This blog has had too much politics lately. Time for a change of pace: hockey season is just around the corner! The NHL and NCAA hockey begin in the next month, junior leagues are already kicking off, and the Minnesota high school Elite League season started last weekend. But in the midst of all the new arrivals, there was also a departure: Louie Nanne, a University of Minnesota recruit, announced he would not be coming to the Gophers.
If you have any familiarity with Minnesota hockey, you’ll recognize that name. Louie’s grandfather, Lou, is Minnesota hockey royalty. As a Minnesota Gopher, North Star, North Star General Manager, and longtime commentator for the Minnesota High School tournament, it’s hard to think of any other person who’s given as much to hockey in this state over his lifetime. He also comes across a genuinely kind and caring person, willing to chat with anyone about anything hockey-related.
His grandson committed to Minnesota back in 2011, but his selection by the Gopher coaching staff quickly came under intense scrutiny. Louie Nanne’s high school numbers at Edina were decidedly pedestrian. He is a good skater, there are plenty of testaments to his excellent work ethic, and most people who viewed his status from some distance thought he could have been a decent lower-line, high-energy forward at Minnesota. Problem is, those sorts of players practically never commit before their junior years in high school—on the contrary, teams usually find them in junior leagues. In reality, the commitment made a lot of practical sense for the Gophers: due to the family’s wealth, Louie could probably pay his own way to Minnesota, freeing up precious scholarship money for other recruits. But, of course, that reasoning doesn’t sit too well with many hockey fans, who tend to be staunch believers in measuring players on merit alone.
The flap over the Gophers was only the start: in the 7th Round of the 2012 NHL draft, the Minnesota Wild snapped up Nanne. The NHL draft is quite the crapshoot by the time it gets to the 7th round, but even so, the cries of nepotism were out in full force: what were the Wild doing wasting a draft pick on Nanne when there were so many other players with better credentials left on the board?
However justified the criticism might have been, it made Louie Nanne’s life miserable. As his former Edina teammates marched to the state championship, Louie spent his senior year in Penticton, British Columbia, playing in the British Columbia Hockey League. At first, Nanne explained the move in terms of his hockey development, but it isn’t too hard to suspect other forces at work, and a later interview seemed to confirm those suspicions. He toiled away in relative obscurity, and has now announced that he won’t be a Gopher. It would be easy to decry the critics who bullied Nanne away, or, for that matter, to say Nanne shouldn’t have let a bunch of anonymous critics on social media wreck his dream of playing for the Gophers.
In reading Nanne’s decommitment note, however, a different story emerges: one of a kid who needed to leave home to come into his own. He grew up a prince of Minnesota hockey, and while that afforded him plenty of fame and advantages, it also burdened him with endless scrutiny and expectation. The community-based focus of Minnesota hockey (and I use that term broadly, so as to encompass even the D-I colleges with their loyal fan bases) often exacerbates that pressure, and it is visible, to varying degrees, in just about any program in the state. Many of us hockey commoners here in our Minnesota fishbowl don’t always see just how mentally difficult it can be to grow up as one of the bigger fish in that fishbowl, and only recently, with the proliferation of AAA youth hockey and player departures for junior leagues, have we come to realize there’s a much bigger hockey world out there.
It was especially interesting to see some of the NCAA-vs.-Canadian Major Junior arguments break out on the forum I moderate. Our members whose primary interest is in NCAA hockey tend to be pretty ambivalent about whether players stay in high school or go to U.S. junior leagues; they think the players’ development for college is more important than some fluff about “devotion to community” or a “well-rounded high school experience.” They tend to be dispassionate, well-measured observers of the high school scene. But when a few other commenters began to talk up the benefits of the Canadian route (as opposed to the NCAA) over the past year, the NCAA backers came out with their guns blazing, fiercely defending the college experience. Hockey has gone global, and the worldwide competition for a limited number of spots in the highest levels makes short shrift of all of that “community” stuff.
Our annual thread tracking early departures from Minnesota hockey over on the forum counted a record number this upcoming season, and it drew any number of responses: some lament the trend, many shrug and say “it is what it is,” and some make no effort to conceal their glee at the signs of erosion of the “restrictive” development model. As Louie Nanne can attest, there is a lot to be said for life outside the fishbowl. Players move around enough that it is easy to shed past baggage, and if they wind up in unpleasant situations, it’s not hard to get out. The lifestyle is a pretty big draw as well, with twenty-some boys whose lives are all wrapped up in the same dream all away from home for the first time. This doesn’t even touch on development, which I wrestled with in a post a few months ago.
Still, as I wrote in that post, there is a lot to be said for the cultural power of hockey in Minnesota, and no one knows that better than Louie’s grandfather, Lou. Even as his grandsons all embark on different hockey paths (another left for a U.S. junior team, and a third is staying in high school for his senior year), he keeps on covering the high school tournament year after year. Like most any parent or grandparent, he may have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to his own offspring (see his past comments more or less assuming another grandson would be a Gopher, when that does not appear terribly likely now), but he still cares deeply about the state of the sport beyond them.
In fact, hockey tends to grow not in spite of family ties, but because of parents’ care for their kids, and things snowball from there. Bob Fryberger donated a rink to Duluth East High School so that his sons would have a place to play; the rest is history with that program. Most of the prominent youth and high school programs are the same way, with fathers raising their sons to love the sport as much as they did. Things haven’t really changed, even if the more obvious recent examples are a little more exclusive. J.P. Parisé built up the Shattuck program for his son, Zach. Bernie McBain wouldn’t have founded Minnesota Made if not for Jamie.
As much as the landscape may change, hockey will never get rid of those family ties. They are a double-edged sword that keep the sport going and drive people to hate it when they see bias at work. It can only be managed, not eliminated, and requires the due diligence of every hockey parent. The question for hockey parents, then, is a simple one: are we in it only for our sons, or are our sons only part of the equation? Hockey is one part an individual quest, and as Louie Nanne shows us, sometimes we have to take a leap of faith to find ourselves. But it is also fundamentally a team sport, and every hockey boy knows he needs to have his teammates’ back, just as they have his. Sometimes the individual and the team-centered sides of hockey are in conflict, and this is, of course, why it can make for such good preparation for the rest of life. Because there is no realm of human life where they aren’t sometimes in conflict.
Lou Nanne, for one, understands that. Since he’s a part of that same tradition, I suspect Louie Nanne does as well, or at least will soon enough. He has his dream and he has his roots, and he wouldn’t be whole without them both working in tandem. For the health of the sport he loves, he can’t afford to neglect either one.