Junior hockey changes MIAC hockey culture

By John Kipper, Staff Writer

Within the M I A C , most sports teams recruit high school athletes, an exception being men’s hockey. The recruiters primarily focus on players that have played juniors. Junior league hockey is a broad classification for amateur hockey with the age bracket between 16 and 20, and most players enter after graduating high school. These two years can help players become more polished and can give them exposure that can result in college recruiting. After aging out, they can continue their amateur careers at an NCAA school.

For Augsburg, the last team not to have mostly players who came straight from high school was in 2007-2008. Men’s hockey coach Chris Brown was a product of juniors himself, an experience that eventually concluded with a collegiate career as a captain on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls’ 1994 National Championship team.

Coach Brown attributed the MIAC’s need to become competitive at the national level as the reason that teams are beginning to recruit players from junior leagues. This push started roughly 15 years ago with St. Thomas at the forefront. After that, other teams following suit as new coaches with ties to junior programs and leagues were hired.

Many of Augsburg’s hockey players come from the North American Hockey League, a 23-team league with most teams based in the Midwest or Texas.

Only two Auggies on this year’s roster came straight from high school. A big reason for this is that with two more years of experience, players can immediately make an impact in their first year instead of taking a year or two to adjust to playing at the collegiate level. In addition, budget cuts have resulted in most MIAC schools removing their JV hockey programs, and that is where high school hockey players have traditionally developed. This places an even greater premium on players who have refined their game.

A big part of juniors is learning how to overcome adversity; players have experiences that many other student-athletes do not have from just high school. Most notable is the experience of being traded from one team to another. Coach Brown used senior captain Nate Flynn as an example by highlighting that Flynn was traded in the middle of the week and was expected to report to Bismarck, North Dakota, from Rio Grande, Texas, having only two days to uproot himself.

The seasons are long with most players being hundreds of miles away from home, living with a host family, having to deal with difficult coaches and constantly being on the road for games. In addition to this, most players take on a job or enroll in part-time classes which develop time management skills to be developed. Augsburg has had a recent string of playoff appearances, and perhaps even more impressive is their academic performance. Last year, all 24 members of the team made the Dean’s List, and the current cumulative GPA of this year’s squad is 3.82.

Juniors provides a unique opportunity for athletes, and it is clear that Auggies who have had this chance have taken full advantage.

This article first appeared in the Friday, December 15, 2017, Edition of The Echo.