Korby's Corner: Hockey's holy rivalry

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Squeezing on my helmet, putting in my rubber mouth guard and lacing up my black skates, I was an aspiring ice-mite hockey player.

My "career" lasted maybe a month.

I'll never forget those youth days dreading to dress up in my gear, crying with my dad and breaking folding chair after folding chair on outdoor and indoor rinks, never learning how to stop on my ice skates.

Yes, my hockey career was a bust - literally, with all of those chairs - but the sport is Minnesota. Statewide, countless youth grow up dreaming of being the next pro puck player from Cloquet's Derek Plante to Jamie Langenbrunner.

In fact, the height of hockey all across the state is the renowned Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. And atop the list of high school rivals sits our own Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjacks and nearby Duluth East Greyhounds.

Like our state's most well-known sport, CEC and East are two teams every hockey enthusiast should watch take to the ice.

Even I, the kid who can't stop on skates, love the rivalry.

Every year the game packs the house. Students, faculty and fans stream in the doors, with lines outside the gate and parking a quarter-mile away. Purple and red colors cover the stands and student sections are more boisterous than ever. It's a game no one liked to miss - ever.

According to CEC Coach Dave Esse, now in his 22nd season at the helm, it's always been that way.

"I don't have to say too much - our guys want to beat them," Esse said Monday evening. "We hate them and they hate us. But at the same time, I think they respect how hard we work and we know how skilled they are as one of the state's top teams that we want to beat."

The Greyhounds have held the series lead lately, sweeping last year's two games and skating by CEC 5-2 last Thursday at Duluth's Heritage Center before another standing-room-only crowd to see Duluth East's legendary Coach Mike Randolph's 500th career win.

Both teams meet again Feb. 4 in Cloquet.

"It's a game that's always circled on our calendars," Esko junior right winger Karson Kuhlman said, noting he's been going to games since he was a child. "I remember one game the student sections were going back and forth. The students always get loud - it's just surreal."

Like me, Cloquet Athletic Director Tom Lenarz was one of thousands in attendance last week watching at the Heritage. He said in his nine years on the job, he tries to showcase the rivalry for all to see.

"Very few other rivalries across the state have that kind of attention," Lenarz said about the multitude of fans who attend the game. "It's always fun when you get that many people in the rink. Sure, we want to beat the Hermantowns, Marshalls and Denfelds, but there's always that extra little juice for the East game."

Cloquet senior Aaron Peterson, a former CEC hockey player and now fan extraordinaire, was dressed up at last week's game in his helmet, breezers and socks, cheering loudly for his favorite team.

"I'll be there for the next one, for sure," Peterson said. "Everyone goes; it's the biggest. I'm not missing - it's the game you don't miss."

Even if you're like me, and still, can't stop on ice skates.