The State of Hockey.
That’s the age-old nickname for Minnesota, and if the state’s talent production is any measurement, it lives up to the hype.
More than an eighth of college hockey players come from Minnesota’s high school leagues, and plenty of players move across the country just to play in those programs. And if Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s recruiting efforts are successful, a handful will make the trek from Minnesota to play college hockey in Ann Arbor.
That commitment makes sense for a coach who once skated for talented Edina East High School in the Minneapolis suburbs during the ’70s. Pearson is familiar with the state of Minnesota’s talent, and it’s an area he’s focusing on recruiting more and more.
“Just so many good players here,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on Jan. 24, when he was in Minnesota to scout players. “Michigan’s got some good players, but it tends to not have the depth, and fluctuates year to year (depending on) how many really good ones are coming out, whereas Minnesota always has good kids.”
As Michigan travels to Minneapolis on Saturday to challenge Minnesota for a Big Ten Championship, either the Wolverines or the Golden Gophers will hoist the trophy. The high school hockey players watching from the stands will envision themselves doing the same in a few years, but the question is what school they will win it for.
But before any talk of conference titles, the first step to recruiting those good kids is getting their attention. And with six Division 1 schools right in their Minnesotan backyards, that’s easier said than done.
Recruiting has a lot to do with who’s behind the bench. Head coaches, assistants and support staff are all factors in where a high school hockey player commits.
And that relationship makes sense. Coaches call the shots — who plays, who sits, what line they’re on — and players want to know that they’ll be given a fair shot. Players can stomach a healthy scratch a lot better if they’re close with their coach.
Such was the case when Keaton Pehrson committed to play at Michigan Tech in 2015, back when Red Berenson still coached Michigan and Pearson was leading the Huskies. He trusted Pearson and developed a relationship with him as he played for Lakeville North High School, just south of the Twin Cities.
When Pearson took the head coaching job in Ann Arbor upon Berenson’s quasi-retirement, Pehrson came in tow. But despite the drastic change of venue, Pehrson didn’t need convincing.
“I built a pretty good relationship with (Pearson) over the time,” Pehrson said. “And obviously I had to ask him questions, because Michigan’s a different school than Tech, and they’re gonna get some high end guys coming in from the NTDP. I felt comfortable enough to come over, and trusted him and trusted my abilities, and it’s worked out good so far.”
But even when players trust a coach, plenty choose to stay at home. Pearson tried to recruit Tristan Broz, a forward who played two seasons at The Blake School in Minneapolis. Broz loved Pearson’s pitch and came just short of committing, but in the end he signed with Minnesota coach Bob Motzko.
“My family had just given so much to me already at that point in my hockey career, and I thought that I kind of had to take them into the decision,” Broz told The Daily. “Having them be able to be 20 minutes down the road and be able to come to every home game pretty conveniently was probably the biggest X-factor for me.”
Decisions like that reflect an often-ignored element of recruiting: Moving a player across the country means uprooting them from their community. In Minnesota, those roots are buried deep.
Hockey is deeply ingrained into Minnesotan culture. Communities pay for public ice facilities, and their taxes help lower the cost of ice time. In the winter, outdoor rinks dot the landscape like snowmen rising from the banks. Kids swap backpacks and sneakers for sticks and skates as they leave school. And when the high school state tournament comes up, NHL arenas fill with fans who haven’t the slightest relation to any of the players. The closest comparison is Texas high school football.
Leaving that kind of close-knit hockey community isn’t an easy decision, and it’s a big reason why so many Minnesota players stay close to home. That decision is made even easier with so many top hockey schools nearby — Minnesota, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth are all top 10 in Pairwise comparisons, not to mention schools like Wisconsin and North Dakota, which aren’t a long trip from Minnesota’s border towns.
“They kind of gravitate to those places, and then it’s easier for those coaches to get to see those kids and to know about them,” Warroad High School coach Jay Hardwick — who grew up in Warroad, Minnesota, and played college hockey at Duluth — said. “We’ve had a lot of Warroad kids go to North Dakota over the years because that’s actually the closest: they’re only two hours away from us.”
