Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Catch up with part one of Game Misconduct: The Assault on the State of Minnesota Hockey.
In a part of Edina otherwise ruled by commercial drudge, Minnesota Made, a $7 million private hockey facility, throbs with activity.
Peewees battle on the outdoor sheet as squirts practice skating backward indoors, all while parents make love to their cell phones in the concourse.
Minnesota Made offers everything from private goalie lessons to elite AAA teams for those who want to "improve their skills in the ultimate team sport," says the company's president, Bernie McBain.
But what's really being sold is the prospect of stardom.
High on the wall are eight impossible-to-miss photos of players wearing U.S. National Team jerseys. They include NHLers Kyle Okposo and Erik Johnson, both members of Minnesota Made's first AAA team.
They're known as the "The 88s," a group of players born in 1988 that includes McBain's son Jamie, who now plays for the Los Angeles Kings. They were "the inspiration to build the arena you find yourself standing in now," says the elder McBain.
Eight NHL draft picks rose from that team. Eleven received Division I college scholarships. This is where Minnesotans groom their kids to be the next big thing.
All it takes is dreams, hours and hours of work, and breezers full of cash.
It's Business, Not Personal
On a December night, skates costing the equivalent of rent on a studio apartment in Loring Park chew up the ice.
Preschool lessons start at $280. A clinic with former Gopher goalie Adam Hauser runs $495. The price per hour of his undivided attention: $95.
"I often get accused of being a businessman," says McBain. "Let's not kid ourselves. Hockey is and has always been a business."
At Minnesota Made, that business includes some 40 AAA teams. The price for a roster spot depends on competition, ice time, and tournaments. But it begins at $1,200 and doubles from there.
McBain came to these fees the hard way, starting as a volunteer, then glacially transforming himself into the hockey impresario of the southern suburbs.
"I was coaching before my son even started playing hockey," he says. "When he started playing, I decided to hold a hockey clinic. That one became six, which became eight. That was 22 years ago."
He preaches the mantra that "Real hockey players aren't born. They're made!" And it wouldn't hurt the manufacturing process if you signed up for the $475 stickhandling clinic.
It's a long way from Minnesota's traditional method of rearing hockey players: pick-up games on ponds and rough outdoor rinks, played in used and abused equipment and skates handed down from an older cousin.
These days, the cost of gear alone runs about $700.
"It's outrageous!" says John Bianchi, a former assistant coach at Bloomington Jefferson. "The costs of playing hockey have become outrageous."[page]
Late on a Saturday in Blaine, Cory Sprague plays at 5:30. His sister Madison hits the ice at 7.
Mom Patsy Sprague has never done the math. She can only guesstimate hockey's annual uppercut to the family budget. But the numbers are jaw-dropping.
The Spragues moved from California to White Bear Lake four years ago to provide a bump to Cory's hockey career. The kids go to B.E. Emerson Prep Academy, a hockey-intensive private school in North St. Paul, where tuition runs about $15,000 a year.
She guesses the family spends another $3,000 — probably more — on travel, summer camps, and equipment.
These figures aren't unusual.
Tim Poehling knows of parents who've taken out loans to bankroll dreams. One family depleted an inheritance to develop the ultimate youth player.
Poehling, whose three sons play for Lakeville North, will spend $6,000 this year — on sticks alone.
Bob Baer prefers not to think about these soaring red numbers. He's among the new breed of hockey parent willing to spare nothing to see his kid's potential fulfilled. He has a lingering fantasy about how he'll recoup the costs.
Baer's son Alec, who left St. Louis Park to play for the Vancouver Giants in the Western Hockey League (WHL), is projected as a high NHL draft pick.
"Maybe I'll start totaling up the costs when Alec signs his first contract," says Bob.
Alec Baer chose to buck the State of Hockey's traditional development path, which runs from high school to college before pro considerations are entertained. He became a teenage pro in the WHL, where hockey receives his undivided attention.
The traditional route "takes a really special kid to be able to go and excel in academics and sports at the same time," says Bob. "What I love about this is my son's first dream is professional hockey. He can go 100 percent."
If it doesn't pan out, the WHL will kick Alec $15,000 in college money for every year he plays.
Bob understands that others might see him as a zealot, the caricature of a hockey parent living vicariously through his kid. "Yes, I am guilty of doing anything I can to help my kid pursue his dream," he says.
