The last of community-based hockey

By John Russo
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Most of us in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota) don’t really understand the difference between community-based hockey (CBH) and non-community-based hockey because we have never seen the non-CBH. Our kids grow up in their association, then play for the local high school (or a few for a “local” private school).

For most of the U.S. there are mostly for-profit youth “companies” that charge large amounts of money to play. There may or may not be youth associations at the Mite and Squirt levels.

In most states, there are organizations like Team Illinois, Chicago Young Americans, Belle Tire (Detroit), Marquette Electricians (Michigan), P.F. Chang’s (Phoenix), Philadelphia Flyers and so on that cost $15,000 to $20,000 to play for. Yes, $15,000 to $20,000!

The players are recruited from various parts of that area and from around the country. The lucky youngsters have a team close by so they don’t have to leave home at age 15 or 16, The unlucky ones have to leave home and live with a billet family (for a fee).

This is the way top end hockey development takes place in most places, except the upper Midwest – SO FAR. The push is always on to go to this non-CBH concept in our area. The question, you ask, is why. It’s about money, of course! Almost all of these organizations charge a lot of money.

There are always reasons why Midget hockey is formed to take over high school hockey. For example, right now in North Dakota there is a plan to have AAA Midget hockey in Grand Forks. The argument by The Hockey Academy at the University of North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and run by UND coach (and former Apple Valley high school and UND goalie) Karl Goehring claims that too many high school players are leaving the state before they graduate to play Junior and Midget.

Their reasoning is that North Dakota high school teams don’t play good enough competition or enough games. Of course, the North Dakota top high school players play in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League where the competition is top notch – and adds 24 games to their high school total.

Furthermore, no top players would leave for Midget hockey. Midget is a third level choice for these players behind Junior A Tier I, Tier II and Tier III. Yes, that is what they now call the Junior A, B and C – so everybody can say they are playing Junior A – on one of the hundreds of for-profit junior teams now in the U.S.

North Dakota is being sucked into this concept for money by a few. Looking around the country at most Midget AAA team rosters, the kids come from all over the country if they can pay the fees – and the massive travel costs. I’ve heard North Dakota kids bemoan the travel they have to do for the Elite League. First of all, they pay hundreds of dollars, not several thousands and more. Second, the travel costs are higher in Midget hockey. For a Grand Forks team, it will be at least every other week.

What does this mean to Minnesota and Wisconsin? Well, Wisconsin has been fighting off the whole AAA concept for at least a decade and now only allows it outside of their high school season.

In Minnesota, Midget hockey would siphon off enough players to weaken the smaller town teams such that they would no longer be able to compete. Even the North Dakota Grand Forks team has a stated quota of Minnesota players.

The reason that the Upper Midwest High School Elite League was formed over a decade ago was to keep the top players in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin from leaving home to play. There is no question that the 24-25 game limit at the high school level doesn’t allow full playing development. The extra high level games solved the problem for the top level players. Some players still leave, but there are not good reasons to do so. Nick Bjugstad, Nick Leddy, Dan Sexton and so on are great examples of this.

Hockey folks in all three hockey states of the Upper Midwest need to be on guard against Midget hockey. They need to express their desire not to give in to for-profit organizations, no matter what the pressure.

A look at the deterioration of public school hockey on the East Coast – and many other areas of the country – should be evidence enough. We are now very successful, just like they used to be. Beware of what the cost could be in non-community-based hockey and to families that can’t pay the big money, or don’t want to send their sons away at age 15 or 16. Beware of the few owners of the organizations/teams that charge large tuition and fees so they can make money.

Community-based hockey is not for profit hockey. It is for fun and for development hockey – with no big salaries and profits to owners.

Let’s not make the same mistakes as they have in the east. Let’s stay vigilant so it doesn’t sneak up on us.

John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.



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