When youth hockey gets too expensive for Edina, you know something's up.
Arguably the state's premier hockey hotbed for half a century, Edina is wrestling with a drop-off in participation among its youngest age groups. A major reason is the cost of youth hockey, which is why the Edina Hockey Association (EHA) is thinking about ways to reduce it.
"It's an expensive sport, no matter how you spin the dial," said Herm Finnegan, a member of the EHA board. "It's a really sticky situation."
What makes it especially sticky in Edina is a proposed cost-cutting strategy: reducing dryland training hours for EHA skaters.
That has set in motion a flurry of behind-the-scenes meetings among city officials, the EHA and an influential hockey family whose company provides dryland training to Edina skaters.
Dryland training puts kids through strength, skill and agility drills in exercise rooms with weights, treadmills, synthetic ice and other special equipment. It's become an expected part of high-end hockey programs in the metro area.
In Edina, dryland training is included in the cost of registration for youth hockey. That cost is typically between $1,300 and $1,500, so high that EHA officials worry it could be keeping kids from playing.
"One of the consistent things we hear from families is, the sport of hockey is expensive, and there's feedback that people would like us to find ways to reduce the cost," said Mike DeVoe, EHA president. "We're aware that we have to make hockey more accessible and affordable.
"If you don't get them young, you lose them forever."
'We're in this together'
In Edina, dryland training is provided by Velocity Hockey Center, a company whose three-year contract with the EHA expires in April.
EHA officials wouldn't comment on what they pay Velocity but said that an hour of training can cost as much as or more than ice time, which goes for around $200 an hour. Under terms of the current contract, the EHA has committed to buying 800 hours a year of dryland training from Velocity.
Velocity pays about $100,000 a year to rent space in the Hornets Nest at Braemar Arena. Built three years ago, the Hornets Nest includes locker rooms for high school boys' and girls' teams, a General Sports retail shop and Velocity's training center. The $3.6 million facility was mostly financed with city-issued bonds, along with private funding raised to cover one-fourth of the cost; rent from Velocity and General Sports covers bond payments.
Velocity is owned by Noel Rahn Jr. and his father, Noel Rahn Sr. The younger Rahn, who played on championship teams at Edina High School and the University of Wisconsin, coaches one of the state's top-ranked teams this year at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria. His father is chairman of Geronimo Energy, a leading builder of wind and solar power projects. Neither of the Rahns returned phone calls seeking comment.
According to city and hockey association officials, Velocity is concerned that a significant cutback in its EHA business could leave the company unable to pay its rent at the Hornets Nest. In that case, Edina would have to make up the lost income out of its liquor store revenue, which has been declining in recent years.
City officials have met several times with the hockey association and Velocity, said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who's optimistic that an agreement can be reached.
"They know we're in this together and we've got to find a solution for everybody," Hovland said. "And that's what I expect the outcome to be."
City Manager Scott Neal said that if Velocity were to fail, the city would seek another tenant for the Hornets Nest.
"We're a property owner, so if we have a tenant leave, we would re-lease the property," Neal said. "We don't want to do that. We think there is a good synergy in having Velocity for the kids who play hockey."
Finnegan, who has been the point person on the dryland training issue for the EHA, sounded less optimistic.
"This is a really sensitive deal," he said. "Whatever the decision is, I'll either be praised or I'll be the whipping boy."
So many practices
Watching their youngsters at a recent practice, some Edina hockey parents had mixed feelings about the usefulness of dryland training. Jane Barthell, who has four kids playing hockey, said she's OK with including it in the cost of registration.
"People say it's too much time, but I'm all for kids getting physical activity every day," she said.
Rachelle Heinen, mother of 7-year-old George, said it's tough to get to all the scheduled dryland training sessions.
"They have so many practices," she said. "I do think dryland is important, but maybe it can be an add-on."
That's what EHA officials are thinking, especially for the youngest ages.
"We would like to find ways to make the parents more in control of the way they spend their money on hockey," said DeVoe. "If there's a way to make it more of an a la carte option, we'd like to explore that."
And some parents and children simply may need an occasional break from the intensity of Edina hockey.
"They might want to stay home at night and do their homework and have dinner, instead of being part of the hockey world for the sixth night in a row," said Finnegan.
Finnegan played on a state championship team at Burnsville High School under coach Tom Osiecki and then played at St. Cloud State University under another legendary coach, Herb Brooks. Those coaches encouraged their players to take a break from hockey, he said.
"They would say, 'Get off the skates and come back hungry for hockey,' " he said.
Parents are often the ones pushing long hours of hockey on their kids, said Larry Hendrickson, former head coach at Richfield High School and father of former NHL player Darby Hendrickson. Reducing the cost of hockey "is where the world has to go," he said.
"The reality is, if your kid has talent and passion, he will figure out what it takes to get to the next level," Hendrickson said. "You don't have to take him and spend all that dang money and worry that he won't get to the next level."