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Smaller hockey programs focus on retention, growth rather than state tournaments

Members of the Moose Lake hockey team line up for the National Anthem before the game against Ely at Riverside Arena in Moose Lake recently. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 2
Moose Lake head coach Lee Costley talks to his players during the Moose Lake's game against Ely at Riverside Arena in Moose Lake. Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—On Dec. 21, Duluth East and Duluth Marshall collided in a highly anticipated boys hockey game at Duluth Heritage Sports Center, where nary a seat was empty. Much of the amped-up crowd stood throughout, from puck drop until the Greyhounds' Logan Anderson capped a wild night by scoring in overtime and leaping into the glass.

The atmosphere was electric, the on-ice talent abundant. Three players involved in that contest already had made commitments to NCAA Division I teams. More are sure to follow, especially with college coaches and at least one NHL scout in attendance.

Two weeks later, Moose Lake Area hosted Ely at Riverside Arena.

Same sport, same level — dramatically different circumstances.

The Timberwolves entered at 1-6; the Rebels were 0-8-1 and doggedly grinding away with a depleted roster. Despite dressing fewer than 10 skaters, they rallied from a 5-2 deficit on a pair of Andrew Burn goals before Ely notched an empty-netter to seal a 6-4 victory.

The talent gap in high school sports is perhaps greatest in boys hockey.

Consider: East had nearly twice as many fall Elite League selections (11) as Moose Lake had skaters (six) during a 13-0 loss to Lake of the Woods on Jan. 5. At some schools, survival — and not state tournaments — is the goal. The romantic view of this hallowed Minnesota pastime isn't ubiquitous.

For every Grand Rapids, which rode its four Division I commits to a Class AA title in front of 19,000 fans at Xcel Energy Center last March, there is another team fighting to stay afloat.

Ely nearly forfeited this season before rounding up enough bodies. Timberwolves coach Ben Johnson admitted it's "not even comparable to some of the programs" that are more established. Over a span of three games from Jan. 5-9, Ely was outscored 43-7, including 17-1 in a rout by Lake of the Woods. There are 22 players on the roster, though some are first-timers. Johnson has "three or four" with previous varsity experience.

"It's like pond hockey," the third-year coach said. "Whoever shows up can play. We just try to get out there and work as hard as we can."

He and his counterpart at Moose Lake, Lee Costley, spoke candidly about the uphill battles in front of them. Some coaches can sell the promise of competing for section championships and the magic of March. Others, like Johnson and Costley, have to pitch something much less appealing — the chance to lay a foundation for future success while enduring blowout defeats.

Rebels senior Mark Fossum said it's tough to attract new players when wins are elusive. Moose Lake was 4-23 a year ago. In a preseason email, Costley likened many games to "David vs. Goliath and his entire family."

It takes a selfless individual to sign up for that. But Costley's message about rebuilding a program and a culture appears to be resonating.

"We might not have the most wins, but that's not what it's about," Moose Lake junior Anakin Oswald said. "It's about what we're doing for the future of the program."

All work and all play

The Rebels started their game earlier this month against Lake of the Woods with seven skaters. An injury precipitated a lonely bench of one.

Line changes? Hardly.

Even when they have 10 skaters, it's a scramble.

Positions are relative. Like Costley said, "You might be playing right wing, but you could be a left defenseman 15 seconds later." In other words, know 'em all.

"You call your position when you're coming off the ice," and whoever is coming on, that's what they play, Fossum said.

With so few participants, it's easy to deduce the Rebels' most pressing concern.

"We have to be the most conditioned team in the state," Costley, in his second year on the Moose Lake bench, said. "Other teams have four lines and they're playing one game, whereas our kids are basically skating two games in one night."

Highlighting the Rebels' resilience, Fossum said the third is typically their best period. That's about the time they should be hunched over, gloves on knees, counting down the minutes. But, as numerous officials and opposing coaches have told Costley, the Rebels don't quit.

"We don't really have a choice," Oswald said. "We just keep going and going. Work your butt off. That's all we can do."

