Tag Archives: umd

Doggedness

15 Apr

The University of Minnesota Duluth claimed its third national championship this past Saturday, its second in a row in a run of three straight national title game appearances. Unlike many Duluthians, I have no personal ties to UMD save living in the same city as its campus, and as I’m still eagerly awaiting the creation of a hockey program at my alma mater (I expect I’ll be waiting a while), their exploits provide reliable entertainment in the meantime. College hockey, in my book, will never match the intensity and the pageantry of the high school game, but I make a handful of Bulldog games each season, and when two-thirds of the national champion’s roster is comprised of Minnesotans, I’ll know a thing or two about the players on the ice.

Several of their key players were true Minnesota high school stars who I saw many times in their glory days. Hunter Shepard put together some of the most dominant goaltending performances I’ve ever seen when in high school at Grand Rapids. (Anyone looking to beat him really should hire Mike Randolph as a temporary consultant.) I first saw Scott Perunovich when he was a sophomore at Hibbing, where he immediately awed me by saucing passing on to the tape of his teammates’ sticks from 100 feet away. This didn’t stop the Hibbing mom in front of me from informing him he was a puck hog all game long, but his boundless talent was obvious. But there was also Nick Wolff, who lit up a couple of Musketeers in the championship game; I remember his Eagan coach, Mike Taylor, calling him a “human rain delay” when he wandered into a press conference a bit behind schedule. Dylan Samberg emulated Kyle Schmidt’s 2011 NCAA championship snow angel after he scored an overtime championship-winner of his own for Hermantown in 2017, and between his two titles as a Hawk and two at UMD, his past four seasons have ended in championships. Not a bad run.

This Frozen Four, the Bulldogs forsook the Schmidt-style drama and just overpowered opponents. Their games in the regional final in Allentown were more stressful than the final two in Buffalo; lulled into a trap, it appeared they might face the exits against scrappy Bowling Green in the first round. But after a convenient bounce knotted it up, the game never seemed in doubt. This group has a superb record in close games in recent playoff games, a testament to both a lack of panic and a steady system that relies on the team’s depth to grind opponents into submission. Once they’d staked themselves to an early lead in the national championship game, they settled into a sequence of steady offensive zone cycles that we Duluth East fans watch all season long, controlling the puck and probing for more. I’m biased, but I can’t name a more appealing style of hockey than that steady, physical brand of northern Minnesota control.

The title cements UMD’s place atop the college hockey ladder for the time being. Scott Sandelin has built a powerhouse on the hill overlooking Lake Superior, and he has done it through a steady process that draws attention only via the results on the ice. While his first two Frozen Fours had a handful of standout players who really elevated the team, that 2011 title put the Dogs on elite recruiting footing. Their depth now is such that no single Bulldog really stands out above the rest, and they can bring a relentless assault from four lines and six defensemen. They can afford to absorb good-but-not-great point totals from the likes of a Riley Tufte, who’s a reliable contributor but not the Casey Middelstadt-level first-rounder some expected him to be. And while they lose a few players to the pros early, as all college teams now do, there’s also some tradition of sticking around that players like Andy Welinski, Alex Iafallo, and Dom Toninato established in the years preceding these titles. Winning culture feeds on itself.

UMD also sits in one of the most attractive recruiting grounds in college hockey, and Sandelin has taken full advantage. While they’ll never claim every local star, they now keep many who previously might have looked elsewhere. (As one who left and came back myself, I will never begrudge the Dave Spehars and Ryder Donovans of the world for trying different paths.) The Bulldogs run a drama-free program, which is no small feat. Sandelin’s accolades are piling up now that he’s joined an elite group of coaches with three national titles, and opportunity may come knocking, though I could also see him being too content with what he’s built at UMD to consider moving on. He’s become an unassuming local legend, and I may even forgive him for choosing to live in Hermantown. (All joking aside, that relationship has been a beneficial match, both as a recruiting pipeline for the Bulldogs and as an attraction to that city in a swamp behind the mall.)

For now, even us Duluthians who aren’t born-and-bred Bulldogs (or, perhaps, bulldogs of a different litter) can thank this group for bringing glory to our city. They’ve done it the right way, they’ve done it with style, and while NCAA playoff hockey can be the ficklest of the major college sports, on paper, there’s no reason to think the success will slow down anytime soon. Right now, Duluth can stake a claim to the hockey capital of America, and don’t think we won’t revel in that crown for as long as we can.

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Living the Cakeater Life

25 Jan

No, this isn’t a post about hockey; it’s about the future of one half of a city. The west side of Duluth has gotten a lot of deserved attention in politics and in the press in recent years. Rarely, however, do we hear much about the east side as a whole, except as a foil when comparing trends between the two ends of the city. This post will take some time to think about the area where I grew up, and plot out its future.

This isn’t some cry for attention or investment; some fairly substantial development (by Duluth standards) is happening naturally on the east side, and not much screams for immediate intervention. There’s no real cohesive east side identity like there is with the west, except perhaps a relationship to Duluth East High School, though it draws from areas beyond the city limits and its alumni scatter far more than Denfeld’s. Sure, there a few scions of old money families who carry on the tradition of that old east side cakeater stereotype, but while they may be large in influence, they’re relatively few in number. (Sidenote for the uninitiated: the term “cakeater” is indeed a Marie Antoinette allusion used to denigrate the spoiled rich kids, and achieved immortality thanks to the Mighty Ducks movies. Edina is home to the original cakeaters, but it’s long been thrown at the east side of Duluth, too.)

