Tag Archives: development

Wild Development Camp Notes, 2015

12 Jul

This past Saturday, in front of 3,500 souls all too pleased to spend a summer afternoon in a frozen arena, a collection of Minnesota Wild prospects showcased their skills in a scrimmage at the Xcel Energy Center. It was a first look at the Wild’s 2015 draft picks, a chance to revisit a few other prospects who’ve been in the system for a few years, and an opportunity for a handful of unsigned invitees to make a splash. Most were born between 1993 and 1997, though there were a handful of elder statesmen. The game featured two running-time 30-minute halves and an eight minute 3-on-3 overtime with stops; Team Green defeated Team White 6-3 with an empty-netter near the end of regulation, an accurate reflection of the chances throughout.

The most NHL-ready player there—perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as he’s just signed a serious NHL contract—was Mike Reilly, who, as usual, ruled the ice with his offensive rushes. He added a crushing hit on Joel Eriksson Ek, and should have every opportunity to make the opening day roster. Barring any trades, his addition will only accentuate the Wild’s offensive-minded D corps, but in the hands of a good coach and the right scheme, that need not be a weakness.

This was the first real viewing of Eriksson Ek for Minnesotans, and he didn’t disappoint. His size and lack of physical presence were issues, but no one was more artful than the 2015 first round pick. He paired up especially well with Jordan Greenway, the NTDP product whom the Wild took in the second round. Greenway (alas, no ties to Coleraine there) was a physical force, good in tight space and on the cycle, and he and Eriksson Ek had natural chemistry. There may be a future between those two. The third member of their line, Zack Mitchell, didn’t rule play quite as much, but got the first goal of the game when he tapped in an Eriksson Ek pass, and added a snipe in the 3-on-3 overtime. The 2014 draft pick had a solid year with the Iowa Wild, though lacks the ceiling of many of the others on the ice Saturday.

One of the more intriguing players on hand was Louie Nanne, the ex-Edina Hornet burdened with a name that led to some (justified, though sometimes overboard) cries of nepotism when he was drafted in 2012. Nanne smartly chose a road less traveled, and he didn’t look out of place in the prospects game, with his smooth skating his finest asset. Still, his puck control still left something to be desired, and his penalty shot try was a dud. While he’s a clear D-I player, I’d still be stunned to see him get anywhere near the NHL.

Keeping with the theme of wandering Edina products, Jack Walker was among the standouts on the day. His wheels were among the finest, and he flew all over the place, though he couldn’t convert on a breakaway. He was the smallest player on the ice at 5’9” 170, but is no defensive liability, and he has a future somewhere. At eighteen, he still has some time to beef up, too.

Still, WHL leaps are hardly a golden bullet. Jared Bethune, the prodigal former Warroad Warrior and ex-UMD commit, was the one undrafted 1997 birth year, and it showed. Hunter Warner was also fairly anonymous, showing none of that physical prowess that made him a star at Eden Prairie.

Avery Peterson, the pride of Grand Rapids, slid smoothly into Team White’s offensive attack, joining Reilly on a slick passing play with Sam Warning to set up the first of his team’s two regulation goals. If anything, Peterson was too unselfish, a rare crime in this game. Warning, meanwhile, displayed that trademark speed and aggression that made him a staple at the University of Minnesota. With some consistency, he could still have a future at a high level.

Jack Sadek, last seen in this arena lifting a state championship trophy, was the only played coming straight from high school, but he had zero trouble making the leap. He was composed in his own end, leading those silky breakouts that made him a star at Lakeville North, and after he got knocked to the ice early in the scrimmage, he popped right back up and returned the favor. If he can add that physical side to his game, he’ll be a steal as a 7th-round pick for the Wild.

Sadek was one of several defensemen with Minnesota ties who had fine showings. Carson Soucy, the two-way UMD blueliner, was a consistent force, showing aplomb for jumping into the play while staying strong in his own end. Zach Palmquist was another player with a vintage effort, composed and steady. Rogers native Logan Nelson, who went the WHL route and is now in the ECHL, showed good patience and got down to block a few shots.

Rounding out those with Minnesota ties on the rink, Gopher Robin Hoglund brought the physical goods and created a few chances. Mario Lucia was quiet for parts of the game but also had some dominant shifts, singlehandedly bringing the pressure as he forced his way through the Green defense.

