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New CEC coach likes what he's seeing from players

New Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Kevin Smalley shouts instructions during the Lumberjacks' 6-1 win over Mounds View Saturday night at Northwoods Credit Union Arena. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 2
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Gavin Rasmussmen shoots the puck during Saturday night's 6-1 victory over Mounds View. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal 2 / 2

The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey program has a new head coach this winter — only the fourth permanent head coach the program has had since 1966.

Kevin Smalley, who coached Duluth Denfeld for the last 14 years, takes over from longtime coach Dave Esse this winter. There's no doubt Smalley likes what he has seen so far.

"It's like something new," Smalley said. "It doesn't matter what you have coming back, it's about getting used to the kids and seeing how they adapt to a new guy in charge. It makes a difference when you return a lot of kids, and these kids are pretty good."

The Lumberjacks have split their first two games of the season, dismissing Mounds View 6-1 in the season opener last Saturday night in Cloquet but falling 4-1 to White Bear Lake Tuesday night in Vadnais Heights.

"This group cares about each other," Smalley said. "They get along, and that's very impressive. It's nice when you come into something new and see that the kids who have been together for a long time care about each other. They've got a great work ethic, they come ready to work and give all they have."

The 'Jacks had plenty to give against the Mustangs, holding the visitors to 16 shots on goal as they cruised to the win. Jon Baker opened the scoring just 2:39 into the contest but a three-goal second period featuring tallies by Dru Senich, Andy Acers and Landon Langenbrunner blew the game open. Kade Bender and Senich closed out the scoring in the third period as CEC won going away.

"I was happy even after the first period when it was 1-1, because we created opportunities," Smalley said. "We stressed a lot that we wanted to be in the best shape we could be in, not making the excuse that at the end of the game we were outworked. I'm a firm believer that we hold that card in terms of conditioning."

The 'Jacks fell 4-1 Tuesday to a White Bear team featuring players from last season's state bantam champions. Langenbrunner scored CEC's only goal in the second period.

For now, Smalley is taking a "getting to know you" approach to his team.

"You have to play it out and let the kids see what they have, what our strengths are," he said. "They were successful under Coach Esse, and it's not a matter of changing a lot of things."

Esse and Smalley are longtime friends, and Smalley insisted that his replacing Esse after Esse stepped down last year doesn't change the relationship between them.

"Dave and I had many discussions, and we were on the same page," Smalley said. "I certainly would never want to have anyone feel our friendship wasn't as strong as before. Dave and I go back a long way, and it goes to show his character that he wants the program to grow and succeed."

Smalley has brought in Adam Pavlatos to coach the goaltenders, with Erik Hanson and former Hibbing standout Shea Walters as his other assistants.

"I feel very comfortable with the staff," he said. "Good players, good people."

Smalley also likes the fact that the CEC position is regarded as a long-term job. The team has had only three permanent coaches since 1966: Bill Kennedy, Tom MacFarlane and Esse.

"I was under the understanding that the position in Cloquet happens every 20 years," Smalley said. "This tells me that the support from the community and dedication itself, from the Mites all the way up, is there. They want to be Cloquet Lumberjacks, and that was a huge part of my decision (to apply.) The opportunity with this program doesn't come often."

The schedule is Twin Cities-heavy for the first few games. Bloomington Jefferson at home on Saturday and a trip to Stillwater next Tuesday await.

"Then we get a local team," Smalley said.

That 'local team' happens to be Denfeld, now coached by former UMD defenseman Dale Jago.

"It'll be odd," Smalley said about coaching against the program he led for 14 years. "There's a lot of hard work into that program we put in there. You create a bond with the kids and parents and everyone. But I'm coaching on a different bench now. I totally respect Denfeld and I expect them to make us work and earn everything we get."