St. Thomas’ Chris Hickey and Hamline’s Troy Hesketh — both NHL draft picks — have found a hockey home playing in the MIAC, a Division III conference.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Chris Hickey (7), a senior forward for MIAC-leading St. Thomas, first played junior hockey for the Tri-City Storm in the USHL before joining the Tommies.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Hamline’s Troy Hesketh decommitted from Wisconsin and enrolled at Hamline after a serious concussion changed his perspective, but he still harbors NHL dreams.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Division III hockey: High schoolers pushed aside by older players

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN
  • Star Tribune
  • January 12, 2012 - 9:06 AM

Their individual dreams were once the same, of Division I hockey and large, rowdy crowds at places such as Minnesota, Wisconsin or North Dakota.

But the players who fill the rosters of MIAC men's hockey teams offer proof that the Division I dream is as elusive as it is widespread for Minnesota high school players.

The MIAC is comprised of relatively small, private schools that, as NCAA Division III members, can offer no athletic scholarships. Less than a decade ago, the MIAC recruited most of its players directly out of high school. This season 78 percent of the league's varsity players are products of the junior hockey ranks.

It is not an exaggeration, league coaches and players say, to conclude that almost 80 percent of the league's players still carried hopes of playing Division I when they finished high school.

"I don't think being in Minnesota high school hockey, as glorified as it is, that any kid's goal is to be playing Division III,'' said Brian Arrigoni, a former Hill-Murray star who is now a senior at Hamline. "Everyone hopes and wishes for the best, but it doesn't always happen."

And yet, the MIAC can hardly be called a league of broken dreams, although at first glance it might appear that way.

On a recent Friday night, Arrigoni and his Hamline teammates faced St. Thomas at Vadnais Heights Sports Complex, and the bright lights of Division I were in a different galaxy. The game was played in a high school-size arena that has eight rows of bleachers on one side of the rink, three rows on the other.

Plenty of good seats went unfilled.

But the level of hockey belied the surroundings, indicative of the MIAC's recent improvement, coaches say. As the percentage of former junior players has spiked in the past five years, there have been corresponding upgrades in physical traits that come with age, such as strength and speed. MIAC Executive Director Dan McKane said the "level of play is at an all-time high."

"People just aren't educated as to how good this league is," St. John's coach Doug Schueller said. "Every high school kid in the state thinks he can play Division III hockey. That's not the case anymore."

The road to juniors

Arrigoni, who might be the league's most skilled playmaker and a Division III All-America a year ago, is the classic example of the kid who dreamed -- legitimately -- of playing at the highest level. He was a standout at Hill-Murray, playing alongside future Gophers Mike Hoeffel and Nick Larson.

Arrigoni suffered a serious shoulder injury as a high school senior, and surgery at the end of the year required four anchors and eight pins to secure his shoulder in place. So much for his immediate hopes of following his high school teammates to Minnesota.

He moved on to Indiana in the United States Hockey League -- the top American junior league from which most Division I players come. He said he was in essence a role player, miscast in his mind, although at the end of the year he received a Division I offer from Mercyhurst.

"I was young, and I don't know if I was arrogant or what, but as a Minnesota kid I had always dreamed of playing WCHA hockey, so I turned it down," Arrigoni said. "To make a long story short, I struggled a bit the next year and didn't get another offer."

There are countless such stories in the conference, each one with a slightly different twist. The MIAC boasts a pair of NHL draft picks -- Hamline's Troy Hesketh, selected in the third round by Edmonton in 2009, and St. Thomas' Chris Hickey, a seventh-round Wild choice in 2006. There are about a dozen Division I transfers, several former players from Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault (Minnesota's equivalent of a hockey prep school), three Swedish teammates at St. John's and 11 Canadians and a Czech player at Concordia (Moorhead).

The reason for the MIAC's shift in recruiting base from high schools to juniors, and in some cases foreign players, is part of a national trend in college hockey. The MIAC, in fact, is a relative latecomer to recruiting juniors compared to many Eastern schools and rival Wisconsin state colleges such as UW-River Falls, Stevens Point and Eau Claire, which average about 90 percent former junior players on their rosters.

