DULUTH – Any dispute as to the identity of America's true state of hockey has been settled again this week in Minnesota's favor. The idea that the resignation of a high school hockey coach in Duluth could be a sizable topic of conversation 150 miles to the south in a full-service professional sports market has to make us unique.
A fair share of Minnesota's sports fans see hockey as the best game going, and they are very protective of it. We see that when the Wild stretches its streak of not winning a playoff series to six seasons, and receives praise for taking it to seven games.
The hockey crowd also remains very devoted to the reputation of state high school tournaments — particularly Class 2A, boys.
Mike Randolph became a familiar figure in the tournament during his 32 years as the boys' coach at Duluth East. He led the Greyhounds to 18 state tournaments, six title games and state championships in 1995 and 1998.
He was out for one season for alleged mishandling of funds in 2003-04 — not an offense grievous enough to prevent him from being brought back the next season.
There were also complaints from disgruntled parents in 2003 — basically, an annual event in Minnesota's prominent hockey programs. This time, the disgruntled parents — perhaps as few as two sets — were able to get the Duluth school district to hire a human resources firm to conduct an "investigation" as to whether Randolph treated their sons with proper respect.
It became the emotional end of the line for the coach. That was my conclusion late Friday morning, after Randolph, 69, read an explanatory statement in the lobby of the Heritage Center, a two-rink complex opened in 2009.
Randolph's statement included tributes to all the fine parents and players he's been able to coach with the Greyhounds, while including this key sentence:
"Up until recently, it's been rewarding and fun. But when the negatives started to outweigh the positives, it gets to be exhausting and no longer worth the time I put into it."
He had resigned Wednesday, read his statement Friday and concluded with: "I'm not going to take questions. This is what I have to say."
Randolph is known for his intensity on the bench, and there's a thought that carries over when the coach and the Greyhounds are out of public view.
As Randolph paid his personal tributes to numerous parties, one person cited was "Wild Bill," the Greyhounds' bus driver for most of the past decade.
This is a man with strong knowledge of abusive behavior. That's because Barney William Irwin, 66, spent 33 years in the pro wrestling ring as Wild Bill Irwin, or a Super Destroyer, or a Long Rider, or The Goon, but never as a good guy.
"When I was done, I got a job driving school bus for Minnesota Coaches, and wound up with the hockey assignment," Irwin said. "We drove a lot of miles across northern Minnesota, to the Twin Cities and back, and Mike would talk to his team on the bus after a game.
"He would tell the players they played well, or tell them they played poorly. If it was bad effort, it was always the team that did so. I never once heard him call out a player individually in that situation.
"I had a son for play for Mike, and I'm glad he had that chance."
Lee Smith has been Eden Prairie's boys' hockey coach for 28 years. The Eagles won their third state title with a 2-1 win over Lakeville South in double overtime on April 3.
Three weeks later, South coach Janne Kivilhalme resigned. Randolph mentioned that as another case of parental pressure in his statement.
I talked with Smith earlier on Friday, looking for a memory of his team's second state title: an epic 3-2, three-overtime victory over East and Randolph in 2011.
As it turned out, Smith and Randolph are close friends.
"Mike and I first spent time together at a coaching clinic; we started talking 'drills' we used and didn't pay much attention to the speaker," Smith said. "That turned into scheduling each other every season since 1999.
"Everyone remembers the triple overtime, but we've often had great games in the regular season. Our kids always play in the Duluth bantam tournament. They get to know Mike and the East players from those tournaments.
"Kyle Rau scored one of the great goals you've ever seen in high school hockey to win the triple-overtime game. You celebrate, and then you start thinking about your friend coaching the other team."
Smith paused, choked up slightly and said: "The amazing thing that happened was Mike came into our locker room. He told our players he had been watching them for a long time, that they should be proud of what they had become as players, and also thanked them for sacrificing to stay in high school hockey rather than go to juniors.
"I think it's terrible for high school hockey to be losing a coach like Mike Randolph."