But he argues that only in sports do people find something craven about young prodigies seeking to perfect their uncommon gifts. He likens Alec's departure to a young girl being invited to play the cello at Julliard.
"Everyone would be like, 'fantastic,' right? You'd never have the feeling like she should have stayed in the high school band."
The Sprague family moved to Minnesota so Cory, a 5-foot-7 center with college hockey ambitions, could enroll at B.E. Emerson, a hockey-centric school modeled after Faribault's Shattuck-St. Mary's.
"We came because of the Emerson program, because it would give Cory the opportunity to improve as a player in a pretty rapid way," says Patsy. "If it wasn't for the school, we would have never made the move."
There have been casualties. Husband Chris, an Air Force flight engineer, is gone more often than not, working at a base outside of St. Louis.
"To someone looking at our family situation from the outside, I can understand how our case might look extreme," Patsy confesses. "But we look at it as an investment in our kids."
Emerson is just the start. She realizes that for Cory to attract Division I attention, he'll have to play junior hockey after he graduates, "because he's not big and strong enough to play in college yet."
Still, Patsy's convinced they made the right call.
"We wanted to give Cory every opportunity to go to college and play hockey in college. We've sacrificed a lot along the way — money, spring breaks that were hockey trips, our family not being together — especially my husband. But we've had a great life and certainly hockey has been a big part of it."[page]
The Stage Moms of Sport
Tim Poehling understands this support-your-kid ethos. Yet he also sees a shoot-for-the-stars mentality pervading the game, where parents essentially become agents "to manage their kids' hockey playing at age eight."
They're not unlike the stage moms who decide their young daughters are supermodels-in-waiting or destined for box-office grandeur.
Keith Jungels spends hundreds of hours at rinks. His son Chase plays for Benilde-St. Margaret's. Another kid plays bantams, and Keith coaches his daughter's U12 team in Edina.
Yet he still can't understand what's stoking the belief of so many parents that their kid will someday be crashing the net at Madison Square Garden.
"When I think about it, I'd say it's more ego than anything else."
Part of this is attributable to nature, of course. Moms and dads are organically inclined to think of Little Johnny as special. But those instincts are made to soar by agents, recruiters, and coaches telling gullible parents "what they want to hear," says Keith Hendrickson, a scout for the Buffalo Sabres.
"Some people... have made a lot of money over the past 20 years with these off-season all-star teams," he says. "Parents get told by these people all the things that make them feel good inside like, 'If Johnny comes here, he'll be playing against all these teams, against all these good players, and it'll only cost you $2,500.'"
Poehling, a vice president of the Lakeville Hockey Association, recalls getting a call from one mom who wanted to know why her son was on the lowest bantam team. The boy had earned a spot on a supposedly "select" AAA team in the off-season.
"She didn't understand why he didn't make the B team when he has college scouts looking at him," Poehling says.
A scout had called, asking for her son's schedule. She was embarrassed to say he played on the C team.
But further probing revealed the scout was actually a salesman. They come from companies with "official-sounding names like 'the National College Scouting Association,'" says Poehling. "They'll say things like, 'There's a lot of college scouts interested in your son and I'd really like to represent him because of my connections.'"
A green-colored motive lies just below the lip service.
"After she explained to me who this guy was," says Poehling, "I had to tell her, 'You understand he's not a real scout?'"
With three sons committed to St. Cloud State, he's intimate with the sales pitch.
"I still get them about every third week. Who these guys really are are guys who want two, three, four, five thousand dollars of your money to complete a resume and email it to college scouts and college coaches."
The mother was shocked.
"There's plenty of people like the guy who called her, who prey upon the wishful thinking of parents," Poehling says. "I definitely understand how people could get overwhelmed. With all the stuff that comes at you, it does have a 'Wild West' feel to it, and you could definitely get lost in it even when you think you're doing the right thing."
The Minnesota Hustle
Bob Capra is behind a handful of hockey enterprises, including Easton AAA and Minnesota Showcase Hockey. Both field dozens of off-season teams and host tournaments.
According to Easton's website, "We have preferred entrance in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Chicago, Boston, Winnipeg, Brandon, Toronto, and Calgary tournaments!"
A roster spot costs about $1,400, says Capra.
Off-season teams "can be quite profitable," Capra admits. Just one team can turn a $15,000 profit. Tournaments are the biggest breadwinners.
