Hermantown senior center Aaron Pionk grew up attending grade school in the Duluth school district and played together with several of Duluth East’s top hockey players at the AAA level.
Yet despite the hype of the Hawks facing the Greyhounds for the first time in 22 years, Pionk kept the trash-talking to a minimum leading up to Tuesday night’s encounter at Essentia Duluth Heritage Center.
His first shift on the ice said it best.
Pionk scored 19 seconds into the game and top-ranked Hermantown used two more first-period tallies to control play in a 5-1 victory.
“We all just wanted to get this game going and see who was better,” Pionk said. “The game did all the talking.”
Pionk’s seeing-eye shot under the arm of East goaltender Zander Ziemski off a rebound, followed 80 seconds later by Ethan Lund’s nifty individual move around a defenseman, gave the Hawks (9-0) a 2-0 lead and blew the lid off 22 years of pent-up emotion.
“We had a great start,” Hawks coach Patrick Andrews said. “We were ready to go and we jumped on them. We’ve been tenacious in the first periods and just jumped on teams, and tonight was the same thing. (Pionk) comes out and bam! A minute or two later, it was another one and we were rolling.
There was a lot of buildup (to the game). That was an emotional release in the first.”
Pionk went to Holy Rosary School with East’s William Weinkauf and Aidan Spenningsby and later played on youth teams with current Greyhounds Zarley Ziemski, Kaden Nelson and Garret Johnson.
But once it came to the varsity level, the schools hadn’t played each other since February 1999 when East left the Lake Superior Conference. Coach Mike Randolph had refused to schedule the Class A school unless it made a long-awaited move to Class AA that never came. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic that limits teams’ travel, Randolph scheduled the Hawks twice this season. The next game is March 8 at Hermantown.
“Finally we got a chance to meet in high school — the final phase to see who was better — and it was great to see how it all came together,” Pionk said.
It didn’t take long for the Hawks to be partying like it was 1999. Eight minutes after Lund’s goal, senior defenseman Joey Pierce rifled home a shot from the right circle for a 3-0 lead.
“These last nine games we’ve been coming hard out of the gate, which has been great to see,” Pionk said. “We were definitely ready for this one, it’s been 22 years in the making. We just wanted to get this game started.”
The Greyhounds (4-2-1) settled down in the second period but were still outshot 17-7. Aydyn Dowd gave Hermantown a four-goal advantage on a shorthanded rush at 6:47, before East’s Kaden Nelson scored in front when linemate Cole Christian’s backhand flip drew goalie Garron Opsahl to him.
“That was the hardest we’ve had to play this year,” Andrews said. “In the second period, we were pushed for the first time and we were pushed hard. But I thought we battled through that and had a great third period.”
Sophomore forward Zam Plante closed the scoring with his state-leading 19th goal of the season, while being knocked down on a rebound attempt.
Hermantown owned a 46-16 advantage in shots on goal.
Duluth East 0-1-0—1
First period — 1. H. Aaron Pionk (Aydyn Dowd, Cole Antcliff), 0:19; 2. H, Ethan Lund (Antcliff), 1:39; 3. H, Joey Pierce (Pionk, Dowd), 9:39.
Second period — 4. H, Dowd (Ty Hanson), 6:47 (sh); 5. DE, Kaden Nelson (Cole Christian, Grant Winkler), 11:33.
Third period — 5. Zam Plante, 1:36.
Saves — Garron Opsahl, H, 15; Zander Ziemski, H, 41.