Hockey faces tough times in area schools, parks and rinks

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First in a series
Despite a rich and long history, Minneapolis-area high school hockey has fallen on hard times during the past decade. Participation at Edison, Patrick Henry and North Community High Schools has steadily declined, resulting in the termination of individual high school teams and the formation of cooperative teams. This season Minneapolis has three co-op teams, and if the number of players continues to drop, there will likely be just two city co-op teams in 2006-07.

Metro area hockey coaches, athletic directors and a community task force cite public school open enrollment, students and parents choosing private schools, the sport’s expense and changing city demographics as reasons for dwindling participation in Minneapolis’ high school hockey program. And they say the key to retaining it—or saving it from extinction—is to focus on youth hockey programs.

John Washington is athletic director for the Minneapolis Public Schools. He explained how the city’s three co-op teams were organized this season. “We looked at the numbers that were in the [high school] programs, and currently three teams were all we could sponsor. Last year we had a co-op of Henry, North and Edison. But this year Henry only had one athlete and Edison had maybe six [North had none]…You can’t play with seven, I don’t care how you dice it, it can’t be done.

“So we looked at an east/west split and decided to go with three co-ops in hockey: Henry and Washburn; North and Southwest; and South, Roosevelt and Edison.” He added that, “the numbers keep dropping each year…if they keep decreasing the way they are, we will be at two teams [next year].”

Leaving for athletics
Washington said the number of hockey players at high schools like Edison, Patrick Henry and North has decreased because more and more parents are enrolling their kids in private schools, or in public schools outside Minneapolis. “The district, as a whole, is trying to offer programs to entice parents to keep their students in Minneapolis,” he said. “But even though most people say students transfer for academic reasons, most are transferring for athletics. They see that maybe a Totino-Grace or a Holy Angels has a better hockey program than what they can get here. [Better] academics is the reason they give on paper, but we know that the reason they are transferring is for athletics.”

Wes Durand is head coach for Southwest, a co-op team with North Community High School, although he said North has not had a hockey player since 1997. Durand, like others, is passionate about the sport. While he acknowledges the decrease in enrollments, he said he thinks Minneapolis public schools need to do a better job of championing their strengths.

“I think in terms of affecting the public school varsity competitive programs, the number one thing you have to do is develop the players who are here,” he said. “There’s a mentality in Minneapolis that the sky is falling—our public schools have gangs, our public school academics are down, etc. …That’s not the case. We have specialized programs in the city of Minneapolis that other high schools don’t have. At Southwest we have an international baccalaureate (IB) program, an arts/humanities program. These are resources that we are able to offer students and student athletes that others can’t.” Henry has an IB program, and Edison has advanced placement (AP) courses.

Rod Stickler grew up in Fridley and has been the head coach of the Tri-City Stars for more than 10 years. Tri-City is a co-op team that was formed five years ago with players from Columbia Heights, Fridley and Brooklyn Center. Like other area co-op teams, it has been light on recruits.

“The first couple years of the merger it was good because there were enough kids from all three areas to have competition. Competition is good because it doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the team.” Problems arose, he said, when participation dropped. “The problems we started having at all three schools were… that kids weren’t coming to practices. They felt they could show up when they wanted to show up. With small numbers it’s hard to discipline, it really is. There’s very little consequence.

Tony McGee, assistant coach for the South, Edison and Roosevelt team, said he began to notice a significant decline in Edison’s high school hockey program about six years ago. “I’d say since early 2000, you see the numbers decline in city hockey. In 2002 you could really see it. We had seven kids at Edison this season—we used to fill a varsity team. Even at South, they have 38 players, but they used to have 50-some kids. The numbers are getting lower and lower every year.”

Or are they leaving for academics?
If Minneapolis schools are losing kids to St. Anthony, also a public high school and part of a cooperative hockey team with Irondale, it’s for academics, said St. Anthony Village High School Athletic Director Troy Urdahl. “With 42 percent open enrollment, we’re obviously getting a lot of students from neighboring communities,” he said. “And the reason they’re coming here, unlike maybe some other schools, is academics—they’re coming for curricular reasons. We don’t get many students who come for athletic reasons.”

Likewise, said Mark Loahr, who has been head hockey coach at Totino-Grace, a private high school, for 24 years. “I think that’s one of the big myths which public school apologists try to blame on private schools. With open enrollment, kids have very little incentive to go to a private school to play a sport. If they’re moving for athletics, I think they’re going to [other] public schools…Richfield, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Bloomington. With open enrollment, they don’t pay anything, so if they come to our school and pay $9,000, they’re probably coming more for academics than sports.”

