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Getting iced out: How private schools have taken over MN boys high school hockey

CC/Flickr/ckschleg
Private schools have taken over Minnesota high school boys hockey.

When the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) changed the Boys State Hockey Tournament from one to two classes in 1992, a large part of its rationale was that small schools couldn’t compete on a consistent basis with the big wealthy, primarily Twin Cities suburban, public schools. The real Cinderella stories were becoming less common, so by creating a class for the smaller schools, a chance for success was created without having a David versus Goliath storyline every year.

Initially, there was some success at making the tournament fairer for smaller schools, but since 1999, a new class of champion has made it even more difficult for small public schools to have a chance. Private schools have taken over Minnesota high school boys hockey. 

How dominant have the private high schools become?  According to Education Bug, there are 699 public high schools in the state and only 123 private ones. That means 17.6 percent of the state’s high schools are private. Many of the private high schools are small and don’t have hockey teams, which means a far smaller number of private schools are actually competing in the boys hockey tournament. This year, 6 of the 16 schools (37.5 percent) facing off in the Class A and AA final rounds were private schools, and both champions were from private schools (the fourth time that’s happened since 2002). Since 1999, of the 28 Class A and AA State Boys Hockey Championships handed out, 16 have gone to private schools, a 57 percent rate of victory. When you consider we’re only talking about 50 or so private schools, that number is shocking.

Many offer scholarships

How have the private high schools in the state become so dominant? Many of them offer scholarships to attend, a benefit allowing some private schools to openly recruit the best players in Minnesota, in the upper Midwest and even, in some cases, internationally. Private school administrators and parents will argue that this only keeps the private schools on equal footing with the big wealthy suburban schools that use open enrollment to build up their programs.

I’m not going to argue that open enrollment hasn’t been used to build sports programs at some public schools, but that 57 percent winning rate is against all the public schools in the state. The scholarships have tipped the scales unfairly to the private schools, creating a situation where only a handful of public schools can compete with them in any given year.

This also highlights a new reality in regard to all high school sports; in many cases, you need a lot of money to even get your kid participating. It used to be that a sport like soccer or basketball was relatively inexpensive to play. Today, however, there are camps, traveling teams, specialized coaching, personal trainers, dietary regiments, and top-of-the-line equipment, all designed to show high school coaches commitment – and which happen to cost parents thousands of dollars a year.

Most kids are priced out

For an expensive sport like hockey, with the extra equipment and ice time, most kids in the state are priced out of the game. You almost have to have enough money to send your kid to a top-notch private school to even think about trying out for some of the high school teams. This has created an even harder challenge for kids who can’t afford or don’t have access to the amateur athletic cottage industry, designed to find the professional and Olympic athletes of the future.

How do we fix this growing problem? We can’t go back to a single class. It’d be only a matter of time before seven of the eight teams in the finals would be from private schools. I think the MSHSL should force all private schools offering scholarships to play in the highest state level, Class AA.

There are some smaller private schools that’ll say, “We’re only have 300 kids, versus the thousands in those big schools. That’s not fair!” Nor is it fair to destroy Minnesota rural farm schools 12-1 with an All-Star team. If 30 of your 300 kids are under scholarship, and they all happen to be playing hockey, then they need to play with the big boys.

The best solution

The best solution would be to create what many other states have already done, a Private School Class. That way, every year the best private schools in the state would face off in a sensational tournament. Think of it, two small outstate public schools in the Class A final, two hockey powerhouses facing off for the Class AA championship and two of the biggest private schools in the state going at it in the PS Class. It would create hockey excitement from the smallest Iron Range town to the big city, more kids would get involved, and fairness would be restored.

I will concede to the smaller private schools that your   job would become tougher, but let’s just cut the façade. The private schools in the state have been recruiting like colleges, with success, for years. If Harvard, Montana, South Dakota State and Wichita State can all make it to this year’s NCAA Basketball Big Dance, then have a little faith in yourself.

Matthew McNeil is the 6 p.m. weeknight host on AM 950, KTNF.

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Comments (10)

Right on

Exactly the thought going through my head during the St. Thomas/Hermantown game. How can small rural school compete against another small urban school when that urban school is recruiting players from local programs? Doesn't seem fair to me.

What Is Recruiting?

When Elk River won the AA championship with three kids from Buffalo on the roster, was that recruiting?

In the late 70's when Grand Rapids needed a goalie and Jon Casey (from Coleraine) showed up on their doorstep, was that recruiting?

When a kid goes to St. Peter's Elementary in North Saint Paul for eight years and then to Hill-Murray like his older brothers and sisters, is that recruiting?

When a kid from the Hopkins district (with a long time mediocre hockey team) moves across the street into the Minnetonka district, is that recruiting?

Clever slight of hand for Mr. McNeill to compare the total number of public high schools to private schools. The majority of public high schools in this state have never had hockey programs and never will.

Back to the future

What you're calling for used to be the situation in Minnesota until somebody decided it wasn't fair and merged the private and pubic programs into one.

1975

Prior to 1975. private schools were not permitted to participate in the hockey tournament.

The author must be a mind-reader!

I've been saying the exact same thing for *years*.

