Cloquet-Esko-Carlton coach Dave Esse has the Lumberjacks on the rise in Section 7AA (Photo by Tim Kolehmainen).
In the northeastern slice of Carlton Country, nestled between towering pines and dense brush, sits a hallowed hockey shrine.
A grizzled face, painted in purple and gold, is attached to the outer wall of the hockey monument, serving as a mystical reminder to all within view.
This is Lumberjack Country.
The Pine Valley Ice Arena, or simply “The Barn” as the locals call it, is dripping with history. With a wooden interior and low ceilings, the intimate 900-seat arena is the birthplace of the storied tradition of the Cloquet boys’ hockey program.
Opened in 1970, “The Barn” housed many of the legendary teams and players in Cloquet’s history, along with countless classic contests until it was replaced as the home of the Lumberjacks in 1997.
The old arena still stands. In fact, the new one is just next door.
In need of another indoor ice sheet and increased capacity for the popular high school program, Cloquet moved into the Cloquet Area Recreation Center, a 2,000-plus seat structure that operates as a part-time ice rink and fulltime Lumberjack hockey museum.
Decorated from the rafters to the floors with banners, pictures and signs honoring those who have skated in the purple and gold, the Recreation Center has allowed Cloquet to bring its history and pride with it into the new digs.
With a chronicle of the program entrenched in its home, reminiscing about the past is commonplace around the arena.
One will often hear stories about Corey Millen’s explosiveness, Jamie Langenbrunner’s tenacity and Derek Plante’s skill. Discussions about past seasons and state tournament trips are remembered with smiles and laughs.
But now it seems the harkening back to moments of yesteryear are being replaced by rumbles of what could be for the current edition of the Lumberjacks.
Following several seasons that didn’t live up to the expectations the program sets for itself, the Lumberjacks are poised to perhaps make a run at their sixth state tournament appearance in team history.
The returning players have learned in the past few years that there’s more to the season than just the playoffs, though.
To them, it’s a process.
Karson Kuhlman anchors one of the top lines in the state along with Beau and Westin Michaud (Photo by Tim Kolehmainen).
David Brown’s four-goal outburst against Duluth East in the 2008 Section 7AA semifinals propelled Cloquet to the section final. It marked the program’s fourth straight appearance in that game, and its seventh 7AA final since 2000.
Those Lumberjacks eventually advanced to the state Class 2A tournament, putting a stamp on arguably the most successful decade in Cloquet history.
Since then, though, the Lumberjacks have stumbled a bit.
Forced to battle depth issues and injuries, Cloquet failed to post a winning record in both 2008-09 and 2009-10.
But during the past two winters the Lumberjacks have regained their footing. Two seasons ago, the team jumped to 17-10-0 overall, and last year produced the best record – 17-9-0 overall – for the program since 2006-07.
Those positive signs, plus the core of players returning to the team this year – including nine of the top 12 scorers from a season ago – has Cloquet enthusiastic that it can erase its depth issues and compete with some of the state’s best.
“We’re an A program, we opt up to AA, and everybody knows that we just don’t always have a lot of depth,” Lumberjacks coach Dave Esse said. “Hopefully this year we can have a little more depth in certain areas.”
For the Lumberjacks, offense shouldn’t be too tough to find. Cloquet’s entire top line is back, including highly touted junior Karson Kuhlman.
Kuhlman, who enters the year with 107 career points, is already becoming the subject of comparisons between some of Cloquet’s legends. If he continues at his current scoring pace, his name will rest alongside Millen, Lagenbrunner and Plante in the Cloquet record books.
Esse, who enters his 12th season as head coach of the Lumberjacks, watched each of those players as they came through the Cloquet system. He knows a special player when he sees one, and that’s exactly what he sees in Kuhlman.
“You had Millen, that unbelievable explosiveness, Langenbrunner, just an unbelievably tenacious player, and Plante, a very highly skilled player, but [Kuhlman] is just a different kind of player,” Esse said. “He’s outstanding without the puck, he just has great hockey instincts. He plays 200-feet, up and down the rink, anywhere and everywhere. He’s a playmaker.”