This post came to my mind when I observed to a friend, half surprising myself as I did so, that I might well spend the rest of my life within a mile or two of where I live now. I’m probably going to be an east side lifer, and while I’m a big believer in roots and tradition and so on, the ties go beyond a lingering loyalty to the streets I ran while growing up. I’m a sucker for historic homes. I like having the easy access to transportation and cultural amenities that come with living in a city, but I also like to have yards and green space. I like being on a hill, though not necessarily on a slope that renders the yard difficult to use. I want to be around people who share my  general ethos while at the same time not cutting myself off from those who are not like me. I’m loyal to the east side’s public schools, which I think provide as desirable a blend of high-achieving culture and exposure to reality as one is likely to find anywhere out there; I don’t know what they’ll look like in this balkanizing education world by the time I have kids to send to them, but I’d at least like to preserve that option. The St. Louis River has much to recommend it, but I’ve grown up looking at that lake, and I want to continue to have views of that lake.

My main aim in doing this, though, is to make sure we don’t sink solely into a binary east-west way of thinking for all political discussion and reporting about issues in Duluth. I’ve certainly picked on that divide before; it’s real, and I’ll likely do it again. But it isn’t the only way of looking at things, and it runs the risk of ignoring other views that might be just as valuable.

Part and parcel with this is the danger of thinking of Duluth alone, or as if the goal of balancing east and west must be the sole goal. Less than half of the people living within thirty miles of downtown Duluth live within its city limits, and any solution to its various issues needs to consider the whole ecosystem. That requires both regional thinking, with an acknowledgment that noble measures in the name of balance could create perverse incentives for spillover or even flight into neighboring communities, and local thinking, with plans for specific neighborhoods instead of lumping entire sides of the city under one umbrella.

The east side’s less defined identity may have something to do with the sheer variety that exists between 6th Avenue East and the Lester River. While the west side certainly has its variants as well, it doesn’t have quite as many dimensions as the east side. I’ve divided it into four areas, which I’ll summarize quickly with some essential information, then offer up my thoughts on where they should go in the coming years.

Congdon/Hunters Park

Population: 7,471 | Median Income: $96,860

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

We’ll start in the heart of the east side. Congdon is the source of the old stereotype, and it is indeed a neighborhood placid streets and beautiful old homes, albeit with some shifts in the largest of houses that no longer serve as plausible single-family abodes. The city has done a reasonably good job of allowing for creative uses (bed and breakfasts, granny flats, a few apartments), though I think it has been excessively regulatory when it comes to things like AirBnB. (Please, please don’t do the same thing to Uber, City Council friends.)

This is the wealthiest patch of northern Minnesota, and that won’t change anytime soon. In a different place I might argue for less concentration of wealth, but in Duluth and at this time, I will defend letting Congdon be Congdon. Its roots run deep, historical deference preserves part of the city’s character, and it’s not so large that it can be an isolated enclave. (Congdon Elementary actually has more kids in poverty than Lester Park, as it draws from some neighborhoods further west.) It’s worth having a showpiece neighborhood, and also an aspirational one.

This isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement, and I think the city is particularly primed to cash in on the potential of some of the east side’s commercial corridors. There’s money to be spent in this area, and I expect many east siders from Congdon and beyond would welcome an excuse to do their shopping nearby instead of trekking up to the mall area. As I’ve written before, there’s so much room for improvement along London Road, and a chance to make it an actual destination instead of a bland suburban strip of medical offices and fast food. The new infusions of life with developments like Endi and BlueStone are great signs, as they offer convenient, accessible commercial options and housing for certain stages of life that don’t always get much attention. It’s no coincidence this is happening on the edges of Congdon, and it adds some healthy fresh life to the area.

Lakeside/Lester Park

Population: 9,374 | Median Income: $68,449

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman

Woodland/Kenwood

Population: 9,448 | Median Income: $61,120

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

Next, there are the Woodland and Lakeside, old streetcar suburbs that I would argue are, by and large, exemplary neighborhoods. While they are wealthier than most of the rest of the area, they are hardly homes to lots of pretention. There’s variety, too: little downtowns with business districts, connections to both big parks and the rest of the city; some large lakefront or ridgetop homes for the wealthy and some naturally occurring affordable housing for the poor, comfortable homes for families and smaller ranches or ramblers for those in the starter-home market or the mobility-impaired. They both have neighborhood schools (though Lakeside’s is better integrated into the neighborhood), and even their own Catholic schools (though the diocese appears hell-bent on creating its very own little Red Plan and closing one of them). I grew up in Lakeside, and found it to be an excellent place to spend a childhood, with plenty of room to run free and a very healthy overall environment.

These neighborhoods have enough in common that I put them together here, but they’re not identical; there are no lakefront properties in Woodland, and the college students in the Kenwood area drag down the median income up there. Maintaining the health shouldn’t be overly difficult, and simply involves keeping the housing stock fresh and gradually phasing in new stuff so it doesn’t age at a uniform rate. It sounds like some renewed emphasis on neighborhood downtowns will worm its way into the city’s new comprehensive plan, which would be a nice boost for these areas that are doing alright, but do have a few noticeable vacancies.

Also, for the curious: Hermantown’s demographics are very similar to Lakeside’s.

Chester Park/UMD

Population: 7,073 | Median Income: $40,594

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

Duluth is a college town, and while a bunch of students scatter across the Hillside, Kenwood, and Duluth Heights, this is the big concentration. For an area including a decent-sized university, that’s actually a reasonably high median income. (The area around the University of Minnesota campus, for example, looks nearly as poor on a median income map as neighboring, poverty-stricken Cedar-Riverside; this gives me another opportunity to grumble about how the Census counts college students.) This goes to show the curious mix within Chester Park, and how quickly areas east of 21st Avenue go from apartments to very large and expensive homes.

