Commentary: Cash trumps fairness in Elks hockey section

Whenever the Elks and Greyhounds cross swords in playoffs, the game is played in Duluth. Above are Elk River's Chase Springman (18) and East's xxxxx (5) during the 2014 final won by the Greyhounds 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Strand)
Whenever the Elks and Greyhounds cross swords in playoffs, the game is played in Duluth. Above are Elk River’s Chase Springman (18) and East’s Alex Trapp (5) during the 2014 final won by the Greyhounds 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Strand)


by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

Fairness is normally an objective when section tournaments are set up. One exception is Section 7AA boys hockey, where perennial champion Duluth East enjoys a sweetheart deal at the expense of one its top challengers, your Elk River Elks.

Since 2006, the tournament semifinals and finals have been held at Amsoil Arena in Duluth, a 15-minute trek for the Greyhounds and their fans but nearly three hours for the Elks and their fans. This deal was extended through 2017 with a 9-1 vote last October by the Region 7AA committee, the lone dissenter being Elk River’s rep, activities director Mike Cunningham.

The Elks have made the 200-mile trip to meet Duluth East in the playoffs five times in the last six years, losing each time, most recently the 2014 final won by East 3-2.

The Greyhounds have won the section six straight years. They are always pretty good. But you have to wonder about a six-year dynasty if they had to make the 200-mile trek southward each year to face the Elks. Or even every other year, as in other sports.

So, what gives? If there’s a north-south rotation for other sports — the Elks compete in girls hockey, tennis, cross-country and track sections both up there and down here, in alternate years — why not in boys hockey?

The explanation from board members is that the sectional at Amsoil generates a big payday each year, from not only the box office but also cash from WDIO Television, which airs the sectionals.

“In 2013, the Grand Rapids vs. Duluth East Finals had nearly 6,000 fans,” said Michael Miericki, a Duluth School Board member who votes on the region board. “No other arena in our section can match the seating. Also, there is a stipend from WDIO television — that is not the driving force, but is a factor.”

Added Kirby Eckstrom, North Branch School Board member: “Yes, money is a consideration when agreeing to the contract. Another point is the facility itself. Amsoil offers a quality setting.”

Money is no trivial matter, as Cunningham acknowledged: “It’s used to help pay for the many (sectional) activities that don’t make any money, like cross-country and tennis and speech and one-act plays.”

Some sections, Miericki said, do not meet those expenses and must allocate member schools for additional funds.

“Section 7AA has been fortunate for many years to make enough money to cover all the costs of the tournaments,” Miericki said, alluding to the boys hockey cash cow. “You cannot imagine how much money is spent on a 7AA speech meet or one-act play competitions, for example.”

But doesn’t it bother anyone that the north has this perennial advantage over the south, most often manifesting itself when Duluth East plays Elk River? It’s understandable that the Iron Rangers would vote for this arrangement but harder to figure why no other southern reps (besides Elk River) raise an objections. One guess: Cambridge-Isanti, North Branch and Forest Lake probably aren’t worried about it because their boys hockey teams aren’t contenders anyway.  There’s also a voter from Andover, which is a longshot contender in a good year.

The Region 7AA committee (they’re called regions for administration, sections for competition) consists of a dozen individuals including activities directors, principals, school board members, coaches reps, music and arts reps. Most did not respond when the Star News asked why they favored this policy, apparently feeling they owed no explanation. But from the three who did respond, we get the picture.

So, apparently, Elk River, for all practical purposes the only school adversely affected by the Amsoil permanent site, just has to put up with this for the good of the section’s coffers.

Elk coach Gordie Roberts acknowledged that it’s a “frustrating” deal, especially with a section final on a school day (like this year, a Thursday) where you’re up at 6:30 a.m., attend school, travel almost three hours, and then play hockey, with, by the way, Duluth East fans packing the place, with only a fraction of the Elks’ normal crowd on hand.

But Roberts stressed that the team makes a point of just accepting the situation and getting prepared to play, with no excuse-making.

“Once the game starts,” Roberts said, “it’s a great place to play.”