Coaches: Prep hockey needs a boost

Aaron Kirscht

After a storied college and professional hockey playing career, John Mariucci took over as coach of the Gophers hockey team in 1952.
He helped turn an average program into a perennial national contender, but Mariucci’s greatest legacy — not including the hockey shrine standing at the corner of Fourth and Oak streets — might be his policy of recruiting players only from Minnesota.
“This is a state institution and should be represented by Minnesota boys,” Mariucci once said. “If they’re not quite as good as some Canadians, we’ll just have to work a little harder, that’s all.”
Current Gophers coach Doug Woog reinstated that policy when he took over the program in 1985, and Minnesota has remained a national contender, last season notwithstanding. But today, one of the greatest threats to hockey in Minnesota is coming from the East, not the North. Michigan and Massachusetts have begun to rival Minnesota as primary hotbeds for prep hockey talent in the United States.
In the 1950s, Mariucci’s Minnesota-only policy was implemented in part to build up high school hockey from above, by giving in-state players an exclusive maroon-and-gold goal to strive for. In the 1990s, the state’s storied prep hockey tradition has begun to give way to high-profile development programs — particularly the one operated by USA Hockey in Ann Arbor, Mich. — and United States Hockey League junior teams scattered throughout the Midwest.
That’s led to a dilution of talent in the state’s prep ranks, said Elmer Walls, president of the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association. It’s a trend, he said, that can only be halted by shifting the players’ focus back to high school hockey.
“You’re taking away the superstars that carry the teams and give the young kids someone to look up to,” Walls said. “Those kids can make the difference between a 15-win season and eight or nine wins. And that’s just going to keep happening if we don’t change.”
Changes
Two ideas for improvement have garnered the most attention in local hockey circles: expanding the regular season schedule by three or more games and giving schools the option of lengthening periods from the current 15 minutes to the 20-minute periods used in college and pro hockey.
The Minnesota State High School League will vote in early May on a proposal that would expand periods to 20 minutes during holiday tournaments only.
But whether those changes will reap the desired results — that is, making high school a more attractive option to Ann Arbor or the USHL — is unclear. The elite tag that attaches to players who make the jump is a significant factor, and the idea of leaving high school for a stint in an intensive upper-level hockey program is alluring for many players.
If that trend continues, critics say the quality of play in the high school ranks could suffer and lead to a slip in attendance at the high-profile Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.
Rep. Bob Milbert, DFL-South St. Paul, is one of those critics. He chaired the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission Hockey Task Force, which completed a report outlining its concerns about prep hockey in Minnesota and suggested a handful of fixes in its February report. They included expanding the schedule and lengthening the games.
“We don’t want to see a continuing migration of kids who are leaving the Minnesota high school programs and moving out of state,” Milbert said. “We don’t think that’s right. We ought to be able to provide a program that will allow them to prosper in the state. Our preferred program is the Minnesota high school program, but if we get stonewalled, we’re going to have to try something else.”
Milbert suggested the possibility of a year-round junior training program, much like those being planned for the summer months. Similar programs are already in place in Michigan and Massachusetts. This could effectively replace prep programs as the pre-eminent source of 18-and-under hockey in the state, but would also keep more high-level players at home.
State of talent
State hockey tournament attendance has remained relatively consistent since the MSHSL began toying with tournament formats — beginning with performance-based Tier I/II in 1992-93 before switching to enrollment-based Class A/AA in 1994. Attendance reached an all-time high in 1992, when more than 117,000 fans saw the tournament, and has hovered between 107,000 and 116,000 since.
Final attendance figures from the 1998 tournament haven’t yet been compiled, but recent numbers don’t indicate a worrisome trend. The construction of RiverCentre (the future home of the Minnesota Wild) is slated for completion in time for the 2000-01 National Hockey League season. The new facility will replace the St. Paul Civic Center and could boost attendance beyond record levels.
Whether the quality of play has slipped is debatable. If play was no longer up to par, tournament attendance would likely be more significantly affected. Second, enough top-flight players still stick around long enough — from Duluth East’s Dave Spehar in 1996 to Red Wing’s Johnny Pohl last season — to keep things interesting.
On the other hand, how would last season have been different if future Gophers goaltender Adam Hauser had been playing for Greenway rather than Team USA in Ann Arbor? The same goes for incoming Gophers defenseman Jordan Leopold, who also headed off to Michigan and left behind his prep career at Robbinsdale Armstrong.
As the talent exodus continues, the ability of high schools to continually put an attractive hockey product on the ice could drop off. But Dave Stead, executive director of the MSHSL and a member of the task force committee, says such a decline is far from happening.
He cited Team Minnesota’s performance in the annual Chicago Hockey Showcase earlier this month. A squad of state players — minus marquee names like Pohl and Hauser — beat up on all-star teams from Michigan and Massachusetts.
