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CUNNINGHAM SPORTS BLOG--WHEN ARE TITLES NOT ENOUGH? MAYBE RIGHT NOW

CUNNINGHAM SPORTS BLOG--WHEN ARE TITLES NOT ENOUGH?  MAYBE RIGHT NOW Click to Enlarge

Subtle as a jackhammer.

That's how the message of the future of Grand Forks youth hockey hit me after a seemingly innocent tweet from a "person in the know" Monday.

The tweet read: Top three programs in Minnesota AA high school hockey this year:

1. Minnetonka

2. Duluth East

3. Edina

(Aviators 6-0 vs the three (AA bantam) teams)

Grand Forks has a bright youth hockey future ahead of it. The Aviators are the AA Bantam team in Grand Forks that is ranked second in Minnesota, and gaining widespread acclaim for its success against the traditional best in the business.

This year, the Aviators played six games against the AA bantam teams affiliated with the first, second, and third-place AA high school teams in the Minnesota State Tournament, and, as mentioned, won them all.

Immediately after this fact was sent to me, a tweet followed saying, "It's a shame that Grand Forks kids in high school don't get to compete more against the best from Minnesota after Bantam....."

It is not the first time the word "midget" has been floated in recent weeks. One person close to the hockey community in Grand Forks as much as told me, in a person-to-person conversation, that players and parents were grumbling about the lack of competitive games for Red River and Central in a regular season, and that midget hockey was being considered as an option.

Hockey success is not new to town, but four of the last six state titles have been won by the two Grand Forks high schools, one of them has been in each of the last six championship games, and what is new to the picture is the number of games that have turned into blowouts during regular season play.

Also new to the equation is the hockey picture being muscled into by new teams, all demanding their fair share of Central and Red River's attention. West Fargo Sheyenne came onto the ice this year, and there is talk of the new Hillsboro/May-Port-C-G team asking for membership in the Eastern Dakota Conference, threatening to add two more games to the already cramped, and, to some, watered down, schedules of the Knights and Roughriders.

This led Bismarck Demon head coach Mike Peluso to send the strongest signal yet that we're teetering on the edge of shipping high school players to midget hockey. His February 28th tweet read, "Are AAA midget teams close in ND? Bobcat (Bismarck, NAHL) AAA, Force (Fargo, USHL) AAA, Fighting Hawk (I think you got it) AAA and Minatauro (Minot, NAHL). Two or three tiers of high school hockey instead?"

Among the complaints against NDHSAA hockey: too few games (comparisons of 21 games in high school to 80 to 100 in Canadian midgets), too poor competition, and lack of flexibility to fix either.

Central and Red River are locked in an Eastern Dakota Conference that is being more and more micromanaged by Fargo and West Fargo. Central had a chance to pick up two games against Orono and Delano, MN, over Thanksgiving weekend this November, but had to drop Minot from it's schedule and settle for just one when West Fargo Sheyenne refused to play only once in the regular season.

Ross Richards, Sheyenne's Activities Director, told me he would "love to see" a coach suggest a regular schedule of some teams in the league only seeing each other once a year, a move that would allow Grand Forks schools to bring in more Minnesota competition. I thought the statement brave, considering that most AD's I talk to like the ease of a regular season schedule taking care of itself with the league opponents.

The idea of adding to the allowable number of regular-season games is a longshot at best. Prevailing wisdom is that, should the move be made for hockey, which is needed to solve the midget hockey threat, basketball coaches will jump on the opportunity, coaches who have no threat of a competing level, but have the same scheduling micromanagement issue.

Eastern Dakota Conference basketball teams have to account for three additional teams to play, as Shanley co-ops with Fargo South for hockey, Wahpeton plays hockey in Minnesota, and Valley City hockey co-ops with Jamestown. The result of the additional teams in basketball: 20 of your allowable games are against conference teams. They are lucky to see anyone outside of the league schedule, unless you play someone for both league points in one night.

Yes, basketball coaches will scream if you open the door for hockey teams to play more, and they make a louder noise. There are close to 240 basketball coaches, and 27 hockey coaches.

If there is one lesson we all have learned about youth sports, a lesson that traverses the gap from one sport to the next, it's the lesson of parental involvement. Ignore a problem long enough, one that parents think they can fix, they will take matters into their own hands.

Parents can't force the NDHSAA to offer three classes of basketball, but they can organize, fund, and send players to a midget hockey team all on their own. This, combined with an upswing in Grand Forks hockey quality even by Grand Forks standards, an entrenched Eastern Dakota Conference, and an NDHSAA that is the opposite of nimble, and it's the perfect recipe for...........

Disaster.

Sure, the Fighting Hawks AAA would be stellar. However, the specialization that is already hurting fall and spring sports for Central and Red River would move from rumored to glaring, and would exact the same toll on hockey for the Knights and Roughriders also.

No more Zach Murphy, or Landon Haagenson, or Kaleb Johnson, or Ben Christian, or Zane Miller, and so on and so on, playing football. How could you play football and still play your 60 midget games? And with the cream of the crop now Fighting Hawks AAA, Central and Red River would be a lot like the teams they are beating right now.

The high school athletic experience is supposed to be a diverse one, and it's already under attack by kids specializing in this sport or that, with promises of Division I scholarships dangled in front of them by coaches that are involving themselves while the athletes are in junior high. Midget hockey might give hockey players a better regular season, but, for the vast majority of them, that's all the benefit it would offer, at the expense of the rich athletic experience the participant should enjoy.

However, if the NDHSAA, the Eastern Dakota Conference, and the AD's can't find a way to fix hockey's problems, can you blame parents for moving in this direction? In a way, parents are delivering the ultimate message we all want to hear: Winning isn't everything. Titles aren't enough. The experience of undefeated seasons isn't as good as the experience of being in some wars, and losing some wars. There is more to that kind of a season.

If something doesn't change, something is going to change.



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