For Cloquet-Esko-Carlton coach and players, unnecessary distractionsHIGH SCHOOL BOYS HOCKEY: Lumberjacks coach Dave Esse would like his team to focus on tonight’s Section 7AA quarterfinal opponent, Forest Lake, and then, hopefully, powerful adversaries such as Duluth East and Grand Rapids.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Dave Esse would like his team to focus on tonight’s Section 7AA quarterfinal opponent, Forest Lake, and then, hopefully, powerful adversaries such as Duluth East and Grand Rapids.
But, much to his chagrin, the longtime Lumberjacks coach finds himself the center of attention as the high school playoffs begin.
Esse was the subject of a Cloquet School Board closed-door meeting last Monday after a parent of a current player filed a complaint against him. That complaint has prompted an evaluation of Esse by the district, which Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough says will be completed after the hockey season.
Esse, who, like school officials, could not comment on the proceedings since the matter is still open, fears the timing of the episode has affected his players.
“Absolutely it has; it’s a very big distraction,” he said. “I feel terrible about anything that affects our team in a negative way. It’s hard enough to win games and pull everybody together without side distractions.”
CEC has had an up-and-down season, allowing five goals or more four times early on before embarking on a nine-game unbeaten run that included two draws against Grand Rapids and a 7-1 win over Forest Lake. The regular season ended with a three-game winning streak, a share of the Lake Superior Conference title and a No. 4 seed in the playoffs. With sharpshooters such as Westin Michaud (26 goals, 31 assists, 57 points), Beau Michaud (20-33—53) and Minnesota Duluth recruit Karson Kuhlman (25-22—47), the Lumberjacks pose problems for opposing defenses.
But now CEC players must deal with off-ice factors, and that’s something Esse is concerned about.
“It’s never about me, the most important thing is the players,” said Esse, who owns a 222-137-21 career record. “I’m all about the players, first and foremost, and want the best for them.”
Esse says he had a team meeting to clear the air and is very honest when dealing with the players.
“I have an open-door policy and they can come in and talk to me anytime they want,” he said. “But we’ve talked to them that it’s the players who are playing and not the parents. If that’s not satisfying, then we can take the next step. But first and foremost, it should be between the player and the coach.”
Esse hopes the matter will be resolved quickly and wants to return next season.
“As of right now, yes,” he said when asked if he still wanted to coach.
Two of Esse’s 7AA contemporaries — East coach Mike Randolph and Grand Rapids’ Bruce LaRoque — can empathize. Randolph’s contract was not renewed nearly a decade ago and he sat out a year before regaining his coaching job in a highly publicized battle with the school district, while LaRoque survived a similar attempt by parents to oust him just a couple years ago.
“The timing is unfortunate,” Randolph said. “It’s a tough time to have a distraction such as that. I feel for Dave, I think he’s done an unbelievable job there over the years. I have a lot of respect with what he’s done with that program. We’ve come to respect each other and it’s a friendship that has grown over the years out of the respect for what he’s done.”
The Greyhounds (21-4), winners of four consecutive section titles, earned the top seed after a season in which they defeated several top-10 teams, went 7-0 against section foes and closed the regular season on a 13-game winning streak. The key, according to Randolph, has been tightening up on defense since the team’s midseason loss to Duluth Denfeld — the first in the crosstown rivalry since the mid-1990s.
“We’ve tried to emphasize that,” Randolph said. “(Our players) didn’t buy into that earlier on, but now they realize that after having some success that that’s who we are. We’re not last year’s team (offensively). But we’re better in some areas than last year’s team, in particular on the defensive side of the puck. Last year we had the puck the whole time, and this year we don’t have the puck all the time so we’ve learned to play ‘D’ first. Off our defensive play, we’ve been able to generate some offense.”
Jack Forbort (19-33—52) and Alex Toscano (18-29—47) head up the scoring while goaltender Dylan Parker (1.74 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) has been more consistent in the second half of the season.
East beat tonight’s foe, St. Michael-Albertville, 6-1 just 10 days ago, and won all three games against potential semifinal foes Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Forest Lake.
“I can guarantee that all three of those teams, as well as the rest of the teams in the section, look at it as a brand new season,” Randolph said.
Grand Rapids (17-4-3) is the No. 2 seed and opens at home against No. 7 St. Francis. The Thunderhawks are led by scoring sensation Avery Peterson (23-31—54) and overachieving goalie Hunter Shepard (1.95, .926).
If the Thunderhawks end up facing East in the finals at Amsoil Arena, they will have a lot of history to overcome since East has won the last seven meetings.
“They’ve had a lot of people’s number,” LaRoque said. “They have good depth, good speed and bury the puck well.”
Still, the last five meetings — including last month’s 2-1 outcome — have been decided by one goal.
“East is very formidable and tough to beat for anyone, yet still beatable,” LaRoque said. “There are a lot of teams that could walk out of (Amsoil Arena) with the title, but probably more so this year than the last few years’ past.”