Minnesota has been known as the State of Hockey since, well, pretty much the beginning of time. Or at least recorded time when the game of hockey was invented. No other state shows as much passion at all levels from little tykes right up on to the pros. Hockey fans in the Land of 10,000 Lakes love to watch their kids develop from the youngest age to high school (where the annually sell out the Xcel Energy Center for the high school state hockey tourney) and then onto the collegiate level. The vast majority of Minnesota college hockey fans have been supporters of the University of Minnesota, and and they loved the idea of an all-Minnesotan Minnesota Gophers hockey team.
Back in the winter, we discussed why that might not be a sustainable model for success in today's college hockey landscape. I'm not going to rehash the details again, but just know I still support a Gopher team with the majority of its roster from Minnesota- just not the vast majority or entire roster.
Well, USA hockey gave us more proof last week of why the all-Minnesota Gopher hockey team is going to be difficult to win with. The USA World Juniors evaluation camp roster were released last week. For those unfamiliar with the team and the process, a quick recap from USA Hockey:
USA Hockey today announced the 40 skaters invited to take part in its National Junior Evaluation Camp this August in Lake Placid, N.Y. The players will be auditioning for a spot on the U.S. National Junior Team that will take part in the 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, Dec. 26, 2011-Jan. 5, 2012, in Calgary and Edmonton, Alta.
But what's alarming is what Roman points out here:
Here is a breakdown of players, by state, invited to the camp:
Five: California and Massachusetts
Three: Illinois, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania
Two: Colorado and Texas
One: Alabama, Maryland, Nevada and New Jersey
That's right. Minnesota not only didn't have the most players invited of any state, it wasn't even second. Or third. And while it's no real surprise to see Michigan or Massachusetts with a high number of invitees (along with Minnesota, those are generally considered the three best states for hockey talent year after year after year) to see that California has more kids attending that Minnesota? CALIFORNIA?!?!? I hate to give NHL commissioner Gary Bettman credit for anything, but he did put two more teams in the Golden State (San Jose and Anaheim) on his watch. Hard to say how much correlation there is between NHL teams in a state and how many kids starting playing the game because of it, but there has to at least be something there.
There are more kids playing hockey in California than ever before, and with the kind of population there (and wealth. Hockey is an expensive sport for parents to pay for), we're starting to see more and more kids in sunny California play the game, and more and more of them are turning up on college, junior, and national teams. We're also starting to see more and more kids in non-traditional (i.e. southern states) markets playing the game as well. You may notice invitees on that list from Nevada, Texas and Alabama.
While I'm not for a second suggesting California, or any other state, is going to unseat Minnesota as the "State of Hockey", it's becoming clearer that Minnesota is no longer dominating the game at the amateur and collegiate levels the way it used to.
Here's the number of Minnesotans on the last six USA World Junior squads (all were the most for any one state):
As you can see, Minnesota has dominated that team, but the number of Minnesotans making the team (and I would guess getting invited to evaluation camp) has slowly decreased since 2006. Because there's only four Minnesotans invited this year, the upcoming 2012 team would have the least amount of Minnesotans ever, and show another decline from previous teams.
I, for one, don't believe there's any problems with how Minnesota is developing their players. Instead, this is just evidence that the rest of the country is catching up. And as a Gopher fan, this is just more proof that Don Lucia needs to scrap the idea of an all-Minnesota Gopher team because there's just too many good players available in other states for the U to compete with just Minnesotans alone. Back in the day Minnesota had the most top high school players and everybody stayed in school, but that's not the case anymore. The Gophers' competition is recruiting nationally and there's a larger and larger pool of talented players to choose from. Just that fact alone means it's going to be harder to win with an All-Minnesota team.
But the Gophers don't have their choice of players inside the state's borders anymore either. Duluth just won the national title, Bemidji State has had more post-season success the past two seasons the the Gophs, St Cloud is always good, and Mankato is pesky. And what happens when St Thomas jumps to D1 (Ok that's a totally unsubstantiated rumor. But you have to wonder why WCCO would sign a radio deal with a school who is planning on staying D3 forever? No basis in fact there, but you really have to wonder)? Then add in schools like UND, Wisconsin and Notre Dame (among others) poaching talent out of the Gophers' back yard, and it's harder than ever to recruit the best Minnesotans and win with the best Minnesotans. And that's IF the top players they do get all stay in school for three or four years instead of jumping early to the NHL or AHL, which most of the top guys seem to do now at Minnesota and everywhere else. Oh, and that's if they go to college at all (take a gander at that list of invitees and look at how many American kids are playing major juniors in Canada).
Because of its great and passionate fans Minnesota will ALWAYS be considered the State of Hockey, but the days of Minnesota pumping out more top collegiate prospects than any other look to be at an end. And with all the other factors mentioned, it makes less and less sense to go with an All-Minnesota Gopher team. At least if the Gophers want to get back to winning conference and national titles instead of hoping to make the Final Five.