Youth

Junior Gold turns 20

By Aaron Paitich
Touchpoint Media

What was once considered a “hack” league and an eyesore for Minnesota Hockey is now prospering as a fun, safe and competitive hockey alternative for high school boys around the state.

Happy 20th birthday, Metro Hockey League. And many more.

Created by Minnesota Hockey’s District Directors two decades ago, the Metro Hockey League – the largest Junior Gold league in the state – has housed between 55-70 teams comprised of players aged 15-18 who were either cut or declined to play high school hockey. The league contains three divisions – Junior Gold A, Junior Gold B and Junior Gold 16 for a narrower age group. Each team is sponsored by a youth hockey association, whether local or combined with a regional co-op.

The current landscape and future is bright for Junior Gold hockey, but it didn’t come without bumps and bruises down the road. In its younger years, the league turned into a haven for cheap hockey.

“It was kind of a hack league,” Metro Hockey League Chairman Tom Slaird said. “There was a lot of fighting. Goon hockey.”

Many kids would sign up with a vengeful directive channeled through dirty, dangerous hits – and often, fighting. It got so bad, Minnesota Hockey thought about pulling the plug on it. Slaird and the Metro Hockey League’s board members fought to keep it alive with promised changes on the way.

“We’re not letting them shut this league down,” Slaird recalled a conversation with Metro Hockey League board members. “It’s too important to give kids an opportunity to play. We’re just not shutting it down.”

An advisory committee was formed, which Slaird and other veteran coaches served on. In came critical rule changes, coaching clinics and sportsmanship measures which helped craft the league into a safer, stronger and well-respected program that would soon prosper.

Officials would be allowed to hand out game disqualifications and players would only be allowed three penalties per game before being kicked out.

The Wes Barrette handshake, in honor of the late and legendary coach from the east side of St. Paul, was instituted to prevent post-game incidents while promoting sportsmanship. Instead of shaking hands after the game at center ice, the players would line up and greet each other beforehand.

The Fair Play points system, initiated by Minnesota Hockey’s Hockey Education Program (HEP), provided more incentive for teams to play honest, clean hockey. Good sportsmanship would be rewarded in the standings, win or lose. If your team takes fewer than a designated amount of penalties in a game, they would be rewarded in the district standings with a fair-play point. This concept was so outside-the-box the New York Times wrote a lengthy piece on it in 2010.

All of these efforts combined to dramatically decrease penalty-minute totals, reckless play and a barrage of injuries that haunted Junior Gold hockey in its earlier years. It was an overall culture change.

“It took about five years and we cleaned it up. That’s ancient history,” Slaird added. “We’re trying to leave that behind. We’ve had a string of six or seven years of really exemplary play, high-quality hockey and good behavior.”

Registration and participation numbers started increasing. It paved the way for skill, creativity and a higher level of hockey for all to enjoy. After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Most players grow up in the sport with the hope of playing varsity high school hockey. Not everybody will make the team. Not everybody will have enough time on their hands to dedicate themselves to an everyday hockey schedule. Does that mean their competitive hockey-playing days are over? Absolutely not, Slaird says. That’s where Junior Gold comes in.

“Hockey goes on past Bantams. It doesn’t end,” Slaird said. “It’s all about playing with your friends, having an option and having a great time.

“It’s about staying in the game.”

With varsity cuts being made across the state, Slaird’s phone is ringing off the hook as players and coaches are looking to fill out Junior Gold rosters once again. The Metro Hockey League alone is expected to hit 69 teams this season.

Visit MetroHockeyLeague.org for more information.