On Thursday night, I made the road trip 80 miles west of Duluth to Grand Rapids for a hockey game. The town of 10,000 people has a rather mixed identity: it is part vacationland, part paper mill town, and part gateway to the Iron Range. What isn’t in doubt, of course, is its status as one of Minnesota’s most storied hockey communities.
The Grand Rapids High School Thunderhawks (Indians in less P.C. times) won three titles in six years back in the 70s and 80s, and have produced as many college and NHL players as any school in the state. Recent decades haven’t been nearly as successful, but the program has risen again in the past few years, with two second place finishes in the mid-00s, two narrow section title game losses to Duluth East in the past three years, and a promising youth program feeding in. Thursday’s game had the potential to break Rapids’ long string of frustration against the Hounds, a team they’ve only beaten twice in their past twenty meetings. They entered the game on a six-game winning streak, and a win could have just about locked up the top seed in Section 7AA, something the Thunderhawks have yet to earn in the two-class era. They boast a Mr. Hockey frontrunner in Avery Peterson, one of the state’s best goalies in Hunter Shepard, and a bumper crop of sophomores. A capacity crowd packed its way into the historic IRA Civic Center, ready to blow the wood-trussed roof off the building if Rapids were to win.
Duluth East, however, decided to crash the party, and they did it in style. The Hounds smothered Rapids with superb neutral zone play and a relentless forecheck, grabbing an early goal by Nathaniel Benson for a 1-0 lead. Despite East’s controlling play, Shepard and the inexperienced Rapids defense was doing just enough to keep it close for a while. Rapids took a major penalty late in the period, however, and it was 3-0 by the intermission. “Why so quiet?” the East students taunted a silent Civic Center.
A few power plays gave the Thunderhawks a little more life in the second period, but East goalie Gunnar Howg saved the shots he needed to save, and another bad Rapids penalty set up an East power play goal late in the period. The Hounds went into cruise control in the third, not allowing a shot until over 12 minutes had passed, and adding a fifth goal with .5 seconds to go for some icing on the cake for the Cakeaters of the North.
The game was a total triumph of Mike Randolph hockey. His young Hounds executed his gameplan as well as any Hounds team ever has. They used their depth to their advantage, and the third line of Alex Spencer, Maysen Rust, and Nathaniel Benson—a potential concern I’d cited earlier in the week—was a wrecking crew all night long. The best player on the ice was not Peterson, but East defenseman Phil Beaulieu, who seemed unbothered by his huge amount of ice time, slaloming past countless defenders and shutting down every Rapids rush that came his way. He made some new friends as well, stopping for a photo op with Grand Rapids mites between periods. It was that sort of night for the Hounds.
Tactically, Rapids was a mess, as they tried to skate straight into the heart of the East defense and generated nothing in the way of odd-man rushes. If not for six power plays, they might not have mustered ten shots on goal. It was hard to find any sort of positives for the Thunderhawks; their one recourse, perhaps, is history, as East beat Rapids 5-1 in the regular season meeting in 2007, the year they picked up their sole playoff victory over the Hounds. This team can’t possibly be as bad as it looked on Thursday night, and while there are a bunch of things that would have to go right in a playoff rematch—better discipline, better breakouts, a willingness to do some dirty work on offense, a big night out of Shepard—it’s certainly imaginable that they could get it done.
East, on the other hand, has to make sure this mid-January win isn’t the peak, but only another sign of improvement from a squad that has already grown up a lot since November. They went to the box too often for comfort, and more 5-on-5 scoring wouldn’t hurt, either; they can’t count on major penalties, especially in the playoffs, when referees are more likely to swallow their whistles. But the win certainly put the rest of the state on notice, and we still don’t know how high their ceiling is. They now have a fighting chance at the top seed in 7AA, though every game will matter as they try to atone for their early season loss to Elk River. No matter how the season ends, the big win in enemy territory will go down as one of the highlights.