The stay or leave high school question
Posted by Dean Holden at March 10th, 2014
by John Russo, 5 March 2014
Over the past couple of months, I’ve heard much about how we are doing worse at the high school hockey level. The big story in the Minneapolis newspaper was about so many players leaving high school. That seems to be the real story that people are grabbing onto – that some 40-plus high school players left, so we are falling apart. My assessments way back in 2002-03 found over 40, and they were 40 formidable players. I’m now ready to take a good objective look at this question.
When I started the Upper Midwest High School Elite League (Elite League) 13 years ago, one of the reasons was to stop the ever-increasing number of good/top (formidable) high school players from leaving -– mostly to the United States Hockey League (USHL). Over the 13 years, I’ve watched very carefully the number of formidable players leaving and it has stayed mostly the same, around 15-18. The past couple of years has seen the Major Junior leagues of Canada (OHL, WHL, QHL) become much more aggressive in going after our top players, especially those that are not very good students. This year they have snatched eight undergraduate players from Minnesota high schools. These players have lost their college eligibility because players are paid in the three Canadian leagues.
Even though the USHL, the top Tier I Junior A league in the U.S., has increased the number of teams to 16, they have not increased the number of Minnesota high school undergraduates – this year there are 10. The North American Hockey League (NAHL), the top Tier II Junior A league in the U.S., has also increased in size dramatically, now with 24 teams. It has also not very much changed the number of undergraduate Minnesota players they take.
Both of these leagues have large numbers of (graduated from high school) players from Minnesota on their rosters, by the way. This is what we prefer.
The other consequential program that takes Minnesota high school undergraduates is the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor, Mich. They generally range from two to four each year, and this has not changed.
When I reviewed players that have left, I only have closely considered what I above call “formidable players”– those that go to top junior leagues (or NTDP) teams. Of the 40-plus players listed in the news article, 15 were players going to Midget teams or lesser junior teams in Florida or elsewhere. I really don’t count those players as they are not generally formidable and are going to teams that would not, on the whole, be any better than a good high school team in Minnesota. Even the British Columbia (Junior) Hockey League where some players (mostly University of Minnesota recruits, interestingly) have jumped to, has a flock of poor teams where players can fatten up their stats and score 100-125 points, is overall, no more than a Canadian Midget-level operation.
So, how do we really see what the results have been? How do parents judge whether “moving on early” is a good idea or a bad one. Invariably, players that leave are the bigger scorers. Do they get to still develop their scoring or become fourth line grinders for a year (or forever) when they could have stayed, played 27 top junior level games in the Elite League and a full high school season where they could improve their top end skills.
I was curious too, so I looked up all these players (teams) to see how they were doing at roughly mid-season (30 to 40 games roughly) at about mid January. Here is what I found. I’ll not give you those 16-17 years old player’s names, just how the players have done.
1. Ann Arbor (NTDP) (4 players)
• 4 players, all active; 1 forward, 3 defense. All are progressing. No assessment done.
2. USHL (10 players)
• 6 defensemen
– 3 have played in most (not all) games and appear to be doing OK. Stats don’t tell the story on the D’s.
– 3 have played in roughly 20 of 30 games; 30 percent plus of the time in the bleachers.
– 1 of the 6 has been traded once and has been with two teams in a three-month period.
** So, three are likely doing OK, three not so much (two in the bleachers); and one has had two billet homes already.
• 4 forwards
– 3 have played in roughly 25 of 30 games (15-20 percent in bleachers)
– 1 has played in 20 of 30 games (one-third time in bleachers)
– They all have 15-18 points
– One has been traded once
** So, they all are doing kind of fair (but 15-35 percent with time in the bleachers), have scored a moderate number of points and one has had two billet homes already.
3. Major Junior (Canada)
• Western Hockey League (WHL) (6 players)
– 6 players (2D, 4F); the top team scorers are 55-65 points at this time.
– 1 player (F) has played in 36 of 43 games and is 7-7–14.
– 1 player (F) has played in 34 of 43 games is 11-10–21.
– 1 player (D) has played in 39 of 43 games and is 10-10–20.
– The other 3 (2F, 1D) have played in 11-24 of 43 games and have 3-9 points.
** So, one player (D) is doing pretty well, played most games, 20 points; two (F’s) are doing fair (only 15-20 percent in the bleachers); three (F’s) are doing poorly (in bleachers 50-70 percent and few points).