Alex Tuch, the 2014 first-rounder and current Boston College Golden Eagle, dangled about the rink at times, and found the back of the net in a breakaway on the 3-on-3. Another standout was Ryan Graham, an undrafted Canadian playing in the WHL. Graham was a one-wrecking crew on the forecheck and worked as hard as anyone on the ice. Another WHL invitee, Carter Rigby, did a good job of carrying his line, showing good control in tight space. Michael Vecchione, a name some Gopher fans may remember from the 2014 national championship game against Union, likewise used some flashes of strength to showcase his skills for the Wild brass. The various Swedish defensemen named Gustav (Oloffson and Bouramman) both jumped into play, at times doing a bit too much, though.

A few other players made their way on to my notepad with occasional flashes, but this limited viewing is short enough that I’ll avoid further sweeping judgment. Without much context from other teams’ camps, it’s also hard to measure where all these Wild stack up. They’ll do it again Tuesday night (6:30 start; free admission to the X), so if you need some ice in your July, head on down. Otherwise, we’ll check in with these kids in fall to see where they’re playing, and who’s a threat to crack the lineup in the future.

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A Storm Gathers Strength

12 Dec

The team in its road blues pops in another goal. A groan goes down the line. One of the assistant coaches calls out the numbers of the five boys on the ice, and tells the girl with the scoresheet to circle one particular culprit. “We need to realize that just because someone does well in a drill, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in a game,” muses another. Someone asks a much younger kid, the son of former Wild winger Antti Laaksonen, if he brought any gear and might be available to suit up. It’s all in good fun; part of the long and slow process of building up a hockey program into relevance.

Most of my hockey-watching involves matchups between the very top high school teams in Minnesota. I usually only see those outside the top 20 or so when they play Duluth East, and even then, I tend to be more intent on what the Greyhounds are doing. On Thursday night, I enjoyed a welcome change of pace and, on the invitation of a member of the forum I moderate, immersed myself in a program I hadn’t seen before.

Chanhassen High School broke off from Chaska just five years ago, and its fledgling hockey program under coach Chris Wilson has had just one winning season to date. They still share a youth program with Chaska, and have the added difficulty of being in AA; while Chaska became small enough to play in Class A after the split, the Storm are left battling the likes of Edina and Burnsville in the first round of the 2AA playoffs. This season also brings the Storm some new challenges, as the old Missota Conference dissolved, leading to the formation of the Metro West. Chanhassen now has perennial title contender Benilde-St. Margaret’s on its schedule, plus another longtime state power in Bloomington Jefferson. They entered this game at 2-2-1; one of those wins was over a decent Hopkins squad, but they were coming off a humbling 7-1 loss to rising 2AA power Prior Lake earlier in the week.

Their opponent on Thursday was Class A heavyweight Breck, and while the game wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 6-0 scoreline made it look, the Storm were certainly on their heels for most of the contest. They held their own for substantial chunks of the first period, but were bottled up whenever the Mustangs’ top line hit the ice, and Breck—not an overwhelmingly deep team themselves—exposed the lack of depth on both goals in the period. Things began to unravel in the second, with all three goals coming in painful ways: off a juicy rebound, on a shorthanded rush, and a very soft shot just before the end of the period. A victory was probably out of the question, but a rematch might bring out a better fight.

With the game out of reach, Wilson and his staff shook things up in the third. They loaded up their top line, pairing together their two more skilled junior forwards in search of a little more offense. Running up against the age-old high school hockey conundrum of age and experience versus youth and promise, they put in a freshman goalie, who performed ably. (Their best skater on the ice was also a young gun, a sophomore defenseman.) The Storm had some of their best chances in the game’s dying minutes, finally applying some serious pressure as the clock ticked down to zero.

This was some consolation to the group I joined in a perch behind glass at one end of the rink. While Chanhassen’s stats and video operation can’t match Benilde’s small army of backroom staff, a group of student managers kept meticulous stats and shots, and the assistant coaches at their side kept a running commentary, delighting in improvements from some players and sighing in defeat when others repeated old mistakes. They rushed down to the locker room between periods to relay things they’d seen from their perspective, doing all they could to correct errors and dissect trends in Breck’s approach. (This was all new to someone used to the Duluth East method for collecting details on games, which mostly involves Mike Randolph’s memory.)

