The ongoing recruiting battle between the NCAA and Canadian Hockey League took a new twist this past February, creating what appears to be a new front in the war: Minnesota high school hockey.
Last week, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune documented the intriguing case of Alec Baer, a 15-year-old freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis Park, Minn., and one of the top underclassmen in the state.
Baer was recently kicked off the BSM varsity team by head coach Ken Pauly after he went to visit the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. It has been termed as a recruiting visit. However, in going, Baer missed a practice.
According to Western College Hockey Blog, the school released the following statement upon Baer’s removal from the program:
“Alec Baer has decided to seek out other hockey opportunities and is no longer a part of the Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey program.”
Baer, who had attended the Giants rookie camp in August, ended up signing with Vancouver on Feb. 15.
This situation is providing a very interesting case study in the high competitiveness of the NCAA-CHL battle and how it trickles down to the other levels of hockey and the fact that there’s a relatively new battleground.
Minnesota-based players used to be long shots to ever consider playing major junior, but that’s starting to change and Baer’s case is the latest example of tensions rising.
Minnesota high school hockey is somewhat on an island in terms of the developmental levels of hockey in the U.S. in a variety of ways.
Most other states’ best players play midget triple-A hockey as opposed to for their high schools and therefore have less of those local traditions and ties to those localities like the Minnesota high school ranks. The next logical step for the players that are good enough is junior hockey.
Minnesota high school hockey is a high-enough level of competition to be considered on at the very least on par with triple-A, but with those strong local ties within the programs, there’s more pressure on players to stay in school even if they’re ready for another step.
It’s a miniature version of what’s happening in college hockey. Most top players are leaving NCAA programs early for the pros, only in Minnesota an increasing number of players is leaving for junior hockey.
Part of that is due to the uptick in recruiting in the state. Like always, there are good players there that a lot of teams want. The WHL has focused more efforts in recruiting the state, similar to how it did with California in recent years.
The results are only just starting to show up as players like Baer, a trio of 16-year-old standouts in Keegan Iverson, Paul Bittner and Jack Walker and 1993-born Cody Corbett are beginning to head north.
This may be a big reason for what happened with Baer’s dismissal.
The Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association has a number of purposes, but a big one is advocating that players stay in high school all four years for their hockey and apparently also on a path to college hockey. Their president is Ken Pauly, Baer’s now former head coach.
“I don’t think we’re trying to send a message of, ‘Don’t come into our backyard,’ ” Pauly told the Minneapolis StarTribune, who also admitted that Baer’s dismissal was related to major junior. “But we want it to come through loud and clear what we are about, what the high school experience is about and continuing to stand by those things.”
The StarTrib also detailed the somewhat recent resignation of Jon Bittner from an executive board position with the coaches association last spring after his son, Paul, signed with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
“I still take pride in community-based programs,” Jon Bittner said to David LaVaque of the StarTrib. “The only problem is I had one of those kids who wanted to play in the WHL.”
These two issues, along with the increasing frequency of Minnesota high school players leaving school to play junior hockey not only in the Canadian major junior ranks, but even U.S.-based junior leagues and programs, is a sign of the times.
There are lines being drawn all over the country as coaches look to protect their interests and in Minnesota high school hockey’s case, its relevance among elite players in the state.
Players have more options than ever before now when it comes to their development and each has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Players develop differently. They need different things to become better hockey players, but they also want different things now and that’s an important factor.
The culture of a player spending his entire hockey-playing life from ages 5-18 within one development system all within his hometown with all his friends is part of the fabric of Minnesota hockey and a reason for its strength.
That may be important, but bluntly, the competitiveness of player development is forcing a shift in the way things are done.
Remember, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some players are going to develop just fine at the high school ranks, others need something different, and again may want something different. Sometimes what a player wants is contradictory to what is best for his development, but that’s a choice the player has to make and live with himself.
Many of the players who have left their high schools early in search of more games, older competition or perhaps more exposure and have been locally chastised as selfish. However, when it comes to player development, there is a difference between being selfish and being proactive.
As of now, more players are being selected out of junior hockey than high school. When a player has a good year in junior, they’re slightly easier to project and therefore more attractive as prospects. Meanwhile, the high school player can still possess a lot of upside, but will be seen as riskier as having not been proven against a tougher level of competition.
The Minnesota high school ranks are still prospect rich, but not as in years past and that’s showing up more at the NHL Draft.
The number of players taken in the NHL Draft directly from Minnesota high schools is shrinking. Dominic Toninato was the first player from the Minnesota high school ranks taken in 2012 at No. 126 and was one of just four selected overall.
There were nine players taken directly from Minnesota high schools in 2011, with Mario Lucia the highest taken at 60th overall. In 2010, 12 Minnesota high schoolers were selected including a pair in the first round, Nick Bjugstad and Brock Nelson. So it’s been a fairly steady decline in recent years.
There are still prime examples high school proponents can point to as signs that staying in school can be a path to the NHL.
The high school way worked for Ryan McDonagh, who spent four years at Cretin-Derham Hall before three years at Wisconsin. He is now a top-four defenseman for the New York Rangers and one of the best young defenders in the NHL. Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy is another example of a four-year Minnesota high school player who made it to the big leagues rather rapidly.
Panthers prospect Nick Bjugstad is likely to become the next example, but the numbers simply can’t compete with those coming out of the Canadian and United States Hockey Leagues.
The recruitment of players in this highly-contentious race to develop NHL talent leans heavily on numbers and stats like those from the draft are not going to sit well with elite players.
The concern that the early departures are watering down the level of play is an absolutely valid one, but the toothpaste is already out of the tube at this point.
Junior hockey, both at the major junior and junior A levels, has made incredible strides and teams are putting funds into player development at record levels. It’s tough to keep up with that and it’s even tougher for players not to want to take advantage of it.
When it comes to cases like Baer, the disappointing part is that it appears he was punished for exploring his options. There may be more to the story, but on the surface it doesn’t look too great.
Players need to explore what’s best for them and if that means going on a recruiting trip, then that’s just doing one’s due diligence.
Instead, Baer is now an example, or perhaps more of a warning shot from Pauly and the high school coaches, even if they say it’s not. And it’s really not a warning shot at the WHL, but at the players.
It is perfectly understandable for teams to expect complete loyalty from their kids. The actions of one player can impact all sometimes. However, it is important to allow the players the space and the ability to seek information regarding a decision that has very personal long-term implications.
Sometimes a player is going to make a choice that is contradictory to his coach’s or an association’s belief systems and expectations, but that’s on the player alone.
This will be intriguing to watch as this recruiting war between the Canadian Hockey League and entities that keep players on a path towards college hockey heats up. The folks in Minnesota are intensely passionate about the game and their traditions, so this could get real interesting real fast.