Perhaps the greatest high school sports rivalry in Northeastern Minnesota is one that hasn’t been played in the 21st century.
The Duluth East and Hermantown boys hockey programs have been as successful as any Northland prep teams in any sport in the third millenia.
The Greyhounds have dominated Section 7AA since Mike Randolph became head coach 32 seasons ago, winning 13 section titles and finishing as Class AA runners-up four times since 2000.
Likewise, the Hawks have made Section 7A theirs by reaching 15 state tournaments since 1998, winning the 2007, 2016 and 2017 Class A titles and finishing second an amazing eight times.
Yet the schools have not faced each other since February 1999, when Bruce Plante stalked the Hermantown bench and well before any of the current players were born.
That drought ends at 7 p.m. today at Essentia Duluth Heritage Center when the teams face off for the first of two meetings this season. You can watch the game online at Spiideo Play for a fee of $10.
“This is a big deal to me,” Plante said Monday. “It’s probably a bigger deal to me than it is to (current coach Patrick Andrews). I’ll come out of retirement just to play him. I told (Plante’s son) Derek that I should tell Patrick that I am going to coach this game.”
So why has it been so long since the area’s top teams took the ice together? It depends on who you ask.
“The 100% reason that we haven’t played is because of Mike Randolph,” Plante said Monday. “He didn’t want to play us.”
The Hawks beat the then-Lake Superior Conference rival Greyhounds twice during the 1998-99 season, the first time Hermantown had ever defeated East, and handed the school its first LSC title. East left the LSC after that season to turn independent.
“That was a huge deal for Hermantown hockey,” Plante said. “(Randolph) told me that night that they weren’t going to play us again. He was pissed off because he thought we’d over-celebrated. It was one of those deals where the kids threw their gloves and (helmets). It was a stupid celebration, it was, but it was the first time we’d ever won anything, too, so I gave them some slack on that. But (Randolph) got pissed off and hasn’t played us since.”
Randolph doesn’t dispute he ever said that, but said the two-decade drought wasn’t for the reason Plante suggests.
“I honestly don’t remember that conversation. Maybe he’s right, but I don’t remember the celebration,” Randolph said Monday. “That has nothing to do with why we don’t play them now. I just feel they should be a double-A school; they have a great double-A hockey program in youth hockey.”
Hermantown’s refusal to opt up to Class AA has long been a sore topic for many coaches in the state.
In Randolph’s eyes, an opt up by Hermantown would give Duluth Denfeld — where Randolph served as an assistant coach in the 1980s — a legitimate shot at getting back to state for the first time since then.
“I think it would do local hockey better for them to be up in our section than be in single-A hockey,” he said. “They play a double-A (regular-season) schedule and then beat up on everybody (in the playoffs) and go to the single-A state tournament, when they could win the double-A tournament with the teams they’ve had over the years.
“I think everybody understands my point of view and respects it, though they may not agree with it.”
Plante pooh-poohs that notion.
“That’s been his excuse, but I know the truth,” he said.
That’s not to say the venerable coaches don’t like each other. It was a case of respect from afar.
“We’ve had a good relationship, him and I,” Plante said. “I’ve never disliked Mike, and I’ve always said he’s a great coach. I used to always try and get him to play us. Then our ADs (Gary Bowen and Beth Clark) would try to get their ADs (Mike Miernicki and Shawn Roed) to play us, and their ADs wouldn’t do it. We tried to go over his head, you know.”
Randolph says he would bump into Plante over the years, and the inevitable subject would come up.
“I would see Bruce, and he would say, ‘When are we gonna play?’” Randolph recalls. "I said, ‘Bruce, as soon as you guys move to Double-A, we’ll play.’ And he’d laugh.”
The same reason prevented a rapprochement when Plante retired and Andrews took over after the 2016-17 season.
“When Patrick got the job, he called me right away and said, ‘Can we play next year?’” Randolph recalled. “I said, ‘Patrick, I’ll tell you the same thing I told Bruce. When you guys go double-A, we’ll play a home-and-home’”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic that restricts travel, Randolph relented for a one-year respite — perhaps the only good thing to come out of the coronavirus era.
“That’s what it has to do with,” he said. “We are playing all the local teams during these trying times of trying to find quality games. We have two games against them, so that should make us a better team.”
Hermantown (8-0) is ranked No. 1 in Class A and has outscored foes 73-4 this year. The Hawks have 11 players with at least 11 points, including the state’s leader in goals (18) and points (33) in sophomore Zam Plante, Bruce’s grandson.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Randolph said.
East (4-1-1) counters with a stellar defense that allows just 1.8 goals per game and a slew of young offensive talent.
It’s the type of matchup that memories are made of. And if the teams don’t play for another 22 years, that might be all that’s left of this rivalry.