After the game, the Storm staff huddled in the small coaches’ office next to the locker room, looking to regroup after a second straight game ended in running time. I diagnosed a work in progress; the players are hearing the right messages, but have yet to have them drilled into their minds. The learning curve is long, and after a pair of lopsided losses, the coaches have to play that delicate game of ego management. They want the top players to be confident and creative, but one can only tolerate so many attempts to dangle through traffic when there are open teammates, or blind backhanders that gift-wrap the puck to the opposition. The coaches want to play appealing and aggressive hockey, but how much does the opponent dictate what a team does, at what point do they content themselves with a neutral zone trap—or even simple damage control? They want to put pressure on the bubble players so they know their jobs are on the line, but at what point does juggling mess with their minds? There’s no easy formula for any of those questions, and Wilson’s staff has to experiment on the fly. Their approach for Friday night? A pasta dinner for the team.

Most of the conversation themes were familiar to anyone who’s been around youth hockey, but I was left with an appreciation for how much thinner the margin for error is with a team like Chanhassen. Where an elite team might be able to withstand a slight lack of hustle on the forecheck, a defenseman out of place, or an attempt to dangle straight through the heart of a defense, such lax play does in the Storm. So much of the game still comes down to fundamentals: if the breakout isn’t swift enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone is caught running around, and even when they do clear the blue line, there’s the whole matter of gaining the other team’s zone. The challenge comes in turning hesitation into instinct, and in getting a group of boys to buy into a complete team concept that might get them somewhere by February.

What path might this Storm take? Realistically, they can use their two games with Bloomington Jefferson and one with Holy Angels to earn a 4- or 5-seed in 2AA. There’s a very capable core of players here, and if they come together, they have some chance of winning a playoff game for the first time in school history. Beyond that, they simply have to keep strengthening the foundation, building a young program shift by shift.

October Duluth News Roundup

25 Oct

A quick tour of stuff that I’m following from afar in Duluth this month:

Latest Developments (Pun Intended)

The big news this week was of a new development planned at the corner of 21st Avenue East and London Road, a large apartment complex that caters to young professionals. Mixed-use apartments warm my urban planning heart, and it will be a welcome change for an otherwise rather bland, suburban-like stretch. Still, I doubt it will go up in its currently planned form: it seems awfully large for that spot, and the traffic in that area is already a bit stressed at times. I will also continue my grumbling about the boxy, cookie-cutter contemporary apartment buildings: is a little detail or nuance too much to ask for? (Perhaps I just spend too much time in Uptown Minneapolis these days, which is overflowing with such structures.) The last potential obstacle is the likely necessity of tax-increment financing to fund the thing, but I can certainly see it succeeding.

Between this new project and BlueStone, plus plans for the Lester Park Golf Course apparently working their way toward the sort of 18-holes-plus-new-houses compromise I’d hoped for, lots of the remaining developable urban space on the east side is being snapped up. Market forces (well, the market plus TIF) are clearly driving things here, though there’s some new stuff happening out west, too. The Lakewalk has been extended to Lincoln Park, and visioning events for the St. Louis River corridor are under way in earnest. There’s cause for a lot of excitement with all of this new development energy, though I’m sure there will be some clashes along the way, too.

The Mayoral Marathon Gets Under Way!

Let the succession fun begin! Northland News Center put out a long list of people who might join Howie Hanson as potential successors to Don Ness in next year’s election. It’s a very deep list, and is a who’s-who of Duluth politics. I’ll offer a handful of comments on most of them here:

Yvonne Prettner-Solon, should she enter the race, would be an obvious force to be reckoned with. The outgoing Lieutenant Governor would be the only person in the race with the status to escape Ness’s shadow. That hardly guarantees a win, and she will presumably have some re-connecting to do after four years in St. Paul. She will have to adjust to local-level administration, which is a different animal from her state legislature and governor’s mansion experience. Still, no one is better-positioned to harness the full power of the local DFL machine, if she does it right.

Among other DFLers, Emily Larson seems the best-positioned to pick up the Ness mantel. She’s similar to Ness in that she is fairly young and an upbeat, happy face for Duluth. She usually avoids controversial positions (for good or ill), and is a tireless worker. A vote for Larson would likely be a vote for continuity—and, given Ness’s success, that would put her among the frontrunners. West side state representative Erik Simonson, on the other hand, represents the traditional labor bastion of the DFL. His candidacy would test the staying power of labor in a city that is edging away from that old industrial identity, but he could also muster a broader coalition.