Almost 250 teams battled on 33 different rinks during last year's Minnesota Independent AAA Hockey Classic, hosted by Capra. Similar tournaments are known to generate six-figure paydays through entry fees and apparel sales.
This money flows a whole lot smoother from the new breed of agent-parents, who believe they must buy in or risk having their sons left behind.
Sports Illustrated reporter George Dohrmann knows the "racket" well.
For eight years, Dohrmann followed a California AAU basketball team, resulting in a book: Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine.
"These guys spring up all the time in the business of youth sports, looking for an edge to break in early," says Dohrmann. "They convince players and their families that they need them, when really it's the other way around. In that respect, there's a degree of hustling in it, as in 'hustler,' and it's not good."
For the player with high-end ambitions, that's where "family advisers" come in — the NCAA-friendly term for agents hired by families to consult with players as young as 13.
"It's become as if there's no age too young anymore," says Daryl Wolski, a Winnipeg-based agent who receives $500 annual retainers to advise kids.
He represents a half-dozen teenage Minnesotans. His relationship with the Baer family began when Alec was 13.
"Daryl filled a void for us," says Bob Baer. "He was an expert on the Canadian side of things. We didn't know anything about the WHL. In Minnesota, you get a skewed version of what the WHL is.... He had relationships with the teams, knew about their styles of play, where players might be a good fit."
Wolski won't name the other players he represents. "I need to play it safe," he says. "NCAA rules, you know."[page]
Baer recalls the moment he realized his youngest son was "special." It was at a mini-mite game in St. Louis Park.
Alec "went end-to-end with the puck and scored on his backhand, and he hadn't had any training at all at that point," Baer says.
Word traveled fast. Dads with fat wallets started calling, asking if Alec wanted to skate — with thoughts of amassing a loaded off-season team never far behind.
"It almost starts out that slowly, right?" says Bob Baer. "Then it's a little more and a little more."
The buildup took Alec and "the family checkbook" from St. Louis Park to the AAA Wisconsin Fire. Winters consisted of traveling to Somerset. "But there was always extra stuff," says Bob. "'Oh, so-and-so ex-NHL player is holding a clinic and so-and-so is doing it.' There was always that pressure."
By the time Alec hit bantams, teams were contacting the family with invitations to play as a mercenary.
"There'd be a Tier 1 team playing in some regional tournament and we'd get a call," says Bob. "They'd say it wouldn't cost us anything and wondered if Alec would come and play for them for a weekend tournament or two."
Bob's first encounter with an agent took place at a tournament in St. Louis. The opposing team had scored. Alec responded by cheap-shotting the scorer, who stood a foot taller.
"After the game," says Bob, "this guy came up to me and said, 'Alec's gotta a little grit to him. I like that. Here's my card. I'd love to talk to you about what we can offer.'"
His son was 12 at the time.
The chance to play with his brother landed Alec on St. Louis Park's varsity team when he was in eighth grade. But everyone knew it was a one-year deal. The competition wasn't enough to challenge a boy sensation.
Word spread that Alec was searching for a high school team. The ensuing courtship, says Bob, took the form of behind-the-scenes recruiting by people one rung removed from various programs. Among those making overtures was Benilde-St. Margaret's.
Head coach Ken Pauly admits a guerrilla brand of recruitment exists — not just among private schools, but also the public school heavy-hitters who take advantage of the state's open enrollment policy.
"I'd hear from a dad or a hockey friend," says Bob. "They'd have a kid who went to a certain school. They'd say they already had talked to the coach. Then they'd say things like, 'We'd love to have him,' or 'Alec would be a good fit. This would probably work,' and tell me what their program had to offer."
But Pauly vehemently disputes the notion that Benilde recruited the prized freshman: "Bob Baer's a fuckin' liar!"
Either way, Alec enrolled at Benilde, securing his reputation as one of the state's ninth-grade stars, ringing up 27 points in 23 games.
But as the Red Knights marched toward the state tournament, all hell broke loose.
Weeks earlier, Bob and Alec had traveled to British Columbia for an "open invite" with the WHL's Vancouver Giants. Alec missed a Benilde practice. Pauly kicked him off the team.
Bob Baer claims the coach was operating by a double standard. While players were routinely granted leave for college recruiting trips, visiting a Canadian junior team was viewed as an act of betrayal, against the unwritten canon of the State of Hockey.
