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New CEC boys hockey coach is no stranger

Kevin Smalley, the Duluth Denfeld hockey coach since 2004, is the new head coach for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team. Justin Hayworth/Forum News Service

The Lumberjacks hired a new boys hockey coach last week, and he won't have far to travel. While Cloquet didn't stay in-house to find Dave Esse's successor, it did stay within the Lake Superior Conference, tabbing Duluth Denfeld's Kevin Smalley to lead an up-and-coming squad teeming with talent.

Smalley, a 1980 Denfeld graduate who went on to play at Minnesota Duluth, has coached the Hunters since 2004.

"It's something new for me," Smalley, 55, said.

Esse abruptly resigned in May after 17 seasons, the last of which ended after a 1-0 loss to Duluth East in the Section 7AA semifinals. Friction within the program prompted his departure. Still, Smalley says Esse encouraged him to pursue the vacancy.

The chance to compete in Class AA was appealing. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton opts up to the larger school classification every winter, a source of pride in a community that is passionate about high school hockey. Esse's saga last spring underscores the kind of pressure cooker Smalley is getting into.

He's ready for the challenge.

"They demand a good product on the ice, and quite frankly they deserve that," Smalley said.

Leaving his alma mater wasn't easy. Smalley, the John Mariucci Award winner as Class A's coach of the year in 2010 and 2013, informed his players last Thursday morning, July 27.

The Lumberjacks are coming off a 16-9-2 showing in which six of their top seven scorers were sophomores or juniors. Retooled Denfeld, on the other hand, limped in with a 5-22 mark. Last season's success — which garnered Esse Class AA coach of the year honors — highlighted CEC's potential as it chases its first trip to the state tournament since 2008. Reinforcements will come from a bantam program that has ranked among Minnesota's best in Class AA the past couple years. Likewise for the peewees.

Contrast that with Denfeld, which didn't have enough players for a junior varsity in 2016-17.

Ahead of the announcement last week, many expected the Lumberjacks to tab their next coach from within.

"No, we were looking for the best guy available, the best guy for the program, the best guy for the kids," new Cloquet athletic director Paul Riess said. "We had good candidates all the way around.

"We're thrilled with the experience Kevin brings to the position."

Ever since he started coaching, Smalley says he's aspired to go beyond high school.

"Here's an opportunity to be able to add to my resume and see if I can maybe someday get an opportunity to coach at a higher level," he said.

Asked if he had any concerns over stepping into a role exited by a friend who had multiple run-ins with parents, Smalley said: "I don't know all the logistics between what happened up there and it's none of my business, except for the fact that I respect totally the program and what (Esse) has done for it."

Both of Smalley's daughters — Lexi and Kaylee — are Esko graduates.

The resulting vacancy at Denfeld means the area will have at least four new boys hockey coaches come November. Already, Chris Marinucci replaced Trent Klatt at Grand Rapids and Patrick Andrews did the same for Bruce Plante at Hermantown.

Despite moving into a gauntlet of a section that includes loaded Duluth East, Grand Rapids, perennially tough Elk River, Duluth Marshall and rapidly improving Andover, Smalley could be one step closer to coaching at Xcel Energy Center. That no doubt would delight his father, Robert, who has attended every state tournament since 1949, 69 in a row.

A fiery presence on the bench, the younger Smalley guided the Hunters to multiple section finals.

He'll continue to cheer for them. Unless they're matched up against his Lumberjacks, that is.