Olympic hockey tourney in jeopardy

John Gilbert

Picture the headline: “2022 Winter Olympic Games Canceled.”

No, there is nothing official that would indicate such a colossal shock, but I have an uneasy feeling that it could be coming.

What a way to greet the New Year!

For the first time in my lifetime, we end a year, 2021, of amazing achievements in sports for  and look ahead to 2022 starting on Saturday and promising – nothing but question marks for the New Year.

The National Hockey League has withdrawn its commitment to send all-star teams to populate the U.S. and Canada, as well as provide top stars for teams from Russia, Sweden, Finland and others. Those countries are now scrambling to find replacement players, who may be playing in Europe or on college or minor league teams.

The reason, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to plague the world and cause numerous postponements and cancellations in the world of sports.

The NHL called off some games, more games, and then all games until after Jan. 1, and numerous players and teams have been hit hard by positive cases.

The same is happening in college football, where teams have had to drop out of bowl games, and more are being threatened.

The NHL doesn’t want to send so many players to Beijing for three weeks, just after the pandemic forced the closure of league games all across the league. If players, who would be tested every day, are found positive, they would go into forced quarantine for five weeks. Do we think minor league or college players want to face that? Probably not.

The IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) made the unpopular move to cancel the world Under-18 tournament for female hockey teams, right after allowing the young men to start the world junior tournament, claiming that they had already been tested and isolated. The IIHF then awkwardly explained that the girls wouldn’t start until later in January and that no tournament would be allowed to start after January.

Well, folks, the Winter Olympic tournament is scheduled to start in early February, which, according to my comprehension of calendars, is “after January.”

So could the IIHF simply postpone or cancel the Olympic hockey tournament? Yes, it could. And, in fact, if the worldwide spread of Covid-19 and its variations continues to increase, it seems to me to be absurd to gather thousands of athletes from all over the world and send them to China, where contagion might be record-setting.

So brace yourselves, because we may be about to see is China, the Olympics, and NBC can fight off Mother Nature and her horrible pandemic.

The shock of such cancellations follows a year of great achievement in sports, even if you go no further than our Duluth area.

In fact, you could isolate the most fantastic performances in sports for 2021 just among girls and women in our area. Consider these, as a top 10 list for 2021:

• Multi-sport standout: Claire Vekich, who was denied a full season of volleyball so she picked up a tennis racquet and played No. 2 singles for the Raiders, then joined the volleyball team where she hit kill shots that still echo in area gyms. Also, she was a dominant player in hockey, where she earned a Division 1 scholarship to Bemidji State, and already has been named WCHA defenseman of the week twice.

• Softball: Jordyn Thomas, UMD senior first baseman, who started all 47 games, hjiot 11 home runs and 10 doubles, drove in 44, scored 23, and hit .369. My opinion was that she was the best player in the NSIC. At the high school level: Sophomore Madison Walsh of Proctor turned the Rails into a threat every game with her pitching, going 24-3 to lead the Rails into the Section 7AA final, where they lost to Greenway of Coleraine, and she ended p with a 1.01 earned run average and 257 strikeouts, and guess what? She’ll be back for two more seasons.

• Hockey: At the college level, Ashton Bell of UMD made the switch from being a very good forward to becoming an All-America defenseman that boosted the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament, where they reached the Frozen Four when Bell scored in overtime for a 1-0 quarterfinal upset. Now, Bell has made the Canadian women’s Olympic team’s centralized roster and we’re hoping to watch her play in the Olympics, if they play! After that, we want to see her come back for a granted final year at UMD. At the high school level, Alyssa Watkins of the Proctor-Hermantown Mirage helped her team go undefeated and reach the state tournament last spring, and then they went on to win the title, still undefeated. Watkins had 24 goals, 22 assists for 46 points, and scored 5 game-winning goals, before accepting a scholarship to play at Bemidji State this season. Another high school standout was Maren Friday, a dominant force for Marshall, who is now skating for Union College’s Division 1 team.

• Soccer: Morgan Friday, a senior at St. Scholastica who is a cousin of Maren Friday, and whose brother played for the St. Scholastica men’s team, went from an incredible junior season when she scored 27 goals in a restricted 9-game season, to successful making the transition to scoring goals in the much tougher MIAC this fall.

• Volleyball: Kate Berg, who was supposed to be UMD’s scoring leader, took all of last year off to have shoulder surgery on her right labrum, but struggled to regain her power-hitting form this season. The Bulldogs struggled without her anticipated input, but she continued to try as hard as was humanly possible through the entire season. With four remaining matches, Berg told me she had gone home and saw her family chiropractor who discovered she had been playing in pain because of three dislocated ribs! He put the ribs back where they belong, and Berg for the first time all season was able to blast her patented kills, leading the Bulldogs to victories in their final home games. But UMD lost its final two matches, on the road, and missed the NSIC playoffs. But Kate Berg helped make the Bulldogs an attraction for five years, and gave her full effort this season.

• Basketball: College level found UMD’s Brooke Olson finally achieving the promise Bulldog fans saw coming through her first two years and led the team in scoring last season — a feat she has picked up on this season to lead the Bulldogs from a sputtering start to an upsurge in the start of the NSIC standings.

• And the most spectacular performance of 2021 came in high school basketball, where an incredibly skilled guard named Gianna Kneepkens led the Hilltoppers to the state tournament. They were beaten by Providence Academy 94-91 in the quarterfinals when Kneepkens scored a Minnesota high school girls record 67 points. She had scored 54 in a game a week earlier. Kneepkens, who can shoot long, shoot pull-up jumpers, drive elusively to the basket and score with either hand, is now a freshman who has played her way into a starting slot at the University of Utah, which is the surprise team of the Pac-12. She came off the bench to score 29 against Brigham Young, which handed the Utes their first loss. She is without a doubt the best female basketball player in Duluth history, and could be headed for national NCAA stardom.

If Gianna Kneepkens is the No. 1 sports story in Duluth for the year 2021, there is no doubt what is the worst sports story of the year.

That would be the decision by the Duluth East administration, and backed by new superintendent John Magas, who turned the complaints of parents whose sons had quit the Greyhounds in midseason and decided the school should not renew the contract of Mike Randolph, who had been the hockey coach for 32 years, and built the program to elite status, where it has remained.

The fallout hasn’t stopped yet. The Greyhounds, under first-year coach Steve Pitoscia, endured a school record eight-game losing streak to start the season before winning 6-1 at Brainerd two days before Christmas.

Coincidentally, that was the same day Hermantown absorbed its first loss after starting off with six straight victories – against Benilde, Hill-Murray, Wayzata, Rosemount, Duluth Marshall and Mahtomedi – when the Hawks lost 4-2 at Cretin-Derham Hall, on an empty net goal.

Star center Zam Plante remains sidelined with a dislocated shoulder suffered in the Wayzata game.
As for Randolph? He is the new associate head coach with Trent Eigner at St. Thomas Academy, which played Tuesday against Cretin-Derham Hall, which led 4-1 in the third period before St. Thomas Academy rallied for four goals in the third period to claim a stunning 5-4 victory.

Happy New Year, everybody, and let’s pull for that Olympic hockey tournament to be played after all.