The experience of our hockey players is being enable by where we live – Minnesota (suburb of the Twin Cities specifically). I can’t overemphasize how important the hockey resources and culture in Minnesota are to the decision we make for our little hockey players. Neither my wife or I were born and raised in Minnesota, and I grew up playing hockey in Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, so my exposure to players from the State of Hockey (Minnesota’s self-proclaimed nickname) was limited so I didn’t understand the quality and sheer amount of players Minnesota was putting into junior, college, and professional leagues.
I was recently reading a blog about hockey that I really enjoy, the Champs App podcast/ app, and he was fortunate enough to attend the USA Girls U15 Camp in St. Cloud, MN. He was surprised at how frequently top girls that stood out were from Minnesota throughout the week. He is from California but has two kids playing at very competitive levels and seems to have exposure to teams from across the US and Canada. Seeing this reinforced my experience that even though Minnesota is churning out top quality players, parents and players may not understand the force that Minnesota hockey is.
As a parent of players in Minnesota you are faced with a millions decisions when it comes to their hockey experience. Everything from in-season programs, summer AAA teams, off-season training and development, gear and hockey shops, etc, so making the right decision for your family can be tough but most times you can be picking between two, three, or four great options and just need to pick what is best for the development of your player.
So what make Minnesota Hockey so special? I think there are a few key attributes that really make Minnesota Hockey unique (remember this is only my opinion and views):
- The Community Hockey Model
- Access to Ice
- Sheer Number of Players
- Influence and Investment from Top Level Players
- Hockey Tradition
The Community Hockey Model
Every time you hear about Minnesota Hockey the community hockey model will come up. So what is it? Simply put each city/ town/ community has a youth hockey association. Your child plays in the youth hockey association for your town/ school district from Mites through Pee Wee or Bantam (depending on their High School/ Junior Hockey path). Example: If you live in Minnetonka, MN you play in their youth hockey association. If Eden Prairie, MN has a stronger team or better facilities you can not join that team unless your child is enrolled in that school district. Depending on the size of the association they might even try to organize by elementary school or neighborhood at the Mite (8U) and/ or Squirt (10U) levels.
This enables kids to play hockey with friends, classmates, and neighbors. It helps build pride in who they are playing for with a sense of why. This model prioritizes creating a love of the game and building a culture of hockey vs winning or playing 50+ games at the Mite level. Imagine if your child was in class with teammates all day, playing on the playground, playing shinny on the backyard rink, and then practicing and playing games with the same group of kids for 10+ years. How would that change how they think about hockey? Would it create a greater love of the game? I think it does for sure! Just this year in my daughter’s first grade classroom when tables where assigned she had two hockey players at her table, her friend she had played with the last two years and a boy she has played against in our house league. Right away she had “friends” and something in common with the kids to talk about and a way to relate to each other.
The culmination of the community model is playing for your local High School Varsity Hockey team, in Minnesota, High School hockey matters, it is played at an extremely high level and coached by leaders that have deep expertise and experience. It is treated like football in Texas and Florida, and many times the crowds that show up to support the teams are just as large. The alignment between the youth associations and the High School teams also helps setup a development model and culture that enables excellence year in and year out for many teams.
Access to Ice
This enabler is closely related to the community model because in Minnesota many rinks are owned and operated by the community. Rinks are owned and operated by the local parks department and included in the city budgets. Youth hockey associations partner with the parks department to create the optimal experience for their members and attempt to keep costs down. Hockey is still expensive in Minnesota but the price/ hour for each child ranges from about $20-$10/hr. Example: Our local 8U/ Mite registration fee is $599 for about 50 hours of ice for the season.
There are also private rinks that have their own hockey programing but are also utilized by local hockey associations to augment the local community owned rinks. One unique thing I have seen with the private rinks in our area is that there are a lot of “studio” rinks that are smaller in dimension to your normal NHL or Olympic sized ice surface, but are perfect for Mite games or 3 on 3 tournaments or leagues.
Finally, we have plenty of outdoor rinks that start to pop-up in mid-December and are usually viable until mid-February. These rinks are utilized by youth hockey associations as well to create more ice time for the program. They are also free, so your child can go skate when they want for as long as they want, and in our town most of these rinks are within walking distance from most neighborhoods. They are maintained by the city/ towns so the ice is usually in great shape and good for pickup hockey or practicing your skill development.
Just to bring this all to life in our City alone we have 15 full-size ice pads available (4 Community Owned Ice Pads, 2 Private Owned Ice Pads, 9 Community Park Ice Pads)
Sheer Number of Players
There are a ton of hockey players at all ages and levels in Minnesota (Minnesota has the largest USA hockey registration numbers each year and the state is it’s own USA Hockey District), and this breeds not only a culture of hockey but also increases the likelihood of high-end top players being developed that feed into the college and professional system. As more top players are involved in the hockey ecosystem you would theorize that this will increase the skills and development of all players, like the old saying says “Steel Sharpens Steel.”
The numbers also normalize the game and make it ingrained in the culture, kids grow up in Minnesota thinking “this is what we do here.” Hockey isn’t some foreign or unique concept to kids in Minnesota, it is what we do for fun, we grab our gear, hit the pond and play shinny until our toes want to fall off or it is dinner time!
Finally, the sheer number of players increase the probability that a child will know someone that has played in the NHL/NWHL, Pros, or College. It helps them create realistic dreams that they can strive for based on people they look up to. It makes it attainable that they can make it big in the sport they love!
Influence and Investment from Top-Level Players
There are a lot of former NHL players all across Minnesota. I am not talking about guys that played 10 or 20 games, but professionals that made a career in the NHL playing 200, 300, 500+ games. This is because there are a lot of pros from Minnesota but also many players end up settling down here for a variety of reasons after their careers are over.
Many of these players invest back in the communities they call home by coaching, advising, or being board members of their local youth hockey associations. I can think of at least two former NHL players that have coached my daughter directly and another eight kids whose fathers currently play in the league.
NHL players are not the only top players that are enabling our players, but there are also many former female olympians that are giving back and helping make Minnesota Hockey special, my daughter has had the opportunity to be on the ice and receive coaching from three different women that were not only olympians but Hall of Famers. This builds an exceptional foundation of skills and reinforces the hockey culture in Minnesota.
Every town and community has its own hockey traditions and these range from tournaments to jamborees to how they support their High School teams. Outside of these local traditions there are two traditions that are embraced in every corner of the state:
- Hockey Day in Minnesota: This is really more than a day, most years it is two or three days, and showcases teams from the High School, College, and Professional levels in a single location on an outdoor ice sheet. All the games are broadcast and treated like an NHL game with big crowds and plenty of passion. The “day” usually ends with the Minnesota Wild taking on an opponent in an outdoor game.
- Minnesota State High School Tournament: This tournament is the culmination of a great winter High School hockey season. All games are played at the Excel Energy Center (home of the Wild) in St. Paul, and are capped off by four State Championship games for Boys A and AA and Girls A and AA. These games often get anywhere from 5,000 to 18,000+ fans and are watched by viewers across the state.
If you are still reading you are probably thinking that this is a lot, but the point is Hockey in Minnesota is special and the decisions my family makes are set in a broader context that not all players and parents have the opportunity to experience. In my next blog I will discuss the strategy we are using to help shape our hockey players’ development and love of the game.
-North Star Hockey Dad