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

Since 1999, of the 28 Class A and AA State Boys Hockey Championships handed out, 16 have gone to private schools.

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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.

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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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