A Midsummer Night’s Hockey Notes

We’re over halfway through the long, dark tunnel of summer without high school hockey, and there have even been some summer tournaments in recent weeks to give a faint glimmer of what’s to come. Still, there’s been no shortage of news of late, so it’s worth rounding some of it up here.

Coaches Come and Go

It hasn’t been a quiet summer on the coaching carousel. Two longtime coaches with 13 State Tournaments between them, Russ Welch at Hastings and Erik Setterholm at New Ulm, made their way to the exits. Welch’s nephew Adam takes over along the Mississippi, while the kings of 3A have gone with Ryan Neuman. Aaron Weber, long a polarizing figure at Lakeville South, gives way to newcomer A.J. Bucchino. Some familiar names came in to help teams return to glory or seek it for the first time: Grant Clafton at Greenway, Billy Hengen at Providence Academy, and Mark Parrish at Orono. (Maybe a big name here will placate the Orono parents in a way their last thirty-seven coaches failed to do.)

Scott Brokaw, an active figure in the offseason training world, moves from Providence Academy to Mounds View. In the theater of the bizarre, Matt Funk takes over at the head of rising St. Paul Academy after Bill Owens got the can in the middle of the playoffs, while Scott Steffen takes the place of Tom Benson, who was rewarded for taking Spring Lake Park to its first Tourney with a pink slip. St. Cloud Cathedral, a regular Class A contender, has a vacancy after Erik Johnson’s retirement. As I covered in an earlier post, John Rothstein left Grand Rapids, and well-regarded bantam coach Trent Klatt has taken the reins.

Exit Tyler Palmiscno

The biggest, and perhaps most unexpected, retirement came from Tyler Palmiscno, the coach of two-time defending Class A champion East Grand Forks. It was a prolific 7-year career for Palmiscno; he came along at the right time, as the Green Wave surged in talent and peaked in his three final years. But his growth over that time was very visible to anyone watching. They went in to the 2013 Tourney raw and survived a Rochester Lourdes comeback in the first round, and after skating fairly evenly with dynastic St. Thomas Academy early in their semifinal, a train wreck ensued. It was 11-0 by the time the carnage was over, and the Green Wave lost the third place game to Breck. Their coach struggled to find words to describe what had happened.

The Green Wave rolled back in with added power in 2014, and this time around, there were no Cadets in the way. A visibly more composed Palmiscno projected a low-key determination as his team marched to a clearly deserved title. And then, in 2015, they came into the Tourney with a team that clearly wasn’t the most talented, but was the most complete team. This is my style of hockey: they weren’t the perfect team, but they knew their strengths and weren’t afraid to flaunt them. Their performance against Mahtomedi was a message to Hermantown, and the rest of the state: the Hawks weren’t in some league of their own. “We wanted to turn it into a man’s game,” Palmiscno told the press after the win. The Green Wave had the swagger of champions, took the game to Hermantown, and had the composure to respond like coolly when things did fall apart in the final minute of the third period.

For now, it sounds like Palmiscno is content with his work and on to other things in life; one hopes there is no more to this story, and that his departure isn’t a rude shock to his program. And if I’m sad to see Palmiscno go, I can’t help but relish the possibility that Scott Oliver will climb back into the saddle. Oliver has a state championship ring from his days at the helm at Roseau, and these Green Wave teams bore his unmistakable mark. The talent pool is thinner than the past few years, but they still have a couple of top-end players, and should be right there with Thief River Falls in the hunt for an 8A title. If they can make it back to St. Paul, they know what to do once they’re there.

Elite League Rosters

The fall Elite League rosters came out last week. As usual, there’s room for some wrangling, especially when it comes to the younger players selected. Unlike some, I’m not one to deny underclassmen roster spots if they’re legitimately good enough to hang with the seniors, but one does hope that no seniors are being left without places to pay because they’ve been cut. Of more concern is the tendency of a handful of teams to dominate the list, and the fact that large portions of the state seem to get shut out; like it or not, this will lead to cries of nepotism.

The biggest surprise is Stillwater’s six players in the league, a figure that ties them for the most in the state. None of these Ponies are can’t-miss studs (pun intended), but it’s worth remembering that their bantam team was one of the two or three best in the state two years ago. There’s no reason that city can’t develop a front-line program, and it may finally be happening.

The others with six are Benilde, always near the top of this list no matter how the team does, and Hermantown, peaking in upper-class talent and a northern team. Team North draws from the smallest pool of players—it’s basically 7A and the four northern 7AA teams, plus the East Grand Forks kids who can’t play for Scott Oliver—so team numbers at the top schools will look inflated. It is here that the choosing of younger players can be most extreme: three of Grand Rapids’ five invitees were bantams last year. (Duluth East is an exception to that trend; all five Hounds are seniors, and I can’t remember a sophomore Hound participant despite some worthy contenders over the years.) When the number of schools is smaller (and alternatives more limited, thanks to geography), there are going to be some more odd figures—even though North has no trouble fielding a competitive team.

