Mike Randolph has guided Duluth East to 18 state tournament appearances beginning in 1991 and most recently in 2019. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA
Hockey fans geeked out about the renewal of the series between Hermantown and Duluth East should be advised to savor every second of the northern Minnesota powerhouses’ two games this season.
Because that’s all they are going to get for the foreseeable future.
“We have 24 of our 25 games set already on our schedule for next year,” Duluth East coach Mike Randolph said. “They are not on it.”
“They” would be Hermantown, Duluth East’s opponent tonight at the Heritage Sports Center. Barring unforeseen circumstances — such as, say, a lingering global pandemic — the Hawks will not make an appearance on the Greyhounds’ schedule next year, the year after or the year after that. Or any year Randolph, in his 32nd season coaching the Greyhounds, remains in control of East’s storied program.
Randolph believes Hermantown, which competes for the Class 1A state title, has built what is, in effect, a Class 2A program. He says it would benefit high school hockey to have the Hawks opt up to play in the big-school playoffs, as many high-end northern Minnesota high schools do, thus opening the door for smaller programs with once-in-a-decade teams to reach the the state tournament (Hermantown has won six of the last seven Section 7A titles).
“They play double-A in youth hockey,” Randolph said. “They play a double-A schedule in high school hockey, then they go A come playoff time. And shellack everybody.”
School districts around the state have imposed travel restrictions on their athletic teams because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Duluth East was forced to slash most of its annual trips to the Twin Cities to face Class 2A competition. Hermantown had to cut most of its road trips, too.
Given the circumstances, and both teams’ desire to play the best competition available, both Randolph and Hermantown coach Pat Andrews welcomed the opportunity to have their teams play each other, thus renewing the decades-dormant series northland hockey fans have been so hungry to see.
How hungry? A petition for the game to be played was created on the online platform change.org and directed at Duluth East activities director Shawn Roed. Multiple columns imploring the two schools to give fans the event they so crave have been written in the Duluth News Tribune over the years. All to no avail, until this year.
Tonight's game should be highly competitive. Hermantown is 8-0-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 1A. The Hawks feature the state's leading scorer in sophomore sensation Zam Plante and a leading Mr. Hockey candidate in bruising, high-scoring defenseman Joey Pierce. Duluth East is off to a 4-1-1 start and led by sophomore Cole Christian's 10 points.
“I think it will be fun,” said Andrews, a former Hawks player in his fourth season as head coach. “At the end of the day, it is just another game. The broader hockey community is way more excited than us, I think. People have wanted to see this game for years.”
Andrews, like legendary Hermantown coach Bruce Plante before him, has issued a standing request to Randolph to resume the series that ended after Hermantown’s 4-2 triumph on Jan, 28, 1999 — the Hawks’ first and only win over the Greyhounds.
Randolph counters with a standing reply: “Bruce Plante for years, until he gave up on asking me, would say, ‘Can we play you guys?’ ” Randolph said. “I said, ‘For sure, come on up to double-A. I’ll schedule you the next day. I told Andrews the same thing.
“I just feel they belong in (Section 7AA). We would have one more northern team in our section that can represent the northern part of the state.”
A Hermantown move up to Class 2A doesn't appear imminent.
“We’re OK with the status quo,” Andrews said last year before the state tournament. “Everyone pushing so hard to catch us in our section, the teams are becoming so much better.”
The second meeting between the teams is scheduled for March 8 in Hermantown.
Pat Andrews has compiled a 75-15-8 record in his four seasons as Hermantown's head coach. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports Media