Good things have been happening in this area lately. Development of nice new apartment buildings and an actual businesses for college students to patronize (perhaps even—gasp—by foot!) has brought the area around campus out of the Stone Age. Continued efforts to make the universities more walkable self-contained will improve town-gown relations and improve the student experience. In all parts of the city, I’d support aggressive redevelopment of aged or declining housing stock; there’s a lot of crap out there, and I think this is the area where clearing some of that out and throwing up newer, better-planned stuff is least controversial for everyone. More apartments would get rid of some of these clown car homes-turned-apartments, could ease the parking problem with intelligent construction of lots or garages, and likely make upkeep easier.

East Hillside/East End

Population: 7,512 | Median Income: $25,499

Elementary Schools: Congdon, Myers-Wilkins | Youth Rink: Congdon

Then there’s the part of the east side that isn’t anyone’s idea of a den of cakeaters. Its borders aren’t rigid; I’ve written about the melting pot in my own Endion neighborhood, which wedges in between Congdon and Chester Creek, before. As with much of the west side, the elevation divide maps on to the income divide, and the housing stock gets progressively better as one goes up the hill. (In calculating the numbers, I chose not to include the awkward census tract that includes some stuff by upper Chester Creek, upper downtown, and that neighborhood above Skyline around Summit School; if I had, it would pull the median income up nearly $10,000.) Here, apartment buildings mix in with rowhouses and bigger homes that have seen better days, many now subdivided into apartments themselves. It includes the rather suburbanized Plaza shopping district, a little more scattered commercial activity than in the other neighborhoods, and one of the two large medical campuses in town.

Here, the housing issue is more complicated: Duluth needs affordable housing, and Duluth also gains nothing from people living like sardines in rotting or collapsing pieces of junk. Hopefully the city’s newly announced plans to step up code enforcement can lead to cooperative solutions for everyone. If not, call in the wrecking ball for anything vacant, and set up a pathway for residents into safe housing that is up to code. There is some prime real estate in this area, and the dynamics of the local economy are such that I don’t think there’s any serious threat of displacement if the city does move to clear out the worst of it. There just isn’t enough money out there to cause a spate of teardowns followed by McMansion construction. Some selective clean-up, on the other hand, could improve a tight housing market and re-invigorate a neighborhood that too often feels on the shabby side.

*     *    *

Those are just my thoughts, though, and perhaps the start of a conversation or two. Above all, my goal here is to acknowledge the complexity of the east side, and to get some thoughts moving on where its various parts go next, and how that fits into a regional plan. I’ve only got a lifetime ahead of me to see where it all goes, and offer my two cents along the way.

October Hockey Notes: Northern Power

18 Oct

It’s not often one can glance up at the TV in a bar and see a kid he used to bump into in the hallway skating across the ice, but it happened to me this past weekend. Former Duluth East defenseman Derek Forbort made his NHL debut on Friday night, as he registered one shot in 11 minutes of ice time for the Los Angeles Kings in their overtime win over the Wild. Forbort is the sixth ex-Hound to appear in the big show, though he may soon have company in the form of a couple of UMD Bulldogs. It wasn’t the smoothest road to the show for Forbort—most of the other players drafted around him in the 2010 draft made their debuts years ago—but make it he has, and it was just one of a few highlights this past weekend for those of us with our roots in the North.

The NHL have been under way for a couple of weeks now, but the first major college series of the year, an early season home-and-home between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, ushered in the hockey season more properly. The two-game series revealed two teams in decidedly different places, and while the end result wasn’t an overwhelming surprise, the gulf between the two squads was the lingering takeaway. Minnesota Duluth’s 3-1 and 3-0 wins gave them six in a row over Minnesota dating back to last season, their greatest run of dominance over their southern rivals in school history.

The Bulldogs return a veteran core from a team that narrowly missed the Frozen Four a year ago, and after slipping up in their opener at Bemidji State, they looked the part against the Gophers. Two three-goal nights may not seem overwhelming, but their relentless pressure in the offensive zone had them in control for most of the series. It was offense-as-defense at its finest, with gaudy shot counts over the first four periods. Dom Toninato, ever a powerful presence, scored twice on the weekend; freshman Adam Johnson seamlessly slid into the Bulldog top line with Toninato and Alex Iafallo. All four lines were humming along, and the Bulldogs simply owned the neutral zone.

The Friday night performance was even more impressive considering the absence of the suspended Carson Soucy, whose tracer in the Saturday game—with some help from a Karson Kuhlman tip—gave the Bulldogs their second goal. The giant, physical defenseman is an imposing force, and he and Andy Welinski make for a dominating one-two blueline punch. One of the Bulldogs’ most apparent weaknesses this season is a lack of defensive depth, but after some rocky moments early in the first game, the greener UMD defensemen all settled in and had solid series. The difference in comfort of the new arrivals was one of the distinct differences between the Bulldogs and Gophers all weekend long. It’s Frozen Four or bust in Duluth this year.

For their part, the Gophers came out with good energy in the opening ten minutes of both games, pushing the pace and forcing some quality saves out of Kasimir Kaskisuo. Other than that, they only showed life once down 3-0 in the second game. Their two returning stars, Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos, disappeared for stretches of the first game, at times trying to do too much on their own. Taylor Cammarata, the poster child for the Gophers’ lack of fight a year ago, looked more willing to go into corners, but is ill-equipped to do much once there. Brent Gates Jr. got the lone goal of the weekend, while Tommy Novak was probably the most consistently useful of the freshmen.