Esse sensed those skills in Kuhlman while watching him play in Bantams. He also noticed the chemistry between Kuhlman and his linemates, Beau and Westin Michaud.
Esse liked what he saw, and hoped the group’s harmony on the ice would translate to the high school game.
Last winter, the members of the prolific Cloquet trio each tallied over 50 points, making them one of the top returning lines in the state.
After skating with the Michauds on the same line for the first time in Pee Wees, Kuhlman felt what Esse detected a few winters later.
“I remember Westin and I got tossed on a line with Beau during the first year of Pee Wees, and we just worked in well together,” Kuhlman said. “We try to do the little things that really help our games out. Beau can play defense, but he can also come down and score big goals for you. Westin always has his head up looking for you, and he’ll give you the puck even when you’re not expecting it.”
Esse believes that the anticipated scoring punch will allow the Lumberjacks to start strong, but he knows that might not be enough to carry Cloquet through 7AA.
“If you can have some players that can skate and score, obviously that will hold you in it early,” Esse said. “I think it starts with our goaltender, though. If he can play well and our defenseman and a couple younger guys can step up, I think we have a lot of potential.”
Even though he’s a dangerous forward, Kuhlman echoes his coach’s philosophy toward success.
“We’ll have depth this year, which we haven’t had much of in the past few years,” Kuhlman said. “We’ve got a great goalie, too, who can steal a few games for us, that’s for sure. I think if we play well we can have a chance [to go to the state tournament].”
Esse considers there to be three or four teams in 7AA that are better than the Lumberjacks on paper entering the year. Members of his team remind themselves regularly what they are up against in maybe the state’s deepest section.
But while much of the discussion about 7AA mentions teams such as Cloquet, Grand Rapids, Andover and Elk River, the Lumberjacks only have one team on their minds – Duluth East.
Beau Michaud will provide plenty of scoring punch for the Lumberjacks (Photo by Tim Kolehmainen).
Return to St. Paul?
Brown’s four-goal game in 2008 ended Duluth East’s season, something the Lumberjacks had done several times in the early and mid-2000s.
The proximity of Duluth and Cloquet – the towns sit a mere 20 miles apart – make the two teams natural rivals, but it is stories the like one written by Brown that makes the battles special.
Since that classic back-and-forth thriller in 2008, though, the Greyhounds have owned the rivalry.
Cloquet has gone a combined 0-8-0 against Duluth East over the past four years, while being outscored 45-9 in the process.
But that hasn’t taken away from the implications riding on each game. Actually, it might make it a little more meaningful in the eyes of the Lumberjacks.
Westin Michaud remembers his first time stepping onto the ice in a game against Duluth East, playing in front of thousands of family, friends and strangers.
He also remembers getting beat by the Greyhounds that night and each time he’s played them since.
Michaud wants to erase those memories, but not until he uses them to fuel his competitiveness.
“[Losing to Duluth East] is a huge motivation for me. We always want to beat East,” said Michaud when talking about the extra drive losing to the Greyhounds gives him during practice and in the offseason. “They’re our biggest rivals by far.”
The hatred between the programs goes back decades, when packed arenas and tight games made for some of the best atmospheres in all of sports.
“Back when I played, and back in the 90s, there were fights in almost every game and in the parking lots,” Esse said. “It’s a love-hate relationship. We respect them as far as skill level. But they’re one of the top teams and they win all the time, so of course people are going to hate them.”
“We respect them, but we hate that they win every year.”
Duluth East has been a habitual winner since its exit from the 7AA tournament in 2008 – the Greyhounds are four-time defending section champions.
That fact alone is enough to make the blood of a Cloquet hockey player boil. This season the Lumberjacks hope to knock off Duluth East, and they don’t just mean beating the Greyhounds in the regular season.
Cloquet is thirsty for a voyage to St. Paul.
“With this group of seniors, when they were Pee Wees and Bantams, we went to the state tournament both those years, so obviously we know a trip to the state tournament is possible,” Kuhlman said. “There is always a lot of hype going into those games with East, but a lot of our team has the experience against them now, so we won’t get as nervous.”
“We’re all looking forward to playing them, and we’ll be ready for that game.”
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