'It's time to make the move' - Boys hockey to shift to Class A next season


January 27, 2023

Dave Harwig

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Ethan Kilichowski stops a scoring chance by Duluth East's Cole Christian in front of goaltender Sam Panger during Thursday's hockey game at Northwoods Arena. Duluth East beat CEC 8-1.

After January 27, it will be official: the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team will move to Class A hockey starting next season for at least two years, a move that 90 percent of parents in the hockey program supported when polled by the school district earlier this year.

"Cloquet has played up since the state went to a two-class system, and even when there was a Tier 1 and Tier 2 system in the early '90s," Cloquet High School activities director Paul Riess said after Monday's Cloquet School Board meeting. "So it's been close to 30 years."

The Lumberjacks girls hockey team made the classification change several years ago - subsequently taking second place in the 2019-20 state tournament - and there has been no public clamoring to switch back. The last time the CEC boys made the state tournament was 2008.

A survey sent to parents of high school-age, Bantam and PeeWee boys hockey players showed 70 out of 79 responses favored a change to Class A last year. Riess told board members Monday that only one person switched their vote to Class AA since then. Another wrote and laid out the reasons why they already supported Class AA.

"Other than that, I haven't been contacted by anybody who's said, 'This is wrong, we want you to stay double A,'" he said. "We have had people come and say, 'Thank you for looking into it, we support the decision,' and other people say we support the decision either way."

The change means the CEC boys will play in Section 7A instead of Section 7AA, making Hermantown the likely nemesis instead of Duluth East, which beat the 'Jacks 8-1 last Thursday. Other 7A schools include Proctor, Denfeld, Moose Lake Area, Rock Ridge, Hibbing/Chisholm, Rock Ridge, Greenway, Ely and North Shore (Two Harbors/Cook County). The CEC team would remain in the Lake Superior Conference, which includes Grand Rapids, Superior, Hibbing, Denfeld, Hermantown, Proctor, and Duluth Marshall.

The activities director did email other non-conference opponents to see if they would still play CEC if it went to Class A.

"We got a lot of responses that said, 'We don't care one way or another,'" he said. "We got a lot of responses that said, 'We love playing northern teams,' others said, 'You got a real classy program, we'll still play ya.' You gain and lose games every year, that just happens."

One team said it was going to start playing every conference opponent twice, so it might have to drop CEC, but it wasn't because of classification, he said.

"Next year we were going to be looking for six (AA) games, we've filled four of those already," Riess said, adding that 23 of 25 games are already scheduled for next year.

Board member Gary "Hawk" Huard asked what other teams play up a classification despite enrollments that would slot them into Class A.

"Roseau, Grand Rapids and some private schools," Riess said.

Riess previously said the school also looked at history and performance. According to win-loss records, the combined team is much more successful against Class A teams. Additionally, the CEC boys hockey team is the only Lumberjacks team currently playing at a higher level than warranted by its combined school population count.

However, the CEC coaches still favor Class AA, Riess said.

Cloquet superintendent Michael Cary pointed out the school could change back to Class AA in two years, if things don't work out.

"It's time to make the move," Huard said.

Bus drivers wanted

Superintendent Cary also talked to board members about busing issues this winter, caused by a lack of drivers at Cloquet Transit, which contracts with the school district. He said the company used to "sporadically" have to double up on routes, "but it's become almost a daily occurrence now," he said.

Illnesses caused the cancellation last week of one and a half routes, with roughly 12 hours notice to families, he said. They reshuffled buses to focus on the rural routes in the end, leaving open routes closer to the high school and middle school.

"These shortages are real and they're not remedying themselves quickly," Cary said.

New board member Sarah Plante Buhs said she's heard from frustrated families who say their kids are unable to find seats on the combined routes.

"To me it's a big safety concern," said Plante Buhs, who formerly worked for the Cloquet Area Fire District. "There's a maximum capacity for these buses ... if they're not sitting down and a crash happens, they're not safe. They could be thrown from the bus."

"We need to make sure that's not happening," she added.

Cary directed the conversation to Huard, who works part time as a bus driver for Cloquet Transit. Huard pointed out that problems arise in the afternoon because the schools are scheduling away games for middle school teams early, like 4 p.m. in Proctor.

"They have to take a driver off a route to take the kids to Proctor," he said. "Can we change those times to later or maybe play on Saturday?"

The crux of the problem, Huard said, is that nobody is applying for the jobs.

"It's not just us," Cary added. "Every school is struggling to compete for entry level positions ... that includes systems that support schools like transit."

Huard also said the district needs to make sure it's not sending bus drivers into other school districts unnecessarily.

"Everything south of Moorhead Road is Carlton and we pick up a lot of kids from that side," he said.

Cary is going to meet with Cloquet Transit for further


Athletic facilities

Board members voted Monday to hire a firm to do soil borings and another for civil engineering services for the proposed $4.25 million athletic facilities project.

As it stands, the plans include replacing the current grass football and soccer field with turf and widening the field for soccer, redoing and widening the aging track, relocating and doubling the tennis courts from four to eight, moving the discus and shot put field to the current tennis courts as well as reconfiguring seating in the bleachers and adding a new scoreboard.

Cary hopes to bring concrete numbers for financing the project to the board in early February. At that point, the board would vote on committing to the project. Cary said the community fundraising group is talking with a large sponsor that may cover the full $1.25 million for the turf field. The district was approved to spend $1 million in ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency pandemic relief) federal funds, and he believes they could bond for $2 million and make debt payments with existing capital funds, which would mean no property tax increase.

In other matters Monday:

• The board had a first reading of a staff code of conduct policy that would require staff members to notify school administration of potential legal issues (arrests) or orders for protection, Cary told the board. Administration would notify the superintendent and the superintendent would notify school board members. The policy lays out a process for handling the process involved with issues like that, and any investigation or employees being placed on administrative leave.

• High school principal Steve Battaglia told the board the school plans to roll out a class next school year that would allow students to earn their Commercial Driver's License in partnership with Upper Lakes Foods as a high school student.


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