This isn’t wildly unexpected. These Gophers are young, and looking to recover from a veteran-laden season that went all wrong. Even so, teams lose as much as they do year to year and get by just fine. They’ve scored just once in three games, and the whole clearly does not match the sum of the parts. There is too much talent here to languish in a cellar. The effort of some of the forwards gets the most flak, but I’ll point to a number of sophomore and junior defensemen who have yet to live up to the hype: they are far too soft in their own zone, and the fluid puck movement that should be the Gophers’ staple has degenerated into blind outlet passes. Add in a coaching staff that doesn’t seem willing to adapt a system to the team they have, and there is a recipe for ugliness. Yes, it’s still early. But they need to turn things around before Big Ten play starts, or the whispers about Don Lucia will grow louder.

On the high school side of things, there’s less than a month until practice opens, and the Elite League is deep into its second half. So far, the league has been owned by Team North, a squad that has just three schools—Grand Rapids, Hermantown, and Duluth East—accounting for the vast majority of its players. With Bemidji looking strong as well, this could be a banner year for the North. East’s Luke Dow and Ash Altmann are flashing their offensive talent and are the top two forwards, though the team’s leading scorer is the sublimely silky Scott Perunovich, a Hibbing defenseman and future Bulldog. He and Hermantown’s Wyatt Aamodt make for a defensive pair no other Elite League team can match.

Future Gopher Casey Mittelstadt is the Metro area’s finest player, though he relinquished the league scoring lead to Breck’s Chase Ellingson while off playing for the national team this past weekend. Team Northeast is Stillwater-heavy, but their two big guns are Luke Notermann of Blaine and Will Garin of Holy Family. Team Southwest, home to the Edina and Prior Lake contingents, has lined the cellar so far, and the Great Plains group shows flashes. Mittelstadt joins the returning Lakeville North crew along with some Hill-Murray boys in leading team Southeast; they’re locked in a battle for second in the standings with Northwest, whose scoring beyond Ellingson is probably the league’s most balanced. They also boast its top goalie to date, Alex Schilling of Wayzata.

The last few weeks of the Elite League will provide a few more clues as I go about readying the preseason AA rankings. I’ve started to comb over team lists in my spare time, and I’ve put a few rough orders on to paper. They’ll be out in less than a month. Yes, Minnesota, hockey season is finally here.

Blaising New Paths: NCAA Hockey Regional Roundup

29 Mar

While the rest of the nation watches a sport involving endless fouls and approximately twenty-six timeouts per team in the final two minutes, sixteen universities are playing their way down to their own national championship. It’s the most fickle of tournaments, the NCAA Frozen Four, where top teams go down with regularity, the games played in obscure arenas in all corners of the nation. Four Minnesota schools made the final sixteen this year, but none survived the opening weekend, and the Frozen Four comes down to two longtime favorites, North Dakota and Boston University, and two upstarts, Providence and Nebraska-Omaha.

The most intriguing opening-round matchup took place in Manchester, New Hampshire, where a pair of old rivals, now in separate conferences, went at it for a fifth time this season. There was no drama this time around: Minnesota-Duluth blitzed Minnesota with three first period goals and cruised to a 4-1 win. After a decent open from the Gophers, the Bulldogs poured it on in the second half of the opening frame, unleashing an endless wave of cycles and aggressive pinches, barely letting the opposition out of the zone. They attacked the Gophers where they were weakest, in the corners and along the boards, and cruised once they had the early lead.

It’s hard to spin this Gopher season as anything but a disappointment, and they gave us hockey fans a quality soap opera. A team that returned nearly everyone from last season’s runners-up looked decidedly pedestrian after a 7-1 start, making the tournament largely by virtue of an astonishingly bad Big Ten. There were occasional flashes of their potential, but these Gophers were sloppy on defense and got lackadaisical effort from many of their forwards, leaving goalie Adam Wilcox overexposed. They were routinely outworked and overpowered by teams showing any sense of discipline or sustained pressure, and whatever might have fed into it—players with one foot in the pros, players thinking it would be easy after last season, a here-we-go-again mentality, or those whispers about locker room disputes behind closed doors—there was no fix for a glaring problem.

Naturally, scrutiny will fall on Don Lucia, though his defenders also point out his many successes in recent years; there’s only so much a coach can do to make his players care. His in-game adjustments do indeed usually leave something to be desired, though there it’s also better not to over-coach when one has the more talented team on the ice, as Lucia almost always does. He is not the root of the U of M’s problems, though his stoic demeanor may not be the solution, either. Coaches don’t stay on the job for long tenures without making some adjustments, whether on the ice or off, and this coming year will be a telling one for Lucia’s future. On the ice there were plenty of scapegoats, from reckless Mike Reilly rushes to Taylor Cammarata shying away from contact, but no matter who stays or goes, the Gophers will have the pieces to make another run, and they need to reconnect with that inner fire.

