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McNiff's Riffs: U hockey no longer the 'only' pick for phenoms

Once upon a time there was little question that the U of M would be the chosen destination of Minnesota's prep hockey phenoms. But the game and the options held by young skaters have changed, making the upcoming hire of a new Gopher hockey coach crucial to the program.
Credit: Eric Hartline
Competition from the USA Hockey national program and other surging collegiate hockey programs have changed the status of the Minnesota Gophers as the only game in town for top recruits

In the mid 1970’s, word began to trickle into the metro newspapers of a hockey phenom skating in a town just south of the Canadian border. Televised confirmation as to the skills of this phenom were provided via the 1977 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, when most of us got our first look at then-Roseau sophomore Neal Broten, and his line mates... younger brother Aaron, and their neighbor Bryan “Butsy” Erickson.

READ: More McNiff's Riffs

The Brotens and Butsy would make three consecutive appearances at the tourney, and with each trip to St. Paul anticipation built around when we would finally get to see Neal (and eventually, the other two) play at the University of Minnesota. This process was repeated many times over the years with prep legends like Warroad's Larry Olimb, Ryan Kraft of Moorhead, Johnny Pohl from Red Wing. Outstate skaters didn't have a corner on the star market, as proved by metro skaters like future Hobey Baker winner Brian Bonin of White Bear Lake.

Minnesota hockey fans would hear about the on-ice feats of these young phenoms, then hopefully get to see them ourselves during “The Tourney.” Many went on to play college hockey, and for the most-part elite Minnesota high school hockey players fell into two groups: The first group were the lucky few who managed to secure a coveted roster spot with the Gophers, skating for Minnesota’s “Pride On Ice”, while the much larger second group would surface with one of the U's WCHA rivals. That second group frequently skated off with a massive chip on their shoulder at being snubbed by the “U”, and with a burning desire to make the rodents pay for their grievous error.

Point is, we collectively heard about these up-and-comers for years. During their senior year in high school these youth ice icons would announce their college commitment, and for years the Gophers enjoyed a huge in-state recruiting advantage. For starters the U of M was the state’s first Division-1 program. As the only one located in “The Cities”, the Gophers had unchallenged media coverage and a proud history, enhanced considerably by three NCAA titles under Herb Brooks during the 1970’s.

The U's reputation was then sealed in gold when Team USA, led by Brooks and featuring 9 current or former Golden Gophers (plus 3 other native Minnesotans) pulled-off the upset of the 20th century, by defeating the mighty Soviet Red Army team on their way to winning the gold medal at the 1980 Olympic games in Lake Placid. Yep, the U of M hockey program played a huge role in what’s become known as “The Miracle On Ice.”

From that point on, if you were a Minnesota kid you likely dreamed of wearing the maroon and gold, and if you were a hockey fan in Minnesota you likely heard about (and followed) the state’s elite players for years before they ever skated a shift of college hockey.

Not any more.

This past weekend 46 of the finest young hockey players in the United States (including 8 of the best from Minnesota) gathered in Plymouth, Michigan to try to earn a spot in the National Training and Development Program (NTDP). At the end of the 2-day tryout, 22 of the 46 will be invited to stay and participate in the 2-year program.

Conducting the prestigious camp is NTDP first-year U-18 head coach Seth Appert, a Cottage Grove native with first-hand knowledge of Minnesota hockey history, how trecruiting has evolved, and why the Gophers no longer have a lock on Minnesota’s collective hockey attention.

“It’s a double-whammy”, says Appert. “The USHL and the National Program has taken some of the excitement away. Now these kids are committing at 15-years old, and they might not be coming to the Gopher program for 3-4 years. So, for the fans it’s not that big a deal anymore due to a combination of factors.”

These days, Minnesota’s best hockey talent has to consider a path that leads not necessarily through the State Tournament, but to either the United States Hockey League (USHL), the National Team Development Program (NTDP) or both. Recently, Eden Prairie’s Casey Mittelstadt actually made news by deciding to stay in high school, to pursue a state title with the kids he had grown-up playing with.