Pauly, president of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, dismissed any argument that battle lines have been drawn to punish any player who leaves high school early for junior teams.
"I don't think we're trying to send a message of, 'Don't come into our backyard,'" he said at the time. "But we want it to come through loud and clear what we are about, what the high school experience is about.... I don't believe the major junior and Minnesota high school model are complementary pieces."
But if Benilde wanted no more of Alec Baer, others surely did.
"Within a day or so, I'd say we had people representing three private schools and two more public ones contacting us to see if Alec would be interested" in transferring, says Bob.
He signed instead with the Giants. His fallout with Minnesota's hockey establishment was complete. "When Alec left, I don't know if it's necessarily hatred I felt, but reading the blogs and the stories that came out, I would say people felt betrayed," says Bob. "I think the ugly side is judgment, judging one family's decision.... 'If he doesn't get to the NHL, he's failed and junior hockey was a mistake.'"[page]
Banned in Minnesota
The Baer-Pauly fight lives on.
In October, the Hockey News ran a story about Alec with the headline, "Banned in Minnesota, Thriving in Vancouver."
Bob Baer still marvels at how Minnesota players get blacklisted when they take their talents elsewhere.
The state's hockey establishment has gotten sidetracked, he says. Instead of taking steps to ensure its traditional player development model stays relevant, it's adopted a defensive posture, only interested in keeping external forces at bay. Baer believes this smug isolationism is hastening its own collapse.
"I think they feel threatened," he says. "The Minnesota model is ending.... The old guard in this state will tell you how taking the USHL route or the WHL route early is wrong and give a bunch of reasons for it. But you can't just complain that everyone else is wrong while doing nothing about it."
It may sound like lonely railing from a man whose family was browbeaten. But there are plenty who agree with Baer.
To compete, critics say, Minnesota's amateur game must modernize to 20-minute periods and a longer season, lest kids continue to see it as a development path that hasn't aged well.
"He's nailed it," one former USHL general manager says of Baer. "Minnesota has got the greatest amateur hockey system in the country. Period. Most places would kill for it. But its biggest problem has always been and continues to be itself. Just to mention there could be any sort of change to make it better is taken as heresy."
Pauly concedes there are problems. "But those are issues for the State High School League," he says, "not the coaches."
Yet he remains resolute in his defense of Minnesota hockey.
"What I believe in is the community-based, high school-based model. I believe kids should stay in high school and develop. I think junior hockey takes kids out of their culture and ruins them. I'm telling a kid to stay at home, be with your friends, and enjoy playing. By taking a kid and telling him he has to play juniors, you're making him into a full-time hockey player. And if it doesn't work out, you're fucked."
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
In the middle of a January snowstorm, a kid not yet 10 darts around an outdoor rink in Eden Prairie. A Minnesota Wild jersey hides layers of warmth as he glides up and down the ice, the puck glued to his stick.
He has the rink to himself.
Not long ago, Casey Mittelstadt was that kid.
No more. He's been anointed a phenom.
The Eden Prairie freshman verbally committed to Don Lucia's storied Gophers program before he played a single high school shift.
Mittelstadt's case speaks to the State of Hockey's conflicted mantra. Officially, it's all about fun, staying home, playing for family and friends. Yet even the state's crowning program solicits kids who've just emerged from middle school.
Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann, a former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing academic fraud in the University of Minnesota's men's basketball program, says that Minnesota hockey has begun to mirror what's already taken place in basketball.
The players often are different — inner-city kids from single-parent homes versus middle- and upper-class kids from suburban families. But the hype and tragedy remains the same, says Dohrmann.
That Lucia is offering scholarships to high school freshmen "speaks to the heart of the problem.
"If you're the University of Minnesota program — the Alabama football program of college hockey — what good is it being the University of Minnesota and all the advantages that it has if you're giving ninth-graders scholarships because everyone else is doing it? If you claim you don't like what the culture is becoming, you can't continue to contribute to it."
This is where the State of Hockey itself is culpable.
"There's these prevailing notions in youth sports today that you can't expose kids too soon to playing against the top talent, getting them on teams with the right coaches, playing an endless amount of games, or being the target of recruitment," says Dohrmann. "You can absolutely expose your kids too soon to this pressure-packed environment."
As for Coach Lucia, numerous interview requests went unreturned.
Send tips to Cory Zurowski.