All-Area Boys Hockey Player of the Year: Cole Christian’s leadership keys Duluth East turnaround

The Greyhounds senior had 69 points and the team improved by 12 wins over the 2021-22 season.

high school boys play ice hockey
Cole Christian (5) of Duluth East celebrates near Brady McGinn (20) of Duluth Denfeld at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Most anyone would agree that 2021-22 was a nightmare for Duluth East hockey.

The Greyhounds struggled to just eight wins and the team was heavily penalized throughout the season. Almost no East player watched as much of that season from behind the glass of the sin bin than then-junior Cole Christian.

The memory of last season stuck with Christian as he and his teammates started to turn their attention to the 2022-23 campaign. He rededicated himself to improving and becoming the leader his team needed.

Duluth East plays Coon Rapids in the Section 7AA semifinals
Duluth East's Cole Christian moves the puck up the ice during the Greyhounds' Section 7AA semifinal matchup Saturday, Feb. 25 at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.
Jamey Malcomb / File / Duluth News Tribune

“I think we just all wanted it to be a different season than last year,” Christian said. “We all decided to work hard in the summer, to all buy in and come together as a team.”

The extra work paid off for the Greyhounds and Christian. The team finished 20-7-1 and won 19 of its final 24 games. Christian himself finished the season with 62 regular season points, the second-most points for any East player in the past 25 years. Only Jake Randolph’s 2011-12 season was more productive than Christian this season. Christian had an additional seven points in three postseason games as East reached the Section 7AA championship game.


East coach Steve Pitoscia said it was Christian’s passion for the game and desire to get better that was part of his and the Greyhounds’ turnaround.

“I think he knew he was getting attention for the wrong reason and that’s not who he is, that’s not what he’s about,” Pitoscia said. “There’s not really a way to truly express how much this kid loves hockey — it’s everything to him. He saw that and he didn’t want to lose that. That’s the turnaround to me, just his love of hockey and how important it was to him.”

While “you could never question” Christian’s commitment to personal improvement, according to Pitoscia, this season the senior stepped into a true leadership role.

high school boys play ice hockey
Cole Christian (5) of Duluth East skates against Jake Feiro (21) of Duluth Denfeld at the Essentia Health Duluth Heritage Center on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“The difference this year was that he was bringing out people along with him,” Pitoscia said. “He was telling teammates that it’s not OK to reach for pucks, it’s not OK to go offsides in a drill and he set that example. He wasn’t just getting in guys' faces and saying ‘Quit cutting corners.’ He didn’t cut corners — he set the example. Which, to me, for a 17-18-year-old kid, that’s the most remarkable thing out of all of his growth this year — his ability to be a leader and lead other teenagers. “

Teammate and close friend Nathan Teng said Christian’s approach to the season was “more personal” this season.

“He’s all about details and I think that really paid off,” Teng said. “It pushed everyone on the team to do better and it showed throughout the season with our record. I think that it was a very special thing that he did.”

The senior’s 62 regular-season points are the second most for a Greyhounds forward in the last 25 years.

Stepping into that role wasn’t exactly natural for Christian, according to Pitoscia. As a result of the way his birthday falls and his hockey skill, Christian was physically smaller and typically at least a year younger than most of the boys he was playing with.

“He was never really looked at as someone that was going to drive the bus, so to speak,” Pitoscia said. “I don’t say that because he didn’t have the leadership skills, I think it’s really more because he’s a really respectful kid and I don’t think he wanted to step on the toes of the older kids.”


Christian, Teng and all of the 2022-23 seniors wanted things to improve this season and it was more about an attitude and change of focus than it was about any individual’s improvement.

“We all approached it with a good attitude and a good work ethic,” Christian said. “I tried to become the best leader I could be so my team could trust me and we could all be together at the end of the day and on the same page — always.”

Player in blue brings down hockey player in white.
Duluth East’s Cole Christian (5) maintains control of the puck as Blaine’s Caden Parent (17) tries to pull him down in the first period of the game at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center in Duluth on Tuesday, Feb. 21.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

That good attitude was tested early on when the Greyhounds started 1-4, but it was clearly not the same situation as last season. Duluth East players were spending far less time in the penalty box and they didn’t get down on themselves.

“It was different — I think we just weren’t getting the bounces yet,” Christian said. “We just all stayed positive and eventually it paid off.”

In a Dec. 20 game against Andover, the Greyhounds topped the defending Class AA champion 5-1 and Christian had a goal and an assist in the effort .

“We just caught them by surprise,” Christian said. “We were ready and I don’t know if they were and we just took advantage of that.”

Andover returned the favor in the section championship game with a 7-2 win, but the Greyhounds had served notice that a trip north was not to be overlooked this season.

Christian knows he scored plenty of points, but he credited his team and linemates Thomas Gunderson and Wyatt Peterson for helping him stand out this season.


high school boys play ice hockey
Duluth East players celebrate after Cole Christian (5) scored a goal against Duluth Denfeld during the first period at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“My linemates, Gundy and Petey, were obviously good,” Christian said. “We were all working as a unit and I think that helped all of us find success at the end of the day.”

It wasn’t just Christian’s line that came together, but the Greyhounds squad as a whole. The team’s checking line didn’t score a ton of points, but did its job of keeping the other team out of the net .

“This year, we were way more connected as a team and as a family,” Teng said. “Every player had a role on the team and we pulled together as one. If the team didn’t do well, we all didn’t do well. We all worked as a team and I think that was the reason we had the success we had. There was no individual play at all, it was all about the team.”

After the season, Christian traveled to Alaska to play for the NAHL’s Anchorage Wolverines and the hope is he will get an offer to play at an NCAA Division I program, but this spring he’s looking forward to finishing up school and — once the snow melts — getting out on the golf course.

Christian said golf is one of his favorite things to do outside of hockey. While Christian said he’s “not very good,” he typically shoots in the 80s, a score that would make most local hacks more than a little envious.

“Every shot matters,” Christian said. “Just know that one shot that messed up your score that day makes you just want to come back to the course and try to perfect the game.”

What’s more, Pitoscia just signed on as an assistant with the Duluth East golf team and he loves the possibility of Christian getting back from Anchorage in time to join the Greyhounds when they take to the links later this spring.

He’s also excited to see what Christian does next in hockey.


“I think whatever Division I university of college wants to offer him a spot now, they will look like geniuses,” Pitoscia said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he can play at the Division I level in the NCHC or the Big 10, I think he can play with the best kids in college. He’s tendered to play with Anchorage in the NAHL, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him drafted into the USHL … I think the future is pretty bright for Cole and what he’s got ahead of him.”

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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