Jack Blatherwick

Thank you, John Russo

By Jack Blatherwick

John Russo started the Elite League and guided it for 12 years with one purpose in mind – to make Minnesota high school hockey the best experience in the world, so it would not be necessary for players to leave home early to play in junior leagues. 

Every state in the country that has hockey wishes they had a program like Minnesota’s combination of high school and Elite League. An NHL coach called recently when his son was unable to get enough hockey without spending thousands of dollars and playing in distant cities. AAA teams and ‘for-profit’ enterprises had bought up the ice time and drowned out the local programs. “Minnesota has the best program anywhere for grassroots development,” he said.  “Don’t ever change.”

Before the Elite League this was debatable. Players who wanted more games against top players felt they had to leave home to play junior hockey. This was a critical time, and something needed to be done. With the addition of 25 highly competitive Elite League games, the high school program is now as good as it gets. Coaches are excellent, all with experience as high-level players. Referees and linesmen work with the same degree of professionalism we see in NHL officials. They skate as well as players, hustle non-stop and call infractions by the rulebook. Therefore, competition is incredibly skillful and fast.

Russo runs things with an iron fist, because he’s determined to keep it ‘elite,’ getting all the best players, and only the best players. Practices are mandatory, as are trips to Wisconsin, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and northern Minnesota. If players were allowed to skip once in awhile, scouts would stop coming and the league would deteriorate quickly. But the Elite League and the invitational tournament have gotten better each year, because John would not accept mediocrity.

Details – some of them very time-consuming can make or break any league. There are websites to build and maintain, uniforms, sponsorships, injuries, attendance issues and communications with college coaches. Hundreds of volunteer parents carried out Russo’s organizational plans at game sites – every game, every weekend and every year. Until the league had a high profile, potential sponsors were hard to find, so at times Russo had to keep things going with his own money – thousands of dollars in fact. 

And it just kept getting better each year, because the iron-fisted boss would have it no other way. So as John retires from this project, I join thousands of players and coaches in thanking him for his commitment to our state treasure, Minnesota High School Hockey.

Well done, John Russo.