The caravan of cars and SUVs carried about 200 people — players, coaches, parents and siblings — and headed up Interstate Hwy. 94 from Lakeville to Fargo for a weekend youth hockey tournament.

It was a rolling reminder that Lakeville youth hockey these days casts a long shadow: Four bars provide $2.6 million in gross revenue from charitable gambling, 901 boys play hockey and two prominent businesses, including nationally known Ames Construction, helped build two indoor ice arenas in the city.

The youth hockey association this year sold executive leather chairs and terry cloth bathrobes with the group’s logo on them. “We did start out from very humble beginnings,” said Candee Okeson, the association’s assistant charitable gambling manager.

Big money in youth sports in Minnesota is leading to big differences, and keeping up with such juggernauts is separating teams, cities and schools into a have and have-not world at the youngest ages. For many high schools, well-heeled youth sports associations — the Edina Hockey Association boasted four state champions this year and featured an ESPN ad atop its website — have turned into important feeder programs. Edina’s high school boys’ team claimed this year’s Class 2A hockey title and is a perennial power in most sports.

Mark Lange, a longtime youth hockey coach in Brooklyn Park, said the impact on the psyche of young players can be easily seen. “The kids seem to have this mind-set that when you’re playing Wayzata, or you’re playing Maple Grove, that it’s almost a given that they’re going to be a better team — they have more kids, [and] just more of everything,” he said.

For the high school hockey coaches at Lakeville North and Lakeville South, youth hockey is where tomorrow’s high school players are skating today and where the affluence of parents and boosters can make an early mark.

Lakeville South boys’ hockey head coach Kurt Weber watched in February as Lakeville’s top bantam team, with eighth- and ninth-graders topping out at 6-2, 200 pounds, crisply skated to a victory and qualified for a regional tournament. The team was helped along by some of Lakeville’s prominent citizens — the coaching staff included Jake Enebak, whose company built the Legends Club, a nearby upscale golf community with homes going for as much as $2.5 million.

In Osseo, the Osseo-Maple Grove Hockey Association is open to skaters as young as 4 and began last fall with $635,000 in cash. The association also had a small bureaucracy consisting of 43 executives and assorted officials, including a recruitment director, marketing director and a social media director who advertised for 11 volunteers to do Twitter feeds. The East Ridge Athletic Association’s total revenue jumped by nearly $200,000 in 2011 — to $617,416 — and this spring the group had registration for five different youth sports in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. A $285 fee for spring and summer soccer, ages 9 to 12, included three months of winter training. Parents were advised to have their Visa, MasterCard, Discover or PayPal cards available for online registration.

Not enough for a team

On a middle-of-winter Saturday night, the job of trying to keep up was on full display.

As Wayzata’s top bantam B team slipped a goal into the net during an eventual 4-3 overtime victory, goalie Avery Neisen bent down in disappointment. The hometown crowd in the Brooklyn Park ice arena groaned.

Neisen skated this year for North Metro Hockey, a group composed of 225 youth hockey players from Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Fridley and Columbia Heights. The group is a vivid example of what has happened to youth hockey — both in terms of money and in the number of skaters — in the four northern suburbs. The local high schools no longer have hockey teams. And even though it draws players from the four cities, North Metro Hockey also did not have enough boys this winter to put its own high school-age team on the ice.

Mike Carhill coached North Metro Hockey’s final high school-age team last year, but with the team gone, Carhill concentrates these days on his warehouse job at Electric Motor Supply in Fridley. “I was sad,” said Carhill. “You could see every year, when I was in the youth program, the numbers diminishing.”

For North Metro Hockey, the job of keeping pace has become increasingly difficult.

The group lost all of its charitable gambling income last year, leaving a 19 percent hole in the budget and making a sobering demographic and financial predicament even more difficult. An assistant gambling manager pleaded guilty in 2008 to embezzling $161,000 from the association. Making matters worse, Mad Jacks Sports Cafe, a longtime pulltab location, dropped North Metro as its designated charity.

As North Metro’s board of directors met in February and showed off the trophies two of its teams had collected, a one-page financial statement showed income up slightly to $206,000 over the past year but expenses up even more, to $235,000. In order to send the two teams off to tournaments, the youth association had to hold an emergency fundraiser at Sammy’s, a local pizza parlor.