The list goes on. Roger Reinert has proven effective in the state senator, though I’m not sure he has the dynamism to surpass Prettner-Solon or Larson in a primary. Jennifer Julsrud is another prominent name who is playing coy so far; she has the potential to be a formidable politician, though she could perhaps use a bit more polishing on the City Council. Daniel Fanning joins Larson in the liberal optimist club, but does not have her elected experience, and someone coming straight out of Ness’s inner circle may be a bit too close for comfort. The same could be said for CAO Dave Montgomery, who is not a Duluth resident anyway. I’m not sure I see a road for Jeff Anderson out of this crowded field, either. There will be a lot of jockeying in the coming months.

Outside of the DFL, by far the most intriguing name is Chris Dahlberg. When Howie Hanson leapt into the race, I said there’s a serious opening for a west-side, fiscally conservative candidate that Hanson did not quite fill; Dahlberg might just be that candidate. The St. Louis County Commissioner, despite a lack of statewide exposure, came very close to sneaking in and stealing the Republican Party endorsement to run against Al Franken in this fall’s Senate race. His campaign for Senate was pretty much boilerplate conservatism, but that’s necessary to win a Republican primary; one would presume he knows he needs a bit more than that to win in Duluth. If he can manage a message that caters to Duluth’s particularities—a big if—he has a shot. Jim Stauber, on the other hand, is an also-ran at this point in his career.

It Wouldn’t Be a Duluth Update without Me Grumbling About the School Board

I don’t particularly feel like enduring the latest meeting, leaving me with two contradictory accounts. Jana Hollingsworth, who has covered these meetings with enviable detachment in the News Tribune, comes down pretty hard on Art Johnston for an exchange between him and HR Director Tim Sworsky. Harry Welty, on the other hand, puts all the blame on Sworsky for inciting the incident over Johnston’s marital status. I don’t see much room for anyone to claim moral high ground here. Whatever the merits, Johnston’s strong reaction only fuels the image his accusers would like to paint of him: a loose cannon, perhaps prone to irrational or even violent outbursts. Maybe that’s what Sworsky wanted when he picked at this scab, though in School Board affairs, I usually find it easier to suspect tone-deafness than genuine malice. Harry rails against the supposed lead witness against Ms. Bushey, but he seems to have already convicted this woman for an unrelated incident some ten years ago. (In general I enjoy reading Harry’s assessments of people, but once he’s formed an opinion on them, it seems like he’s unlikely to budge, no matter the evidence.) Meanwhile, the school district has yet to receive a single bill from the lawyer investigating Johnston’s alleged abuses. The saga goes on.

In case the ten billion TV attack ads relentlessly insulting your intelligence weren’t enough to remind you, we do have an election in just over a week. State and national elections are not my primary focus on here, so I won’t be writing about them half as much as I did about local ones last year. (For the most part, I endorse analysis coming from Aaron Brown.) I will, however, venture to explain why I don’t pay excess attention to national politics, and will offer up a few comments once all the votes are in. Stay tuned.

The Exceptionalism of Herb Brooks

21 Feb

I’ve just started into a three-week stretch of wall-to-wall hockey. The U.S.-Canada hockey duels over the past two days kicked it off; the U.S. women just lost a heartbreaker to the Canadians in the gold medal match in Sochi, while the men were decidedly less impressive in a 1-0 loss that was much more lopsided than the score makes it look. But, time to move on: it’s nonstop high school sections now, with 7AA’s excellent semifinal Saturday in Duluth, the section finals next week, and the State Tournament the week after.  Fittingly enough, the book that turned up on my reading list this past week was about a man who knew both Olympic and high school hockey glory: Herb Brooks.

Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind is a collection of memories by John Gilbert, a Duluthian who covered Brooks’ teams as a journalist for over thirty years and built a tight bond with the coach. They met during Brooks’ seven-year stint at the University of Minnesota, during which he won the school’s first three NCAA titles, and Brooks went so far as to ask Gilbert to be his PR man for the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Gilbert declined, but wound up being the only writer with direct access to Brooks during the Miracle on Ice run after Brooks walked out of an early press conference in disgust. They remained close friends as Brooks crisscrossed the world for various coaching jobs over the next twenty years, with Brooks frequently spilling out his thoughts to Gilbert. It may not be the most crisply written book about Brooks, but it is certainly the most intimate.

