December 12, 2013

Cover Story: The state of high school hockey

By Mike Zhe

Catholic Memorial and Malden Catholic are traditional Bay State powers. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

When high school hockey coaches in Eastern Mass. talk about a player who did it the right way, they talk about Jeff Wyer.

Wyer (Reading, Mass.) is currently a senior captain and part-time starter at the University of New Hampshire, which is again projected to be one of the top teams in Hockey East.

Go back five years and he was wrestling with a decision. He’d proven his ability, backstopping Reading High School to the Super 8 championship in Massachusetts as a junior, and faced a choice that more and more players that age have to make these days.

Stay or go?

He stayed, passing up a chance to play in the USHL because he’d seen scouts around Reading games the previous year checking out some of his senior teammates. His team didn’t get back to the Super 8 his final season but it did reach the Division 1 tournament, and Wyer did nothing to hurt his stock.

“I’m glad I stayed,” he said, before a practice at UNH last month. “Everything worked out. Senior year we had a strong team and my closest friends from Reading are on the hockey team. So I’m glad I stayed.”

But, more and more, players far less accomplished than Wyer are opting to go, not stay.

As high school teams hit the ice before Thanksgiving in preparation for their upcoming seasons, there’s a big issue facing a sport with a long, proud history: its players, often fringe players, leaving their hometown teams to get into perceived “college-track” situations, whether that be junior programs or prep schools.

But juniors, mostly. While the prep school financial investment is huge — up to $50,000 a year for the most expensive New England boarding schools — it comes with an understanding that they’re getting much more than just hockey.

“I think that makes more sense,” said John Maguire, the coach at Waltham (Mass.) High School. “It’s an academic (choice). It’s a lot easier to stomach.”

And only the most selfish high school coaches would try to talk a player out of an invitation to join a USHL team or, beyond that, an invitation to play in the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But it’s the lower-tiered junior programs attracting players before their high school careers are done that’s had high school coaches fretting these past several years — not only because their own teams are getting weakened, but also because a player can be gambling with one, two or even three years of his guaranteed hockey life, in many cases the rest of his competitive days.

“There’s plenty of kids it has worked for and plenty of kids it hasn’t worked for,” said Marshfield High School coach Dan Connolly, the president of the Massachusetts High School Hockey Coaches Association. “They go here, there and everywhere. It’s kind of taken away the work ethic.”

Numbers game

The weeks before Thanksgiving are the time when Burlington (Mass.) High School coach Bob Conceison — and presumably many others in his profession — feels that added bounce in his step. The weather always starts to turn cold. The traffic at the rinks always gets more congested.

Massachusetts girls action between Natick and Dedham. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“My feeling is that there’s always going to be high school hockey,” said Conceison, whose teams have won the past two Division 1 titles in Massachusetts. “It’s a great sport, a great experience. If we continue to promote it, it’s always going to be there. Maybe not the same skill level, but its intrinsic value is always going to be there.”

Over the past five years, participation numbers have taken a hit, though not a huge one. According to the National Federation of High School Associations, there were 1,601 schools fielding boys hockey teams in 2012-13, the exact same number there were in 2008-09. The number of participants was down to 35,198 from 37,255.

No shortage of reasons for this. Many schools now charge participation fees to play on teams — hockey and other sports — that are often the result of budget shortfalls. There are more and more hockey options outside of high school. And, in many parts of the country, New England included, overall participation is down.

By far, Massachusetts had the most schools in New England playing boys hockey in 2012-13 (298). That was followed by Maine (62), Connecticut (59), New Hampshire (42) and Rhode Island (38).

Compared to five years ago, Connecticut has lost three schools and Vermont has lost eight, while the other states have stayed level. In the girls game, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have seen significant growth.

What we’re seeing across the region is that the numbers of kids playing the sport is not increasing to the point where these departures don’t leave a mark on many high school programs, particularly the ones who don’t have the annual big numbers enjoyed by some of the traditionally strong programs in Eastern Mass. and other hotbeds.

