Opinion: Hardly neutral ice for Duluth East

I woke up this morning feeling like I did one year ago. Last year I woke up still feeling that letdown of a section game overtime loss in Duluth and finality of my son’s hockey career ending after 13 years.

Duluth East ended Elk River's season on "neutral ice" in Duluth.
Duluth East ended Elk River’s season on “neutral ice” in Duluth.

This morning I woke up feeling that same letdown and empathy for my son’s former teammates who watched their state tournament hopes slip away on Duluth East’s home ice, in front of Duluth East’s huge home crowd.

I followed the team all season, going to all of the home games and many of the away games because I know many of the parents, many of the players, and because I knew the team had great potential to get to the tournament. As an Elk River hockey parent and fan for many years, I wanted these players and coaches to succeed in sections because they had a great team and a successful season. For them, I wanted to see the Elk River team in the tournament.

I also woke up bitter and angry this morning. Angry that year after year, Duluth East is awarded No. 1 seed for section play, even when other teams deserve it as much or more. Angry that year after year, Duluth East enjoys the advantage of playing on home ice, in front of an enormous home crowd. Angry that the ER team has to travel 2 1/2 hours to play games on East’s home ice, and the ER fans are expected to make the round trip on a week night for the section championship.

I’m angry that in a penalty-free game in which ER dominated the first two periods and East dominated the third, a referee that struggles just to keep up with the flow of the game called a highly questionable penalty on an ER player who happened to be touching a Greyhound who caught an edge, sending himself hard into the boards with four minutes left and a 2-1 ER lead. Note to referee: Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t make yourself part of the game. We don’t go to games to watch you, and we don’t appreciate it when you have a direct influence on the game’s outcome.

Why does every AA section championship game except for 7AA take place on neutral ice? Why does Duluth East get the advantage of playing their section games on hometown ice? Why does an earlier section game between ER and Andover take place 2 1/2 hours away in Duluth? Is anybody who can influence change asking these questions? Will it ever change?

Until then, I hope the Duluth East players, coaches and fans appreciate and don’t take for granted this advantage given to them. — Mark Sanford, Elk River