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Lights, Camera, Action: The Rise of Junior Gold

By Aaron Paitich, Touchpoint Media, 03/19/15, 11:15AM CDT

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Greg Gibson’s son Devon was cut from the high school team as a sophomore back in 2004. Like a lot of kids facing the disappointment of not getting the chance to realize the high school dream, Devon was ready to put the skates in the basement and move on from hockey. The Wayzata Junior Gold coach at the time, Ted Olson, as he did every year, began the process of contacting heartbroken kids that were cut from high school to sell them on the idea of Junior Gold hockey. Devon wound up making the Junior Gold A team and played with them for three years.

“He said it was the best hockey experience of his life,” said Greg, who volunteered to be the team manager that year.

It’s 10 years later and Gibson, with his son now an adult, is still managing the team and has since become president of Wayzata Youth Hockey Association. He’s also a board member of the Metro Hockey League, which serves the Twin Cities and surrounding areas’ Junior Gold programs.

“I’ve become a huge proponent of Junior Gold hockey in Minnesota,” said Gibson.

Gibson admits he’s “a bit of a johnny-come-lately” to Junior Gold compared to some of the longtime supporters. But it’s because of people like him — coaches, parents and outstanding volunteers — that this level of hockey has flourished. Like Greg, many no longer have kids playing in the programs, but they see the need to keep kids in the game.

This Is Good Hockey

Make no mistake about it, Junior Gold, which has long shed its image as a “goon” league more than a decade ago, offers some fast, highly skilled and competitive hockey.

 “Really, the focus is that hockey is part of the fabric of our culture and we don’t want to let kids go,” said Tom Slaird, former MHL Chairman who has been involved with Junior Gold for over 20 years. “Our expectation is that these young men will be entrenched in hockey so that they carry on this sport into adulthood.”

By staying true to that mission, they have given players new opportunities to not just play but to succeed.

After a year or two of Junior Gold, many players will end up making their respective high school squads. Some have even gone on to play juniors. And now, at least one, goaltender Adam Carlson of Edina, will go on to play Division-I college hockey. That shouldn’t be the goal of every Junior Gold player, said Slaird, but it does show how much Junior Gold hockey has blossomed.

State of the State Tournaments

For more proof of the budding culture, look no further than the Minnesota Hockey State Tournaments, this year held at Plymouth Ice Center for the Junior Gold A, B and Junior Gold 16 levels.

The three tournaments used to be played at different sites, but four years ago, Gibson and the Wayzata Youth Hockey Association volunteered to host all three of the state tournaments at one venue — Plymouth Ice Center. They wanted to make it a huge event. This is the fourth year Plymouth Ice Center will host the Junior Gold state tournaments. Last year, Edina hosted it at Braemar Arena.

“It’s the largest attended hockey event at Plymouth Ice Center all year,” said Gibson. “The crowds rival the Edina-Wayzata high school games that are played there.

“And they’re not just parents or family members in the stands. You get the fellow students coming out and the games are very well attended with lots of energy. Some teams have brought pep bands and cheering sections and things like that over the years. It isn’t just a quiet event where mom and dad and grandpa and grandma are there. It’s exciting and has become a true event.”

Lights, Camera, Action

It gets a little crazy on championship Sunday. Arena staff and tournament organizers will turn off the lights and shine a spotlight on a local Squirt player, who skates around the ice with the State of Hockey flag. The Wild Anthem plays in the background as the kid completes a few laps before coming to the center faceoff circle and slamming his/her stick into the ice. Each player is individually announced over the PA system and his or her names light up on the scoreboard.

“We’re just trying to make something special for them,” said Gibson. “We want to make this memorable.”

There’s also a banquet at the Medina Ballroom on Thursday night before the tournaments begin, which usually draws between 1,100 and 1,200 people, including coaches, players, officials dignitaries, family members, etc. There is a DVD/slideshow presentation compiled from each team and a guest speaker.

This year’s guest speaker is Jamie Spencer, former Badger and current vice president of new business development for the Minnesota Wild. The special guest will use about 10-12 minutes to offer insight or guidance from their hockey career or life experiences.

Then, finally, the main event. Each coach and their respective captains take part in an open mic segment. They have three minutes to talk about a highlight of their season or any interesting tidbits.

“You never know what’s going to come out of them,” laughed Gibson. “It’s quite amusing. It generally turns out to be the highlight of the show because the coaches and the players themselves get to be the stars up on stage with the lights on and the microphone in their hand. They get to tell us about their team and their season. Some very interesting things come up. Everybody has a big hoot around that.”

It’s truly a prestigious event for the players.

A Deeper Meaning

Junior Gold’s not just about hockey. It’s about developing quality people as these kids grow into young adulthood.

“People don’t always realize this but Junior Gold’s a wonderful place for a 10th or 11th grader to be on Friday night compared to some of the other choices that we have in all of our communities,” said Gibson. “People can make bad choices, and this is a great place to be with great people.”

About 90 percent of coaching staffs in Junior Gold are non-parents. The coaches are there for the players and their development, not only as hockey players, but as young men and young women.

“We’re trying to guide them to college,” said Gibson, who noted the Minnesota Hockey Scholarship Program awards $1,000 to selected applicants to be used toward any post-high school institution.

“Our top objective and No. 1 priority is to put adult role models in front of these kids,” said Slaird. “It’s more important than winning. It’s more important than teaching skills. It’s more important than equal or fair play. It’s more important than any of that.”

For this weekend, the real world can wait. This weekend is about the state tournament and the love of the game that these kids never gave up on.

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