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Will CEC hockey tradition continue?

In 1967, Cloquet High School hockey coach Don Bourdeau left the program to take over at Duluth East. He was replaced by Bill Kennedy.

In the 50 seasons from that date, the program had only three head coaches: Kennedy, Tom McFarlane and Dave Esse. In today's world of high school sports, that's not just impressive — it's nearly miraculous.

But now, with the departure of coach Kevin Smalley, the 2018-19 Lumberjacks will have their third head coach in the last three seasons — an unheard of turnover in one of the state's most storied programs.

But equally as impressive is the chain that links those coaches together, including Smalley. Esse and McFarlane have traditionally minced no words when expressing their feelings for Kennedy, a no-nonsense coach who guided the program to its first state tournament in 1981-82.

When McFarlane was hired in 1983, he kept Kennedy's traditions alive, and brought Esse aboard as assistant coach and coach of the team's defensemen. When McFarlane left the program in 2000, Esse took over and coached for 17 seasons.

Esse and Smalley have been friends for years and as such, his recommendation to hire the longtime Duluth Denfeld boss carried considerable weight.

But Smalley is now gone and I can't help but feel that there's a vacuum building in his place.

I consider myself fortunate to count McFarlane, Esse and Smalley as friends, and have had the pleasure of meeting Kennedy. And as one who has covered the boys hockey program in one form or another for the last 26 years, I feel qualified to make a few observations about the program.

Schools like Cloquet — and of course now, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton — were among the last to have featured true disciplinarian coaches. I mean that with absolutely no disrespect, but the style of Kennedy-McFarlane-Esse was unmistakable. It was traditional, it was respectful and above all, it was successful.

But today's world is different. Bill Kennedy still lives on in local lore for the famous "Mahtowa Death March" of the early 1980s, when his idea of dryland training was dropping the team off in Mahtowa and having them run home. Long-timers claim he once had his players skate initial warmups in the opposite direction from a Proctor team so players would come together.

McFarlane admitted to shooting pucks in the general direction of players who crossed him — never to hurt, but to show who was in charge. If he were an English soccer coach, they'd call him "boss" because that's unmistakably what he was. Of course, he could never do that today, and he's said so in so many words.

But they all had one thing in common: a deep and abiding love for the game and the players who pulled on the purple, gold and white each night. I have no doubt that Smalley would have been an extension of that tradition.

But now what?

Continuity has been the watchword of this program. People who played in the high school program went on to coach in it and now some of their sons are playing in it.

Adam Pavlatos. Kyle Young. Jamie Langenbrunner. You can probably name some yourselves, if you've spent much time around the Barns through the years.

This leaves athletic director Paul Reiss with a very interesting decision to make. I am one who believes that tradition, and respect for it, helped build the program into what it is. Everyone associated with Minnesota high school hockey knows about CEC. Everyone knows what it represents.

But it's a different age. Players have other options. They can go to juniors and get more games. They have much greater influence than in Kennedy's day and hockey is much more of a player's game than it ever was before. The mere existence of social media is just one way it shows.

If the the day of the "boss" isn't over in the State of Hockey, you can certainly see sunset from here. Former University of Minnesota Duluth defenseman Curt Giles, now at Edina, might be one of the last remaining few.

Kennedy and McFarlane are both in the Minnesota High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame and someday, Esse, who won the organization's Class AA Coach of the Year in his final season with the program, may well join them.

There's a lot to be said for tradition. But will tradition win out one more time? We'll have to wait and see.

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