A room symbolizing rare rebirth within St. Paul hockey sits behind a red door in the southwest corner of the capital city’s coldest ice rink.
Highland Park skaters will call this space its locker room next season. A team that had disappeared for more than a generation, owing to a lack of players, will bask in digs that rival robust suburban or private-school programs.
Instead of storing their equipment and uniforms in bags under the Charles M. Schulz-Highland Arena bleachers, each player will see his name and number above one of the 22 newly constructed wooden stalls. They will get pumped up for games listening to the stereo and later scrutizine game video on a flat-screen television.
For now, they can only peek in at bare drywall, stacked wood and a lone completed stall. A little imagination is needed to picture the final product, a critical step in a remarkable Minnesota high school sports comeback story.
Highland Park had vanished as a varsity program after 1987. The next two decades, a few players who attended the school skated for a St. Paul public school co-op team. Most chose to enroll at nearby private schools Cretin-Derham Hall or St. Thomas Academy.
By the late 2000s, strong youth program numbers and interest in developing another high school option in the city brought back Highland Park hockey.
The Scots dressed only junior varsity teams in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Varsity hockey came the next season, a new ice age that defied belief.
The resurgence bucks a trend in Minnesota boys’ hockey that has seen programs with declining numbers struggle for survival. Four boys’ varsity programs that defeated Highland Park during the 2010-11 season — the Scots’ first year playing at that level — have since joined co-ops or vanished: The St. Paul Saints, Sleepy Eye, Cooper and, before this season, Richfield.
Nowhere has the impact been more significant than in the metro area’s core cities.
In the late 1960s, there were eight St. Paul public school programs, led by frequent state tournament participant Johnson. Today, only three remain: the Governors, Como Park and Highland Park.
In more populous Minneapolis, the decline has been more severe. Since the 2010-11 season, players from all seven city public schools have competed for one team.
Though starved for victories on the scoreboard, the Scots (5-16-1) have not lost faith. The new locker room serves as a tangible example of the program’s growing resources and steadfast resolve.
“It’s momentous,” said Mike MacMillan, Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association executive director. “A lot of people were shocked, but it goes to show the power of passion.”
Talent bubble, parent push
Hockey came back to Highland Park because of strong numbers in the St. Paul Capitals and Egdecumbe youth associations, and driven parents.
Both coach Pat Auran and assistant Mark Prokop attended Highland Park, located near the south end of Snelling Avenue, and returned to settle in its desirable surrounding neighborhoods.
“You’re constantly getting young families that are moving into this community because of housing, the schools and the proximity to Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said Prokop, a 1980 graduate. “It’s just a great place to raise a family.”
And develop hockey players. Jay O’Neill, booster club treasurer, lives in the Central High School attendance boundary but chose Highland Park, in part, for its hockey program. His son, Aedan, is a sophomore defenseman.
“A big bubble of kids around my son’s age with talent came through and the parents talked about what a great opportunity it would be to play together in high school,” O’Neill said.
The parent/booster club efforts remain substantial to the Scots’ stability. O’Neill said annually raising $10,000 supplements the cost of basic program needs: Uniforms and attire, equipment upgrades, travel expense and locker room construction. That doesn’t count sweat equity. Parents and coaches have framed the new locker space and hung sheetrock. The school donated use of power tools. Even players are chipping in by hauling lumber.
“We want the kids to be proud,” O’Neill said. “A locker room was needed to make the program feel viable and successful.”
Attracting better players is paramount. Auran said a middle-school head count this week tallied 28 hockey players from sixth to eighth grade. Keeping them interested in Highland Park is the goal.
“It’s a success story to get it up and running, but we want more than that,” said Auran, who graduated in 1982. “We want to put a team on the ice every day that’s competitive.”
Better players are choosing the Scots. Auran said the talent pool increased from C-level and recreation players to mostly upper-tier B level and a few A-level players. More of the high-end players historically choose Cretin-Derham Hall and St. Thomas Academy and, more recently, St. Paul Academy.
Highland Park’s new locker room will cost about $8,000, O’Neill said, with costs offset by parent donations as well as volunteer construction and electrical labor. Rather than charge the program for the space, Ramsey County Scots players volunteer at local youth association events. Auran also agreed to run his summer programs at Schulz-Highland arena.
The team practices and plays its games on the arena’s north rink. Cretin-Derham Hall, which calls the arena’s north rink home, spent more than $1 million on new locker rooms and a meeting space for its boys and girls’ hockey teams.
Hoping for more players
The next step, Auran said, is dressing a junior varsity team, which the Scots have not been able to do since joining the varsity ranks. The 13 hockey players currently in seventh grade could be the class that makes a JV team reality, Auran said.
Current players were thrust into varsity action and learned at the expense of victories. The Scots did not win a game in 2010-11 and have yet to win more than five games in a season.
“It started off pretty rough with only a few wins in the first three years,” said senior defenseman Charlie Sutmar, adding that in the next few seasons, “we could have a pretty decent team. I think we could do big things in the future.”
Captain Riley Lindstrom, a junior defenseman, believes more players in the youth ranks “are taking a little bit of notice” and considering the Scots’ program. His younger brother, Evan, will join him in the program as a sophomore next season.
They will share the same new locker room, the quality of which is something Lindstrom said he “never really had before.”
MacMillan expects the space to pay dividends.
“You’ve got a locker room, so pretty soon you attract more kids and get a JV team,” MacMillan said. “Those things equal success on the ice. And the big thing is, they are giving kids in Highland Park something to shoot for — playing for their high school team.”