Brooks was a larger-than-life figure, one whose legend came to overshadow reality. He’s best remembered for his mind games, inspirational speeches, and the brutal conditioning drills immortalized in the film Miracle. No doubt he was a master motivator, and his individualized approach had a way of bringing out the best in everyone; the most poignant moment in the book comes in Gilbert’s account of an incident during the 197-76 Gopher season, when Minnesota was swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor. The team usually had some freedom on Saturday nights after series, but this time, Brooks ordered the entire team to meet in the captains’ room at midnight. Brooks waited in the hallway, hands on hips, ordering players into the room…where they discovered a few beers and a lot of pizza. Once the team was all inside, Brooks left, leaving Gilbert to explain his methods to team captain Moose Younghans. “I suppose he’s really a hell of a guy, if you could ever get close enough to know him,” said Younghans, and that wistful comment stuck with Gilbert. Brooks created his authority from a sense of distance, and while no one can deny his success or doubt that he did genuinely care about his players, there was a sort of sad loneliness to his actions.

But while Brooks could tug at his players’ emotions and sense of destiny, he was so much more than a fiery, demanding coach. He was one of those few coaches who combine that charisma with a brilliant tactical mind, and that combination put him in a league of his own, and he made sure those tactics were very much his own. Sure, he borrowed some from the open, “progressive” brand of hockey played in Europe and always tried to bring some of its elements to his teams, but it was always a hybrid system, Brooks to the core. He attacked North American hockey orthodoxy wherever he went, disdaining dump-and-chase and the use of lanes and instead insisting on puck possession and circling. His tactics didn’t always take as easily as they did with the Olympic team, but they left lasting impressions, and Brooks was long ahead of his time in advocating for rule changes to open up play in the NHL.

Brooks is also well-known for his wars with USA Hockey and its predecessor, AHAUS. He scoffed at its efforts to naturalize Canadians so as to beef up U.S. Olympic rosters (a trick AHAUS successfully pulled off with Lou Nanne), and later blasted its waste of resources on a single National Training and Development Program when it could instead spread its efforts across the entire country. “The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak,” he said time and time again, and as coach at Minnesota, he practiced what he preached, following in John Mariucci’s tradition of only recruiting Minnesotans.

There were to be no shortcuts in building a great program, no poaching of top players from elsewhere: Brooks understood that hockey’s long term success depended on grassroots recruiting and creating a broad pool of quality talent rather than identifying talent at a young age and focusing only on the best. He later proved instrumental in St. Cloud State’s move to Division-I hockey, again expanding opportunities for Minnesotans to play high-level hockey past high school. Toward the end of his life, he supported the creation of the high school Elite League and took shots at junior leagues for poaching top high school players when they should, in his mind, have focused on older players still looking for college scholarships. There was an ideological consistency to all of his actions, and while his views still have plenty of loyalists in Minnesota, one suspects his side of the argument lost a crucial spokesman when Brooks died. Understanding Brooks’s project helps explain the famous moment when Brooks corrected an unsuspecting reporter to say that winning the Minnesota State Tournament, not the gold medal, was his greatest hockey memory. He truly believed that, given enough time, he could take any talent pool and built it into a successful program from the ground up, whatever the level. In that timeless title run, he saw hockey in its purest form.

It’s impossible for me not to read a book about Brooks without also thinking of Duluth East’s Mike Randolph. A few similarities make it an easy comparison, despite their very different career paths; both were the last men cut from a U.S. Olympic team, and both are noted for their intensity and their supremely high expectations, a rigid certainly that can at times seem imperious. Gilbert arranged for a conversation between the two of them in the mid-90s, one that Randolph recalled fondly when I interviewed him for Minnesota Hockey Hub last summer. (Indeed, Brooks was the second name Randolph cited when I asked him for the biggest influences on his coaching style, coming in only after—true to form—his own high school coach, Del Genereau. This was despite the fact that Randolph never played for nor coached under Brooks.) Gilbert saw some elements of Brooks in Randolph’s tactics, and after the meeting, Brooks, despite his general disdain for Duluth, adopted the Hounds, at one point traveling with Gilbert to Grand Rapids to watch a memorable East-Rapids game in which East prevailed in the final minute.

