Behind the Leap: Why Denfeld & Rock Ridge boy’s hockey are moving to Class AA

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Following Wednesday’s Section 7A boy’s hockey championship game the section will be getting a big shakeup.

“I think there’s a big hole in Duluth hockey,” Duluth Denfeld head coach Dale Jago said.

“The process of getting better has to start with good competition,” stated Rock Ridge head coach Ben Johnson.

In an effort to grow their programs Duluth Denfeld and Rock Ridge boy’s hockey are packing their bags and moving from Class A to Class AA competition.

“I was at Piedmont [Park] on Sunday at 2:00 in the afternoon and there were three hockey players on the ice. Maybe this will rejuvenate Duluth hockey, maybe rejuvenate the rivalry between us and [Duluth] East,” Jago said.

“The numbers that we have coming through our youth and everything, and our community investing in hockey here, we have a beautiful facility. It’s a hockey rich area and we want to get back to the top and to get there, you have to start that process,” Johnson shared.

In 2015 Duluth Marshall made the leap meaning all of Duluth’s active boy’s varsity programs will be in AA. This puts northern Minnesota back in control of Section 7AA. It currently is only home to four Northland teams out of 10 total teams, and will lose Cloquet-Esko-Carlton to 7A next season.

“With Cloquet going down I think it was really important for somebody to step up and replace that void,” Jago said. “Otherwise we’re going to have, if Grand Rapids and [Duluth] East aren’t representing Section 7AA, it’s going to be south Metro or northern Metro teams or a team from Metro.”

“I’m really excited,” Rock Ridge junior forward Brant Tiedeman said. “I think it’s good for us to see some better competition in Section 7. We’re ready for playoffs and just want to play those powerhouses like Edina and Minnetonka and those teams like that.”

Opting up with the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is a two year initial agreement. Denfeld head coach Dale Jago said the process was simple, filing some paper work with the league, and doesn’t require their youth programs to leave single A.

While their decision was built in-part looking at the opportunities higher competition offers for growth, it also came from a place of frustration.

“I think the MSHSL high school hockey league has a lot to answer for,” Jago stated.

“You have a top ten team or a top eight team and you don’t get to go to the state tournament where all the best teams are supposed to be? It’s absolutely absurd. So in order for us to come out of the section, this section or whatever section, we’ve got to be the best in the area. Which it’s not forward thinking either, but that is what it is.”

Denfeld, making the last three section championship games (2020, 2021, 2022), has been stifled by Hermantown. The Hunters last skated into the state tournament in 1989 before the two class system.

“We’re putting things in the rearview mirror,” Jago said.

For Rock Ridge, before their merger in 2021, Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl last made state in 2010 and Eveleth-Gilbert in 1998.

“The Iron Range deserves a good AA team that we can root for,” Johnson said.

Tiedeman added, “I was stoked, I was really excited. I mean, this is AA. It’s the biggest class in Minnesota.”

The move goes into effect starting the 2023-2024 season.