Player exodus dividing high school hockey

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2014 - 9:41 PM

Forty-one high school players — many of them budding stars or members of the state’s most prominent hockey families — chose to leave their teams before this season for “better” leagues. That’s a record number.

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Former Burnsville defenseman Teemu Kivihalme (26) opted for more seasoning in the United States Hockey League before he moves on to Colorado College.

Photo: File photo by BRE McGEE, Special to the Star Tribune

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The first one to leave was the oldest son of Gophers hockey coach Don Lucia. Then one of hockey icon Lou Nanne’s grandsons left the country.

Before this season, when a record 41 high school players quit before the season to advance their careers elsewhere, the hockey pedigree included Mike Ramsey’s kid. The son of the Burnsville coach. The son of a top high school official overseeing the prized state hockey tournament.

The exodus, now more than two decades in the making, has some observers downgrading the prestige of the high school league’s most popular state tournament, set for its 70th run in just four weeks.

It’s reached a point where advocates for high school hockey are ramping up efforts to fight back with marketing and player research. Meanwhile, coaches of some kids who left don’t see a problem.

To bolster high school hockey, the Minnesota State High School League added a second class in 1993-94, doubling the number of state tournament entrants. The regular-season schedule expanded from 22 to 25 games in 2000-01. And periods were lengthened from 15 to 17 minutes in 2003-04.

But players still leave early.

“We haven’t defined the problem,” said Skip Peltier, former associate director in charge of the state hockey tournament. He cited a need for “synergy’’ among high school coaches, Minnesota’s five Division I college coaches and the high school league.

“We’ve all fallen short,” he said.

Members of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, the state’s leading advocates for keeping seniors on their high school teams, said the actions of hockey’s best-known families in seeing their sons leave have hurt the cause.

“It stung a little bit,” said Mike MacMillan, the association’s executive director. “We didn’t feel there was a need for them to leave early. It’s been difficult to look at those situations and not question a little bit their belief in high school hockey.”

MacMillan said his organization is building a database of players who left early the past five years to track their post-high school experiences. In addition, a survey is being created for those players to understand the motives for leaving.

In 2008 the MHCA launched its “Nothing Compares” campaign, featuring testimonials of 21 Minnesotans who played their entire high school careers and later reached the NHL.

But the battle to keep players in Minnesota high schools is “beyond us just sloganeering,” said Ken Pauly, Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach and association president. “Do we have the programs to offer these kids? I believe we do. It’s sad when people who call themselves leaders in the state don’t buy into that.”

After two top Minnetonka players — Vinni Lettieri and Jack Ramsey — left the school’s program to play elsewhere for their senior season, coach Brian Urick delivered a message to his freshmen playing varsity this winter: Stick together, stick around and make your run as seniors.

It’s a plea that is taking on added urgency throughout the nation’s most fertile hockey state.

Joining the rush

The above-average high school player leaves early hoping to catch college coaches’ eyes by playing more games against better competition. Elite players must consider two factors.

Some of it is from scouts and family advisers who suggest players accelerate their development. Meanwhile, the average age of a freshman college hockey player is 20, said Joe Bertagna, executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association since 1991. Players who come in as 18-year-olds often do so after a year of higher-level hockey.

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