Plenty of things separate the two men as well. Brooks was always seeking out new frontiers, while Randolph was content to settle and leave a legacy in one place. Brooks pulled one of the greatest upsets in sports history; though Randolph has scored some upsets over the years, his teams have never exactly been lacking in talent, and usually play the role of favorite. There are noticeable tactical differences, with Randolph being more willing to resort to dump-and-chase if need be. People also change over thirty-year coaching careers, and both drifted into different personas over the years. But in the end, their singular senses of authority make them iconic names in their respective milieus, and this Hounds fan can only hope Randolph channels a bit of his old friend tomorrow afternoon.

The Strange Case of Achiever Academy

15 Feb

Every hockey season, it seems like there is at least one huge event that momentarily overwhelms every other story, and turns my duties on the forum into a full-time job. Whether it’s as serious as a paralyzing injury or as laughable as a team’s self-pitying backup goalie scoring on his own net before skating off the ice and flipping off his coach, something happens every year that just makes us stop and ponder it all. This season’s catalyst is the girls’ hockey team at Achiever Academy, an inanely-named, Twin Cities-based private school.

Achiever Academy, for those of you not following along, is a new player on the state high school scene. In fact, it looks nothing like any other high school with a hockey program in the state. It is a sports training academy that is attached to an accredited online high school. It offers training in multiple sports, though its flagship operation is in hockey. It is now in its second season fielding a boys’ varsity hockey team in the Minnesota State High School League, and added a girls’ team this season.

If you are not caught up in the hockey world, this may seem preposterous to you. It might seem like a thin cover for overzealous parents who toss aside academics out of their obsession with a sport. Plenty of hockey people had similar reactions, or at least raised their eyebrows. Achiever’s decision to join the MSHSL in particular came under scrutiny; as a year-round training program, they were certainly tiptoeing around the rules that clearly establish school sports seasons. As a school that drew in players from out of state, it seemed a bit odd that they were matching up with small-town public and tiny private school hockey programs in Class A, where some schools struggle to even field a team. The schooling method was naturally the subject of some derision, and charges of recruiting followed as well.

I had misgivings, but I figured the school deserved a chance. I’m very skeptical of online education—I’m young enough that I’ve had online components to a number of my classes in school, and I could count the number of times I found it genuinely enriching or comparable to a classroom experience on an amputated hand—but I think it can be of great use to kids who struggle in normal classroom settings, and indeed I heard at least one good story about a kid who was getting his getting his academic life back in order thanks to Achiever. Still, rumors about the academic program persisted, and as the season went along, it became clear that academics were only the tip of the iceberg.

Things started going sour in January, when it came out that Achiever’s financial state was far less stable than it was letting on. Their plan to purchase a financially troubled Vadnais Heights arena fell through, and the school teetered on the brink. It was rescued at the last second by a parent with deep pockets, who bought out the original owners. Several of the school’s sites around the Metro area were shuttered as the school consolidated.

On the ice, Achiever’s teams had their ups and downs. The boys’ team has been passably good; they’re not among the favorites to win their section, but they’re not totally out of the picture either, despite having to weather the departure of a couple of their players for other hockey opportunities. The girls, on the other hand, beat a number of the top teams in the state, climbed up to #4 in the end-of-regular-season Let’s Play Hockey poll, and were odds-on favorites for a State Tournament berth. They cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and were set for a section final showdown with St. Paul United.

They never got to play in that game. At least six girls on the team, it turned out, were ineligible. They have forfeited their entire season.

The ensuing scandal has rocked the hockey world, with a fair amount of vindictive glee on the part of Achiever’s critics. Most of the blame lands on the Achiever administration, coaching staff, and the parents of the ineligible players: with such widespread ineligibility, it clear this was a concerted effort to flaunt the rules, not an honest mistake. It is sad for the Achiever girls who did follow the rules—some, it is rumored, were ready to walk off the team in protest ahead of the section final when they learned they’d been scammed, but before the forfeiture became  formal—but everyone else, the sentiment goes, got what was coming to them all season long.

The MSHSL is in a bit of a bind here. In most matters they expect schools to self-report issues, as they should: they are much closer to the situations, and most activities directors aren’t in the business of sabotaging its mission. It doesn’t have the resources to investigate every single player, and it might be intrusive to give it such power. But in this case, catching the culprits required an anonymous vigilante rummaging around for the girls’ residency statuses and combing through their social media accounts. And while there were rumors all season long, and I expect to learn more in the coming weeks, the timing is a bit suspect as well. One wonders if the investigation would have gone anywhere had Achiever been a mediocre team, instead of a state title contender. It’s a troubling situation, and with online education only growing, this issue will likely dog the MSHSL in the coming years. (It already happened in soccer two years ago, with the similar Prairie Seeds Academy.)

