You could randomly pick one of the 200-plus rinks in Minnesota, and the odds are that you might see five kids on one team wearing the apparel of five different Minnesota colleges. One Mite dragging his hockey bag from the car could be wearing a University of Minnesota Golden Gophers sweatshirt, and when he finally gets to the locker room, there’s a teammate wearing a UMD hat, or a St. Cloud State T-Shirt, or Bemidji State sweatpants.
It’s called the State of Hockey for a reason. And while most Minnesota kids grow up cheering on the same NHL team – the Minnesota Wild – we hold a special place in our hearts for the college hockey teams spread throughout the state.
With five NCAA Division-I schools throughout the state – the Gophers, the Bulldogs, the Mavericks, the Beavers and the Huskies – youth hockey players often dream of donning those school colors.
St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko believes that culture, cultivated by Minnesota Hockey’s community-based structure, has fostered growth and development like no other state. Minnesota Hockey’s system allows more kids the chance to play and develop in their own communities, but without the high cost that comes with privately owned programs that exist in other parts of the country.
More opportunity with less financial cost leads to an increase in numbers and development. And with quality programs provided in the community, a player doesn’t need to travel to another part of the country to develop his or her skills. They can stay right at home, and that allows them to be exposed to the in-state college teams.
At young ages, these kids are showing up to the college rinks in their team jackets and toques, and seeing the dream: sparkling arenas packed with fans cheering on teams wearing cool jerseys.
“It’s pretty simple for all of us in the state of Minnesota,” said Motzko, whose current roster boasts 11 Minnesotans ranging from the Roseau Youth Hockey Association to the Andover Youth Hockey Association. “We have such a strong talent pool right in our backyard that we all benefit from and have historically benefited from throughout the years.”
The local colleges aren’t the only programs benefiting from Minnesota Hockey’s system. Schools across the country try to tap into the talent here, because they know not every college-bound player can suit up for a local university.
“It’s like if all the great quarterbacks in Texas went to Texas, they wouldn’t all get to play,” said Motzko of spreading out the Minnesota talent pool to other colleges. “So we see Michigan and Massachusetts and other colleges coming to Minnesota to grab the talent we have and grow and spread out that talent. It’s a great sight.”
Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, who, like Motzko, guided his team to the Frozen Four last season, believes Minnesota Hockey is the country’s top model for developing and retaining players.
“Right now, the Minnesota model – nothing even touches it,” Pecknold said in a video for Connecticut Hockey. “It’s the best model going. The numbers don’t lie. They produce so many players for Division-I hockey and for the NHL.”
Yet again, Minnesota claimed the most Division I men’s (181) and women’s (131) hockey players out of any other state in the 2012-13 season. It doesn’t stop there. Minnesota produced the second-most Division II and III men’s players (241) and the most Division II and III women’s players (275).
Size doesn’t matter either, when it comes to youth hockey associations in Minnesota. Some of the game’s best players have come from smaller programs.
Former Minnesota State star and current St. Louis Blues captain David Backes came from the Spring Lake Park Youth Hockey Association. Huskies standout and Calgary Flames prospect Ben Hanowski developed in the Little Falls Youth Hockey Association. The Hermantown Amateur Hockey Association produced last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc. The Duluth Amateur Hockey Association developed former Bulldog and 2012 Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Connolly.
“Those are great stories – real stories,” Motzko said. “Kids hear that and think, ‘I want to do that, too. He played in my youth association and made it.’ We love hearing those types of things.”
Successes like those continue to fuel the Minnesota Hockey culture, year in and year out. If you’re a hockey talent in our state, the colleges will find you.