The Metro and southern part of the state, meanwhile, has six and a half AA sections and (ostensibly) four Class A sections feeding in to four teams. Given that tight competition, there’s going to be some extra scrutiny on the handful of younger kids who make it, and the lack of variety among the teams represented. I don’t watch the tryouts so I won’t judge if anyone else should be there, but the Elite League could do itself some favors by pulling out some of the people with the most blatant ties to high school programs.

As always, some of the omissions are the most striking, as they clue us into who is playing in the USHL during the fall. Whether they’ll stay there over the course of the season may be another story. No matter what, though, it looks like there will be significantly fewer early departures this season than in recent years. I’ll wait to judge that until we know if it’s a trend or a one-year blip, but it’s worth noting.

Pre-Pre-Preseason Ranking Talk

It’s never too early to get this going, is it?

A vague consensus seems to be forming around Eden Prairie as the top team in AA. Michael Graham (assuming he returns) and Casey Mittelstadt alone are enough to make them a factor, and with the program’s considerable depth, they’ll be well-supported. Add in the past success of Lee Smith’s Eagles when blessed with teams that clearly lead the way in raw talent, they’re the cautious favorites.

Still, this promises to be one of the more open years. Defending state champ Lakeville North returns a fair amount of firepower, but has to replace its heart and soul, that dominant blue line. They’ll be the favorite in 1AA, but it’s hardly the cakewalk it was the past two years. Speaking of cake, Edina is still Edina, but has to replace far more than usual; St. Thomas Academy is also in reload mode. Wayzata or Benilde-St. Margaret’s, if either one can fix long-running and obvious shortcomings at one end of the rink, could dethrone Edina in a retooled 6AA. In 2AA, Minnetonka pushed Eden Prairie to the brink last season, and Prior Lake’s steady rise could continue, too. I have some issues with the new sections, including the indefensible imbalances the MSHSL has left in the number of teams across sections and a couple of weird placements, but I do think the new 2AA and 6AA are more equitable than they were in the past.

Realignment has also given the Cadets the only serious threat to their primacy in a weak 3AA in the form of Bloomington Jefferson; the baby blue, freed of a road to State through Edina, may be relevant again now. Aforementioned Stillwater, and perhaps White Bear Lake, will give Hill-Murray a run in 4AA. 5AA, while lacking an elite team, should be competitive among the familiar faces, and Centennial’s future looks very bright. Up north, Grand Rapids, Duluth East, and Bemidji all return substantial chunks of teams that showed that they—at their best, at least—could hang with the state’s top squads. The well-balanced Hounds need to prove last year’s run wasn’t just a fluke, while the future is now for the Thunderhawks and the Lumberjacks. Both will have their deepest and most experienced teams in quite some time.

In Class A Hermantown remains the perpetual favorite; with a weaker bantam class feeding in they may not be as deep as this past year, but the front-end talent is all right there, and Wyatt Aamodt may be the best player in the class. Hibbing may be good enough to give them a decent run in 7A, but anything less than another title game appearance would be a disappointment in Hermantown. In the Metro, defending section champs Mahtomedi and Breck return good cores, though should have good competition. With their defending champions realigned, 1A and 5A are wide open, while Luverne will try to atone for last year’s slip-up in sections in 3A. The usual suspects will duke it out in 8A.

For my money, though, the best story in Class A this coming year will be St. Cloud Apollo. The Eagles, semifinalists a year ago, return a lot of talent, including three elite-leaguers. They should be the favorites in a competitive 6A. Their program is also fighting for its life. The youth players in St. Cloud aren’t being distributed equally, and Apollo could face a legitimate, unexpected numbers crisis as early as the 2016-2017 season. One hopes they get some exposure and the resources necessary to keep a good thing going on the west side of St. Cloud.

Hockey Day in Duluth

In an announcement sure to delight any Duluthian, Hockey Day in Minnesota will take place in Duluth this year, with a pair of high school games in Bayfront Park on February 6. Denfeld will play Eveleth-Gilbert in the early game before East takes on Lakeville North in a rematch of the AA state championship. The first game, if not as crisp as the one likely to follow, should be a competitive one for a pair of 7A teams with some good history to their names. The East-North game, meanwhile, could well be a top ten clash. No matter what happens, it probably can’t be worse than East’s last Hockey Day appearance, and it will be hard to beat the site. Let’s start the countdown.

The Strange Case of Achiever Academy

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.