Achiever hasn’t exactly been humbled by the proceedings, either. This past week, they announced plans to pursue legal action against Minnesota Hockey, which bars the formation of U.S. Hockey-sanctioned Tier I youth teams so as to protect the state’s community-based model. This brings into the open the presumed mission of this organization from the day of their foundation: the creation of a special program focused on the truly elite players in the state, one that puts hockey above all else in life, and focuses on national and international competition for the select few. Any noble intentions the Achiever founders may ever have had are long gone, and they are left waging an ideological war against the Minnesota hockey model, using the dreams of children as their weapon. Fortunately for the model, they’re doing a rather awful job of it, though I doubt that will keep them from digging in their heels and fighting on and on.

This isn’t to say that the Minnesota model is without its flaws; most of us have our critiques, and there will always be a space for outside organizations to fill the gaps that Minnesota Hockey and its affiliates cannot. Those affiliates, however, are much better served if they try to form a cooperative relationship with Minnesota Hockey and the MSHSL, or at the very least coexist, as Bernie McBain’s Edina-based Minnesota Made program usually manages to do. (Usually.) Achiever, on the other hand, took it a bridge too far, and is learning why the torch-and-pitchfork method of revolution has never been much of a winner.

2013 Elite League Musings

6 Oct

The Upper Midwest High School Elite League made its annual venture north to Duluth this weekend, and the four participating teams were treated to an absolutely miserable fall day, with driving rain and 50 MPH winds whipping up off Lake Superior. Sometimes it seems like there is no such thing as neutral weather in Duluth: either it is something out of a dream, or it makes you wonder why on earth humans inhabit this corner of the earth. This, perhaps, is the reason Duluthians are so happy to retreat to hockey rinks, as I did for both Saturday sessions. It was a good sneak preview at some of the players on the teams that will be gracing my rankings once the high school season starts in November. Some notes on each of the teams:

Team Southwest

Team Southwest is anchored by a bunch of Edina players, and they were all in on the act on Saturday. Dylan Malmquist was his usual flashy self, and his absence from the lineup in the second game of the day showed up clearly in Southwest’s offensive output; Miguel Fidler and Cullen Munson brought a physical, two-way game to the table. Tyler Nanne has moved back to defense, a sensible move given Edina’s losses on the blue line from last season’s state champions, and he looked every bit the star offensive defenseman with his superb skating, though he took an ugly five-minute major near the end of the second game. The rest of the Southwest defense had good size, though was not beyond a few lapses. Among the forwards, Johnny Panvica flashed good speed and a decent scoring touch, Joseph Marooney of Holy Family Catholic had some slick moves off of faceoffs, and the Prior Lake pair of Will Reedy and Jack Murphy had some good moments. Elk River goalie Maclean Berglove had a strong weekend that included a shutout in the Sunday session, which I did not attend.

Team Northwest

A five-goal game is usually a good way to turn some heads, and Benilde-St. Margaret’s’ Spencer Naas showed off his sniping abilities against Team North, abusing North goalie Gabe Heifort high to the glove side. Unlike some other teams, Northwest seemed to have a set power play unit; I’m really not a big fan of that in a league that is supposed to be for development and showcasing of everyone, not just one line, but I sure don’t blame the players for that, and Naas deserves credit for taking advantage. Edgy Elk River forward Chase Springman was a force on the forecheck throughout, Wayzata’s Max Zimmer worked well with Naas, and Calvin Spencer was a decent player who I hadn’t seen before. On defense, Johnny Austin showed good chemistry with his Benilde teammate Naas on the power play, while Travis Brown of Rogers and Chandler Lindstrand of Wayzata had solid defensive games. Wayzata’s Vaughan Ahrens probably had the best goaltending performance on the day.

Team Great Plains

Sorry, North Dakota; comments are on Minnesota players only.

