Prep boys hockey: Duluth Denfeld, Rock Ridge to opt up to Class AA

The decision began as part of a "bigger discussion" with other area school districts, according to Rock Ridge activities director Chad Hazelton.

high school boys play hockey
Hermantown forward Samuel Swenson (3) skates against Denfeld forward Andy Larson (16) during the first period at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Two more local high school boys hockey programs have decided they want to compete at Minnesota’s highest level.

Duluth Denfeld and Rock Ridge both confirmed their intention this week to move up to play at the Class AA level beginning in the 2023-24 season.

Denfeld activities director Tom Pearson said moving up to AA has been a topic of conversation going back to when he first started the job in 2008.

"Numbers out in West Duluth aren't great and we're hoping this is a shot in the arm to our program and kids get excited again about playing hockey," Pearson said. "Marshall did the same thing, they were A, they opted up in hopes of growing excitement. We're hoping it grows excitement in not only West Duluth, but northeastern Minnesota by strengthening Section 7AA into a truly northeastern Minnesota section."


Duluth Denfeld has been to the Section 7A championship game each of the last three seasons, but each time they’ve come up well short against Hermantown, with the scores being 6-0, 7-1 and 11-0. The Hunters last went to the state tournament in 1989 — prior to the Minnesota State High School League moving to two classes of hockey.

The Hunters have been competitive with the Class AA teams they currently play, according to Pearson, and he hopes moving up will become a "draw for kids" to come into the program.

Rock Ridge activities director Chad Hazelton and Pearson said the decision started as part of a larger discussion with other area programs about the possibilities of playing Class AA hockey, including Denfeld and Rock Ridge.

“Some of the other schools decided they want to stay where they were,” Hazelton said. “With Rock Ridge, transitioning into our new school building and the combining of both Eveleth and Virginia, we just thought that we want our programs to be the best a the highest level we can possibly be.”

Rock Ridge, currently 12-8-1 this season after losing 6-1 at Hermantown on Tuesday night, fell to Hibbing/Chisholm in the 2022 Section 7A quarterfinal. Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl had not reached the Class A tournament since 2010. Eveleth-Gilbert, and before that Eveleth, despite holding an illustrious history that includes seven state championships and four in a row from 1948-51, last made the trip to St. Paul in 1998.

Hermantown has won Section 7A in nine of the past 10 seasons and has made the state tournament in 13 of 14 seasons overall.

Despite not being able to get through the Hawks, Hazelton said making the move now is about getting to the “next level.”

“If you wait around until you think you’re good enough, you might never get there,” Hazelton said. “We’re looking at our program as a whole, we’re looking at our school as a whole. We’re pushing our school to be innovative and a leader in the area on the Range to really push to become the best we can possibly be out there.”


Representatives from Proctor, Hibbing/Chisholm and Hermantown confirmed they will remain at Class A next season. The Hunters and the Wolverines won’t be the only area teams on the move next year, though. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton announced intentions to play at the Class A level in 2023-24, according to a Pine Journal report last month, after several seasons in AA.

The dividing line between classes A and AA by enrollment was about 1,300 students over the 2021-23 term. Denfeld's listed figure was 768, Hermantown was 659 and the combined total of Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl was 830. Grand Rapids and Duluth Marshall both fall below the cut by enrollment but have opted up into AA for several seasons.

"We're excited about it, this has been talked about in our program since 2008," Pearson said. "When I first got to Denfeld, coach Kevin Smalley was on me in 2008 saying, 'Let's make this move. We obviously haven't, but we're hoping this is going to be a good decision for the program for the near and far term."

Classifications are fixed for a two-year period, meaning this arrangement will be in place through the end of the 2024-25 season. The composition of all sections statewide will be finalized in April.

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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