Since last fall, Minneapolis Public Schools’ John Washington has been working with a task force that includes parents, community members, coaches and athletic directors to assess the high school hockey program in Minneapolis. Dale Peterson chairs the task force of about 15 to 20 participants. Peterson played youth hockey for Washburn 25 years ago, has grown children who played for Washburn and Southwest, and has younger children who currently play at the Mite level in Southwest’s youth association.

“I think a lot of people are passionate [about saving Minneapolis hockey], but they don’t look beyond their own personal situation and that’s what we’re trying to do at the task force: look at the big picture and where this is going over the next couple years. We’re not mainly concerned about our specific child or our specific high school and that’s the biggest challenge for us,” Peterson said.

Mary Mooney is also a member of the task force. Both her son and her daughter began playing hockey with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), and later played with South and Edison youth hockey associations.

(Edison Youth Hockey Association (EYHA) is a Northeast-based program, not directly affiliated with Edison High School, that owns an arena on Central Avenue and provides youth hockey programs for kids in North and Northeast Minneapolis.)

Mooney’s son Sean is now a senior at Patrick Henry High School, and the lone student from his school to play on the co-op team with Washburn.

During his hockey career Sean has played with youth associations from South and Edison (Henry had already lost its youth association program). His first year of high school he played on the Edison/Henry co-op, but when that team was reorganized Sean moved to the Washburn/Henry co-op.

“It’s been kind of confusing in that we, as a family, have had to adapt to a bunch of different traditions with each one of these groups that he’s skated with,” said Mary Mooney. “I think the thing that’s sad is that ultimately, by the time he’s done [playing hockey], he will have worn a uniform for every system except for Southwest, and will have never worn a uniform for his own school.” She added that one of the coaches from Washburn got Sean a special warm-up outfit that says “Henry Hockey.”

Sean, a goalie, said the most difficult thing he’s faced by shuffling around to new teams is “getting used to new players and their styles, their chemistry… learning the new practice regimens and the different coaching styles.” But he also said he has been able to adjust to new teams after a couple of weeks. He said that playing with Washburn this year he’s felt “really welcome—it’s one of the best fits for me.”

Mary Mooney called the change in Minneapolis’ high school hockey program “melancholy and bittersweet,” and thinks more cooperation and communication is needed among the youth associations, the MPRB and the high schools in order to retain players and grow the programs.

Dale Peterson said, “The obvious thing is that you have three high school programs and two youth programs feeding that, and the two youth programs aren’t strong enough to support three high school programs,” said Peterson. “To make a program at the high school level—a varsity and a JV team—you need about 28 skaters. The numbers at the high school level right now are drawing kids too early out of the Bantam program, so they’re not developing, and that’s part of what’s impacting the skill level at the high schools.”

St. Anthony has been part of a hockey co-op since about 1980. Originally St. Anthony was paired with Roseville, but three years ago St. Anthony forged a co-op team with Irondale High School. Troy Urdahl said switching co-ops caused, “a bit of a hiccup, but Irondale has been wonderful in developing a good relationship with our youth and including us. We’ve had good success, and it’s been a good relationship, even though it took a bit of adjusting for the entire program.”

Playing on a co-op team is no problem for St. Anthony students, according to Urdahl. “With hockey, it’s not that big of a deal, because you’re traveling no matter what—to go to practices and to go to games. With other sports at the high school level, it can be more of an issue, but there’s implicit travel associated with hockey. They know they’re going to have to go somewhere, and it doesn’t matter if they’re playing with kids from another school or not.”

The lure of other public and private school programs is not the only reason for the decline of high school hockey players in Minneapolis. Cost is definitely a factor and can be a major deterrent.

Cost factor
Hockey is expensive. Local officials say that kids who aspire to play at the high school varsity level must learn the game early. Many start skating almost as soon as they can walk. Youth hockey associations, which are prevalent throughout the state, organize competitive play for all age levels prior to high school: Mini Mites (ages 3 to 5), Mites (ages 6 to 8), Squirts (ages 9 to 10), Pee Wees (ages 11 to 12) and Bantams (ages 13 to 15).

