Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The State of Hockey in Mass.

You know that cute little subplot in the movie "Miracle" about the rivalry between the players from Minnesota and from Massachusetts? If they were making that movie about hockey amateurs today, you might be hard pressed to find such a rivalry, especially when it comes to high schoolers.
Let me explain. I was watching the TSN feed of the NHL draft on Friday night -- annoying how Versus doesn't pay for production of its own broadcast, isn't it? -- when the New York Rangers took Phillips Andover defenseman Chris Kreider at No. 19 overall. At that point TSN's Bob McKenzie observed that Massachusetts high school players have not fared very well in the draft in recent years.
Instantly, as someone who grew up going to more than my share of Massachusetts high school hockey games, my pride was injured. Was this the typical Canadian hockey chauvinism?
I was thinking about it again this morning when another thought popped into my head. Back in 2006 before the Olympics, I wrote a story about U.S. coach Peter Laviolette who happened to go to Massachusetts' Franklin High School (as I did, albeit eight years later). I interviewed Laviolette's high school coach, Bob Luccini, who at the time was working as a part-time amateur scout for Laviolette's team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Luccini was young enough to have still been coaching (in his mid 50s) yet had retired a few years earlier. Among the reasons he gave me for his decision, if memory serves, was how the caliber of high school hockey had dropped off.
That got me thinking. The Thrashers the previous year had drafted a defenseman, Jimmy Sharrow, from Framingham, Mass., and winger, Jordan LaVallee, from Westborough, Mass. Both of them left home to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. I also thought of Ray Bourque's son Chris, who left Boston University (a slightly different matter) to play in the Quebec league.
Obviously, I thought, this is a trend. The best high school players in Massachusetts don't stay home to play for their high schools anymore. A look at the 2008-09 Franklin High schedule lists 21 hockey games. The first isn't played until Dec. 17.
Zach Bogosian, selected third overall in the 2008 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, played 36 games in one year of high school at Massachusetts' private Cushing Academy (cost for boarding students $42,000), which is not governed by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, before moving on to major junior in the form of Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League.
In contrast to Massachusetts high schools, major junior teams like the Halifax Mooseheads -- which offers an English-speaking host city, as many Quebec league outposts do now, and relative proximity to home in New England -- start play on Sept. 11 this year and will play 70 regular season games.
Junior hockey also is increasingly popular in New England, further depleting the Massachusetts' high school ranks.
In the last three years of the NHL draft, Kreider was the only Massachusetts high school player drafted in the first round. In contrast, over the last four year years Minnesota high schools have produced a first-round pick every year (Nick Leddy in '09, Jake Gardiner in '08, Ryan McDonagh in '07), including the first overall pick in 2006 in defenseman Erik Johnson.
Furthermore, other states are catching up on what was close to a monopoly for Massachusetts high schools, which got the relative jump on other areas in the United States with the surge in popularity of the sport that Bobby Orr brought to the Boston Bruins in the late 1960s and 1970s.
In 2007, 10 Americans were selected in the first round and they came from places as diverse as California, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennslyvania, and, of all places, Texas (not to mention the more traditional areas).
So the bottom line is that Bob McKenzie, as is most often the case, had it right.

1 comment:

  1. Very interested in HS hockey and the juniors as well. Noticed that prospect rankings for QMJHL draft had a whole section devoted to N.England prospects. The notion of having teams in Lewiston, Me., as well as a few franchises in English-speaking towns in Atlantic Canada are a draw. Has the rise in fees/costs at the HS level also cut into the quality of programs in Mass.