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Cloquet ponders changing hockey class

When the Minnesota State High School League announces the makeup of the state's prep hockey sections for the next two years at next week's state tournament, the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton programs will remain in Class AA for at least another two years.

When the Minnesota State High School League announces the makeup of the state’s prep hockey sections for the next two years at next week’s state tournament, the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton programs will remain in Class AA for at least another two years.

That fact used to be a given. But at the Jan. 12 and 26 Cloquet School Board meetings, member Jim Crowley spoke about sending the programs to Class A for competitive reasons and because he likes kids to get the experience of going to State.

“The last two years, I’ve looked at the schools that make it to State and their enrollment size,” Crowley said. “We have 1,070 students (between Cloquet, Esko and Carlton) and we are by far the smallest AA school in the top 20.”

According to current rules, programs and combined programs with enrollments of 1,200 students and over must play in Class AA, but programs below that number may “opt up” instead of playing in the smaller-school Class A tournaments.

Crowley also spoke about an informal survey conducted within the girls’ program by Activities Director Tom Lenarz about whether dropping to Class A was an option before informing the MSHSL in February of its intentions to opt up.

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Lenarz said that a majority of the girls hockey families polled still wanted to play in Class AA. He recommended that the girls program continue to opt up until more players and parents wanted to play in Class A, adding that the final decision will be his and the School Board’s. The next time the team will have the option to change classes is in 2017.

In the hockey programs, the issue has always been one of pride.

“When I started, I [questioned] that we were playing against schools two or three times our size,” Lenarz said. “I would rather play where our enrollment numbers put us, like we do in every other sport. But both the boys coach and the girls coach weren’t interested in playing Class A.”

Lenarz said he had heard from some parents and players that they were interested in dropping out of Class AA, and spoke of a closing gap in coverage of the Class A tournament as opposed to the Class AA event.

The Minnesota boys hockey tournament is, by attendance, the largest high school sporting event in the United States.

However, in 2014 attendance for the boys large-school event was more than three times as large as for Class A according to the website, Minnesota Hockey Connection. Over 119,000 fans attended the event, with 91,423 of them watching the Class AA event.

Girls tournament attendance in 2015 was 21,365, an increase of 50 percent from 2014 and an all-time record.

That said, the main issue for Crowley wasn’t so much tournament attendance as what he saw as competitive balance.

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“It’s silly for us to compete with teams that have 90 kids to pick from for each age and we have maybe 20,” Crowley said.

“Some people are OK with losing 20 games every year playing a AA-heavy schedule,” Lenarz said. “I just want to make sure we’re not punishing the kids we have now because we were a powerhouse in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Boys hockey Coach Dave Esse disagrees.

“You know, it isn’t always about making it to State,” he said. “For me, I’d rather make it to State once every 20 years and beat the best. People say there’s no difference between Class A and Class AA hockey and that’s not correct. There were six teams that could have had a realistic chance to win Section 7AA. There weren’t six teams in Class A that could have won our tournament this year. Not a chance.”

In smaller programs such as Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s, success can be cyclical. The changing face of high school hockey, where some players such as Karson Kuhlman leave school early for greater playing time in junior hockey, also makes things difficult.

But this season, Cloquet has had a top-10 state-ranked boys Bantam program all season, and the Pee Wee A team challenged for top seed section honors, both facts which tend to bode well for future varsity hockey performance.

“I honestly feel that Class AA is a better fit for our program,” Esse said.

However, Lenarz sees difficulty on the girls side - and that may someday lead to changes.

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“Obviously, there’s a lot of pride here and Cloquet has a very traditionally strong program,” he said. “But, in the end, numbers do matter. Those AA schools are doing all the things Cloquet was doing ahead of the game years ago, and they have an advantage especially on the girls side, where some will have three times the number of girls to draw from. And the numbers (here) aren’t likely to get better, based on the cost of playing hockey and other factors.”

At its Jan. 26 meeting, School Board members directed Lenarz to poll the boys program (current and future players and parents) about changing hockey classification after their season was finished.

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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