• Quebec Major Junior League (WMJL) (1)
– 1 (F) has played in 34 of 43 games (20 percent in bleachers) and is 0-4–4.
**So, one player not doing very well.
• Ontario Hockey League (OHL) (1)
– 1 (F) has played in 20 of 43 games (55 percent in the bleachers) and has 1-2–3
** So, one player not doing very well.
4. North American Hockey League (NAHL) (7)
• 4 Defensemen
– 1 is inactive; no longer playing in the league.
– 1 has played in all 39 games.
– 2 others have played in 15 to 23 of 36 games (35-58 percent in the bleachers).
** So, one appears to be doing well, two are in the bleachers a lot and one is gone.
• 2 Forwards
– 1 has played in most games (36) and is 7-5–12.
– 1 has played in 14 of 38 games (63 percent bleacher time) and is 0-2–2.
** So, one has played in most games, has a few points, one player seldom plays and is not scoring.
• 1 Goaltender
– Has played in 17 of 37 games (46 percent) of games and has a .906 save percentage.
** So, the goaltender appears to be doing well.
There are seven players in Midget – two goaltenders and a forward in Midget U18. One goaltender is no longer on the roster; the other has played 12 games with a .936 save percentage. The forward has played in most games and has 22 points. The four players in U16 Midgets can’t even see juniors; it is so far away, so they are not assessed.
There are eight players playing in lesser Midget or lesser junior (Tier III) leagues (NA3HL, USPHL, AWHL, BCHL). Only one (D) of the players has done particularly well (not too often in the bleachers); he has 16 points and has played in 26 of 29 games. One player is no longer rostered.
So, there we have it. I’m sure the parents of many (most) of these players are not thrilled with their decisions. Many of their sons are grinding it out, at age 16-17, often in the bleachers. This is instead of playing with their own town’s high school teams, sleeping in their own beds, having their own church and friends, under their parents’ watchful eyes.
There is little worse for a 16-17 year old high school star than being away from home and all that is familiar, then spending considerable time not even playing and getting few points on the bottom lines.
Not every player should stay in high school. Sometimes (rarely for the exceptional player) it is time to move on. But even Leddy, Bjugstad, Snuggerud, Spinner and Rau, to name a few, didn’t. But for the most part, there are no real advantages in leaving high school hockey in Minnesota. Nearly every objective hockey person will tell you that almost every player will not gain much, if any, hockey-wise, and will lose in family, friends, church, school and every other measure.
How many of the players that I assessed in this column are going to be better than if they had played a 27-game Elite League schedule and another 25-27 high school games plus practices? I didn’t see any. In addition, the players that left lost contact with home!
The overwhelming majority of formidable players that stayed are doing great. They kept all of the good things and have maintained their scoring and high status. Next year they will face junior hockey much better prepared, bigger, stronger, more sure of themselves.
A quick story about two Eden Prairie players that were under big pressure to leave. Both Luc Snuggerud and Steve Spinner were drafted by Muskegon of the USHL. They stayed for their senior year (this year), but after they were stars in the Elite League (and sign by colleges, by the way), they went to Muskegon for a two-game weekend to “get their feet wet” before the high school season started. The results were that Spinner was the leading scorer and Snuggerud was the defenseman of the week in the whole USHL.
The Muskegon owner commented in the newspaper the following week that he didn’t understand why the two would want to go back to their little high schools and girlfriends when they could stay in Muskegon. This is the kind of attitude many (not all) junior teams have. It’s really about winning and filling the stands, and ultimately the same old thing – money, for many teams.
Of course, junior is the next step in development after high school – and our high school players, for the most part, follow that path. They are better prepared to do well when they are 18, and more mature physically, mentally and emotionally.
Things have not really changed much. The Canadian junior teams are more aggressive. Otherwise, the number of players leaving has not changed much over the past six to eight years.
We did find out that our undergrads spend considerable time in the bleachers, for the first year at least – instead of keeping their scoring touch and confidence at home.
We are set up well here in Minnesota to develop our players. They don’t need to “run off.” Some don’t get it, and still leave; it’s not much different from year to year. The not-so-good results of “leaving early” are laid out now. Maybe more will stay in the top development model in the U.S. – Minnesota.
John Russo’s new book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner” is now available. Go to www.russocoachescorner.com or call 952-944-7137 to order a copy.
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.