According to USA Hockey, participation is up in many parts of the country over the last decade, particularly the “non-traditional” markets that really have nowhere to go but up. In New England, it’s more of a mixed bag.

In Massachusetts, participation numbers are up 5.4 percent over the last decade, with a more concentrated jump over the last five years. They’re also up in Connecticut (13.9 percent) and Vermont (5.7 percent), down in Rhode Island (7.9 percent) and New Hampshire (17.4 percent), and steady in Maine.

What does that mean for the product? Depends on where you look.

Jamie Belleau is in his sixth year as the head coach at Lewiston (Maine) High School, where his teams have played in the Class A championship game in two of the last three years, losing both.

A decade ago, he was coaching across the Androscoggin River at Edward Little High School in Auburn. What he sees today is more teams that can legitimately compete for a state title than there were back then.

“I hear a lot of people saying that the talent level has been watered down over the years,” said Belleau. “I haven’t seen that. I’ve seen it fluctuate. What I think is that it’s being spread out over more teams.”

In many places, to combat participation numbers that don’t allow schools to field their own teams, the schools have sought state permission to form cooperative teams. Schools from neighboring communities, which are often rivals in other sports, team up to produce the 14 or 15 players needed to get a team on the ice.

“We still have a strong product,” said Connolly. “Obviously, it’s not as strong or as deep as in years past. But there’s some very good players and teams in high school hockey.”

Hidden costs

Maguire’s been coaching at Waltham for three decades and, next year, will enter the Massachusetts State Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame. It’s during the second half of that tenure that he’s seen a disturbing trend.

Needham was one of 298 high schools playing hockey in Massachusetts in 2012-13. Participation numbers are up 5.4 percent over the last decade for the state, according to USA Hockey. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

“Fifteen years ago we’d be approached by junior teams (about players) and we embraced it,” he said. “Maybe a kid was not big enough or strong enough, or needed to play a year against higher competition (after high school). To me, it was a win-win.”

Not so much today.

What was once a winter sport, with maybe a half-season on another team after the high school season ended, is now a year-round pursuit. Parents don’t just buy sticks and skates — they fund multiple weeks of summer camp, or power skating camp, or sessions with private coaches; it’s also not something unique to hockey. “We’ve got hockey parents who are in a big race to get to the winner’s circle instead of development,” said Maguire.

Of course, that’s the argument the parents throw right back at the high schools. Why should their son spend a season playing for a high school coach who’s squeezing in his coaching around his full-time job, either within or outside the school district, when they can join a program with a full-time, well-paid staff coach and often a better facility for training, to say nothing of the significantly longer schedule?

“I understand that junior hockey provides 70 or 80 games and that the level of competition is higher,” conceded Conceison. “I’d be a fool to say it wasn’t.”

Gaze down the rosters of Division 1 college teams and juniors is where the players are coming from, whether it’s the top prospects from the USHL, players from the region’s strongest programs with a track record of sending guys on — the South Shore Kings, New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, Middlesex Islanders, etc. – the Tier 2 NAHL or the other Tier 3 leagues across the country.

The 20 New England-based schools in Hockey East, ECAC Hockey and Atlantic Hockey welcomed a total of 153 incoming freshmen to their programs this season. All but 14 of them are coming from the junior ranks.

So players are aware of the well-worn paths to Division 1 hockey. But Conceison noted that leaving high school to get on that path before a player is ready can come with hidden costs, as well as the expensive real ones. What price to put on skating with the friends you grew up with at the TD Garden, which Burlington’s players did in winning Division 1 championships in 2012 and ’13?

“For most kids, high school hockey is probably the end point,” he said. “To (leave) and have it not work out, it’s a real shame what is lost.”

A junior problem

Junior hockey, made up of players 20 years old and younger, goes back a century in Canada, where it’s embedded deeper than the sea. But it’s really been in the past two decades where it’s exploded in the U.S., with more than 200 programs across the land under the USA Hockey umbrella.

One reason to stay in high school: unforgettable championship celebrations, such as the one seen here involving the Concord (N.H.) boys team.

