Section 7A boys hockey: Amid 'flak to go up,' Hermantown a heavy favorite

Exiting the ice after steamrolling Hibbing-Chisholm 8-1 to stretch its winning streak to 23 games last Thursday, the Hermantown boys hockey team was serenaded with jeers.

Hermantown goalie Cade McEwen (35), a Frank Brimsek Award finalist, is one of many reasons the top-ranked Hawks are heavy favorites in the Section 7A playoffs. (Steve Kuchera /

Exiting the ice after steamrolling Hibbing-Chisholm 8-1 to stretch its winning streak to 23 games last Thursday, the Hermantown boys hockey team was serenaded with jeers.

The indignation didn't stem from anything that occurred during the regular-season finale for both clubs. It flowed because of the festering belief that Hermantown is miscast as a Class A team, that the Hawks should relinquish their stranglehold on Section 7A and opt up to the state's largest classification.

"I got people screaming at me, screaming at the kids coming off the rink, just screaming at the kids - 'You're double-A,' " Hermantown coach Bruce Plante said. "It's like, 'Come on, leave the kids out of it. It's not their decision.' I can see them crowing at me - I get that."

First-year Bluejackets coach Justin Tomberlin doesn't agree with the catcalls. Tomberlin would rather combat the Hawks' dominance by elevating his own program, not by hoping Hermantown leaves. To be the best, you have to beat the best, or so the saying goes.

The Hawks are the undisputed favorites in 7A as the playoffs open. They defeated six section opponents by a combined 48-6. The state's top-ranked team boasts a pair of Mr. Hockey finalists in Ryan Sandelin and Dylan Samberg, and a Frank Brimsek Award finalist in goaltender Cade McEwen. Hermantown, which hasn't lost to a Class A foe in the regular season since Jan. 11, 2013, has reached seven consecutive state title games. The Hawks blanked Breck 5-0 in last year's final to end a six-year curse on Championship Saturday and cap a postseason in which they totaled 52 goals in six games, while allowing six.


So, yeah, Hermantown presents a formidable challenge, one that Tomberlin welcomes.

"They're single-A because that's where their enrollments puts them," he said. "They don't need to go anywhere. We need to get better."

Indeed, the enrollment cutoff for Class A is 1,198. Any school above that is automatically Class AA in boys hockey.

The quest to dethrone Hermantown starts tonight with a pair of first-round contests.

Plante knows all about pursuing a seemingly unassailable adversary. While losing to St. Thomas Academy in three straight state finals, from 2011-13, Plante criticized the Cadets for remaining in Class A. He called the private school a metro-area all-star team and labeled the Hawks public school state champs.

"I feel the same way probably they did at that time," Plante said. "We get a lot of flak to go up."

Behind Hermantown, Hibbing-Chisholm (17-8) is seeded second. Greenway (16-7-1) and Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl (10-15) are third and fourth, respectively.

If the seeding holds, the Hawks would face No. 8 Duluth Denfeld (4-21) in Thursday's quarterfinals and VMIB in the semifinals Saturday at Amsoil Arena. From 7A, the Hunters and Blue Devils produced the two closest games against Hermantown this winter. Denfeld lost 5-1 and VMIB fell 6-0.


If a rematch ensues, their coaches will have to become salesmen.

"You have to sell it to your team that you have an opportunity," Blue Devils coach Reed Larson said. "You're going to have a chance to play against the No. 1 team in the state, a juggernaut that has unlimited talent. It's not unheard of for a team like that to get knocked off. A lot of people think it's an impossible game, but they're human just like anybody else."

Said Hunters coach Kevin Smalley: "It's a great opportunity to see if we can step up to the plate and see what we're made of."

Larson is encouraged by his squad's penchant for playing its best hockey against the top teams. VMIB's last three games: a tight 4-2 loss vs. fourth-ranked St. Paul Academy; an overtime win against No. 14 St. Paul Johnson; and a 6-5 loss to No. 9 Hibbing-Chisholm. The return of junior forward Jake Seitz, who has 26 points in 12 games - including 11 goals the past four - is a blessing for the Blue Devils.

Larson will package those highlights as hope if VMIB runs into the Hawks this week. He won't get caught up in the class-warfare circus.

"We don't have any control over that," Larson said.

A year ago, Hermantown slipped past Greenway 2-1 in the regular season, only to decimate the Raiders 9-0 in the section semifinals. The score was similarly lopsided this January, when the Hawks collected an 11-2 victory. Those kinds of results give Hermantown an advantage before it ever takes the ice, according to Greenway coach Grant Clafton.

The Hawks don't need any extra help.


"Everybody puts them on a pedestal. I'm not saying they're not really, really good, but they are beatable," Clafton said. "It just comes down to, are (his players) willing to believe in that or are they going to fake it. If they fake it, they'll get beat 11-2 again."

While section coaches straddled a line of diplomacy and said it's on them to alter the script, others around the Northland and state aren't so generous. They are adamant Hermantown belongs in Class AA. The vitriol becomes especially pronounced this time of year.

Plante admits he's "sick of the whole argument."

"We'll look at it this year again and see what we're going to do," Plante said. "The time for us to go up probably was two years ago, and we didn't do it. It's a tough call. We get a lot of people outside Hermantown that think we should be up."

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