“We’re the underdog,” said Tina Eskro, North Metro’s executive director and the mother of three young hockey players.

In an attempt to raise money, the North Metro team that lost to Wayzata that Saturday night wore bright yellow jerseys with Life Time Fitness, a prominent sponsor, emblazoned on them. Four days after the loss, hockey coaches from Osseo High School — a likely destination for many of the team’s best players — talked to the team after a practice.

Bernadette McCormick, whose son played for the North Metro team, said she is frustrated by the economic disparity between North Metro and programs such as Wayzata. “Every time we’ve played them, we have lost by one point,” she huffed.

Resources abound

The differences separating North Metro Hockey from youth programs like those in Wayzata and Lakeville might only get deeper.

For starters, Lakeville had Glenn Hasse. Hasse and his son donated $125,000 to one of Lakeville’s two indoor ice arenas — the $8.6 million facility is named after the family — even though he has never lived in Lakeville. But Hasse’s company, Ryt-way Industries, a large contract packaging plant Hasse founded in 1965, has been located in Lakeville. When city officials needed supplemental funding for an ice arena, they called Hasse, who now lives in Florida. “We felt Lakeville was very good to us,” Hasse said, explaining the donation.

The city’s other indoor ice facility, Ames Arena, was named after Ames Construction when the company did the earthwork in exchange for having its name on the building. The company, a 50-year-old Minnesota mainstay, has a long list of large, high-profile projects, and among other things was a prime contractor for Denver International Airport. There were “a lot of different heroes involved in this project,” said Dennis Feller, Lakeville’s longtime city finance director.

Inside Babe’s Music Bar, a noisy bar in downtown Lakeville, the day-to-day machinery that also funds youth hockey could be seen on a Wednesday night. Tom Meyer, the Lakeville Hockey Association’s gambling manager, explained how 60 people playing one game of dollar-a-card bingo made $15 for Lakeville hockey after the winnings were paid out. There would be 13 games on this night, garnering an estimated $300 for youth hockey.

“The jackpot for this game is $43,” Meyer told the crowd as he moved onto the next game and spun a large cylinder containing the bingo numbers. “I-21,” he announced. Two women, sitting in a booth by the front door, counted the night’s take.

There are four charitable gambling locations in Lakeville for youth hockey, but there are also plenty of strings attached. Although $2.6 million in gross revenue is taken in annually, 70 percent goes for expenses, 25 percent for taxes and only 5 percent gets funneled to hockey. Still, Lakeville youth hockey had $864,407 in total revenue — the large majority from registration fees — in 2010, and during the season, mock-ups for the new traveling team jerseys were posted on the Lakeville youth hockey website.

“We’re a huge hockey town,” said Mark Streefland, a co-owner of Babe’s.

Since 2006, Lakeville North has appeared in four boys’ hockey state tournaments and Lakeville South in two. One of the two schools has been in each of the past four state tournaments. The benefits of a strong youth program are also apparent on the girls’ side, where since 2009, Lakeville North has been to three state tournaments and Lakeville South two.

‘In need of your help’

Sitting in an orange sweatshirt, Eskro meanwhile counted small victories while presiding over an end-of-the-season North Metro Hockey board meeting. A silent auction brought in $3,857. “We made $1,047” after expenses from a dinner and bake sale, Eskro reported.

In March, Eskro sent out two written pleas for money to local business leaders. “Today, more than ever, we are in need of your help. We lost our charitable gambling,” she explained. Eskro offered them advertising space on uniforms, in the game program or on North Metro Hockey’s website. “Please,” she wrote.

On a 30-degree January morning, Steve Oslund and James Braasch, two North Metro Hockey board members, stood alongside an outdoor rink in Columbia Heights as part of an event to renew interest in youth hockey. As they spoke, a portable generator hummed, hot dogs were being sold and a North Metro team, wearing teal-colored uniforms, skated before a small crowd. In Columbia Heights, said Oslund, one of the biggest issues these days is not youth hockey but something more fundamental: home foreclosures in the surrounding neighborhoods.

As he watched the young players on the ice in Columbia Heights, Braasch asked if anyone had noticed that Edina had played Minnetonka in high school hockey the night before. “Place was packed,” he said. “Maybe we [should] do revenue sharing.”