As a sports fan, I have always made it my priority to accept reality for my favorite teams. Talent levels are what they are, no matter what wishful beliefs we may hold. Acknowledgment of this reality is far from defeatist; it is, instead, an invitation to adjust to the relative strengths and weaknesses of an inevitably flawed team. From that point, I tend to keep some faith because I have seen enough to know the improbable can happen; there is almost always a pathway to an upset or a surprise run, no matter how thin. Hope springs from self-knowledge, and a commitment to rise up in spite of any limitations.
That hope was hard to find at times during this past Duluth East hockey season. It opened with an 0-8 start, and while that was the most difficult portion of the schedule, losses in winnable games against Forest Lake and Bemidji set the team irreparably far back in the section race. The team endured a myriad of injuries, a long Covid pause, and had players lose time for some other reasons, too. In the stands, we joked about Mike Randolph’s parting hex. 7AA’s imbecilic section seeding system left them with a tough playoff date; with a slightly better seed they could have at least made Amsoil, though I don’t think a team that wins seven regular season games has too much ground to complain. The Denfeld debacle and its aftermath cast a pall over the season’s final weeks and led some observers, myself included, to question the point of it all. The team seemed to spiral out of any progress it had made.
And there had been progress: in between those two ugly stretches they rattled off a month of .500 hockey. The Hounds lost four one-goal games to top 15 teams and lodged a respectable tie with Blaine, even as that one signature win would not come. In the section quarterfinal with Grand Rapids, they looked like a reasonably threatening team for a period, popping the first goal and coming close to a second that would have totally changed the tenor of the game. But in the second, a familiar plot line emerged. The Hounds took two more major penalties on which they gave up three goals, and the season was over.
It was a yearlong trend. According to Minnesota Hockey Hub, the Hounds took 310 penalty minutes in 2021-2022. As of the day after their quarterfinal defeat, that was second-most in Class AA, with Gentry Academy claiming the dubious crown. There is a clump of three other teams in the low 290s, and no other team above 270. The average number of penalty minutes for the other teams in 7AA was 221, and that appears high when compared to other sections. (The lowest total, by far? Hill-Murray, at 138.) We can nitpick about bad calls here and reputations among referees there, but this is far too much smoke for there not to be a fire. Combine it with an abysmal 65% penalty kill and it was a formula for disaster that once again came home to roost in the playoffs. The discipline must improve, period.
As always, though, I turn the page and thank the team’s seniors: Tyler Smith, who became a reliable defensive rock on the blue line amid turmoil; Lars Berg, ever the instigator; Wyatt Zwak and Dylan Erickson, who earned their way to regular playing time; and a supporting cast that included Ben LaMaster, Fletcher Dirkers, Eli Fresvik, Kayden Miller, and Dain Fladmark. They have been through the ringer over the past few years, their times at East nothing like senior classes before them, and we appreciate their contributions.
The underclassmen provided some entertainment, too. Cole Christian’s artistry, when he is on his game, is a great pleasure that I try not to take for granted after watching it for three seasons. Noah Teng took major strides toward being a very productive high school forward, and Wyatt Peterson adds to the gaggle of young talent. Aidan Spenningsby continued to show his versatility, and Makoto Sudoh is growing into a genuine power forward. Grant Winkler offers next-level potential on defense, and in a season when every other defenseman spent some time on the shelf, Henry Murray was the one constant presence. I do not know what Grady Downs’ future holds, and I believe it was correct for him not to play the remainder of this past season. But his reckless abandon also made for some pretty entertaining hockey at times, and I do not think anyone should be eternally defined by one incident at age 17. If there can be a redemption story here, I am all for it.
Next season seems a critical one to the post-Randolph era at Duluth East. Barring defections (an all-important disclaimer after recent seasons), they return a lot of players from a team that wasn’t that far off from being respectable when it stayed out of the box. The top line looked legitimately potent against Grand Rapids, and a healthy Thomas Gunderson could be the X-factor for a dynamic offense. They have respectable depth and a veteran in goal; if they can round out the defensive corps, it too can be a strength. There are at least a couple of bantams who will slot in nicely to the openings that remain. Moreover, with Grand Rapids and Blaine set to lose a lot to graduation and no great bantam teams in the section, a high seed in 7AA looks ripe for the picking; only increasingly machine-like Andover, if their stars stick around, has more talent on paper. Duluth East’s wander through the wilderness could be due for an interruption.
There is a lot of time between now and November, however, and this team will have to convince me that it is more than it was at the end of this season. For all the talent, for all the close calls, Duluth East hockey is not in the place where it needs to be. It can get there again, but doing so will take more than the normal dose of effort. Let the work begin.