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Division I Coaches on Minnesota’s ‘It’ Factor

By Jessi Hinrichs, Touchpoint Media, 08/13/18, 4:00PM CDT

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This past year alone, the State of Hockey produced:

  • 18,839 8U players (a new state and national record)
  • 419 NCAA Division I and Division III men’s players
  • 486 NCAA Division I and Division III women’s players
  • 57 NHL players
  • 9 U.S. Olympians (including 7 gold-medal winners on the women’s team)

But what is it exactly that makes Minnesota so successful at developing the game’s elite talent? What’s the secret in our frozen water?

We spoke with former and current Division I college coaches about Minnesota’s ‘it’ factor.

It’s In the School Colors …

The community-based model, where kids play for their hometown from the first time they hit the ice up until they graduate, is unique to our state.

Irondale hockey product Chris McKelvie went on to captain the Bemidji State Beavers to the program’s first-ever NCAA Frozen Four in 2009. He then played professionally for seven years in the American Hockey League before embarking on a coaching career.

“Growing up, at every age, you take a lot of pride reppin’ the high school colors,” said McKelvie, who is now the head coach at Bethel University after serving two years as an assistant at Army. “There’s just a sense of community. When I grew up, not that I’m that old, but I remember going to the Roseville Oval and you’d see kids there from Irondale, White Bear Lake, Mounds View, Roseville, all wearing their colors. You’re proud to be from and play for the community you’re from. That’s special.”

Mark Dennehy, head coach of the New Jersey Devil’s affiliate in Binghamton, NY and former Division I coach at Merrimack College, said the community-based model keeps the business aspect out of the game.

“To see the passion that each town and all the players have for playing for their local teams, it’s unbelievable,” Dennehy said. “I think that a lot of communities [around the United States] have chosen to get out of the sports business. They chose not to put sports dollars into arenas. But once you privatize something, once there’s a bill to pay, they have to convince people to skate in April, whether it’s in their benefit or not.

“In Minnesota you don’t have a lot of that because the communities have invested in their youth and in their sports. And that’s really remarkable and great to see. We need more of that.”

It’s in the Athletes …

While recruiting players in Minnesota, college hockey coaches know they are getting one thing for sure: well-rounded athletes, not just hockey players.

“You ask the majority of youth hockey teams now to play a game of pickup basketball and they all try using their left hand,” joked Greg Powers, head coach at Arizona State University. “They’re losing the multisport aspect.

“It’s evident with the kids that we have committed and recruited from Minnesota that they all seem to be at least dual-sport athletes.”

Dennehy, who grew up in Massachusetts, said the way hockey players are developed in Minnesota – playing in-season sports, not just specializing in one year-round – is the way he remembers the game being played. It’s the way he wants to see athletes develop.

“Hockey players should be the shortstops, the quarterbacks – not just hockey players,” Dennehy added. “In other places kids just aren’t as athletic as ones in Minnesota because they specialize at such a young age. We want players that are well-trained and well-versed in hockey, but know how to kick a soccer ball or hit a golf ball. Challenge them.

“Being a multisport athlete is the best development for all sports, and I think that plays a big part in why Minnesota develops some of the best hockey players and overall athletes.”

It’s in the Development …

Dennehy points to Eden Prairie native and Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt as choosing his development path correctly. Rather than moving up early during stages in his game when he easily could have, he chose to stay the course and continue to play at his level.

That, he remarks, seems to be another uniquely Minnesota thing.

“I don’t know Casey personally, but what I love about it is the coaches always focused on the name on the front, not on the back,” Dennehy said. “It’s obvious to me that the name on Casey’s high school jersey meant a lot more to him than moving on too fast. It’s great to see someone who is putting the team first find success, because that’s what you want.

“At the end of the day we all end up at the same place: we all play senior hockey. So those moments to be with your friends, and to be with your neighbors, they’re fleeting.”

Powers reinforces that point. Players do not need to bounce around trying to find “elite” teams or programs or move up early. Talent always has a way of being found.

“You cannot hide,” Powers explains. “If you’re good enough, 60 Division I schools are absolutely going to find you. If you’re good enough, you don’t have to move away and spend $1,500 dollars. That’s what I love about Minnesota.”

Adds McKelvie: “There’s a reason so many NHLers and Division I players come from Minnesota, and that’s because the vast majority of them stay and play through their high school senior years. There’s no evidence that leaving early is advantageous. I think we often times want to take the path of least resistance in our hockey careers, and to see talents from those who played through their senior year and do as well as they’ve done says it all.”

It’s in the (Frozen) Water …

10,000 frozen lakes equals 10,000 free and unstructured places to play.

“Unstructured play and being creative and going to the playground is really why players are successful,” said McKelvie. “Ask any Division I or NHL player from Minnesota and they will say the biggest development pieces they found were just being creative without any structure on the backyard rink or pond.”

It’s in the Character and Friendships…

It’s not just about playing hockey, but playing with your friends and developing as an athlete and a person.

“When we recruit a player from Minnesota we know we’re getting a well-rounded person,” said Powers. “To us, that’s just as important as the on-ice skills. We have yet to run into a kid from Minnesota that wasn’t a good overall person or student. That’s a huge piece.”

Adds McKelvie:

“You grow up creating lasting memories and friendships through sports, which is really what it’s all about,” he said. “I grew up in a program where we didn’t win a lot at all, but we had a lot of really strong friendships. It wasn’t about wins and losses. We wanted to win – we didn’t go to a different school because we weren’t winning. We didn’t go to a midget program. I think all of it was critical for my development. I’m proud to have grown up a Minnesota hockey player.”

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