Prep boys hockey: Split factions led to Esse's resignation at CEC

When Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's season ended via a 1-0 loss to Duluth East in the Section 7AA boys hockey semifinals, few would have guessed that afternoon at Amsoil Arena would mark Dave Esse's final game as coach of the Lumberjacks.

Dave Esse
News Tribune file photo Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Dave Esse abruptly resigned earlier this month.

When Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's season ended via a 1-0 loss to Duluth East in the Section 7AA boys hockey semifinals, few would have guessed that afternoon at Amsoil Arena would mark Dave Esse's final game as coach of the Lumberjacks.

At 50, Esse appeared to have plenty of seasons in front of him as CEC's bench boss. And the Lumberjacks, fresh off a 16-9-2 campaign in which their youthful and precocious core showed flashes of excellence, were trending up. They defeated eventual state champ Grand Rapids 4-1 on Feb. 14, less than a week after falling to runner-up Moorhead in overtime.

The success, perhaps a year ahead of schedule, didn't go unnoticed. Esse was named Minnesota Class AA coach of the year by the coaches association.

Two months later, he resigned amid a situation that, while still relatively unclear, had turned ugly.

In an email to the News Tribune on May 10, Esse confirmed that former NHL star Jamie Langenbrunner, the Cloquet icon and former NHL star who debuted as an assistant this past winter, would not be back in 2017-18. It was two days later that Esse formally announced his resignation. In doing so, he cited a desire to spend more time with his family.


Esse didn't want to publicly rehash the events that prompted his resignation, but it's no secret there was friction in the program. It apparently came to a head early in the offseason.

"I let go a coach (Langenbrunner) and all of a sudden there's a storm out there," Esse said recently.

Up until then, Esse says, he believed everything was good. But as the saga unfolded, he opted to leave the Lumberjacks after 17 seasons as head coach. He was an assistant to Tom McFarlane before assuming the top spot.

"I chose to resign for various reasons, but No. 1 is, as head coach you have to make sure you're the commander-in-chief, and basically all the warriors have to be on your side," Esse said. "And if they're not, what are the issues?

"If the players aren't buying into the commander, I'm done. I'm just a little spoke in the wheel. I'm not bigger than the program. I don't think I'm better than anybody."

The approachable Esse is widely respected by his coaching peers, both locally and beyond. He is a self-described perfectionist who doesn't sugarcoat his thoughts. And he enjoyed consistent success - with a few lean years sprinkled in - guiding a team that opts up to Class AA and annually ranks among the classification's smallest.

"I think he's done an incredible job in Cloquet. No team was more disciplined than his kids, on and off the ice," East coach Mike Randolph said. "That was a credit to him.

"I just think it's a sad day when he doesn't go out on his own terms. A guy who was so loyal to a program should be able to at least do that. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, and I feel real bad for him. I'm going to miss him. We had a lot of battles, and I enjoyed every one of them."


The perfectionist description was on display in January when Esse was showing a News Tribune reporter and photographer around the Lumberjacks' locker room. It was pristine, the laundry area and storage shelves more organized than an IKEA showroom. Nobody would have guessed the room was inhabited by teenagers.

"Everything had to be spotless," outgoing senior Dylan Johnson joked.

Johnson, one of CEC's captains, appreciated Esse's honesty and open-door policy. The coach always was up for a conversation, hockey or otherwise.

"He expects you to work hard, and he teaches you life skills," Johnson said. "He always preaches that no one wins the lottery - you have to work for what you want, that nothing's handed to you."

The current crop of Lumberjacks possess the kind of talent that suggests CEC's first trip to the state tournament since 2008 is well within reach. After leading scorer Johnson, the next six-highest point totals belonged to sophomores or juniors. That included sophomore Landon Langenbrunner, Jamie's son, whose 33 points ranked second.

Those talented youngsters had Esse excited for the future. Thus, his decision to step down came as a stunner.

Esse used the words "with great sadness" at the beginning of his resignation letter. He admitted being "disappointed" and "very upset" as the situation deteriorated. But, Esse says, more recently he's come to peace with the reality that he's no longer leading the Lumberjacks.

"I worked very hard for the last 26 years and tried to do the best I can," he said.


An outpouring of support, from colleagues and unknowns, has helped. Esse says he's received more than 1,000 encouraging text messages and emails.

"I feel very humbled," he said.

The silver lining: Esse, who teaches physical education, now has more free time to spend with his wife, Chris; two daughters, Carley and Courtney (the CEC girls hockey coach); and a granddaughter.

And he won't rule out a return to coaching someday. Esse, a finalist last year for the men's job at Wisconsin-Superior - where he played in college - already has had offers, "from high school all the way down to little kids."

"You never know," he said. "Time will tell."

The search for Esse's replacement has begun, with the position now posted. It will remain open until July 15, so a hire could be made later that month or in early August.

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