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In Search of Unicorns

01/27/2021, 12:45pm CST
By Dan Bauer

A player electing to leave high school early to pursue other opportunities is a difficult scenario played out all too often today.

Where to go, when to go, should I really go are questions that I feel needlessly plague too many players.  Finding greener grass that hasn’t been photo shopped can be difficult.  It is a deeply personal decision that will affect the entire family financially, socially and emotionally.  For a coach and team, like a cross-check to the back, it can be unexpected and an often painful experience.  

When I first began coaching, these types of opportunities were for the truly elite players, seemingly as rare as unicorns.  Today there are many opportunities to leave your high school program and go play at the “next level”.  Many of the options are simply another level and not necessarily an upward vertical move.  It is a challenge many prep coaches face today; athletes and their pursuit of exposure and better competition.  Whether it is the lure of playing sixty games or the guaranteed promise of advancement, it is a carrot many can’t refuse.  It can be a broad menu of programs from junior hockey, to distant prep schools, to year-round AAA to transferring schools to Team Wisconsin.  The recruiting can be intense and the promises of greener grass or smoother ice are seemingly concrete.
  
For many it can also be a minefield of unexpected consequences, costs and parallel results.

As you might expect the success rates of those that chose to leave their high school teams to play elsewhere are mixed.  Success is often only in the eye of the beholder.  Like any goal in life, there are many different paths that can get you where you want to go.  And with each path comes absolutely no guarantees.  The financial cost is easy measured, but the time away from families is more difficult to analyze.  For many the financial burden is too much and for some the family sacrifice is one they are not willing to make.  Both can be significant roadblocks.

I have heard the rumors of players leaving many times during my career and in nearly every case they turned out to be true.  At a recent WIAA girl’s state tournament banquet, former Wausau West and Central Wisconsin Storm coach Pete Susens referenced the dozen or so athletes that left early when he was at Wausau West and fell short of their dreams.  And those that stayed all four years, two of which became captains at Colorado College and Minnesota, their choice was obviously the right one.  

Prior to last season I heard the rumors again as our 1st Team All State goaltender Pistol Cowden explored some other hockey opportunities.  Herb Brooks made famous the decree that until you have accomplished everything you can at your current level, you should not leave.  One could argue that Pistol had done just about everything possible at the high school level.  After a few weeks of contemplation, she called me to let me know she was coming back.  Her reasons spoke to “old school” character traits that made me smile.  It came down to her loyalty and love for her teammates and family.  “I wanted to finish my senior year with my family and friends,” she explained to me later.  Her reward is now playing for one of the nation’s top Division III schools, UW-River Falls, which to her delight has a hockey and rodeo team! 

When I look at the “bragging” pages of the state’s AAA teams I see most players going off to Division three programs that often have many players straight from high school.  Players that stayed home, and played high school on the girl’s side and played juniors after high school on the boy’s side end and up in the same place.  It begs the question, was all that money and time away from home really worth it?  

I fear the price you pay goes much deeper than your pocketbook. 

When the exodus of players from their high school teams became a noticeable problem, Team Wisconsin and Wisconsin Selects were created to provide those athletes with the exposure and competition they were seeking.  For many that was a compromise that satisfied their aspirations.  But not for all.  Full time AAA programs in Wisconsin continue to draw enough athletes to maintain their programs. While I believe the original intention of AAA programs was developmental, I now believe they are a business model first.  My argument with leaving your high school team is most certainly rooted in the fact that I am a high school coach and believe so completely in the high school experience.  Beyond that fact I am not convinced at all in the exposure sales pitch of non-high school programs.  I have always been convinced that good players will be found by good coaches.  WAHA and USA Hockey spend an enormous amount of money searching for and developing our “best prospects”.  It is extremely rare that a next level player is not on the radar of college coaches.  

The competition argument for leaving is a bit of a “Catch 22”.  Players departing high school hockey are in effect weakening the very talent base they feel isn’t good enough for them.  And the player movement between high schools is crippling programs and widening the competition gap.  How much different would our WIAA product look at both the boys and girl’s level if we added back all those who have chosen to leave the state high school scene early?  We might even look a little bit more like Minnesota where staying and playing at home is admired and encouraged.  Across the border they have grown to understand what is best for the greater good of the game they love.  Difficult to argue with their success.

The WIAA is far from perfect and I have been a critic to many of their stances, but if we as a hockey community were truly concerned for the greater good of the growth of hockey here in Wisconsin, WAHA would shut down all AAA programs during the high school season.  Team Wisconsin should be fully funded, making it available to every player and not just the best players that can afford it.  The WEHL could return to being a highly competitive, fully rostered league for those seeking more.  A true player development plan would replace selfish agendas and checkbook hockey.  It would require growing pains, sacrifice and an unwavering belief in the greater good.

Leaving high school to play somewhere else is an emotionally charged decision that I believe it is often unnecessary.  Maybe that’s because I have never had a player that I truly believed had nothing left to prove at the high school level.  Those players do exist, but they are rare and internally wired very differently.  

Finding the truly elite players has never been difficult.  Like the unicorns they are, from Mark Johnson to Jesse Vetter, when you see one, you just know.  

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com.

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