A Merge to Nowhere?

In most Minnesota hockey communities, the youth program it tightly aligned with the public high school whose boundaries it shares. This model has created pipelines from mites up the high schools that compete for State Tournament berths every season. High school teams go out of their way celebrate their associated youth teams. Young hockey players wear jerseys with the same name as their high school heroes, and they get groomed as future Jefferson Jaguars or Edina Hornets or Hermantown Hawks. It is not without its frustrations: of course, not every kid in a public school’s attendance area goes to said public school, programs can sort into haves and have-nots, and there are some who would rather skim off the cream and not have to deal with community boundaries. But this has been, implicitly or explicitly, the foundational model for the sport in Minnesota.

The Duluth Amateur Hockey Association has long put its own twists on this story. The city is famed for its Mite and Squirt-level neighborhood rinks, which have then filtered up into PeeWee and Bantam teams divided by the two public schools, East and Denfeld. But times are changing: this past season, Duluth debuted a unified, citywide Squirt A team. On the heels of this move, DAHA has proposed the merger of its PeeWees along the same lines, followed by a subsequent merger of the Bantams. Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld youth hockey will, effectively, be dead.

Only a blinkered nostalgist would say nothing had to change. The youth rinks have been slowly but surely shrinking in number, pressured by declining player numbers in many neighborhoods and hyper-concentration in others. Some rinks have strained to keep the volunteer bases that keep them viable, and in others, school boards have decided that parking lots were better uses for places where kids once played. By PeeWees and Bantams, Denfeld’s numbers are worryingly low, and while East’s are substantially better, the Hounds aren’t fielding teams at all levels, which creates some talent mismatches. It also shows in the results: despite fairly large youth numbers at the youngest levels, the city’s talent output has dropped off visibly over the past decade, even as a certain neighboring community reaches new heights. Something about the current system is not working as well as it could.

Unified Youth Programs, Sputtering Public School Hockey

But is a single, city-wide youth program the answer? We have some evidence from other communities that feed multiple high schools from a single youth program might be of some use. And a rundown of the case studies exposes a simple fact: in not one case does the hockey landscape in these places with multiple public high school hockey programs fed by a unified youth program look like that classic model.

St. Cloud may be the most immediate analogue, as a similar-sized small metro to Duluth with two public high schools and one private school and a single youth program. It’s hardly a perfect fit, as the St. Cloud schools had little statewide success outside of some very early Tourney appearances by St. Cloud Tech. But because of that, it’s a bit of a canary in the coal mine, as its schools’ hockey numbers dropped as development moved into more suburban areas. Apollo High, after dropping to Class A, did manage to claw out a couple of Tourney berths despite low numbers in its final years before it was forced to merge with Tech and create one single public high school team. The merger had no discernable impact on St. Cloud public school hockey success: the dominant force throughout has been private Cathedral, which has been the magnet for local front-line talent for going on two decades now. The unified public school team, meanwhile, typically putters along in the lower half of 8AA.

In recent years, Rochester has had one single youth program feeding four high schools. It is weaker hockey country, but it has historically had a bit of State Tournament success; John Marshall won a Tourney in the 70s, Mayo had some legitimately good teams in the 90s, and the newest school, Century, scraped together a few Tourney appearances in the 00s, even as the Lakeville schools rose to dominate Section 1AA. But since 2010, there was a brief period when private Lourdes was the talent collector, and ever after it has been fairly bleak. With the likely demise of John Marshall hockey forthcoming, it does not look like it will get better. The fact that a uniquely wealthy, large city with four high schools has landed with a model that cannot muster more than one Bantam AA team does not inspire confidence.

Woodbury is a well-off East Metro suburb, and on paper should be good enough to follow the trajectory of some of its peers like Plymouth and Eden Prairie and Andover and produce hockey powerhouses. Woodbury High did have some abbreviated success in the mid-2000s, but after that burst and the subsequent opening of East Ridge High in 2009, its high school teams have been mediocre at best. The two public schools, while sometimes scrappy mid-level seeds, have mustered little in the way of sustained success, all as the rosters of Hill-Murray and Cretin-Derham Hall and some other East Metro powers are littered with Woodbury kids. Perhaps not coincidentally, an East Ridge group has emerged to advocate for a breakaway that would create separate youth programs for both.

The unified Chaska-Chanhassen youth program is somewhere on the Woodbury trajectory, just a decade or two behind in the cycle and just now rising to potential greatness. And yet, just like these other examples, the youth program has seen a steady drain of talent, and a substantial herd mentality seems to take hold, with the bulk of the good players going to Chaska for a few years, and now with many of them off to Chanhassen. While it is entirely possible that this Chanhassen group will break through in the near future, the two schools have yet to land a State Tourney berth for their efforts.

