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.
Gophers coach Don Lucia has urged players to spend a year in the United States Hockey League (USHL) to further their development. But never, he said, at the expense of their high school career.
“We’ve been supportive of kids staying,” said Lucia, though both of his sons, Tony and Mario, skipped their senior seasons at Wayzata. Tony played in the United States Hockey League while Mario headed to play in a similar Canadian league in Penticton, British Columbia. Each league offered longer seasons and higher levels of competition.
“Ultimately you’re going to become the player you’re going to become,” Lucia said.
Lettieri, a Gophers freshman, “knew he had to play a year of juniors and he didn’t want to wait an extra year,” Lou Nanne said.
Another of Nanne’s grandsons, Louie, left Edina for Penticton. A third, Tyler, stayed to lead the Hornets as a senior this winter. Both have committed to college hockey programs.
Jack Ramsey, who committed to the Gophers, left Minnetonka early to play for Penticton. His father, Mike, who played for the Gophers and served as a Minnesota Wild assistant coach, acknowledged that for many seniors, “their only chance to play college hockey as a true freshman is to move on and play juniors somewhere.”
‘You don’t need to leave’
MacMillan and Pauly believe a Minnesota high school hockey player does not need to leave his school to enhance his development. But getting their message heard over the growing din of competing voices has proved challenging.
MacMillan maintains there is plenty to keep players home and still “elevate their draft stock and be successful college players.” He points to the Upper Midwest Elite League, offering about 20 games in the fall against top competition that attracts college coaches and scouts, 25 regular-season games plus playoffs and spring and summer hockey programs.
Recent efforts by coaches to add a week to the season or increase the amount of scrimmages failed to gain traction. Dave Stead, high school league executive director, said not all schools throughout the state can afford expansion.
Ultimately, Stead said, players who decide they must leave early create participation opportunities for others.
Burnsville coach Janne Kivihalme sees high school hockey as an “excellent steppingstone for players good enough to go to the next level.” His son Teemu, a defenseman committed to Colorado College, is playing in the USHL this season.
Said Lucia, “We should embrace the ones who are ready to leave. At that point we’ve done our job.”
‘Rolling eyes’ at state tournament
Tom Chorske won the state’s inaugural Mr. Hockey award as a senior at Minneapolis Southwest in 1985. He then played for the Gophers and later turned pro and won a Stanley Cup and doesn’t think it’s “usually necessary” for elite players to leave early.
The growing number of players who do, he said, has “scouts and recruiters getting to the point where they are rolling their eyes” at the hallowed state tournament.