UMD had little time to bask in the big win, as Boston University and their magic man, Jack Eichel, awaited in the regional final. The Bulldogs shut down Eichel, but linemate Evan Rodrigues stole the show with a pair of goals, the second a game-winning power play snipe on which he showed superb patience. That power play came on a fairly soft call, and the Bulldogs were unlucky on a possible game-tying goal in the final minute, when the referees signaled no goal and there was not enough video evidence to overturn it, despite the strong likelihood that the puck was underneath Matt O’Connor’s pads in the net. One can hardly blame the Bulldogs for feeling robbed, but they had their chances, gave up a soft early goal, and were fortunate to sneak in their second tally. It was a strong season for a top ten team, but they weren’t quite on an elite level just yet. If everyone returns they should be a force once again next season, though the Gophers are a clear reminder that these opportunities can be fleeting.

Minnesota State-Mankato came in the surprise top seed in the tournament, though it was a tenuous title. Sure enough, the Mavericks folded under the bright lights of Compton Arena in South Bend, though the Rochester Institute of Technology’s game-winner was even more controversial than anything in the UMD-BU game, with the MSU defender checked into the goaltender by an RIT forward. It’s the first win by a #16 over a #1 in the current tournament format, and while perhaps not quite as monumental as Holy Cross over Minnesota some years back, it was a memorable upset. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, provided some of the best drama of the opening round, winning their Husky war with Michigan Tech with a tying goal from Jonny Brodzinski in the final minute of the 3rd and overtime winner from Duluth native Judd Peterson.

The Huskies’ downfall, however, came at the hands of conference foe North Dakota, which dispatched of them in a methodical 4-1 effort, a scoreline identical to their first-round win against Quinnipiac. The Artists Formerly Known as the Sioux have played with the poise of champions, but they’ll be leaving the friendly confines of Fargo to collide with the other remaining one-seed, Boston University, in Boston in two weeks. The winner of that one will be the odds-on favorite for the crown, as they’ve been the two best power conference teams all season. The right results in the semis could set up a delicious final: Dave Hakstol’s North Dakota versus his old mentor, Dean Blais, the UNO coach whose two titles with the then-Sioux still leave Hak in the shadows. Blais’ squad is the easy rooting choice for Minnesotans, with their veteran coach and bevy of local talent: Jake Guentzel, Justin Parizek, Tanner Lane, Tyler Vesel, Avery Peterson, Luc Snuggerud, and, yes, Jake Randolph, who scored the game-winner in the regional final. Blais’ Minnesota recruiting pipeline has brought a program to new heights, and success should only deepen that connection.

The NCHC, meanwhile, has done exactly what it needed to do in its early years, putting two teams into the Frozen Four this year, with several more coming ever so close. The conference is here to stay, and offers unending displays of great hockey. There’s no good way to spin this year for the Big Ten, but it can only get better from here: Wisconsin was historically bad, Michigan was off, and none of the others really stepped up. Given its resource advantages, this conference will rise, sooner or later. The WCHA put a pair of strong teams into the Tournament, but both bowed out in the first round, making it hard to frame an easy narrative. There is definite promise there, though I still think the WCHA needs to do something big in the next few years lest its schools start to slide further down in the NCAA pecking order.

The four remaining teams now get a week of rest so that we can properly bask in John Calipari’s sleaze, and then go at it next Thursday in Boston.  That gives me time to find some UNO gear in the meantime.

December Duluth Roundup: Big Names on the Move

20 Dec

In this edition my semi-monthly summary of big Duluth news, I will avoid sounding like a broken record on the School Board and instead talk about two powerful Duluth women who are moving in different directions.

The first, At-Large City Councilor Emily Larson, has become the second person to officially enter next fall’s race for mayor. She immediately becomes the establishment pick to succeed the outgoing Don Ness, and the only chance she has of losing that title might be through an Yvonne Prettner-Solon candidacy. Throwing her name in the ring this early is a shrewd move that may head off potential competition from other center-left DFL figures. I’d label her the favorite (sorry, Howie), and that might not change even if YPS enters the race.

Larson is hard not to like. She is warm, considerate, open, and tireless. She’s been a relentless advocate for parks and libraries in particular, and it was no surprise to see her make her campaign announcement in front of the library. She has that charisma that can make a difference in a local campaign, and performed well across the city in her race for the Council in 2011. Larson is still a relative newcomer to politics, and is probably the youngest among the names that get tossed around. She definitely would keep the Ness vibe of youthful, optimistic energy going. Lack of executive experience is probably her most obvious shortcoming, and there is some risk of overabundant enthusiasm getting in the way of more detached assessment. But if she surrounds herself with the right people and has a good grasp on the budget, she will be a formidable figure in the race.

A bit further up the hill, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a hockey controversy is brewing. Shannon Miller, who has overseen the UMD women’s hockey program since its inception and won five national titles, will not be back next season. UMD chose not to renew her contract—which, at $215,000 when perks are factored in, is the highest of any women’s hockey coach at a public university, and probably the highest in the nation—and will hire someone new, probably for about half the salary.

UMD athletics are in a financial crunch, and has one profitable program—men’s hockey—that subsidizes the other fifteen. Miller’s behemoth of a contract stuck out like a sore thumb, and UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo has used the market as his explanation: Miller is grossly overpaid in a sport that makes nowhere near the revenue that could justify such a salary. Miller, citing equity concerns, grouses that she is not paid as much as Scott Sandelin, the men’s head coach. And so we tread into that ever-contentious territory around Title IX, and while Miller doesn’t really have a legal case here, the effects of this one could linger.

Neither side seems to be handling the affair especially well. Miller has come out guns blazing, ripping UMD for failing to even propose a pay cut, which she claims she was willing to accept. (A 50 percent pay cut, though?) She also criticized the timing, saying it was a terrible thing to heap upon her team midseason—and during finals week, no less. After first saying he was just trying to be up-front and honest with Miller, Berlo has now gone back to say the university was required to give her six months’ notice. There are stories suggesting that Miller had burned a number of bridges in the Athletics Department over the years; she’s always been one to make sure others know her opinion, loud and clear.

