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Summer events provide programs with desired offseason competition

By Drew Herron, SportsEngine, 08/06/16, 3:00PM CDT


July tournaments have become more popular in the last 15 years, becoming a staple of player development.

High school hockey is played with the same intensity, no matter the season. Things got chippy early in a game between Elk River and Prior Lake at the Summer Hockey Festival Tournament. Photo by Drew Herron

Coaches adopt a more casual approach to their dress in the summer, as evidenced by St. Paul Academy's Matt Funk (left) and Eden Prairie's Lee Smith, who donned shorts (and flip-flops) for their matchup. Photo by Drew Herron

The high school hockey team from Edina may not have been playing, but Braemar Arena proved to be a hornet's nest of activity July 22-24, as the Summer Hockey Festival Tournament brought heavyweight programs from across the state to the Twin Cities for a showcase of top-shelf individual talent.

Casey Mittelstadt, Eden Prairie's senior captain and an early favorite to win Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award for the 2016-17 season, was there, as were his talented Eagles' teammates, Nolan Sullivan and Nicky Leivermann.

A bulk of the roster from Wayzata's Class 2A championship team participated, while groups from other elite squads such as Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Duluth East, Holy Family Catholic, Elk River, St. Paul Academy, Prior Lake, Lakeville North and Lakeville South comprised half the 20-team field.

While summer training programs have been in place for decades, the popularity of July tournaments has grown in the past 10-15 years and is now a staple of player development in prep programs across the State of Hockey.

“It’s become part of the fabric of our game for so long now, it’s just something that coaches expect to do,” said Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association.  

MacMillan, a well-respected veteran high school and college coach, began running a summer tournament in 2003 as coach at Buffalo High School. Since, he has seen steady growth and interest in these events from programs looking to make the most out of their summer training window.

“I think it helps (most) with their development model,” he added. “It gives them the ice touches they need and gets the players together with their friends to have fun and play in the summer.”

“It’s become part of the fabric of our game for so long now, it’s just something that coaches expect to do."

-- Mike MacMillan, Executive Director of the
Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association  

Approximately a dozen boys' varsity-level tournaments were held across the state in July, including events in Blaine, Duluth and Red Wing.

The tournaments consist mostly of eight teams and are community or program-based. Participating teams do not wave the flag of the individual schools under the umbrella of Minnesota State High School League and its guidelines, but they play by are the same rules and MSHSL officials are policing the action. Sometimes the periods or playing times are different, other times there are shootouts, and most teams have a mismatched assortment of practice jerseys with or without numbers.

Some aesthetics aside, play still goes to the whistle.

“It’s very competitive,” said Leiverman, a junior defenseman committed to Notre Dame. “Coming in, we take it as a regular-season game, especially with the teams we played, like Wayzata, Duluth East and Holy Family (Catholic). We get into it, and we expect to win."

Leiverman, who will split time this winter between Eden Prairie and Bloomington of the United States Hockey League, said participating in the summer event builds chemistry and offers the opportunity to scout opponents for the upcoming high school season.

“Playing in the tourney is very beneficial,” he added.

“Coming in, we take it as a regular-season game, especially with the teams we played, like Wayzata, Duluth East and Holy Family (Catholic). We get into it, and we expect to win."

--Nicky Leiverman,
Eden Prairie junior forward

Under MSHSL rules, high school teams can work with their coaches from June 1 to July 31, except for the week of the Fourth of July.

Since coaches are banned from working with their squads from Aug. 1 to when practices begin for the high school season in November, most teams like to finish the summer skate sessions emphatically, making tournaments the last two weekends in July more attractive.

“It’s a good first chance to see what everyone has coming up,” Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. “And it’s plain to see that there is going to be a tremendous amount of talent out there next season.”

Summer activities always keep some players from of competing in these tournaments, and the coinciding Upper Midwest High School Elite League tryouts hurt some teams more than others at Edina's Summer Hockey Festival Tournament.

Despite teams not having theirs full rosters, the tournament at Braemar was still varsity hockey. Games carried the intensity and emotion between programs that aren’t 100 percent amicable.

Klatt said his team jumped at the opportunity to participate in the tournament.

“If you want to make the most of your summer, you might as well play with the best teams, and there certainly were a lot of those kinds of teams here this weekend," he said.

“To be honest, before I took the job a year ago, I didn’t know summer tournaments existed,” he added. “But to play in a tournament like this, it’s worth the trip.”

As far as elite Class 2A programs go, Grand Rapids is a bit isolated in northern Minnesota, where competition is scarce. Klatt said that the size and the quality of the teams in the tournament make it attractive, if not imperative, for his program.

“If you want to be the best, you need to beat the best,” Klatt said. “There are a lot of quality hockey teams in the Twin Cities, and we need to try to get in front of them as many times as we can. Winning this competition doesn’t mean squat, but we learned a lot about our players this week. Also, we scored some goals and had some fun, so it makes for a great experience.”

"To be honest, before I took the job a year ago, I didn’t know summer tournaments existed. But to play in a tournament like this, it’s worth the trip."

--Grand Rapids coach Trent Klatt

Perhaps no team got more out of the weekend than Delano. The Tigers rolled into the tournament final with victories over teams from big-time programs, including Duluth East (6-5), Benilde-St. Margaret’s (7-3) and Wayzata (5-0), before letting an early lead slip away against the Thunderhawks.

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