Game Misconduct: The Assault on the State of Hockey

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Jared Bethune won't forget the first time he got destroyed.

The puck skidded into the corner. Bethune, a 17-year-old winger for the Prince George Cougars, was the first player in. The second was Mason Geertsen, a six-foot-four, 220-pound golem for the Vancouver Giants, three years Bethune's senior.

Geertsen led with a cross-check, driving the smaller kid into the boards.

Bethune lay motionless.

He gasped for air, his body contorted into an inhuman form.

"When I finally got up off the ice, he was talking smack," Bethune now says with a chuckle. "I gave it right back. I knew I belonged."

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Tim Poehling (second from right) with his family

Consider it his unofficial baptism into the Western Hockey League (WHL), part of the Canadian major junior system, that vaunted finishing school for the game's most prized students. Bethune's arrival here left the old guard back in Minnesota sputtering.

Weeks earlier the power forward — projected as a second- or third-round NHL draft pick — was interviewed by umdbulldogcountry.com. He gushed about captaining the Warroad Warriors — where he tallied a surreal 91 points in 28 games as a junior — then segueing to presumed stardom at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Then he abruptly walked away from the thick loyalty of Warroad hockey and his commitment to UMD. Bethune wanted an NHL fast track. He became convinced that road cut through the Canadian juniors, not a Minnesota high school.

"There was pressure to stay in Warroad, sure," he says. "... If I would have gone back, I don't think it would have hurt me. But now it seems like everyone is leaving. That's the new thing. At the end of the day, I did what I thought was best for me."

Bethune is part of an annual defection. A number of Minnesota's most gifted players no longer see high school hockey as worthy. They're fleeing to junior leagues with the promise of accelerated development — more games, more travel, and year-round specialization — in hopes of finding a surer, faster route to the NHL.

The flight's been fueled by a network of cottage industries like personal trainers, nutritionists, and elite AAA teams, all seeking to capitalize on these boy prodigies. Players as young as age 13 now have agents. Scouts prowl arenas for prepubescent stars.

A kids' game is going pro.

That means Minnesota's celebrated high school system is no longer the belle of the ball. It's being called archaic and backward, with too few games, too lenient competition to polish our most precious gems.

The State of Hockey is under assault.

Welcome to the Hard Sell

"Minnesota was the last bastion of hockey in its purest form," says Bob Turow, former director of scouting for the United States Hockey League (USHL), widely considered the nation's best junior league, with teams from Youngstown to Des Moines.

It used to be that kids stayed in Roseau, Edina, and East Grand Forks, imagining state titles and Division I scholarships, rarely straying far from home. The State of Hockey essentially held monopoly rights to America's richest breeding grounds.

This was our tradition.

"In the past, the Minnesota kid stayed put and dreamed of playing for the Gophers," says Turow. "In 2014, that same kid... realizes there are other, better options."

Those options arose a few years back, when agents and junior league recruiters arrived in the state. Their pitch was simple, effective: stay in high school and limit your luster, or jump to the juniors, where the NHL has always turned first for its livestock.

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Minnesota native Matt Niskanen finished his high school career at Virginia before going to UMD and then on to the NHL

The WHL led the way, drafting kids at age 14 to claim dibs before other leagues. Add in the USHL, the U.S. National Team Development Program, and the rest of the Canadian junior leagues, and Minnesota was soon witness to nonstop raiding parties.

"Even as recently as maybe four years ago, most of the teams in the WHL wouldn't even try to recruit in Minnesota," says agent Dean Grillo. "Now it's become serious business.... What you see is the WHL getting more and more kids from Minnesota."

It was an alien concept at first. Since the league pays players up to $60 a week, it was essentially asking kids as young as 16 to turn pro. That meant forever forfeiting a return to high school, much less playing for the Gophers, UMD, or Mankato.

But the WHL had a sweetener: For each year played, a boy can get $15,000 for college if the NHL never calls. No high school could compete with that.

"People had to see this coming, right?" asks Turow. "Minnesota players have traditionally been sheltered, and it was only a matter of time before Minnesota got hammered."

Jay Hardwick witnessed the defections.

The former UMD defenseman now coaches Warroad. Last fall, he believed everything was in place for a state title run. Then Bethune fled north.

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"All of a sudden — boom! — he was gone," says Hardwick. "I'll admit we were totally caught off guard."

He believes young players like Bethune make these decisions under duress, mistakenly believing that if they don't flee, they'll sabotage their futures.

"These people come in and basically say to these kids, 'If you don't come to our league or take my advice, you're never going to make it,'" says Hardwick.

