Rick Lubbers column: Prep stars ready to strut their stuff

Three short days ago, the Duluth East, Hermantown and Superior boys hockey teams spotlighted the Northland's considerable puck prowess by competing for state championships in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

1578392+Lubbers, Rick.jpg
Rick Lubbers

Three short days ago, the Duluth East, Hermantown and Superior boys hockey teams spotlighted the Northland’s considerable puck prowess by competing for state championships in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Tonight and tomorrow, nine of those squads’ top players will wear the same uniform as members of Team Duluth in the 2015 St. Luke’s Orthopedics & Sports Medicine High School All-Star Hockey Series (presented by CCM).
Now in its 17th year, the all-star prep pucks series isn’t exactly long in the tooth, but it’s now allowed to drive a car and only a year removed from legal voting age.
The annual Kernz & Kompany series that started as a one-game event for seniors no longer resembles what it looked like in its infancy, but has clung to its roots as a showcase for the Northland’s top players.
Looking back at its origins, Kernz & Kompany president Ryan Kern said one of the event’s progenitors was then-Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey coach Mike Sertich.
“Mike Sertich had said to me at the time that one of the things that happens in our region is that the kids in northern Minnesota do not get the exposure and the media coverage that the kids in southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities market get,” Kern said. “That was echoed by all of the high school coaches.”
It didn’t take Kern long to find supporters for the idea of pitting the top Duluth area boys hockey players against the cream of the Iron Range crop.
The late Dick Stewart, a longtime UMD hockey superfan and owner of Stewart’s Bikes and Sports, connected Kern to hockey equipment giant CCM, which became a vital and longtime sponsor.
“The event would never have been an event had it not been for Dick Stewart,” Kern said.
So, following the 1998-99 boys hockey season, a single all-star game was played at Superior’s Wessman Arena - the first of 11 series victories (aptly called the Dick Stewart Cup) for Duluth.
KDLH-TV gave the event wide exposure in the early days, filming the game and running a one-hour special a week later.
“We were going to be able to take our homegrown talent and try to get them the same amount of exposure that those kids in the Twin Cities were getting - to sort of even the playing field,” Kern said.
But after a couple of years, the playing field between Duluth and the Iron Range needed to be evened as well, Kern said, since the Duluth squad was drawing from more schools than its Range rivals. So, in 2003 the Iron Range soon benefited from a few other schools getting added to the mix such as Warroad, Roseau, Bemidji and Brainerd on a rotational basis.
The event also became a two-game series, sprinkling a few juniors onto the rosters as well.
Kern estimates that 30 or so former all-star series participants have gone on to play some form of professional hockey.
That’s probably why college and NHL scouts frequent the series now. Kern said one all-star game featured NHL scouts representing the New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators - all seeking to gain a better barometer on the Northland’s top players and see who stands out in a field of top guns.
That rarified audience has in turn intensified the on-ice play a notch or two, Kern said.
“Once the players knew that all the scouts were there, it wasn’t just a fun event anymore,” he said. “Now you had a chance to better your stock to perhaps get a scholarship opportunity or to get drafted into juniors or to get drafted by the NHL, or the opposite would happen. Now the all-star game could actually help you a tremendous amount or it could hurt you.”
Kern doesn’t expect anything less tonight at Mars Lakeview Arena or Wednesday night at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids.
“Once that puck drops, it’s intense,” Kern said. “They take it serious; they’re trying to make their mark.”

Contact News Tribune editor Rick Lubbers at or (218) 723-5301. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.

All-Star series
What: 2015 St. Luke’s Orthopedics & Sports Medicine High School All-Star Hockey Series (presented by CCM)
When: 7:05 p.m. today and Wednesday (6 p.m. skills contest both nights)
Where: Mars Lakeview Arena, tonight; and IRA Civic Center, Grand Rapids, Wednesday
Cost: Adults, $7; students, $5; children under 12, free if wearing their youth hockey jerseys
TV: My 9 (tonight only)
Radio: KQDS-AM 1490 (both nights)
Series: Duluth leads the Iron Range 11-5, 18-6 in total games; skills competition is tied 8-8.

St. Luke’s Orthopedics & Sports Medicine All-Star Series
Duluth Rosters
Goaltenders - Gunnar Howg, Duluth East; Alex Murray, Duluth Marshall; defensemen - Grant Hanson, Superior; Bryton Lutzka, Duluth East; Jordan Fralich, Duluth Marshall; Wyatt Aamodt, Hermantown; Nick Thompson, Duluth Denfeld; Dalton Johnson, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton; forwards - Koby Bender, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton; Cole Koepke, Hermantown; Ryan Kero, Hermantown; Cameron McClure, Duluth Denfeld; Nick Altmann, Duluth East; Tyler Nystrom, Superior; Brian Bunten, Duluth East, Cody Budisalovich, Duluth Denfeld; Derek Farrell, Duluth Marshall.
Coach: Brendan Flaherty.
Iron Range Rosters
Goaltenders - Isiah Dilley, Hibbing-Chisholm; Lucas Murray, Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl; defensemen - Erik Sarkela, Grand Rapids; Nic Dulong, Greenway; Michael Forseth, Bemidji; Justic Chaffee, Virginia-Mountain-Iron-Buhl; Daulton Anderson, Grand Rapids; Gray Erwin, Hibbing-Chisholm; Jake Robillard, Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl; forwards - Nick Przybylski, Eveleth-Gilbert; Jake Bestul, Hibbing-Chisholm; Ian Blaeser, Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl; Alex Adams, Grand Rapids; Jackson Vollom, International Falls; Zach Skelton, Eveleth-Gilbert; Joe Lescarbeau, Hibbing-Chisholm; Jonah Bischoff, Grand Rapids.
Coach: Reed Larson, Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl.

Rick Lubbers has been in his role since 2014 and at the News Tribune since 2005. Previous stops include the Superior Telegram (1999-2005) and Budgeteer News (1997-1999). Prior to that, he worked at the St. Cloud Times and Annandale Advocate in Minnesota, and the Greenville Daily News and Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. He received his journalism degree at Central Michigan University.
What To Read Next
Get Local