Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “you can’t go home again,” but then, he never played hockey in Cloquet.
As part of the Santa’s Home for the Holidays event sponsored by the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce, 34 former Duluth East and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton players squared off in the first-ever Alumni Cup game at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet. They returned to their hockey roots, and Cloquet’s showcase winter event, Santa’s Home for the Holidays, got a brand-new addition.
“I was talking with my wife about the event and we noted that there was nothing hockey-oriented about the winter festival,” said Jeff Leno, a 2008 Cloquet graduate and hockey alum. “I joked about having an old-timers game.”
Leno happens to be married to Alyson Leno of the Cloquet Area Chamber of Commerce, who thought the idea of an alumni game was terrific. One phone call later, the opponent had been arranged - in the form of the Lumberjacks’ archrival, Duluth East.
The Lenos worked with Duluth East alum Steve Pitoscia to set up the event. Pitoscia was that rarest of rarities - an East Ender coaching in Cloquet’s Bantam program - when Jeff Leno played at that level, so it was natural to ask him for help in lining up the opposition.
“Steve thought it was a great idea, and since he’s East’s Bantam AA coach now, he had all kinds of contacts in their program,” Leno said. “So, the idea was born.”
On Saturday night, the teams met in Cloquet. The Greyhounds skated a comparatively young group, with nine of their 17 players graduating in 2009 or later, including goaltender Gunnar Howg, who played on Mike Randolph’s 2015 state runners-up team.
CEC countered with an older team - but one which included former Division I players David Brown, Tyler Johnson, Mitch Ryan and Reid Ellingson plus two-time Stanley Cup champion and former U.S. Olympic Team captain Jamie Langenbrunner. The home team won 5-2 before a crowd of nearly 1,000 people.
Zach Johnson and Steve Mlodozyniec acted as honest-to-goodness coaches for the Lumberjacks, who brought their A-game.
“They made up lines,” Leno said. “They were coaching us.”
But the idea of inviting another school’s alumni to play was a new and different twist on an old tradition.
“The high school team already does an alumni game and we didn’t want to step on Coach (Dave) Esse’s toes there,” Leno said. “But we thought it would be cool to do a game with East. Nobody said a bad word about the idea and lots of people said they were surprised it had never been done before, given the history.”
The game got a big assist when the Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team volunteered its game-day staff to help with the event.
“It was a chance for us to be a community citizen and since we’re active members of the Chamber, it was fun to be a part of it,” Wilderness General Manager Dave Boitz said. “We have a great relationship with both programs and it was just a natural fit.”
The Wilderness provided game operations, ticket-takers, announcers, scoreboard operators, lights and music in addition to operating concessions.
“We’d do it again in a heartbeat if they asked,” Boitz said. “We’ll be as involved with it as they want us to be.”
Leno, who also played in the game, noted that the Wilderness helped provide a raucous atmosphere for the contest.
“It’s a great way to start a tradition,” he said. “When you have a crowd like we did for an exhibition game, and the majority of people there are from Cloquet, they want to see us win. Thankfully, we got the ‘W.’”
Leno said plans will be drawn up for a second Alumni Cup game next year. He hopes it will become an annual tradition.
“It was awesome,” he said. “And now East has to come take the cup from us.”