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Longer season, periods proposed to keep top Minnesota prep hockey players from leaving state

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 01/15/18, 9:20PM CST


Coaches’ association proposing to add games as a way to retain top talent.

Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner behind the bench in a Dec. 23 game against White Bear Lake. Photo by Drew Herron, SportsEngine

Hockey leaders and state lawmakers are pushing to expand the ice age in Minnesota boys’ high school hockey.

Two proposals, one to start the boys’ hockey high school season two weeks earlier, another to increase length of periods, represent the latest effort to keep more Minnesota prep standouts home to participate in the state’s flagship sport.

The Minnesota High School Coaches Association is seeking for the earlier season start, an extension designed to add two games to the current 25-game regular season schedule. The measure would require approval of the Minnesota State High School League.

The proposal comes after state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, authored a bill calling for 20-minute periods — an increase of three minutes per period — and up to six exhibition games per season under the control of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission. The additional games would be outside the purview of the high school league.

Both proposals only concern boys’ hockey. Minnesota Girls’ Hockey Coaches Association President Jessica Christopherson said her group is not pursuing a longer season and opted out of supporting the Housley bill.

By creating more playing time, each proposal aims to reduce the number of top boys’ hockey players who leave their high school programs for junior hockey leagues offering more than double the number of high school games. Before this season, 22 players departed for leagues or development teams throughout North America. An average of 32.6 players have left before each of the past five seasons.

Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, said the urgency of his group’s proposal is different than it was in 2014, when a similar version failed to get league approval.

“The time is now and the time is right,” he said. “I don’t think we’re asking for the world. We want the kids to be in their home schools, their home communities and we want them to be able to flourish.”

This time around MacMillan said the hockey coaches group sought wider support by driving the proposal through the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. The larger delegation voted 27-12 in favor. The next steps include getting high school activities directors on board and going to the high school league’s representative assembly in the spring for final approval.

Chad Nyberg, Bloomington Jefferson activities director and a self-described “hockey guy,” isn’t sold.

“You’re never going to expand the season because every other sport is going to want to expand,” he said.

Two additional regular-season games still puts Minnesota high school hockey well behind what competing junior leagues offer. The United States and North American hockey leagues played 60 regular-season games last season, two more than the British Columbia Hockey League.

“Everybody has their individual position on why they’re going to leave or stay,” MacMillan said. “But we want to make sure that at least we send the message to those players that if you stay, you will be developed and you will be taken care of. We don’t want there to be a question.”

The Housley bill, first introduced last March, would pressure the state’s governing body to act. The bill’s authors include Sen. Dave Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, and Sen. Kari Dziedzic, D-Minneapolis.

Tomassoni said “there is frustration with not being able to respond to the current hockey climate” and that interest by legislators is “usually a last-ditch effort or a way to shed light on something others are blind to.”

Varsity hockey last increased period length from 15 to 17 minutes in 2003. An extension to 20 minutes would match period lengths in college and pro hockey.

Bill Lechner, Hill-Murray activities director and boys’ hockey coach, said, “If you’ve got two really good teams playing, sure, why not? But how many of those games are out there? What if it’s 8-0 after the first period?”

Attempts to reach Housley, who announced last month she plans to run for the U.S. Senate, and Dziedzic by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful. Housley’s husband, Phil, starred at South St. Paul and then enjoyed a long and successful NHL career. He currently coaches the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Dziedzic’s brother, Joe, won Mr. Hockey honors at Minneapolis Edison, played for the Gophers and in the NHL. He coaches the Minneapolis high school boys’ varsity hockey team.

MacMillan said while the coaches group is not affiliated with Housley’s bill, “Our coaches association isn’t going to stand in the way of the betterment of hockey.

“We need to be good teammates with the league and our schools but at the end of the day, if we have to speak up, we will,” MacMillan said.

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