Great Plains came into the weekend in the Elite League cellar, but while they may not have the top-end talent of some of the other teams, a 2-0-1 showing proved they certainly aren’t on some level below the rest of the league. Will Borgen of Moorhead looked to be the most complete member of the Great Plains defensive corps, and showed good chemistry when paired with fellow potato Alex Mehnert. Unfortunately, the Roseau players didn’t make the trip; I was hoping to measure some of the Rams’ stars against their counterparts at Moorhead and Brainerd in an effort to handicap the 8AA playoff race. The numerous Warroad players all had some quality flashes, suggesting we’re in for a great race between the Warriors and East Grand Forks in 8A, and Thief River Falls can’t be counted out either, as Prowlers had good showings from Isak Bergland and goaltender Tanner Holmes. I got my first look at Luverne sophomore Toby Sengvonxay, who impressed me with his poise; I figured a hyped prospect from a weak hockey corner of the state might look a bit unpolished, but there was none of that from the kid with the best last name in high school hockey. Speaking of good names, 6’3” Will Hammer of St. Cloud Cathedral was Great Plains’ most dangerous forward, and teammate Tommy Hall proved most adept at balancing a puck atop his helmet.

Team North

St. Thomas Academy’s Christiano Versich had the speed and hands to match anyone on the ice on Saturday, though he had a tendency to try to stickhandle through forests of defenders when he had other options. The line anchored by the East Grand Forks duo of Dixon Bowen and Tanner Tweten was North’s most consistent, and Cloquet’s Koby Bender had some good flashes. Beastly defenseman Eddie Eades of East Grand Forks made all 6’4.5” of his presence felt when on the ice, despite some roughness around the edges. The defensive pairing of Tye Ausmus (East Grand Forks) and Alex Trapp (Duluth East) was the most reliable group Team North had; despite being eight inches shorter than Eades, Trapp threw just as many big hits as his teammate, and seemed to be making plays all over the ice. As has often been the case, Team North, led by former Greenway coach Pat Guyer, seemed to have the best team concept of anyone involved, and while that can hurt the win-loss record, I commend the North staff for staying true to the mission of the league. It was a tough weekend for North, which was without the services of Grand Rapids goalie Hunter Shepard and also pressed a different defenseman into forward duty each day.

In the Duluth area, much has been made of the presence of non-northern players on this team. In this case, however, the forward point totals speak for themselves. If North were to stay true to the old Section 7 region, they’d have a very small number of programs to rely on, and this just isn’t a great year for upper-class talent for most of them. Hermantown, Grand Rapids, and Duluth East will be good teams, but they’re also fairly inexperienced, and each has a would-be senior playing in the USHL (two of which will be playing high school hockey this winter). Duluth Marshall is deep, but also a bit on the young side and lacking in any real established stars; the Iron Range collectively is down, and Cloquet suffered a large exodus after last season’s coaching controversy. Some years, as in the past two, there is enough talent from this region to field a quality Elite League team; in others, there just aren’t enough teams feeding in to pull it off.

If anything, there might be an argument that a couple of local seniors should have been playing instead of local underclassmen. This renews one of the oldest Elite League debates: is it better to take seniors with lower ceilings, knowing that this may be one of their last chances at exposure for the next level, or is it for younger, rawer players who are better D-I prospects? I tip toward the former option, as it’s become clear that there are a good number of seniors out there who are at least NAHL-caliber that don’t have a fall team. The important thing is that everyone who wants a place to play can find one, though private options (i.e. the Blades) are capable of filling that hole, too. I don’t have any trouble with young players being called up from the Elite Development League to fill in for absent players, and the Elite Development All-Star squad seems like a sensible concept that perhaps could be expanded to make sure younger players have opportunities to take on other top-end players. I’d even entertain the idea of dividing teams by age groups and having separate leagues along those lines, though I’d have to think through that idea further. I doubt this question will ever go away completely, but with some creativity, there are ways to quiet a few of the critics.

It can be fashionable to criticize the Elite League, but all in all, it was a fun day of competitive hockey. The list of scouts in attendance was respectable, and the league gives them a good chance to see through sometimes misleading stat totals and get an idea of how well players stack up against their more talented peers. When the coaches make an effort, there can be quality development here, too. So long as players are fighting for a finite number of post-high school spots, things are going to be cutthroat at times, and there will be perceptions of bias or politics no matter how the system is set up.

The Elite League (or any alternative model) can’t satisfy everyone all the time, but that’s no reason not to demand the best. The league just has to constantly make an effort to improve its product. Complacency and a repetition of the same old patterns just won’t do. So long as its directors stay on top of things, this league will be viable for years to come.

One last note: a shoutout to whoever shotgunned a beer in the men’s bathroom during the morning session. I do enjoy being back among hockey people.

Ties that Bind: Louie Nanne and the Minnesota Hockey Fishbowl

14 Sep

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.