Miller’s departure also may not bode well for the future of UMD women’s hockey. While they are doing well this year, the program has been trending downward since its last national title in 2010; as Bruce Ciskie notes here, they are now a clear step behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and perhaps even North Dakota. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here, as college sports continue down the road toward the rich getting richer. Miller’s departure has upset many players, and there is some chance of a transfer exodus, or perhaps de-commitments from the recruits she has secured. In this climate, she will be a very difficult act to follow.

Another factor lurking somewhere in this decision might be Miller’s recruiting strategy. The Lady Bulldogs have long relied on a steady stream of foreign talent from Europe and Canada to beef up their lineup. The scholarships she gives these girls end up being much more costly to the university than those given to in-state players, as they need to cover out-of-state tuition. And, while understandable given the collapse of borders in most college sports, it is enough to give us Herb-Brooks-strengthen-the-base-of-the-pyramid acolytes some pause. Does importing foreign superstars really do much to grow the game locally?

Whatever the root cause, UMD women’s hockey has not been drawing big numbers to Amsoil Arena. Attendance is down. It is all tied up in the odd and frustrating state of women’s hockey, where the costs and the rat race for special training and scholarships is just as crazy as on the men’s side, only without any of the potential payouts at the end. (Here, one is reminded of the retirement rant of former University of Minnesota and Finland standout Noora Raty.)

With money playing such a prominent role, it’s unlikely there is any way UMD will recant. At this point, one can only hope that Bulldog women’s hockey proves bigger than its current coach, and can endure without her.

Instant Runoff Voting and its Discontents

13 Aug

Instant runoff voting (here abbreviated IRV, and also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV) offers what seems, at least, to be a plausible alternative to our current electoral system. It has become a popular cause, particularly in progressive circles, where people see election methods as reinforcing existing power structures. It comes as little surprise, then, to see the IRV debate resurface in Duluth this year: first, when the city council failed to use it properly in an attempt to fill a vacant council seat, and later, when it voted down a proposal to explore its implementation in local elections. I’m also about to head down and spend two years in Minneapolis, a city that has adopted it, so I’ll be curious to see what it looks like from the inside, and hear from people with direct experience. For now, though, I’ll lay out why I remain a skeptic. While I certainly don’t think the system we have is great, I don’t see any dramatic benefits from a change.

Thanks to fortuitous seating arrangements at the council discussion on IRV, I got myself a solid crash course in election algorithms and the critiques of IRV over the past month and a half. My guide throughout was UMD professor emerita Kathryn Lenz Peckham, who was joined by Prof. Barry James and instructor Rachel Breckenridge, all of the math and statistics department, at our final meeting. (Full disclosure: Prof. Lenz’s son was a high school friend of mine.) My teachers obviously had clear issues with IRV, but they’d been genuinely curious when they first heard about its application for political elections, and came at it with the detached, academic curiosity that I appreciate.

Most elections in the U.S. use a system known as plurality voting: each voter casts one vote and  the candidate with the most votes wins, sometimes with the help of a plurality primary in which the top two candidates advance to a general election run-off. IRV dispenses with the primary, asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, and conducts an instant runoff. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, and that candidate’s supporters’ second-place votes are then counted. This process continues until someone clears the 50% bar.

The most immediate critique of IRV is its confusion: it’s different, and requires a bit more thought than just casting a vote for one’s favorite candidate. IRV defenders, however, can mount a strong case in response, relying on good voter education. The evidence on voter turnout and understanding of the method is a bit mixed, though it isn’t completely damning, either. The statisticians’ greatest concerns were not really with the act of voting itself, but the manner in which those votes are counted.

One of their greatest concerns was the possibility of a tie. With so many rounds, IRV greatly enhances the possibility of a tie; there could be an election-determining statistical tie at each round.  A tie at any round could potentially be enough to trigger a recount or other such election intrigue as the order in which candidates are eliminated affects the way second- and third-place votes come into play, and could theoretically lead to a completely different result.

Transparency in reporting election results is also difficult. Since IRV elections often feature 10 or more candidates, it is practically impossible to publish a ballots table that lays out the rank-order voting data. With just 5 candidates, there are 85 distinct ways in which ballots could be marked; with 10, there would be 820. This creates challenges for accurate reporting and analysis, and data from each precinct in the voting district would have to be aggregated before the runoff process can begin.

This makes things very hard to track, and has led to delays in the counting of ballots in some cases. Even if unjustified, people may grow more suspicious of such complex procedures. This all says nothing of the fact that most standard vote-counting machines are not designed to handle IRV ballots. This would probably be a one-time cost, but it can still be substantial—Minneapolis’s first IRV election ran significantly over budget—and the machines would require new software if election officials continue to tweak the parameters, as has happened in numerous situations.

There are a few other claims by IRV advocates that seem logical enough, but struggle under further scrutiny:

IRV always elects a majority winner. This is only true if one takes a rather contorted view of what constitutes a majority. In the Minneapolis election, Betsy Hodges, despite being the clear leader from start to finish, never actually got a majority of the votes. She only cleared the 50% threshold in the 33rd round of counting, when 15,573 people (19.6% of the electorate) had seen their ballots entirely eliminated from consideration. Her final IRV total was 38,870 votes—almost 10,000 more than she’d started with, but still less than 50% of the initial votes cast. And this was in an election that was not at all controversial.