The country’s lone Tier 1 league — the USHL — has a track record of sending players on to Division 1 colleges, typically more than 100 per year. The highest level of junior played in New England is Tier 3, which includes the Eastern Hockey League, the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and the three divisions of the new U.S. Premier Hockey League.

Andrew Leach has experienced both sides of the equation. A standout player growing up in Albany, N.Y., in the 1990s — along with brother Jay, who’s played parts of five seasons in the NHL — he played for a local junior program before moving on to the USHL and then UNH.

Today, he’s entering his fourth year as coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in Dover, N.H. The Saints reached the New Hampshire Division 1 semifinals last winter. While Leach hasn’t been hit by defections directly, he’s seen it at other places and knows it’s a problem.

“Those, to me, are the only leagues that should exist in New England, as far as junior programs,” he said of the USPHL and EHL. “Essentially, there aren’t enough quality players. A lot of it’s money-driven. You can’t really make money on one junior team. You can make money on three junior teams.”

As a high school hockey region, New Hampshire doesn’t have near the depth of Eastern Mass., but it has produced some Division 1 players in recent years. Zach Sanford (Auburn, N.H.) and Joey “JD” Dudek (Auburn, N.H.) both left Pinkerton Academy before their high school careers were done; Sanford to play for Sean Tremblay and the Middlesex Islanders and Dudek to attend Kimball Union.

“It was time for them to go,” said Leach. “You understand that. It’s the kids that aren’t dominating and say they want to go — that’s the problem.”

The right junior program can advance a player’s career, or chew him up and spit him out. Some 16- and 17-year-olds, thrown into situations that include living away from home, sharing bus rides with 19- and 20-year-olds, and being responsible for their own studies, finances, etc., thrive; others wilt.

“Certainly, there’s exceptions” said Maguire. “But to me it’s just bizarre. I remember seven or eight years ago, a kid who was a third- or fourth-line player for us saying he was going to do a full season of junior. If you’re a third- or fourth-line kid at Waltham High, it makes you wonder what kind of player these programs are trying to get.”

Maguire and others attended a clinic for the state coaches association run by Merrimack College coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) at the end of October. Dennehy brought up the case of Chris LeBlanc (Winthrop, Mass.), a freshman everyday player for his team, who went the distance at Winthrop High School, spent a year developing with the South Shore Kings and, last June, was drafted in the sixth round by the Ottawa Senators.

“He said, ‘There’s a kid who got a scholarship that played four years at Winthrop High School, got good coaching and got to touch the puck a lot more than if he went to play somewhere at the junior level,’ ” said Maguire.

Every story unique

Goaltender Jeff Wyer (Reading, Mass.) is now a senior captain for the Wildcats.

However the year plays out on the ice for Wyer, he’ll graduate from UNH with a business degree and maybe give pro hockey a shot.

He first felt the tug to leave high school when he was a junior and, looking back, is glad he didn’t.

“Early in my junior year,” he said, “we had a very strong team, ended up winning the (Super 8) championship. There were a lot of players in the class above me that were getting recognition, scouts watching them. That’s when I realized a program like Reading had the ability to produce the kind of talent Division 1 coaches would look at.”

Wyer was a year behind Patrick Kiley, who went on to UMass, and Robert Toczylowski, who starred on some very good Bowdoin College teams. So he knew there was a precedent for getting college attention.

“I looked around a little after junior year,” he said. “I strongly considered the USHL. I was getting some pressure from coaches out there. But I ultimately decided that I’d done three years, I should finish four. … I knew there would be a little more pressure senior year; if I could handle it well, scouts would notice.”

Wyer says there’s no blanket solution for high school hockey players who want to advance their careers. For him, staying home was the right move. He played a year with the Valley Junior Warriors in the EJHL after high school and was summoned to UNH a year ahead of schedule to battle for the goaltending job.

For others, the lure will be too strong. For some, it will work out. For others it won’t, and they’ll lose something they can never get back.

“The game’s going to end at some point for everyone,” said Connolly. “There’s a lot to be said about playing in front of family and friends, playing for town pride and loyalty.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @MikeZhe603