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It was Saturday night, closing in on 10 p.m., and we just finished listening to Billy McLaughlin’s guitar artistry and Jeff Arundel’s showmanship at Beaner’s Central, the coffeehouse and restaurant that also is one of Duluth’s prime music locations. We stepped outside onto the Central Avenue sidewalk and noticed a large vehicle approaching slowly from our right.
It was a big tour bus, rolling slowly and deliberately westward, as if it was in no hurry to find the I-35 entry ramp. It was the Aberdeen Wings team bus, starting the long journey back to Aberdeen with a slow crawl out of town, after a stirring and exhausting North American Hockey League Robertson Cup tournament.
The Wings, the team that had risen from a fourth-place finish in the Central Division to upset first-place Minot Minotaurs, and the second-place Minnesota Wilderness to reach the tournament, had given the top-seeded Ascot Rebels all they could handle in the best-of-3 semifinal series. The Wings lost 4-2 in the first game, courtesy of an empty-net clincher, then they stung Aston 3-2 in overtime, blowing a 2-0 lead, but coming back to win 3-2 on Gage Mackie at 16:11 of overtime. Aston came back to beat Aberdeen 2-1 Saturday afternoon on a Evgeny Yakovlev goal at 17:47 of overtime.
That sent Aston into Sunday’s championship game, and it sent the Aberdeen Wings onto the bus.
Watching the action, you had to wonder how Aston could have anything left for the fourth game in four days, against a Lone Star Brahmas team that beat Janesville in two games, and had Saturday off. Turns out, the Rebels couldn’t stay with the Brahmas, although they tried. Lone Star got a goal in the second period from Austin Kamer, then got a huge tally from Austin O’Rourke, who found a loose rebound and put it into the uypper left corner at 4:04 of the third. An empty-net goal with a minute left finished the 3-0 title game, as Lone Star outshot the Rebels 23-17 and Max Prawdzik registered the shutout.
There was a nice smattering of fans in Essentia Health Heritage Center, which did a great job of putting on a national tournament. It was a tough draw, with Aberdeen, Aston, Pa., Janesville, Wis., and North Richland Hills, Texas filling the field. Some suggested that if the Wilderness, who play in Cloquet, had made the tournament, there would have been bigger crowds. I’m not sure. How many of those Duluth hockey fans had ever bothered to go up to Cloquet and watch the Wilderness? So why do we think they would have come out to the West End to watch?
Heck, the Duluth News-Tribune never even showed up — not a reporter, nor a photographer, and they didn’t write so much as a single sentence about any of the four days of heated action. Television crews did a good job of catching some action for their 10 p.m. audiences.
The NAHL itself could have done better. In four straight days, I was blocked from getting down to the dressing room area to interview any players or coaches, despite my press credential flapping from a lanyard around my neck. And never did I see a handout with official goals, assists, penalties and shots listed. It took some perseverence to get to the official scorer and notify him that Carter Wooley had scored the first goal for Aston against Aberdeen in the first game, while they announced a different name and number.
But none of that mattered. It was fast, tough, hard-hitting hockey, and those kids, all under 20 and hoping to secure a college hockey offer, deserved stronger support. Had the paper done features with pictures, it might have helped attendance. This was the same newspaper that, two weeks ago, ran a huge editorial ripping the NCAA for its rule that precludes any site from being host to a regional hockey tournament in an arena a college team uses. The slant of the editorial was that Duluth is a perfect town for a regional, and if one was held at AMSOIL Arena, it would get great coverage, even if UMD wasn’t in it. Right.
One of the highlights was Aberdeen goaltender Forbes Ploszaj, who tends to drink a squirt from his water bottle, and then squeeze a high stream of water toward the rafters. I wrote last week about how he apparently was doing it to cool himself off. Turns out, he noticed Washington Caps goaltender Braden Holtby shooting water skyward and thought he’d copy a page from Holtby’s book. What he does is pick out one droplet of water up in the air, and track it as it lands on the ice. Then he focuses on it, to bring his concentration back where he wants it.
There’s no truth to the rumor that he’s planning on writing a book, “Zen and the Art of Goaltending.”
Among the highlights of the four-day run at Heritage Center was talking to and seeing old friends and acquaintences between periods. Frank Serratore, one of my best friends in the game, and the coach at Air Force, was there and we had great but too-short time to talk. He was with his brother, Tom, coach at Bemidji State.
I also saw Grant Potulny, assistant coach at Minnesota — or make that, former assistant coach at Minnesota. Potulny, the star as captain on Don Lucia’s firAA championship team, has taken the job as head coach at Northern Michigan. I believe Potulny will do an excellent job in Marquette. I asked him about his nucleus, and he rattled off how strong he believes the returnees are. I wished him well, and, in parting, said, “Do me one favor and bring back that giant snarling Wildcat on your jerseys.”
“It’s already done,” he said. He’s also talked to Scott Sandelin about scheduling some games between UMD and Northern Michigan.
It was also at Heritage that I heard the rumors that Dave Esse was going to resign as coach at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. That was Thursday night, and Friday morning I called Dave, who is one of the straightest, and best, coaches in high school hockey. He confirmed for me that the way
I spelled out the speculation I had pieced together was accurate, and he had just filed his resignation. He allowed me to be first in the media to break the story, on my Friday morning radio show on KDAL. It’s a sad way for a 26-year career as one of hockey’s good guys to leave.
Esse is weary of the political infighting generated by a parent or two, and said he wasn’t interested in coaching if he couldn’t be sure all his players were pulling in the same direction. His direction.