Welcome back to another weekend edition of the High School Highlight. Last week we looked at the great rivalry that is the Public Schools vs. Private Schools and the effect it has on the ice both during the season and during the State Tournament. This week we take a look at a different rivalry, one that takes place almost exclusively off the ice. The growing epidemic of student-athletes leaving behind their senior seasons to join in the Premier Junior Hockey Leagues. I began to notice this more the last few years while watching the state tournament with my friends. Periodically one of us would look to each other and say "hey what happened to so and so from such and such school? Wasn't he a Junior last year?" The usual response after a quick Google search seems to be more frequently as of late that they had forgone their Senior eligibility to play for one of the Premiere Junior Leagues. The first few times this happened it didn't really seem too odd, but over the years it is happening more and more. In fact looking at the last few years the number of kids went from close to 10-15 up to almost 40 plus last season. While this may not seem like a huge problem for some people, one person is sounding the alarms is Benilde-St. Margaret coach Ken Pauly.
Pauly recently wrote at fascinating article on letsplayhockey.com about what he feels is the biggest threat to greatness that is Minnesota High School Hockey. He discusses the restrictions of the Minnesota State High School League and their unwillingness to adapt the rules and the travel requirements to make the game better. This makes the USA Hockey program in Ann Arbor and the USHL even more appealing to those top players from our state. He also brings up some of the great things that I remember about playing hockey and watching my friends play for our high school. The sense of community pride is something that just cannot be replicated in any Premier Junior League. Yes, I'm sure that your teammates, coaches and program are important to a young player, but they do not have the streets you used to bike to summer camp with your friends. They don't have the old couple that attends every game despite not having a child in the school for over a decade. These are just a few examples of things that get overlooked when kids and their families make this very tough decision.
Another problem with the Junior leagues is that it is not always stiffer competition to make the kids a better player. The leagues down south that are loaded with kids from around the country may draw more scouts, but I'd be willing to bet that the Minnesota kids skate circles around the kids from most the other places. As much as that is partial bias, Minnesota has the most dominant high school hockey programs in the country. Texas has football, we have hockey. One of the scariest comparisons is that of the Massachusetts high school hockey programs. They used to give Minnesota a run for its money when it comes to potential NHL caliber players. They used to send hundreds of players into Division I college programs. Then in late 60's they began to lose players to Major Junior and AAA programs before they finished their high school programs. In 2002 Massachusetts had 200 Division I schools, in 2012 the number was half of that, a number that continues to fall. Minnesota has seen a similar, albeit, lesser decline in the same time frame.
I see why Premier Junior Hockey Leagues can be a great thing for kids, and many do need to play in the Juniors to bridge the gap between the skill of High School and Division I College but should not be at the expense of their final high school years. I am proud to be from the State of Hockey and love the connection that the sport has to the state culture. I agree with Pauly that we need to adapt to keep the kids here to further increase the competition at the high school level and would hate to see it get watered down.
Do you like the way the Junior Hockey is set up? Would you like to see more changes to the High School format by the MSHSL? Let me know in the comments below!