Daryl Wolski understands that argument better than most. The Winnipeg agent and "family adviser" — the NCAA-friendly euphemism for agents hired by parents to counsel kids as young as 13 — minces no words about what's being peddled.

"When kids are thinking about leaving," he says, "I tell them they can't worry about their [high school] team. I know that sounds crazy, but they need to worry about themselves."

Wolski offers families a bulwark between the leagues and their sons, since the recruiting process can overwhelm. In one email, he boasts of the dozen Minnesota wunderkinds he represents.

"Because hockey is so near and dear to our hearts," he says, "many people in Canada and Minnesota fall victim to the belief they're a hockey expert when, in reality, they have no business making hockey-related decisions."

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The Numbers Game

Tim and Kris Poehling live in the trenches. Three of their sons — Nick, Jack, and Ryan — make up the top line for Lakeville North, last year's AA tourney runner-up.

Twins Nick and Jack, now seniors, rank among the top 100 players in the state for their class. Both were drafted by the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers.

Ryan, two years younger, is pegged as one of Minnesota's 10 best sophomores.

All three have committed to St. Cloud State.

The boys used to play multiple sports. For the sake of life balance, the family used to shut hockey down in the summer. But the day soon came when the Poehling boys wanted to skate year-round. Call it rink peer pressure.

Tim remembers the moment he understood his sons "were better than I thought they were. I was sitting at the Mall of America, talking to [Lakeville coach Trent Eigner on the phone]. That's when he told me, 'Your kids are going to play Division I. I can come as close as possible to guaranteeing that.'"

The pressure started two years ago, when Ryan was in eighth grade. The WHL identified him as an emerging talent. Calls from half a dozen teams followed.

"Their lead-in lines are all pretty much the same," says Tim. "They'll say things like, 'Wow! Your son is very special,' or 'He's a man amongst boys. It's unbelievable,' or 'He's got first-round draft pick written all over him.' The word 'special' comes up a lot."

Then came the sales pitch. Are you aware of how many NHLers played Canadian juniors?

Invariably, says Poehling, "You leave the conversations thinking that everybody in the NHL has played in the WHL."

Tim's dealings with the USHL haven't been so heavy-handed.

"They've been much more willing to have an open dialogue about the boys' futures to the point where they've asked, 'What do you want [for them]?'"

When Poehling told both leagues that the family was wedded to Lakeville, the WHL's flattery turned almost threatening.

"I would hear things like, 'You know, you're going to have make a big decision about his future, and what you decide could be the difference between him being a first-round or much later round draft pick.'"

Ten to 15 agents also came calling, bragging of ins with coaches and programs, claiming they could grease the wheels to coveted spots on prestigious teams.

Grillo, who represents "maybe 10" players in Minnesota, has reluctantly joined this sales force.

He used to stay away from younger players. No more. The business moved the bar lower. Grillo had no choice but to follow.

"I used to be disgusted by it," he says. "But now I've started to watch bantam players." Some are just 13.

Poehling grew skilled at judging agents who were simply banking names.

"When you see a guy telling parents all the same things they've told every other parent, and are just scooping up any player with the slightest potential upside, it's not hard to see how their business model works. They want to sign up as many as possible and maybe one or two will pan out. Because at the end of the day, it's a numbers game."

The Poster Boy for the Way It's Always Been

Inside the Verizon Center, home of the Washington Capitals, the sellout crowd is damn near asleep. The game between the Caps and the New Jersey Devils is scoreless, offensive chances few, excitement on life support.

That changes when Mountain Iron's Matt Niskanen gets into a shoving match with Dainius Zubrus. For a brief moment, the fans go savage, believing fisticuffs are imminent. All they'll get are matching minors.

Niskanen's path to an NHL penalty box started on a road of postage stamp houses and sad duplexes. This is where a bowed roof rises, framed by power plant smokestacks reaching for a sky stained battleship gray.

If the lifeblood of Minnesota hockey runs through Warroad and Lakeville, Duluth and Edina, then its heartbeat can be felt on Ninth Avenue South in Virginia. This is where Niskanen learned to play. At age 28, in his first year of a $40 million contract, Niskanen doesn't understand why Minnesota's homegrown best reject the State of Hockey.

"People think [leaving early] is going to make you better in the long run," he says. "That they'll be better at an earlier age, then be a better college player, and get to the NHL. I think it's a shame that kids now feel that way because all the advice I got was that there was no need to take that path."