The MIAC has not had a team in either of the past two NCAA Division III Final Fours, and never has won an NCAA hockey title.

"If we want to keep up with all the other teams in Division III, and have success, we had to alter our direction and go toward junior kids," St. Thomas coach Jeff Boeser said.

The change in philosophy is not without challenges, McKane said. The varied backgrounds of the players has led to increased scrutiny to ensure eligibility.

McKane said the critical issue is making sure players received no payment that violated NCAA rules, and did not play in a league against professionals. That's especially challenging when reviewing résumés of foreign players, and McKane said he has at times had to rule against players seeking to enter the league.

"It's completely different than all our other sports," McKane said. "Hockey is the only sport right now having kids delay enrollment because they've pursued their hope of playing at the highest level, Division I."

Juniors required?

St. Mary's coach Bill Moore is a former high school coach and head of the state hockey coaches association. But he said he has not watched a high school game for almost two years.

"I love Minnesota high school hockey, but the fact is you can't win with 18-year-old kids playing against 24-year-old college seniors," Moore said. "You're looking at junior players who are 20-year-old freshmen, with 120 games more experience than high school kids. And some of those juniors are borderline Division I players."

Moore offers this caveat: His preference for juniors is based in part on being in the midst of a rebuilding project at St. Mary's, which he says makes it difficult to attract an elite high school player. He notes that the top conference programs, such as St. Thomas, still attract interest from such players.

An example is Riley Horgan, who jumped directly from Mound-Westonka to St. Thomas. The benefits of taking Horgan out of high school, St. Thomas' Boeser said, extend beyond his obvious talent level.

"If Riley would have played juniors, we'd have never gotten him," Boeser said. "He'd be playing Division I right now."

Still, players such as Horgan are more and more becoming the exception, largely because juniors are generally bigger and stronger. That, Moore said, was highlighted for him in fall tryouts, when four of his players suffered concussions. All four were straight out of high school.

Talent upswing

The MIAC's caliber of competition is such that Hesketh doesn't believe his prospects of playing in the NHL will be diminished by his college choice. Hesketh initially went to juniors after graduating from Minnetonka, then suffered a serious concussion that sidelined him almost four months. His perspective of hockey changed, he said, and he opted to decommit from Wisconsin and enroll at Hamline.

Edmonton has effectively cut its ties with Hesketh, but the player remains optimistic another NHL team will give him a look.

"In juniors, you're more of a number than a name; it's run as a business," Hesketh said. "I heard about the Hamline program, how well they were doing, and I wanted to get a good education, so I went with it. It doesn't matter where you play, it's how you play.

"I still have everything in place for me. I'm chasing my [NHL] dream. But I'm going to be further along [with an education] than most kids who start out in pro hockey."

Several MIAC players, including Arrigoni, hope to continue chasing a pro hockey career after they leave school, as former Hamline star Chris Berenguer did this season with Trenton in the East Coast Hockey League.

"You go through an adjustment period after you realize you're not going to Division I or going to the Gophers, wherever it may be," Arrigoni said. "But there's still opportunities to go out and play professionally [out of the MIAC]."

Not everyone views the MIAC as a steppingstone for more hockey. Rob Philipp, a St. Thomas senior, played two years of juniors, got a Division I offer at Air Force and, after weeks of deliberation, opted to decommit and enroll at St. Thomas.

"It's weird, everyone goes to juniors because they want a Division I scholarship," Philipp said. "That was my goal for a long time. But now, after a few years in the MIAC, I'm really happy with my decision."

Philipp has a job offer from Honeywell and has July 11 -- his start date -- circled on his calendar.

Until then, he'll try to help the Tommies chase a conference title in a league that has changed dramatically from the one he entered four seasons ago.

"It's almost necessary now to have played juniors to crack the lineup in Division III," he said. "It's gotten that competitive."

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