing Hounds, flying up and down the ice, and behind a surging top unit and a Mr. Hockey finalist-type season out of Cole Christian, East is 13-1-1 in its last fifteen, back among the serious contenders in Minnesota.
No team ever wins anything in early February, but these Hounds have already made real progress. The air has fully cleared from the misery of the past few seasons, and the hockey is just straight-up fun to watch. Anyone who wandered away from East hockey after the past few seasons and has not yet come back is missing out. The Hounds bury lower-tier opponents with regularity, and even if they have an off period or two, they have the firepower to come roaring back. The offensive output has been like clockwork, never really slumping, even if they do get caught deep and sometimes bleed a few too many goals for comfort. The signs of potential were there in a 3-5 start; frankly, they were there at times last season too, albeit buried beneath a lack of discipline and long periods of slop. This team has always had talent at every position, and the pieces were there, just waiting to be unleashed. In his second year as head coach, Steve Pitoscia has engineered a reversal.
In mid-December I posed a few scenarios on how East, then 1-4, might rise out of the realm of moral victories and start logging real ones. One of these involved the stars putting the team on their backs, and that has most certainly happened. Christian’s heroics (58 points in 23 games) have led the way here, but Thomas Gunderson has developed some good chemistry with his linemates over the course of the season, while Wyatt Peterson does some of the dirty work that frees up Christian and Gunderson to fly. They may not have the sheer high-end potency of Worth-Donovan-Mageau or Randolph-Toninato-Olson, but they are carving out a space among the great Greyhound lines, with few able to keep up such a ferocious pace. On the back end, Grant Winkler has become a dominant force, and Henry Murray has also grown into a reassuring presence. The East top unit can now stack up with just about anyone’s.
There has been growth in other areas too, with players like sophomore Caden Cole making his way into double-digit goals and Makoto Sudoh throwing his weight around, along with some respectable lower line work and a stable second defensive pair. In December I also said the team needed to prove it could win a big, close game, and it has started doing that down the stretch, holding off pushes from Centennial and Cloquet and, most recently, mounting a stirring comeback against Champlin Park in a game in which they’d looked dead to rites for a spell. These Hounds continue to check box after box, finding ways to win and bringing the Heritage Center back to life.
It all started with a win over Andover in December. These Huskies are not the Huskies who won the state title a season ago; gone are the leaders of a stout defense, the Brimsek-contending goalie. But their top line remains otherworldly, and the program is gushing with talent that should allow it to fill holes with relative ease. But when the Hounds took it to them in a 5-1 home win, it was clear the gap in 7AA was not what most of us thought it might be. When East followed that up with a 6-0 win over Grand Rapids on Friday Night Ice, the Hounds were off to the races. Their only loss since came at the hands of top-ranked Minnetonka.
Andover, after a choppy start to season, has joined the Hounds in finding an offensive groove. The Hounds and Huskies are clearly the class of 7AA, as Grand Rapids has flatlined some; the Halloween Machine’s early defensive prowess has not always held up under relentless pressure, their offense too hit-or-miss to sustain a top 20 status. Still, the Thunderhawks remain ominous, capable of finding the formula to shut down a semifinal opponent. A feisty Cloquet team, meanwhile, has scored a few respectable wins, and will look to leave a mark in its final season in AA. The section is far from the state’s deepest, but it provides some intrigue, and if it does come down to East and Andover on a Thursday night at Amsoil, it will be another great heavyweight fight.
This team isn’t a finished product yet. Goaltender Kole Kronstedt would no doubt appreciate fewer odd-man rushes coming his way, and a few fewer stretches where they lapse into chasing teams around their own zone. The top line plays a lot, and long shifts always unsettle me. A rigidly structured opponent can leave them struggling for answers, though other than Minnetonka, not one of them has managed to keep East down for three periods since early December. Regular season winning streaks mean nothing in late February or early March, when teams truly leave their legacies. But belief is a dangerous thing, and after three seasons in the hockey wilderness, these Hounds have restored it on the east side of Duluth.