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Player power in puck politics

They say you're never supposed to watch sausage being made. It appears as though that old adage holds true for watching hockey coaches being selected.

The Cloquet School Board's special meeting Monday, Aug. 6, to officially accept Kevin Smalley's resignation has introduced us once again to one of the less attractive sides of high school sports.

Call it "puck politics."

CHS Principal Steve Battaglia, athletic director Paul Reiss and assistant Tim Prosen have a big job ahead of them. Working with three members of the School Board and two selected community members, they've been thrust into the fire as the people who will recommend a new coach to the School Board.

On Monday. And that's part of the problem.

It's a sensitive subject that deserves careful attention — as does any position that involves working with our young people.

Yet, as I alluded in my last piece on this subject, there's a special issue involved when it comes to Cloquet-Esko-Carlton hockey. Let's face it — this is a hockey town. Always has been, and though there are other sports making inroads these days, it probably always will be.

And as such, it's easy to magnify the issues the program faces, which, evidently, are more than a few.

Numerous players came to Monday's meeting to support their former coach. I have it from two sources that a player petition was circulated that involved the potential of players leaving for juniors if the coaching decision wasn't acceptable.

The decision on where to play is different these days than it ever used to be; I also alluded to this situation last week. Player power is different now than it ever was, which I said in so many words.

There are reports of at least one Cloquet hockey insider who wanted to apply for the position, but didn't because Smalley was still in the job.

Not wanting to apply for a job that he believed wasn't technically open, he didn't immediately apply out of courtesy to Smalley. As such, he missed the application deadline while the board considered Smalley's fate. He applied after the board action, and has been informed he will not be considered.

This puts the new superintendent, Michael Cary, into a bit of a pickle as well. As the new leader of the school district, he's been tossed headlong into a situation that has drawn a lot of interest around town as one of his first acts.

But Cary is matter-of-fact about his responsibilities.

"We had a deadline and one of the things we were told in our hiring process is that it's a good thing to have a coach in place as early as possible," Cary said. "If the individual had called and let us know this (of his intention to apply), that would have been better. We would have been able to explain the process and help potential candidates make an informed decision about their candidacy."

The sad part about this is that the individual in question, who has a Cloquet and Division I hockey background, would have more local (Carlton County) coaching experience than either of the two finalists and was not aware that a phone call might have done some good.

Be that as it may, the committee has two people from which to choose: Smalley's assistant, Shea Walters, and Marshall assistant and former Duluth East bantam coach Steve Pitoscia.

I know that good people are on the search committee. I also know of one excellent candidate who asked to be and wasn't included. And I get that you have to stop somewhere.

But there are people who have given a whole lot to this program who don't feel they have a voice anymore. Some of the names would probably shock you to learn.

You may notice I'm not naming a lot of names. That's by design. It's because I don't want this to turn into a shouting match. In fact, it's the opposite. I'd like nothing better than to just take a deep breath.

But at a time when the Cloquet City Council got run through the wringer for not following its own policies recently, it seems to me that an extra pause in the name of transparency isn't the worst idea in the world.

The interviews can be held behind closed doors since there isn't a quorum of the School Board members on the committee. But with the feelings being expressed — and with the third finalist, Kyle Young, former CEC and Bemidji State defenseman and Esse assistant, withdrawing his name Tuesday, Aug. 7 — I think it's more than appropriate to err on the side of transparency.

Cary is right when he notes that a coach needs to be in place early. But as they say in the PR business, the optics aren't exactly ideal. Don't make it look like you're deciding on a coach's fate one Monday and his replacement the next.

Slow down. Find the best person for the kids in the program. Taking an extra week won't matter since the new coach, whoever he is, can't skate with the players anyway. Yes, in hockey terms, it's a bit late, but it would have been late regardless.

And be transparent. Take a moment to listen. There are a lot of emotional people at the moment because, let's face it — the program is one they all love, and the players in it deserve the best.

Administrators have a job to do and it's not easy. But it's what they signed up for.

Let's let them do that job, but ask them to take the necessary steps to be as sure as they can be that the right decision is made — not for player power, but for the good of the student-athletes involved.

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