Want to know the socioeconomic health of a Minnesota town or city? Look no further than its high school hockey teams.
The comparisons are almost too easy to make. The first high school hockey Tourney was in 1945, so the evolution of Minnesota’s sports crown jewel tells the story of postwar American urbanism as well as any economic study. The history of the Tourney and its participants is the same as the history of local economies, from manufacturing collapse to suburban growth to rebirth along economically segregated lines. This is my attempt to tell that story.
Hockey is an expensive sport, and even though Minnesota keeps things relatively cheap with its community-based development model and plethora of municipal rinks, hockey success still tends to follow affluent areas. Wealthy areas with growing populations are typically the places to look for waves of hockey success. The exception to this rule has long been small northern towns—though even here things still more or less line up, with the Iron Range falling off from its early dominance along with the decline in mine employment while towns with more diverse economies (Grand Rapids, Bemidji) or an anchor industry (Polaris in Roseau, Marvin Windows in Warroad) remain relevant despite their size.
To study these trends more properly, I divided all high schools in the state into several categories: (1) Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; (2) First-ring suburbs—that is, suburbs built in the first wave of suburban migration, from the 1940s-1960s; (3) Second-ring suburbs—suburbs that were built up from the 70s-90s; (4) the urban “periphery,” which includes suburbs/exurbs settled in the past 20 years and small towns in that area that have become part of the Metro as it expands; (5) Twin Cities private schools; (6) small Northern towns; (7) northern city schools—that is, schools that are part of small metro areas such as Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks; and (8) the rest of Greater Minnesota, which I realize is a very large catch-all category, but fits together for our purposes due to its relative lack of AA hockey success (with some exceptions) unless given its own weak section.
From there, I looked at the number of State Tournament entrants from each region by decades since the Tournament’s inception in 1945. I ignore the Class A Tournament/Tier II tournaments that began in 1992, as their teams are not necessarily reflective of the strengths of teams in each section relative to the state as a whole. In a perfect world I would have studied teams’ records and ratings over the years—as any sports fan knows, the best team doesn’t win every year, and sometimes a single dominant team can hide the successes of other good teams trapped behind them in their section—but that data just isn’t available for the early years. I’ll present a line graph of each region’s Tourney berths by decade, and then sprinkle in maps of the Twin Cities Metro area by decade.
Metro Area State Tourney Entrants,1945-1955. Number indicates State Tournament berths; numbers after semicolons indicate State Championships. Click images for enlargements.
In 1950, most of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area population lived in the Twin Cities themselves, though there was a growing ring of suburbs such as Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Roseville, and South St. Paul. Minneapolis’s population peaked in the 1950 Census, with 521,718 residents; St. Paul’s peaked a decade later, at 313,411. At the time, the cities’ hockey conferences were highly competitive; while St. Paul Johnston established itself as the Twin Cities’ preeminent public hockey school and the one Metro team that could go toe-to-toe with the powers of the North, there was relative parity beyond that, and things were always competitive.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the gradual hollowing out of the inner city. Minneapolis lost 29.39% of its population between its peak year and 1990; St. Paul lost a more modest 13.14%, but the damage was real, and the hockey teams reflected it. By the 1970s, the Minneapolis section had largely devolved into a 2-team race between two of the most affluent schools, Southwest and Roosevelt; similarly, St. Paul was largely ruled by Johnson and Harding. But not even they were safe. Southwest won Minneapolis’s last big-school Tourney berth in 1980; Johnson managed to scrape together two berths in the 1990s, though they came out of weak sections and did nothing once they got to State. All of the Minneapolis public schools now co-op into one middling program; three St. Paul public high schools field hockey teams, with Johnson the only one coming even remotely close to some rare playoff success.
The first-ring suburbs were the early beneficiaries of the cities’ decline. Edina’s triumph in the famed 1969 title game, the one in which Warroad superstar Henry Boucha limped off hurt following an allegedly dirty hit, was the first title for a suburb, and ushered in an era of superb competition between the suburbs and the North. Alongside mighty Edina, South St. Paul established itself as a Tournament regular; Mounds View, Henry Sibley (of Mendota Heights), Irondale, and the Roseville and Bloomington schools all left their mark on the Tourney in the 70s and 80s.
By the 1980s, however, things began to shift yet again. While Edina and the Bloomingtons often ruled the scene and the North had fallen off substantially, schools further afield in the Metro began to appear at State: Anoka, Apple Valley, and Minnetonka made multiple appearances, while Burnsville won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade. That trend only accelerated into the 1990s, with Blaine and Eden Prairie joining the fun. There were even some berths for far-flung schools out on the Metro periphery, such as Hastings, Elk River, and Lakeville. Blue-collar South St. Paul, still one of the most decorated programs in state history, made its last Tourney in 1996 before dropping to Class A, where it has done little; Richfield, a title threat behind Darby Hendrickson in 1991, now struggles to field a team.
