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Puck stops here for first-year coach

The Cloquet School Board voted Monday, Aug. 6, to not renew boys hockey coach Kevin Smalley's contract. Cloquet Pine Journal file 1 / 2
Kevin Smalley’s daughter, Kaylee Smalley (standing), speaks during the Cloquet School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 6. Jana Peterson / Pine Journal2 / 2

In front of a standing-room-only crowd Monday, Aug. 6, Cloquet School Board members voted unanimously not to renew the contract of boys varsity hockey coach Kevin Smalley.

The decision came after a special meeting by the board, which included comments from the public followed by a closed meeting that included only board members, Cloquet school administration and Smalley for part of the time.

Smalley was hired a year ago to lead the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey program after longtime coach Dave Esse stepped down.

The meeting was preceded by a month of uncertainty for the hockey program, which appeared to begin when Smalley submitted a resignation letter to the school district in mid-July, citing the need to focus more on his full-time job at Sinnott Blacktop.

However, the coach had been booked into the St. Louis County Jail on suspicion of driving while intoxicated July 8. He was released and had not yet been charged when he submitted his resignation.

At the time, Smalley said the arrest — he still hasn't been charged — did not factor into his decision.

Now the coach says he was pressured to resign by Cloquet High School Principal Steve Battaglia and Activities Director Paul Riess. He said the school administrators originally told him they would leave it up to the board after he told them of the incident, but called a few days later to tell him they were not going to renew his contract. They gave him the opportunity to resign first, he said.

"I thought about it and I resigned, based on what they told me," he said.

He thought about it some more, and later rescinded his resignation.

"I thought I should tell my story," Smalley said. "I wanted to tell the kids and parents and community that I didn't quit. I wasn't walking out because I made a mistake."

When asked whether Smalley was pressured, Cloquet Schools Superintendent Michael Cary said administration always shares its intentions with individual coaches or other extracurricular staff before going to the board, adding that it's common practice to give someone a chance to resign.

According to the district's hiring procedures for athletic and drama coaches/advisers, all coach/adviser positions "may be terminated without cause" after the season or activity is completed for the year. All extracurricular contracts are renewed annually.

The superintendent rebutted rumors that Cloquet officials wanted Smalley out even before the July arrest.

"Until recently, we fully believed Coach Smalley would be coaching this year," Cary said. "Then developments led us to believe a change in direction was needed."

Pleas for Smalley

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Smalley's daughter, Kaylee Smalley, and parent/volunteer hockey coach Scott Stoyanoff addressed the board and asked them to vote in favor of the coach.

Kaylee pointed out the packed room and the 15 boys hockey players sitting across the front row at 7:30 a.m. when the meeting started.

"The support of the boys should show you how good of a coach my dad is and how much they mean to him and how much the players value him as a coach and a person," she said after thanking the crowd of about 30 parents, players and other residents for attending the early-morning meeting. "I can't speak for everyone, but I know the majority of these boys had a great season and they want their coach back next season. He's a good guy and good people make mistakes."

Stoyanoff compared the previous coaching administration under Esse and the current administration under Smalley, citing as an example the end-of-season hockey banquet two years ago and this past year.

He said the banquet two years ago was "etched in his mind" forever, and not for good reasons.

"The morale, the somberness, the tone of those seniors as they stood up and spoke is etched in my mind forever," said Stoyanoff, whose son, Dane, will be a senior defenseman on this year's team. "There was definitely something wrong. A kid stands up there and says: 'Don't let them take the game from you, don't let them destroy your love of hockey.'

"Go back to last season's banquet, Jed Anich stands up there and says it was the best season of his life," Stoyanoff said. "I'll never forget it."

Stoyanoff credited Smalley and his coaching with the change, noting that it should be about the kids' experience more than wins and losses.

Following audience comments, the board voted to go into closed session and asked audience members to step into the hallway, while they discussed the decision with administration and talked to Smalley, who exited the boardroom before they began deliberations.

In the hallway, Stoyanoff questioned why the meeting was held at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday.

"If it wasn't this early, you wouldn't be able to get in here," he said, gesturing around the hallway.

Resident and former School Board member Hawk Huard said he didn't believe it was appropriate for the district to take action before Smalley was charged.

Jen Carlson, mother of junior goalie Owen Carlson, said she hoped the board would renew Smalley's contract.

"I think coaching goes beyond athletics — it's life lessons," she said. "Everyone needs to battle failure and defeat, and it's your coach that gets you through that."

The closed meeting lasted about 50 minutes. When the meeting reopened, the six board members voted unanimously not to renew Smalley's contract. They did not cite a reason.

Two board members, Jim Crowley and Nate Sandman, stressed that it was a difficult decision.

"I have high expectations for coaches and the responsibility they have in the community and being leaders for our student athletes," Sandman said.

Lammi said he had no doubt Smalley would be successful in his future coaching career, but reaffirmed his decision.

Reached later Monday, Smalley said he was disappointed by the School Board's action, noting that he believed they had their minds made up before they got to the meeting or heard what he had to say.

"But it is what it is," he said. "It was my mistake. I admitted that.

"I was hoping they would use it as an opportunity to teach," he continued. "I believe when things go wrong, people should be (judged) on what happens after that. And I hoped they would look at what I accomplished with the kids."

What's next?

Cloquet School Board members will likely select the next boys hockey coach during their regular meeting Monday, exactly a week after voting "no" to Smalley.

CHS Principal Steve Battaglia said the position was originally posted after Smalley tendered his resignation in July and the application period ended Aug. 3. They had interviews planned with three candidates: Steve Pitoscia, Shea Walters and Kyle Young.

Young withdrew his application Monday night, so it is now down to two. Walters was assistant coach to Smalley, and Pitoscia has been the Bantams coach for Duluth East.

Battaglia said they hope to bring a recommendation to the board at its regular meeting starting at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13. Board meetings are open to the public.

Smalley said he wants the best for the CEC program.

"I wish them the best of luck," Smalley said. "I love the kids and the parents were great. I hope they do well."