Some far-off schools don’t even bother with scouting the state’s programs because they would be wasting time competing against boyhood heroes.
“I think when those coaches make inroads here, the kids find out like ‘Hey, you know, Vermont’s a really pretty state and that coach seems like a great guy, I think I’d love to play for him,” Mark Manney said, who coaches Andover High School a half hour north of Minneapolis. “So they’re willing to leave, they just don’t get exposed to it, because a lot of coaches just won’t even come here, because they don’t think it’s worth the effort when kids want to play in Minnesota.”
But those Minnesota schools only have so many open spots on the roster, and they’re not going to give out promises they can’t keep.
“(Minnesota Duluth does) everything they can to bring in a player who they’ve offered a scholarship to regardless of how he develops after they’ve offered it,” Manney said. “So I think it just falls back on the coaches. Mankato is very slow to commit guys because they want to be sure. They don’t want to have the reputation of turning guys back out on the street.”
With the relationship between coaches and players so integral to constructing a good college hockey team, coaches try not to retract scholarship offers. But when they inevitably run out of roster spots — in some cases when players only have two games left in their high school or junior careers — young hockey players are left out to dry. It’s a situation no one wants, and both parties think of that when they’re charting a player’s future.
In some cases, those overlooked by Minnesota’s D-1 schools trickle into out-of-state programs — a situation that Michigan wants to use to its advantage. Out of 212 Minnesotan college hockey players, 127 play in a different state. Schools like Wisconsin, Air Force and Colorado College lead the pack.
“Most kids grow up in Minnesota dreaming to be a hockey player,” Lee Smith said, who coaches Eden Prairie High School 20 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. “In the old days, they used to dream of being a Gopher, but now their horizon has really broadened with all the great college programs.”
Plenty of talented players stay uncommitted to college programs long past high school graduation, and many cut their teeth in junior leagues like the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League before making the jump to the NCAA.
Recent Michigan commit Garrett Schifsky, expected to play for the Wolverines in 2023, played for Andover High School before leaving for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks at the end of last season. After a solid start to this season with a 47-point pace, Schifsky caught Pearson’s attention and signed with Michigan in January.
“I think a lot of players would like to stay (in Minnesota) but the more you branch out and reach out, you really see and get to know people,” Schifsky said. “And I think just choosing Michigan for me was a big step towards opening up and meeting a lot of new people, and going to Michigan just feels like the best choice for me.”
Schifsky isn’t the only one taking his services to schools outside of Minnesota. Schools like Colorado College, Arizona State and Nebraska Omaha have heavily recruited in Minnesota. Michigan itself has signed three future players — Schifsky and 2022-commits Jackson Hallum and Tyler Haskins.
At the end of the day, players want to go where they trust coaches and know they can grow. Who’s going to push them to improve? Who’s going to give them enough ice time to develop? Who has the best campus culture? Players sign with the coach that answers those questions best.
Recruiting in Minnesota offers Michigan another field to harvest talent. Pearson has proven that he can recruit top talents — there’s a reason four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL draft had ties to Michigan — but drawing from the deep pools of Minnesota can flesh out the Wolverines’ depth. At the end of the day, top line scorers can only play 20 to 25 minutes a night. That leaves a whole lot of ice time for other players to take up.
With Michigan on the precipice of a Big Ten Championship — playing for a coveted banner on the road in Minneapolis on Saturday — those depth commitments could help determine the program’s direction. If Michigan wants to make itself a consistent contender after this season, loading talent down the roster is a must, and the path to that goes through Minnesota. Every shift matters in championship games, and the Wolverines’ bottom six depth like senior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe, Jimmy Lambert and Nolan Moyle will be instrumental in any success Michigan finds.
If Pearson’s recruiting efforts work out, that success could culminate in a banner.