On Developing Hockey Players in Minnesota

The NHL playoffs may be nearing their close, but the hockey season never really ends. For top-end Minnesota high school players, this means the junior league camps are just around the corner. The players will have to decide if they want to forgo the remainder of their high school careers for hockey opportunities in other cities. Some will do so to get out of, say, a bad relationship with a coach, but most will do so in pursuit of better “development” as a player. The better junior leagues have longer seasons and older players, which offer increased competition and challenges that may not be available in high school. Unsurprisingly, this also results in heated and vitriolic debates over which path makes the most sense; I’d guess that over half of the disciplinary actions I have to take on the hockey forum I moderate relate to these arguments.

The number of players choosing different development models shot up dramatically in the late 90s, and though it has since leveled off somewhat, the hockey scene will never be the same. Across the Twin Cities, a proliferation of summer hockey programs has given rise to several that have moved into the winter season and now, whether directly or indirectly, antagonize the Minnesota hockey model. (While the pre-high school, community-based youth associations technically have nothing to do with high schools, the two work in such concert that I will conflate them in this piece.) The new programs attempt to group together elite players on teams that play schedules that are far more intense than anything allowed by the powers that be—whose responses  to such challenges, as one might expect out of a many-layered bureaucracy, have often been rather slow and lurching. Canadian Major Junior leagues now eye young American players with relish, and there is something of a silent war going on between the Canadians and the proponents of high school and U.S. college hockey. (Playing Canadian Major Juniors leaves players ineligible for the NCAA.) The Alec Baer incident this past winter was probably only the opening round in an impending battle of development models.

Putting myself in the shoes of a hockey parent, I understand the shift. If I someday have a kid who loves hockey, I doubt I’d hesitate to give him or her the best development opportunities my money can buy, and I wouldn’t hold an ambitious kid back from heading off to another league if it were a good fit. Sure, I love the high school game more than any other level, and in my perfect world, no kid would ever leave. But perfect worlds aren’t necessarily good guides for what to do in the real one, and I also can look at this game from a far enough distance that I have no desire to sacrifice the goals of others to the altar of community-based hockey.

Still, two issues leave me with some reservations.

The first comes from Herb Brooks, the Minnesota hockey legend and coach of the U.S. national team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Brooks envisioned hockey development as a pyramid, with a broad base of community-centered hockey propping up the top players. By its nature, this model is somewhat inefficient; it doesn’t allow the top players group together to maximize their development. But it also recognizes that culture matters, and that the long-term health of hockey in Minnesota requires attention to the things that make hockey more than a game. It is near-impossible to measure the value created by the bonds of community loyalty and the mystique of the ever-so-Minnesotan high school tournament, but it certainly exists, and I sincerely doubt the dream of playing for a team in Alberta or the 2004 Birth Year Team Minnesota Wolfpack Sponsored by Car Dealer X would be able to match the pull of playing for Edina or Roseau or Hill-Murray High. The reason football is so embedded in the American psyche is because its sole development model touches just about everyone who goes through a traditional American high school; kids who have minimal interest in the game still show up on Friday nights to join their friends in a rite that venerates the players but also lets each and every fan participate, an experience passed forward through schools and families and generations. The same is true for Minnesota hockey in many communities, and losing that cultural cachet in the interest of efficient development would be a real loss.

This is especially true for a sport that, due to high equipment and ice rental costs, has largely come to be the province of the wealthy. Hockey has big enough image issues as it is. In this day in age we like to pretend that any choices we make that are “best for our kids” don’t have any consequences beyond said kids. They do. People who act according to strict self-interest are naïve if they think others will not judge them for abandoning a community or having different priorities. I’m not saying it is right for those considering leaving to abandon their aspirations under communal pressure, but if they do not understand where the community is coming from, conflict will ensue. Culture matters.

The second issue has to do with the very notion of “development” itself. Many critics have wondered whether young hockey players are mature enough to leave home early, or whether the rigors of an intense training regimen will lead to burnout or injury. These are real concerns that have affected some players who seek different development paths, though they can be mitigated in various ways. Still, my questions are a bit more profound. We can justify just about anything claiming that it leads to better development, but development is such an abstract term that any serious contemplation of what it means requires some distance. Sure, more ice time will almost certainly make a player better, but we have a very limited grasp on the degrees to which it can help. At what point do we hit the point of diminishing returns, and can a different path fundamentally change the trajectory of careers that are also dependent on genetics and work ethics and other issues that pop up in life? Advocates of models have lots of anecdotes and select statistics they like to throw around, and plenty of them do make intuitive sense. But until someone can put together a study with a huge sample size that takes players and compares their career trajectories and isolates as many variables as is humanly possible, we are all groping around in the dark.

I can go even further on the development front. Does the arms race for better hockey development have an ending point, or will it simply go on until the end of time, with more and more opportunities that are less and less accessible to most anyone? On an even more existential level, is youth hockey always a means to an end, or is there more to it? Is childhood a constant progression from one step to the next, or does thinking of hockey players as crops to be grown and harvested somehow impoverish our understanding of them—and if so, in what ways?

I don’t pose any of these questions with the hope that they will lead anyone to have a sudden change of heart. I just hope people might consider them with as much objectivity as possible, instead of running away from them because they are too deep and complicated, or trying to cram knee-jerk responses into a preexisting worldview. Our inability to be completely objective is no excuse for not trying.

For the Minnesota kids who do choose to leave this offseason, I’ll be rooting for all of you. But I do have one simple request: remember where you came from. Even if you bounced around for a bit or didn’t quite fall in love with your particular program the way some people do, it is a part of you. If you love hockey, you are in some way indebted to the many people who keep it going at each and every level.

Take the example of Zack Fitzgerald—a player who is not from Duluth (his family moved there when his older brother, a future NHLer, was in high school), and left Duluth East High for Canadian Major Juniors after his freshman year. He has had a successful career as an enforcer in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL, and got into one game in the big show. Yet he spent his formative years in Duluth, and this summer will find him back home, running a hockey camp along with his older brother. There are countless ways to help, whether through volunteer work or philanthropy; God knows schools (both public and private) need all financial the help they can get. I’d also advise donors to look beyond one’s alma mater, as means allow; for example, the need for support at Duluth East, while real, is far less pressing than it is for the dwindling program of their crosstown rivals, Duluth Denfeld. Sustaining the hockey culture in Minnesota requires a broader perspective, and programs that get financially disadvantaged kids on skates can help in ways that go far beyond the rink. So long as the base of the pyramid remains solid, I am at peace with players pursuing their hockey careers in any way they see fit. And if that base isn’t solid, before long it won’t much matter which paths players take.


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