Of course, he was genetically blessed by the gods. Niskanen starred in baseball, football, and hockey at Virginia-Mountain Iron Buhl. He too was pitched by other leagues, drafted as a sophomore by the USHL's Tri-City Storm. Greatness surely awaited him in Kearney, Nebraska.

The agents followed. One promised to "work an angle," landing him a spot on the world junior team.

But it grew annoying fast. "It got to the point where I just told them I was going to go college. I said, 'I'm going to deal with you in the future, so everyone can stop coming out now.'"

He may have been a teen, but he was old-school Minnesota.

"I wanted to go to the state tournament with my buddies," says the first-round NHL pick, who spent two years at UMD. "That was our goal... going to the state tournament for the first time in our school's history. For me and the guys I played with, we will always share that, and that means a lot to me."

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The Purist

Inside Niskanen's old rink, the hometown JV team is taking a pummeling, compliments of Little Falls. The old barn, built in 1957, maxes out at 1,700 spectators. It might have 170 at the moment. Between periods, the sparse crowd trickles into the concourse. A few stop to gawk at a towering photograph of Niskanen.

For 25 years, this rink was Keith Hendrickson's headquarters. The 1977 Montreal draft pick worked dual roles as Virginia's head coach and overseer of its youth program.

When he resigned in 2011, Hendrickson attributed the move to family. His son Garrett was heading to St. Cloud State. Hendrickson wanted the freedom to see him play.

But that was only half of it.

Virginia's hockey program faced internal pressures. Elementary-aged kids were playing year-round, traveling hundreds of miles to compete.

Shouldn't they be playing for love and fun? he wondered privately. It seemed a costly rat race with no discernible goal.

He decided to push back.

"We had fought all these battles in Virginia, trying to change the culture, change the hockey structure. And we did," he says.

"For example, we did away with Squirt A's, did away with travel at all levels because we wanted to take the time and the money out of the equation so people couldn't use that as a reason not to have their kids play hockey."

Reform proved short-lived. By the time he retired, Hendrickson faced more of the same.

"I had people saying, 'We need to go to this [faraway] tournament for this pee wee team.' And I was like, 'Why do you want to travel 250 miles, stay in a hotel for two nights, and your son plays three games? He maybe touches the puck three minutes the whole weekend, and it costs you five hundred bucks? What's the point?'"

He's admittedly pissed about the State of Hockey. The fast-track mindset now infects every level.

Hendrickson points to specialization at young ages, where kids give up everything else for hockey. "That's not a healthy thing, believing that this camp or this team is going to bring you to some predetermined point of greatness. But parents and kids listen to these people because it makes them feel good. They're telling them what they want to hear.

"The truth is more camps, more training, and more games won't make you a better hockey player. If you don't have the passion, if that passion wasn't allowed to develop when you were young, you won't make it to the top."

The Meat Market

Greg Gartner is among those parents with higher aspirations. He's co-owner of B.E. Emerson Prep Academy in North St. Paul, a hockey-intensive private school in the mold of Shattuck-St. Mary's.

His son, Tyler, enrolled this fall. After Tyler missed a season due to knee problems, Gartner thought the boy needed heavier training to catch up.

"We just thought that missing a year of development in hockey... it's almost like dog years, missing seven," says Gartner. "We needed to give him a little boost."

A typical school week consists of eight hours of ice time, followed by dryland training and hockey education. Tyler also plays for Stillwater, in addition to a AAA team.

He's 12 years old.

Yet even for grand talents like Bethune, the odds of joining the ranks of Niskanen, Kyle Okposo, or David Backes aren't just improbable. They're infinitesimal.

A few years back, the USHL decided to quantify exactly how many North American kids born each year will make the NHL.

The number: 40. Most last but a handful of morning skates.

Of the 36,000 boys who play high school hockey in the U.S., only 3 percent will play Division I.

Yet such inopportune math rarely presents itself when recruiters and agents come to call. Every parent is hardwired to believe that Little Johnny's special.

That, says former Bloomington Jefferson assistant coach John Bianchi, means simply playing is no longer good enough.

Bianchi, with five state titles and three sons who played Division I, believes "the emphasis in athletics has gone from participation to selectivity. It's an elitist attitude now. Everybody is striving to be in an elite setting. It's a strange phenomenon, isn't it? Hockey as a means to an end?"

The Test

Neil Sheehy says that end is a bogus bill of goods.

He played nine NHL seasons, following that with two decades as an agent. His 14 NHL clients include Niskanen and the Wild's Ryan Suter.