“The NTDP track is the NHL, also the USHL, college and international play”, says Appert.

"The lure is that the kids will play more games against a higher level of competition, while receiving elite coaching, off-ice training, an education to prepare them for success at the college level and beyond, and the opportunity to represent their country against international competition."

“I’d say the greatest advantage comes in the level of competition the kids get in practice. You have to bring it every day," Appert continued. "If you have a bad day at this level you are exposed in a big way, and it forces kids to grow-up, fast.”

Factor in that the Gophers no longer have the twice-weekly recruiting platform previously provided when their games were broadcast across the entire region (first by Midwest Sports Channel, then FSN North) and the U of M no longer seems like the first-and-only option for the elite. That makes the next hire as men’s head hockey coach critical.

“It’s probably a more important hire now than it was when they hired Lucia in how it pertains to the Big-10," Appert reflected. "The Big-10 hasn’t resonated with Minnesota fans yet, and they need to find a way to make the state of Minnesota care about the Gophers playing in the Big-10.”

Maintaining relationships with hockey coaches all over the country is a big part of Appert’s job, so I couldn't bait him into handicapping the candidates to be the next head hockey coach at the U of M. He 'will' say that Gopher fans should know that whoever gets the job will have bested a strong field.

“It’s still one of the top-5 jobs in the country, and they’ve got a ton of options," Appert insists. "They’re all former Gopher players or Gopher coaches, or both. There are tons of great guys that have the experience and the expertise that are candidates for the job.”

Coach Appert didn’t want to end without saying a word about a coach who reached out to him when he got his first head coaching of the Rensselaer men’s program (RPI), back in 2006.

“Don Lucia is a first-class human being who proved himself as a coach long before he showed-up at the U of M, because he won at two places (Alaska Anchorage & Colorado College) that had no tradition of winning before he got there. He was really good to me. He always had time for younger coaches, always had time to talk hockey, to share insight, and he was very good to me personally.”

Don’t sleep on Larson!

If Cretin Derham-Hall senior Ryan Larson was trying to use the Class 4A State Tournament as a vehicle to earn himself a D-1 college hoop scholarship, I’m hoping the first call he got after Saturday night’s championship game was from Richard Pitino. Sadly, I doubt it.

The Gophers still have one scholarship remaining but are said to be going after bigger name targets, from out-state.

Some may call me a “homer” (and I am) but you’ll never convince me that the Gophers shouldn’t at least try to get Larson to walk-on with an opportunity to earn a scholarship, after what he just did against the state’s best competition, including Apple Valley’s Tre Jones, in the state championship game. Jones, a 4-star recruit who’s headed to Duke on a full scholarship (just like his older brother, Minnesota Timberwolf Tyus) showed that he is everything we thought he was by scoring 35-points, including six 3-pointers, in the state final. Jones was and is brilliant, the best player in the state, and barring injury will someday play in the NBA.

Which brings me back to Ryan Larson.

Jones had no answer for Larson’s first step and unselfish play, including the lob to future Gopher Daniel Uturu for the state title winning slam in the final seconds. Throughout the tournament Larson continuously opened the floor for his CDH teammates to score uncontested layups and knock-down open jump shots.

I’m not sure what service labeled Mr. Larson a two-star recruit, but they are WAY OFF. Cretin’s game was called “Showtime” this season, and Ryan Larson was both the quarterback and the engine of the Raiders high-octane, crowd-pleasing attack. If you saw this kid play even one quarter (and I sure hope you did) you know Larson CAN play at the D-1 level. He has court vision and a presence that you can’t coach. You either have it or you don’t, and Ryan Larson HAS it... and then some.

Don’t take my word for it Coach Pitino, just watch the tape... or better yet, ask your incoming center, Daniel Oturu, who owes his championship medal to Larson. While Oturu was saddled on the bench with foul trouble it was Larson who held CDH together, and anybody who thinks differently wasn’t watching the same game that I was.

C’mon Richard, this one’s a layup!

I'll close with this dose of daily inspiration.

“Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”

John Wooden

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