Eliminating the primary reduces costs. Primary elections are not especially expensive, and cost savings in running elections would be counteracted by the amount of money candidates would need to spend to stay in the race all the way to election day. It just spreads the cost around to different places. Moreover, a longer election season inherently favors candidates with deeper pockets. Primaries have their shortcomings, but they also channel party funds toward the most popular internal candidate. Some in the IRV crowd have argued that this just means some of the candidates were never serious anyway, and that perhaps there should be higher barriers to entry, through fees or petition requirements. This seems a rather curious way to go about making things “more democratic.”

Primary elections certainly have their issues, with small turnout and extra emphasis of activist fringe groups, though there are plausible counterarguments to these points, as Councilor Julsrud explained when the Duluth city council considered IRV. If we are to replace it, though, we should make sure the new version is certifiably better.

IRV improves behavior and minimizes mudslinging. This may be true at first, as people figure out how IRV works. In the long run, however, it’s a probably a placebo effect, to the extent that it can even be measured. No one really campaigns to get second place votes; they’re in it to win. Voters learn to play along and still vote strategically. Cynicism is just a fact of life is modern electoral politics, and it will take a lot more than a new voting method to change that.

IRV empowers minorities and candidates from underrepresented groups. Australia’s experience with IRV does not bear this out; instead of empowering minority candidates, its two major parties are more rigid than ever. If you want do give minority groups more power, you probably should consider proportional representation, but that’s a debate for a different day. The only way this argument works is by relying on the contention that minority groups are less likely to vote in primaries or runoffs, but this does nothing to guarantee that such candidates will actually run.

IRV’s greatest troubles, however, tend to come when there are more than two serious candidates. A favorite example of this trouble is that of the Burlington, Vermont 2009 mayoral election, in which the winner of the election did not have the most votes in the first round, and when matched up against the other two major candidates head-to-head in a ballot table (a method used to determine the Condorcet winner, another measure of electoral effectiveness), he lost to both. But, thanks to the round structure of IRV, he won. Burlington voters, baffled, did away with IRV shortly thereafter. Several other cities have also dumped it, and its implementation never ends the debate: Minneapolis is discussing tweaks after its first run with IRV, and San Francisco seems to have a constant string of amendment and repeal attempts underway. IRV’s adoption often leads to a protracted struggle over voting methods when there are probably more pressing issues in front of local legislators.

IRV might work well to counteract cases in which a small minority candidate saps just enough support away from a major one to flip an election (see Ralph Nader and Al Gore, 2000), but once things become more complicated, it’s not much better than plurality, and perhaps even worse. Depending on who gets eliminated first, there are actually scenarios in which it makes more sense to vote up one’s least favorite candidate over one whom the voter might prefer.

IRV advocates will retort that many of the complicated scenarios don’t happen all that often, and therefore this is all nitpicking. We could say the exact same thing about plurality voting, though, and while there are merits to IRV, it ultimately seems like much ado about very little. It also probably just distracts from some of the issues its proponents are probably most passionate about, such as voter turnout (where it cannot match the impact of a serious get-out-to-vote campaign) and money in politics (where voting methods are ants compared to the Citizens United gorilla). It seems an odd battle to choose.

Is there a better voting method? Perhaps, the professors tentatively suggested: score voting. In simple score voting, voters simply vote “yes” or “no” on every single candidate on the ballot. They can vote for everyone, no one, or any combination of them all. More complex forms allow voters to score each candidate on a scale of zero to four or five (or conceivably any number). The idea here is that the candidate with the broadest support would generate the most votes. It abandons the obsession with majority, which is increasingly difficult to come by in a pluralistic society with many candidates running for office, and settles for the broadest possible consensus. The method is compatible with standard voting machines, leaves a clear paper trail, and could work with or without a primary.

The main objection to score voting is that it appears to violate the “one person, one vote” principle, but this really isn’t the case: everyone gets one vote on every candidate, and a blank is equal to a zero. Every voter has the opportunity to cast judgment on each candidate one time. The algorithm is also mercifully easy, sparing us trouble with endless rounds and eliminations and ties. Just add the votes.

It also resonates with younger voters who are used to a world in which everything gets a rating on the internet. (While it’s obviously far too small a sample size to say anything definitive, Rachel Breckenridge’s Contemporary Mathematics classes—Math 1024, a non-major math course at UMD—named it their top choice after experimenting with several different voting methods.) Don’t expect to see it before the Duluth City Council anytime soon, though; that’s not how the professors want to push this through. They’re not in any rush to implement it, and think it ought to be tested on much smaller scales before a city goes ahead and imposes it, but it’s worth a shot somewhere. With some careful experimentation first, a new method would come across as being far less politically motivated, and might generate more organic support—hopefully from across the spectrum, and not just one wing of one political movement.

One last note: at the last meeting, we figured that the method the City Council used to elect Joel Sipress was, in fact, something akin to the Bucklin Vote, in which 2nd- and 3rd-place votes are added when no candidate receives a majority of 1st-place votes. (Under both plurality voting and IRV, the Council was deadlocked 4-4, and everyone who cast a 2nd-place vote gave it to the third candidate who got zero first place votes. However, two of Sipress’s supporters did not fill in 2nd or 3rd choices, and the Council erroneously used this to give him the IRV victory.)  While doing some profound research on the Bucklin Vote (aka reading its Wikipedia page), I learned from the Minnesota Bar that Duluth actually experimented with the Bucklin Vote about a century ago, only to have it declared unconstitutional. As the Council’s experience showed, a variation on the Bucklin method applied to IRV could conceivably resolve some ties, though it does nothing to relieve the problems of transparency and paradoxical results that emerge in all ranked-ballot methods that use rounds. There is no quick and easy fix that will quiet all dissent and make IRV instantly palatable.