When he's not counseling players, he punches the clock defending "the Minnesota hockey development model."

As proof it still works, Sheehy points to the 35 Minnesotans currently in the NHL. All but one stayed in high school, joined the U.S. National Development Program, or played in the USHL — which doesn't pay players, meaning they retain amateur status.

Only one, Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien, became a teen pro in the WHL. He didn't have much choice after being declared academically ineligible in Roseau.

Young players entering Sheehy's Edina office will see evidence of his own success. A Harvard degree on the wall. Photos capturing his days as a pest for the Calgary Flames.

He greets these kids with a time-honored test: two words written on a piece of paper, flipped over on his desk.

"Why do you play hockey?" he asks.

The query is usually met with confusion as the player looks to his parents, scrambling for an answer.

"Don't look at your parents!" Sheehy barks. "This isn't a trick question. What's the first thing that comes to your mind?"

"Because I love it."

"And why do you love it?" he asks.

"Because it's fun."

That's when he flips the paper over and slides it across his desk.

"LOVE" and "FUN," it reads.

"Understand this: This is why you play," Sheehy tells them. "Understand if you're going to be an NHL hockey player, these two things will have to be same, and if and when either of these are gone, your career is over because you can't fake it."

But these essential nutrients are under threat.

"There's a lot of fear-mongers coming into the market, selling fear that says if your son doesn't do this or doesn't do that, he won't be successful. People saying that just don't understand development.... Most of the people peddling fear are usually from outside of Minnesota."

It's a common refrain among the old guard, that outside agitators are fanning a false brush fire, claiming the Minnesota model can't keep up.

"They'll say how high school players here don't play enough games," says Sheehy. "And then people draw the conclusion that if you want to reach your potential, you gotta come to their league. It's not good for our game, and it's not good for players."

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A Cautionary Tale

Aaron Bader's destination was supposed to be the NHL.

At 16, packed with testosterone and talent, he left Faribault for the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds.

He'd played at the hockey factory known as Shattuck-St. Mary's, which has produced some of the NHL's best, including Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

But he hated school. Being courted with dinners and tours of pro-level facilities was enough to convince him the WHL offered a surer path to an NHL arena.

"When you go to the WHL," he says, "you get the impression you'll get drafted faster and you'll have the chance to sign a contract sooner. That sounded way better than playing in high school and going to college for four more years before turning pro, because you'd be 22 and have missed out on all that income."

Initially, Bader so impressed Seattle's braintrust that they penciled him to reach the NHL by age 20.

It was an intoxicating appraisal.

"When you're being talked to like that, being compared to this NHL player or that NHL player, it's not hard to connect the dots."

But it didn't take long to realize the WHL wasn't quite the front porch of glory. Bader discovered his accommodations consisted of a basement shared with two teammates. His billet's dog welcomed him to the Emerald City by crapping on his bed.

He netted 15 goals that first season, but finished a minus-18.

His second campaign showed marked improvement. He was named to the U.S. under-18 Select Team.

Yet soon all went south. Woman troubles stained his reputation. Bader won't discuss the matter, but he was traded twice the following year, eventually landing in Saskatoon.

His hockey dreams died on the Canadian plains.

"If I was to do it all over again, I would have stayed at Shattuck and gone to play hockey in college," he admits. "I left to play in Seattle when I was 16 years old. Even though I had talked about it with my parents, I had no business making that decision."

Bader's now 29, a father of three with a fourth on a the way. He's a success by any measure. It just happened away from the rink.

Using WHL education funds to go to school, he's now a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Nebraska.

This is where the league lived up to its promise.

"They did everything they said they were going to do. Just because I didn't become a pro, I don't want this to look like an indictment of them. It just didn't turn out the way I thought it was going to."

The Temple Mount

The way it is turning out travels along a southwest suburban roadway parallel to Highway 100.

On a weeknight in December, the complex buzzes. Parking spots are scarce outside Minnesota Made, a 75,000-square-foot hockey facility. Kids barely old enough to tie their shoes climb from just-off-the-lot SUVs, pulling bags of gear. Sheets of ice under bright lights await them inside.

The state's new youth hockey machine operates in full force here. Minnesota Made is a nexus where personal trainers and AAA teams thrive, where dreams and middlemen shake hands, where hockey greatness isn't some impossible pipe dream. It's advertised as there for the taking.

All that stands in the way is 10,000 hours of hard work.

Next week in City Pages: How money, dreams, and hustlers have thrust Minnesota into a new era of hockey, where everyone's looking to go pro, and no player is too young.


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