These private schools (St. Thomas Academy being a prime example) do have smaller enrollments, but they often have athletic budgets rivaling Div. III colleges or more. They have recruited for decades, even when it wasn't allowed by the MSHSL. As for adding a separate private school class, the Tournament is still tarnished, in my opinion, from expanding to 16 teams - let's not make it any worse; but absolutely place the private schools into Class AA, since they have the financial means to compete there. I know the great fans from Hermantown wouldn't miss the classless Cadet section in Class A - and I won't, either.
(I asked a STA student why they haven't moved up to AA, when they're perfectly capable of doing so, and he said most everyone involved actulally *wants* to move up, but there was one main guy holding it up - he didn't say who, but I suspect he wants to continue filling the trophy case for Jesus.)

An alternative way of looking at size.

This is an excellent article and I hope those who are involved with the governance of MSHSL will give this more thought. I am sure they have done so already. I think there is another way to look at how schools are classified. Rather than using school enrollment look at community size. My son was the goalie for a small mid state team from a poor community that played Duluth Marshall in the playoff's. We didn't mind losing 17-0 and the 76 shots on goal are now great fun to tease about and bragging rights for him. But it seemed unfair. Everyone knows that in Duluth if you don't make the East team you pony up the tuition and go to Marshall. This kind of self selection and shopping isn't recruiting which also goes on but is not the major factor. It is the community not the school size that is important.

Rather every community in the state should be classified as A or AA. The entire TC metro is AA-no matter an individual school's size. So is Duluth, etc., etc. It should be based on how many students live in the community-within driving distance. So Hermantown-yep-AA. Marshall-AA. Willow River/ML-A. Some one at MSHSL could put pencil to paper and figure out something like this. Then you would be fair. A Stillwater would be AA but so would St. Thomas because they draw from an area just as big if not bigger than Stillwater. The whole idea of student body size is predicated on the normal curve distribution of talents-the larger the pool the more talent and options you have. So Cambridge is AA because they will statistically have three 250 pounders on the line while Mora will not. Open enrollment, recruiting and private school participation all changed that 'normal curve distribution'. It's time to re-design based on the new options kids have.

PS Due to diminished school funding HS sports are now pretty much for the elite in every community-too bad.

It's all in the game...?

This is a fine article with alternative viewpoints telling their own stories.

As one who watched the games of two nephews a few years back; star participants, be it football or hockey etc.; watching the process and the good sportsmanship part of that intent...plus good grades rounding out..plus character building, good gamesmanship holistically guiding that experience, I respectfully say, Cloquet has had one of the finest athletic programs in the state...not speaking primarily from an aunt's point of view but as 'quasi-technical' observer.

It's sad to see' winning' competitively drawn into a battle of who can recruit the star athletes with a monetary package; money or scholarships. Then nobody wins fairly...especially the youth so intimidated by adults advocating bad choices.

This a discussion that needs public commentary and worth hearing. Thanks.

Viewpoint is off base

Where as the article was well written, the author is really writing a general article. They should first point out that in class A, the field is dominated by Private schools not the class AA. I know in the last ten years there have been AA schools that have won, but the tournament is dominated by public schools.
I have said in the past that all Private schools in a large metropolitan area should be AA, ie: STA, Totino, Lourdes in Rochester, Marshal in Duluth, Cathedral in St. Cloud. That way the field is more level.
This argument has been going on for years now and will go on for a lot more. The MSHSL has rules in place for Open enrollment and the nasty R word, but look at other sports and you will see the same thing. Hopkins in basketball, Apple Valley in Wrestling.
So the article was well written, but the information was not totally true.

Lazy reporting

Who cares how many public and private schools there are in Minnesota? The relevant number is how many of those schools have hockey teams, a number you could have come up with had you bothered to do less than 10 minutes of research on the MSHSL website.

The relevant numbers are as follows (based on MSHSL section info): There were 83 teams competing in Class A last season, and 72 teams in Class AA.

Of the 83 teams in Class A:
—69 were either public schools or coops that included only public schools.
—5 were coops including both public and private schools.
—9 were private schools or coops including only private schools. (The nine were Blake, Breck, Minnehaha Academy, Providence Academy, St. Thomas Academy, Totino-Grace, St. Paul Academy & Summit, St. Cloud Cathedral, Legacy Christian Academy)

Of the 72 teams in Class AA:
—65 were public schools or coops that included only public schools.
—2 were coops including both public and private schools.
—5 were private schools or coops including only private schools. (Holy Angels, Cretin-Derham Hall, Hill Murray, Benilde-St. Margaret's, Holy Family Catholic).

So there aren't 50-some private-school hockey teams (clearly just a "throw a dart at the board" guess by the writer), but rather 14 (21 if you include all coops). And of the 699 public schools in the state, there are only 134 "pure" public school teams. (My numbers might be off by one or two, but you get the point.)

Hard to take a story, "journalist" or news site seriously when this sort of shoddy lack of research passes as reporting.

You're right

Corey,

Thanks for pointing out my faults. You're correct, I didn't have this information.

But since you brought it up, let me re-phrase: Only 10% of the teams competing in the state hockey tourney are private, but that 57% rate of victory now becomes even more obscene. Thanks for making my point even more relevant.