UMD Hockey 2013-2014 Post-Mortem

17 Mar

The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs’ playoff run came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as a 3-2 lead entering the 3rd period slipped away, leading to a first-round sweep at the hands of Western Michigan. I have no real direct ties to the UMD program, save some loyalty to the numerous Duluth East players who make their way up the hill for college, but they do offer convenient high-level hockey for a Duluthian, and I end up at a number of games every year, including the season-ending loss this time around.

The result wasn’t a terrible tragedy for UMD. It was an improvement over last year. They were an incredibly young team still building up a new core to replace the one that won them a national championship three years ago; the regular season had its highlights, and a .500 record in the nation’s most balanced conference and against one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules is no great shame. The way it ended does leave a sour taste, though, as they were swept at home despite dominating long stretches of both playoff games.

The Bulldogs had one of the deepest stables of forwards in the NCAA this past season, as they showed when they had no trouble skating with powers like Minnesota and St. Cloud State. In fact, they may have suffered from an overload of quality forwards, with few who stood far above the rest. After a stellar freshman years, Tony Cameranesi and Austin Farley didn’t score quite as much, and there was much mixing and matching on two of the top three lines, which were interchangeable by the end of the year. Taking the place of the two sophomores as the lead producers were juniors Justin Crandall and Caleb Herbert, while Kyle Osterberg, the first of three big-time freshman forwards, impressed with his energy and knack for finding the back of the net.

By February, the one stable line all season long had emerged as the best: the line anchored by freshmen Dom Toninato and Alex Iafallo. They shut down other teams’ top lines and generated plenty of zone time, though in the end, they could have scored a little more; a more dynamic offensive player than Adam Krause might have been a more sensible third member for that line. To be fair, that could have come at the expense of some defense, and would have made the line noticeably younger, but while I respect Scott Sandelin’s principle of having each line feature two players with good chemistry together, the third guy needs to have a logical role within the scheme. The fourth line seemed under-utilized at times, too; it generated good chances when it did see the ice, but Sandelin usually leaned on three, and that sometimes seemed to hurt them late in games. The end result was a team that possessed the puck and moved it as well as anyone in the nation, but the chemistry for the finishing touch wasn’t always there. With another quality crop of forwards coming in next season, Sandelin and company will face a continued balancing act as they try to find ideal roles for everyone.

The struggle to finish can be especially troubling when a team’s defense isn’t stellar. Again, this isn’t a scathing critique; it was a young team, and there will be mistakes as players learn on the fly and the coaching staff tries to figure out exactly what it has. The team only has one complete, two-way defenseman right now: sophomore Andy Welinski, who was strong, but perhaps didn’t progress quite as much as one might have expected after his hype coming in and a strong freshman campaign.  Freshmen Carson Soucy, Willie Raskob, and Dan Molenaar should get there, as all three had some flashes and some eminently forgettable moments this season. When at its best, the defensive corps was quite dynamic, though it could do with an added dose of beef. Despite the unfortunate de-commitment of Blake Heinrich, they have a few players coming in over the next couple of years who should correct that imbalance.

When a team outshoots its opponent 37-11, it’s easy to scapegoat the goalie, but often, he isn’t the culprit, and that was the case with Aaron Crandall on Saturday night against WMU. The goals were all the products of power plays or odd-man rushes, and the game-winner was a combination of the two. It’s a frustrating refrain that Duluth East fans will also know all too well: the team dominates play for long stretches, only to see a defenseman pinch too far in or backchecker play without quite enough zeal, and all of the sudden, the other team has a rush going the other direction, and generates a better scoring chance than anything the team had in several minutes of offensive zone possession. Part of the trouble there is youth and inexperience, which UMD will simply have to outgrow, but such fundamentals are the sort of thing a college-level team should be able to anticipate and protect against. Still, the point here is that UMD’s style of hockey can unfairly burden goalies and skew their stats, and Crandall had some big games for the Bulldogs this past season. He is the only graduating senior who will be a loss of any great size.

One other trend this season deserves a mention: the Bulldogs were bad at home, going an ugly 5-10-3 at Amsoil Arena. Of course much of the blame falls on the players and coaches there, but the fans ought to share a chunk of the blame as well. UMD had the 7th-highest attendance of any team in the nation, but you wouldn’t have known it most nights, as tickets sold far exceeded the number of seats filled, and those bright yellow empty seats were pretty conspicuous. The student section had good numbers but usually had to be coaxed to life by the scoreboard; there was very little in the way of creativity or rowdiness. The rest of the fan base does little to pick up the slack. (The crowd had to be practically dragged to its feet late in the season finale, as a few fans tried to coax a little energy into a team fighting for its playoff life.) Duluth is a great hockey market, and anyone who’s been to a 7AA section final knows just how loud Amsoil can get when it has some fiery fans in the arena. With so many seats right on top of the ice, the place should be rocking in big games, and one of the most intimidating arenas in the nation. But I’ve been to Badger games at a cavernous, half-empty Kohl Center with far more energy. The atmosphere at most Bulldog games seemed like a dinner party, with everyone chatting politely and perhaps offering up some musing commentary on the action out on the ice. It’s disappointing.

At any rate, the season was a step in the right direction for the Bulldogs, and if they build on some of these foundations, the future certainly looks bright.