The story of Minneapolis over the past few decades is unlike that of any other Minnesota city, and major demographic shifts and reactions to it changed the hockey environment more drastically than anywhere else. A city that once constituted almost an entire section and now musters just one hockey team for the entire public school system. (I told that story of urban change and high school hockey in a post some eight years ago; some details could use some updating, but the overarching narrative is as true as ever.) In some ways, this is the most uplifting story of what a unified youth program can do: after a long time in the wilderness, youth numbers started recovering maybe 10-15 years ago. Under Joe Dziedzic the high school team has become a semi-contender in Class A over the past few years, including a 2022 State Tournament appearance. Such success would not be possible without the allowance that they play in Class A, though: Minneapolis’s best players routinely attend Benilde, Blake, Breck, and Holy Angels. The city schools have not produced a D-I player in over 20 years.

Other Roads Taken

Not every youth program that feeds multiple high schools has gone the route of unified Bantam and PeeWee teams. The results here are scattered, suggestive of potential but far-from-guaranteed advantages. Separate youth programs on their own aren’t enough: both Bloomington schools, including former blueblood Jefferson and blue-collar Kennedy, have been on a steady downward trajectory, with all their talent draining outward, even without Minneapolis-style demographic change, especially in the Jefferson attendance area.

But there does appear to be some limited success when separate feeders for high schools can remain viable. The Lakeville schools, which split into North and South a bit before East Ridge and Chanhassen Highs opened, are not as large as some of the west metro powers and benefit from a weak section 1AA. But they have managed to put out some very good hockey teams and some very high-level talent, despite having separate youth teams. St. Paul has faced many of the demographic pressures Minneapolis has, but kept its youth teams separate for as long as it could. While its teams have also struggled for a while now, it has at least maintained more high school programs with a smaller population, and even with weak numbers, the soon-to-be-late St. Paul Johnson has still put out some sporadic stars and pulled the occasional playoff surprise. Now, however, even that long play seems to have run out.

What This Means for Duluth

I am in no way saying it is a sure thing that a unified youth program will cause the demise of local public high school programs. But the claim that it may forestall such trends appears unsupported by evidence from comparison cases, and there is at least some evidence that a single youth program serves instead to weaken any ties to the public schools and strengthen funnels to a place where all the good players can come together (namely, private schools) or just leads to a general dispersal far and wide. Of course, it is not the goal of a youth program to prop up public high schools; it is to develop hockey players. But we can’t pretend that this shift isn’t a concession to a change in the landscape.

Maybe hockey roots are deep enough in Duluth that the city can buck some of these trends: maybe Denfeld can find the resources it needs to stay alive through a time of thin numbers, and maybe the new East regime has the desire and the design to harness the program’s great legacy and keep it what it has been. But it is also entirely possible that we see a merged public high school program in the next few years, and no one should be too surprised if that product ends up being very mediocre amid a general talent exodus. With Stella Maris looking to get hockey off the ground, the vultures are already circling.

Maybe that’s how it will be anyway. Maybe political and economic changes in Duluth are too significant; the city is in a strange and complicated place right now, and my thoughts there are too complex to summarize pithily here. Maybe the escalating costs and year-round cycles that increasingly define this sport are too powerful, and this is just another marker in a slow but steady death march for community-based hockey that no realignment within a youth program could ever stop. The drift toward hockey domination by private schools and a few affluent talent magnet publics may continue, and that itself may just be a waystation on the road to the AAA hockey that a small but influential core of hockey maximalists desire. The forces are what they are. (For that matter, maybe the forces at play are such that even Stella hockey will be stillborn and Marshall will remain mired in the tough place it has landed since the loss of Brendan Flaherty. The AA landscape has become hard enough for even good, deep East teams to compete with, and Hermantown hegemony in local Class A hockey blocks the easier road some privates have used as a stepping stone.)

My point, then, is that decision-makers should be clear-eyed about what has happened in other places. Relying on the exceptional efforts of committed volunteers is not a long-term strategy, and all the celebrations of unity that will come with a single Duluth jersey for the youth ranks will mean little if broader incentive structures for families aren’t in alignment. The strategy is in the much harder work of growing numbers, retention, and finding ways to make sure this sport is accessible to people who aren’t just a who’s-who of the wealthiest locals and well-connected hockey people.

Easy for me to say, I know. I will remain a loyal, no matter which course DAHA follows, and I am sympathetic to anyone who has to struggle with these decisions. But as someone who still thinks Minnesota is the State of Hockey because it has followed the old Herb Brooks maxim on building the strongest possible base of the pyramid, I can only think of this merger as another chink in the armor of the culture that makes this state unique.