“If those are the best kids from those states,” Stead said, “then I’d say Minnesota is faring extremely well.”
But Stead added that the allure of elite programs probably can’t be limited by making some of the suggested changes to high school hockey. There are plenty of opportunities now in place for players to get more ice time while playing in high school, Stead said, but they are often ignored in favor of higher-profile options.
“It’s an individual choice that they’re making,” Stead said. “I think the quality of Minnesota hockey is excellent. I don’t think there’s a problem there.”
Woog speaks
Woog took advantage of Mariucci’s Minnesotans-only policy when he was recruited in 1962. He turned his opportunity into All-American honors three years later, when he led the team in scoring.
Not surprisingly, Woog has no plans to stop recruiting Minnesota talent exclusively, but he said the departure of players outside the Gophers’ realm of influence makes his job more difficult.
“The more often they go away, the less likely they are to remain loyal to Minnesota,” Woog said. “Part of our mystique is that young players emulate our players on TV, identify with them, talk about them. If they go to Michigan or to play junior hockey in Waterloo, it’s a little harder for us to keep in constant contact with those players.”
In the ’90s, Woog has plucked players with USHL experience with increasing frequency. In 1991-92, only two of the 27 players on the roster had USHL experience. Of the 24 players on the Gophers’ roster last season, eight came to campus via the USHL. Goaltenders Steve DeBus (who completed his eligibility last season) and Erik Day each spent two seasons in junior hockey before coming to Minnesota.
The Gophers recruited six players for the upcoming season: three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender. Three members of that class played out their high school careers, but the rest — Bloomington Kennedy forward Doug Meyer, Leopold and Hauser — passed up their senior years to play in Michigan.
Woog said he will continue to pursue the best Minnesota players, regardless of where they hone their talents. Still, he has mixed feelings about high-school age players choosing to leave home in search of the training that can lead to a college scholarship.
The players who do so are often better prepared for the college game, which can make them doubly attractive to the Gophers, but Woog said they miss out on equally important benefits like living at home, playing multiple sports and enjoying a relatively normal social life.
“The elite player may benefit hockey-wise by being challenged in these other programs,” Woog said, “but I think the overall effect, as far as socialization is concerned, has to be questioned.”
Programs like USA Hockey and the USHL can do plenty for the elite players, but can also strip state high schools of their talent bases.
“The players that stay in high school help to build up those local programs by giving other younger players a chance to see and emulate them,” Woog said. “That’s one of the biggest negatives about leaving early. Not only do they miss out on all the things that come with high school, other kids miss out on having them around.”
The news that the USA development squad will participate as part of the USHL next season, abandoning its schedule with teams in the Ontario Hockey League, left Woog wondering if the Ann Arbor program is becoming a waste of money.
“I think maybe people are justifying their jobs,” Woog said. “I don’t know if spending $3 million on one hockey program in Ann Arbor is the wisest way to spend all that money.”
Woog suggested splitting up the top-flight group of players and sending two to each of the USHL teams. That way, he said, the entire league would improve, as would the development of all the players in the league.
Distributing those funds among other hockey-rich areas to develop “midget” programs for players between the ages of 15 and 17 would also help, Woog said. These leagues, similar to what Milbert and his task force recommended, could operate in the high school hockey off-season, primarily on the weekends, and make other sports and activities a possibility for hockey-minded students.
Adding more games and lengthening the periods of some games is a step in the right direction, Woog said, but won’t necessarily make high school hockey a more attractive option for the best players.
“It’s not necessarily the job of the high school league to develop elite players,” Woog said. “It’s a participation issue for them. We’re just saying that this is how these players are affected, not whether (the MSHSL is) right or wrong.”
The future
Before taking the job as coach at Bloomington Jefferson in 1973, Tom Saterdalen attended a coaching clinic highlighted by a group discussion with Dave Peterson, who went on to coach the U.S. Olympic teams in 1988 and 1992.
Peterson passed away in July, but some of his seemingly prophetic comments have stuck with Saterdalen throughout his long career at Jefferson.
“(Peterson) told us that major junior hockey programs would take over high school hockey and force us out,” Saterdalen said. “We were warned about this 25 years ago. I don’t know if it’s going to happen anytime soon, but it might. It’s something you have to think about.”
The Jefferson program has served as a veritable farm system for Minnesota, producing former players Mike Crowley, Nick Checco and Brian LaFleur, as well as current Gophers Ben Clymer, Mike Anderson and Ryan Trebil.
The winning tradition at Jefferson has kept the vast majority of his players in school. But if the Minnesota hockey machine doesn’t get a tune-up, Saterdalen said, it could begin to sputter.
“Everything goes through cycles,” Saterdalen said. “In the early ’90s, we had an outstanding group of players come through (Jefferson), then we kind of dropped off a little bit. I don’t know if it’s because Minnesota is dropping off, but we do need to be progressive so that we don’t fall behind so far that we can’t ever catch up.”