Three events have happened since last March that have caught my eye. I'm not foolish enough to suggest any of the three were directly caused by the others, but given the same set of characters seem to be involved in all three, it's hard not to start drawing correlations.
1. On February 23rd, 2012, Silver Bay freshman goalie Alex Murray makes 67 saves, an unofficial MSHSL playoff record, but it's not enough as top seed Duluth Marshall beats Silver Bay 7-0 in a section quarterfinal match-up. Shots on goal for the game are 74-7.
2. This summer, Alex Murray transfers to go to school at Duluth Marshall. Defenseman Jordan Fralich, who was Silver Bay's fourth leading scorer with 25 points in 26 games as a freshman transfers to Duluth Marshall as well.
3. On July 20th, it's announced that Silver Bay will be combining programs with Two Harbors HS, after expecting to only have about 13 hockey players.
Last May, The Hockey Academy at Ralph Englestad Arena--a program directed by Minnesota high school hockey legend Karl Goehring--floated the idea of starting their own Midget AAA hockey team, providing a different option than the traditional high school route for players in the state of North Dakota and western Minnesota.
In response, John Russo, long-time coach and director of the Upper Midwest Elite League, penned an article for Let's Play Hockey magazine arguing against teams playing AAA hockey and for Minnesota's tradition of community-based hockey. It's a wonderful idea, but at this point, it reads more like an elegy over a lifeless corpse than a plan for the future.
In that article, Russo says, "In Minnesota, Midget hockey would siphon off enough players to weaken the smaller town teams such that they would no longer be able to compete." Sound familiar? Private schools have become the de facto AAA teams for the state, siphoning off the state's best players and leaving all but the largest public schools struggling to compete. Last year's Class AA state championship game featured two private schools, and private school Benilde is the heavy favorite to repeat their title this year. A private school has won the Class A title every year since 2006, and is almost guaranteed to do so again this year. St. Thomas Academy sent the most representatives to Russo's own Elite League this year, as well.
Why has this happened? Quite simply, because the best kids want to play with the other best kids, and it is hard to blame them for that. Our society is more mobile than it once was, and the lines of communication available to kids are much greater than they ever have been. As a result, geographic boundaries tend to mean less than they once did. Instead, a player's peer group, especially for an elite player, can be comprised of players of a similar skill level. It doesn't really matter if a friend lives down the street or two towns over when either way, he's just a text or tweet away.
The other argument Russo makes against AAA hockey is one of cost. His quote:
"In most states, there are organizations like Team Illinois, Chicago Young Americans, Belle Tire (Detroit), Marquette Electricians (Michigan), P.F. Chang’s (Phoenix), Philadelphia Flyers and so on that cost $15,000 to $20,000 to play for. Yes, $15,000 to $20,000!"
Ignore for a moment that a good chunk of that cost comes from travel and ice time, both of which would be significantly cheaper in Minnesota, where there's enough intrastate competition to avoid much, if any air travel and plenty of ice rinks. Would parents be willing to pay costs that exorbitant for their children's hockey career? For comparison, here's a look at the yearly tuition costs for some of the top hockey-playing private schools in the state:
St. Thomas Academy: $17,950
Duluth Marshall: $14,700
Benilde-St. Margaret's: $12,600(as of last year), with some required fundraising added in
Holy Family Catholic: $12,600
Cretin-Derham Hall: $10,800
Maybe you could argue some of the players to transfer to those schools are doing so for educational reasons, but if high school athletics were taken out of the equation, I'm not sure how many would stay enrolled at those schools, especially when looking at the quality of public education at most of the schools those players are leaving.
So what is the solution to all of this? Take away the educational component and level the playing field for everyone. Let players attend their local high school, while still playing high level hockey with whomever they chose. Take away the silliness of dancing around transfer rules by renting an apartment in another town, or having parents fake a divorce, or claiming to be bullied. Give everyone the opportunity to play where they want, and against the type of competition they feel best suits them. It's a system we basically already have. This just opens the doors to give everyone a fair shot.
It would be a shame to lose the considerable history and tradition of high school hockey in the state of Minnesota, but at a certain point, we're just grasping at an idea that's already left our fingertips, and falls farther and farther away with each passing year.
Sitting right above Russo's article on the link I gave is a link to this week's top story in Let's Play Hockey, previewing the high school hockey season. The photo with the article is a shot of Benilde-St. Margaret's, a team made up of kids from St. Louis Park, Edina, Wayzata, Hopkins, Minneapolis West, and elsewhere, huddled together, smiling with their state championship medals. Russo's article may have been a few hundred words on hockey's past in Minnesota. That picture is a thousand words on its future.