From the start, youth participants engage in grueling hockey schedules that often require pre-dawn or late night practices, as well as extensive travel to games and tournaments. And while there are costs associated with nearly every organized youth sport, hockey is arguably the most expensive. With registration and association fees, equipment and ice time, summer clinics and hockey camps, the cost of playing hockey can seem exorbitant. Coaches say the average cost is about $1,000-$1,500 per year.
“Hockey’s not a cheap sport,” said Urdahl, “So where the money is, that’s where some of the better programs are. In the inner city…there probably has been a bit of a push to the suburbs for players. And it starts at the youth levels.”

Gotta start early
Playing hockey at an early age is a requisite for athletes who aspire to compete in high school and beyond. “You can’t just pick up the sport at age 14 and expect to compete at a varsity level,” said Southwest coach Wes Durand. “You have to play at an early age because there’s a skill set that goes with hockey that has to be developed over time. It requires a much larger commitment, both financially and time-wise, from not just the athlete, but from the entire family.”

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Commissioner Walter Dziedzic agrees. “If you don’t start skating when you’re young, you can’t start in 9th grade,” he said. Dziedzic should know. He raised three sons, two who played hockey at Edison High School. His youngest son, Joe, was named “Mr. Hockey” in 1990. Joe went on to play for the University of Minnesota, and then professionally for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Phoenix Coyotes before an eye injury ended his NHL career.

Attracting young players to the game is also a challenge for Minneapolis because the city’s demographics have changed. Large numbers of immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and Somalia have settled in the city during the past decade—coming from cultures that have no tradition of ice hockey. Many of these families lack the interest and the money to enroll their kids in hockey.

Totino-Grace coach Mark Loahr said that hockey programs should be expanded to include minority players. “What [the city] has to do, as a community, is attract new populations to youth hockey…it can’t use the excuse that there are no white, middle-class kids here anymore…They have to look at how to get some of these youth populations to play the sport. A lot of people moving to these areas don’t have a lot of money…I think it’s an attractive sport and kids would like it if they tried it…[The city should] offer free equipment…If they could get free skates, maybe they’d try it and like it.”

Besides the city’s youth hockey associations, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board offers organized recreational hockey for boys and girls ages 6 to 15. There is a girls league: Penguins (grades 3-5) and Polar Bears (grades 6-8); and an open league: Squirts (boys and girls ages 6-8), 10U (age 10 and under), 12U (age 12 and under), 14U (age 14 and under) and 18U (age 18 and under).

Although the MPRB games are fewer (the season runs seven weeks in January and February) and less competitive than those at the youth association level, kids can play, learn the game and develop skills. They are required to provide some of their own equipment.

Southwest coach Durand is a proponent of MPRB hockey and thinks it can help save the city’s high school program. “I’m proposing that we move hockey in the city of Minneapolis out of the youth traveling association at the Mite and Squirt levels, and move it back into a park board system. You can still travel—much like Duluth does—but move it into a more neighborhood-based situation where you can increase your numbers at the base level…That way families can get their kids involved in the sport without too much out-of-pocket [expense].”

Dziedzic said he’s noticed a decline in park board hockey participation. “The Park Board spends about $1.8 million per year flooding the rinks in Minneapolis—taking care of them, putting up the boards for hockey, keeping the warming house going—and we get very little in return. At one time we flooded 62 rinks in Minneapolis. This winter we flooded…28 rinks. That’s less than half, and if my intuition is correct, it’ll probably be less than that in the years to come unless some turnaround can be found.”

Dziedzic said participation is down in all hockey programs because of the city’s changing demographics, and he said the MPRB recently hired a demographer to study the issue.

“We brought in a demographer because we want to keep on the cutting edge of sports,” Dziedzic said. “The ethnic groups that are coming into [Minneapolis] are bringing their own sports…like volleyball, soccer and other games…I’ve tried to get minorities in hockey programs…and on the North side they’ve had some success.”

While the future of Minneapolis’ high school hockey program remains unclear, advocates agree that retaining players from youth associations, recruiting new and minority players, and building MPRB teams are essential for success. And if Minneapolis cannot maintain or grow the number of hockey players at the high school level, it risks losing its programs.

“We have options here,” said Wes Durand. “If we don’t do something about this, we’re going to lose hockey altogether in Minneapolis. That’s a fact. The upper level players who are intense about the game are going to leave Minneapolis for one or more reasons. We need to increase our numbers and do something about the development structure—that’s where we’re losing kids, inadequate development structure at the youth level. By the time they get to high school, it’s just too late.”

Next installments: A look at Northeast’s Edison Youth Hockey Association, and a look at how some coaches on the North Side are building hockey programs there.

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