Opposing teams, however, have no mercy.

"It's unfortunate some of those teams just keep rolling their top two lines," Johnson said.

Costley can relate.

"They think it's necessary to hang a lot of goals on us because they can," he said. "They keep running their first line out there. It starts to get a little bit demoralizing."

All of this points to a necessity for the coaches to stay positive.

"If you lose a kid and he quits hockey, you really embarrass yourself," Johnson said. "You just have to get them to keep coming to the rink and keep working hard, and eventually we'll turn a corner where we can go out there and compete."

In the face of so much adversity, it warrants mentioning that both the Rebels and Timberwolves say they are nonetheless having fun. That's a credit to Johnson and Costley.

"We love the sport, we still have fun and we've won a few games," Ely senior Thomas Montana said.

Falling numbers

Minnesota's hockey obsession notwithstanding, numbers are numbers. And the reality is that Ely, with a high school league enrollment of 154 students, is tasked with competing in the best Class A section in the state. A co-op with Northeast Range (enrollment 83) does little to improve the math.

Similarly, Moose Lake, which also draws — at least in theory — from Barnum, Willow River, East Central and Cromwell-Wright, has a limited prospect pool.

Already crunched for participants, the issue is exacerbated when players leave for other organizations.

Costley said recently he's had outsiders spreading rumors that Moose Lake wouldn't field a high school team. The intent is obvious — to poach Rebels of all ages.

At Ely, Johnson noted the loss of potential-packed defenseman Joe Pierce, an eighth-grade regular for the Timberwolves in 2016-17. Pierce, a precocious talent, is now a Hermantown bantam.

In Minnesota, prep players move around regularly, whether they transfer or take the route of juniors. But it's more difficult to absorb defections at places like Ely and Moose Lake. That holds true for other Northland schools, too.

Hibbing-Chisholm reached the Section 7A final in 2016 and looked to be on the cusp of sustainable success. Since then, at least three standouts have left early.

North Shore is consistently competitive and churns out strong numbers, but the Storm have witnessed some of their top players transfer around the region.

Costley is adamant about focusing on those who remain.

"The nice thing is the kids we have are kids that want to be here," he said. "They're not going to bail out."

Reasons for optimism

Previously on the staff at hockey factory Shattuck St. Mary's, Johnson didn't come to Ely for a quick stop on his way up the coaching ladder.

This is a long-term project. Consequently, he's hands-on with every age group, starting with mites. He proudly noted that Ely's squirt team recently had toppled Warroad. That's a big deal, he said. It's also a welcome sign of progress. The turnaround won't occur overnight, but that never was the expectation.

"It's a six- to seven-year project. And it's getting there," Johnson said. "These next two years are going to be tough for us. After that, we're going to be on the upswing."

Johnson hopes Ely can add a bantam team next winter, a crucial developmental step.

To that end, Costley refrained from raiding his bantam team this season. Those players are better served at that level, he said. Next year, Costley expects to have a roster of 14-16. Further down the road, he's buoyed by increasing participation in the youth ranks.

Costley, like Johnson, is grateful for his current players, whose perseverance staved off a canceled season.

"It's been a fun relationship for me with these kids, getting through this," he said. "Because we're turning the corner now in the program. We have some kids coming up next year."

Said Fossum: "He never gives up on us, and we never give up on him."

For hope, Ely and Moose Lake need look no further than Coleraine, where longtime power Greenway was on the verge of disappearing not too long ago. Now the Raiders are coming off a runner-up finish in Section 7A, ranked third in the state and enjoying contests like Tuesday's, when an overflow crowd observed them throw a scare at No. 1 Hermantown in an eventual 4-2 loss.

Greenway is thriving after surviving its own close call.

Montana believes the same can happen in towns like Ely and Moose Lake.

"It definitely can," he said. "Even looking at our football team, we have small numbers, yet we're making it to section championships and state tournaments, so it can be done."

In the meantime, the Timberwolves and Rebels keep grinding, undeterred.