The decline of the first-ring suburbs becomes even more profound when one looks at which first-ring suburban schools have been doing all the winning over the past 25 years. 9 of the 13 berths from 96-05 came from Bloomington Jefferson and Edina, and all 9 from 06-15 belong to Edina. Edina is the exception that proves the rule here, the one first-ring suburb that has used its long-established prestige to maintain economic dominance and continue to attract young, fairly affluent families. In the late 1980s, blue-collar Bloomington Kennedy and Duluth Denfeld were every bit as good as, and often better than, their white-collar counterparts, Bloomington Jefferson and Duluth East. A decade later, Jefferson and East were the state’s premier powers, while Kennedy and Denfeld were struggling to stay relevant. Even the west side of Bloomington, home to Jefferson, has undergone some demographic change in recent years, though the Jaguars remain a relevant program despite the lack of State berths. America’s working class has been hollowed out, and its once-strong hockey teams have felt the strain.
As populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have started growing again for the first time in 60 years, there have been encouraging signs for the inner city teams; Minneapolis and St. Paul youth programs are climbing toward relevance, and St. Paul Highland Park brought its dead program back to life in 2010. But the most important trend over the past 25 years in these cities and in the first-ring suburbs is the rise of private schools, which tend to be where most of these youth kids wind up playing in high school. (Most, I suspect, have gone to private schools their entire lives.) This might seem to throw off the whole theory, but on the contrary, I’d argue that this only underscores the divisions in 21st-century American cities. While the 1992 two-class split and the story of Greg Trebil (a wildly successful Jefferson youth coach who took over the Academy of Holy Angels in 1996 and brought several top Jefferson youth players with him) may also play roles, the 1990s saw the sudden appearance of the privates (excepting Hill-Murray, which has always been good). This trend fits in with broader narratives of a self-sorting society. Inner cities, while growing, are increasingly divided, with the ultra-rich and the mostly-minority poor split into different neighborhoods, and only a small “middle” class (often involving young people who have yet to start families) serving as a buffer in between. Hockey parents with the means to do so bail on Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and often on schools in Richfield, St. Louis Park, or Brooklyn Park as well. There will be no hockey success for inner-city public schools until inner cities find some way to retain or grow their child-bearing middle class families.
So, what might we predict for the future? The second-tier suburbs will peak at some point, with greater success in rising exurbs like Stillwater, Orono, Prior Lake, and St. Michael. Inertia and hockey culture will carry on in places like Edina, and perhaps in some other places whose leadership or natural amenities keep property values high. Communities that build a genuine sense of place, as Edina has, will prove more stable in the face of natural cycles of urban growth and decline. Places along lakes or rivers, from Elk River to Stillwater to Minnetonka, seem likely candidates.
Naturally, there are factors that have nothing to do with urbanism that affect who heads to the State Tourney. The manner in which the State High School League draws boundaries, to say nothing of great coaches or freak individual talents, all play a role. (How many more state berths would exurban Elk River have if it hadn’t been stuck in a section with Duluth East over the past decade?) Decisions to open and close schools or youth programs will leave their mark, and there’s some chance that the repopulation of inner cities might eventually manifest itself in some way. We’ll also have to see how private alternatives to community-based youth hockey progress, and how these might eat into the pools that high schools draw from. But the correlation is undeniable, and I don’t think any of the above trends will do anything to undermine this whole picture.
Statewide trends reveal a more straightforward numbers game, as power has shifted from smaller towns to larger metro areas. In most of the North, culture allows teams to stay relevant and even thrive with smaller numbers, so long as the economy is stable. Duluth operates as a microcosm of the Twin Cities, with “inner city” Duluth Central now closed and working-class Duluth Denfeld fighting to stay alive, while exurban Hermantown grows, private Duluth Marshall consciously moves to collect regional talent, and Duluth East looks to follow the Edina formula and ride the considerable power of past prestige to stay on top of the heap.
There is one last elephant in the room here that I haven’t mentioned: race. Due to its cultural origins in Canada and Scandinavia, hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport. And, as recently as half a century ago, Minnesota was an overwhelmingly white state. But that is changing, and hockey has been slow to follow. Minneapolis proper was 98% white in 1950, and is now 63% white; most first-ring suburbs are now following the same demographic shift. On that note, I’ll make a bold claim: whichever suburb, town, or neighborhood manages to get the most minorities on skates is going to be the model for the future of Minnesotan urbanism. It isn’t that hockey is some magical vehicle to social equity, but it does have considerable cultural cachet, and its adoption by new arrivals would imply genuine integration and social cohesion. If anything is going to resist the unending push outward and into greater self-segregation (or even the privatization of hockey training, a story for an entirely different post), it is to be found here, where there is still low-hanging fruit. Any high school that can get a group of talented minority athletes together on a successful hockey team is going to break down any number of barriers, and will almost certainly win the hearts of the state. Inertia can do the rest.
In the meantime, enjoy the continued rise of the urban periphery and the private schools, and the continued relevance of the old powers with enough economic vitality to keep their numbers going. For everyone else, take it as a challenge to buck the trends and prove that other, more subtle factors matter, too.