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Youth hockey partnership ends; some parents upset

The Two Harbors Youth Hockey Association Board recently voted to end its partnership with the Blue Line Club in Silver Bay. News-Chronicle file photo

Youth hockey has been a hot topic of conversation along the North Shore the past few weeks following a decision to end cooperative teams between Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

On April 10, members of the Silver Bay Blue Line Club Board convened to discuss with the Two Harbors Youth Hockey Association (THYHA) which teams they would combine as North Shore Storm squads. The two organizations have had annual agreements to cooperate on three teams over the past few years: a bantam team for boys ages 13-14; a peewee team for boys ages 11-12; and a 12 and under (12U) girls team.

Representatives of the Blue Line Club, however, were "blindsided," according to Board President Wade LeBlanc and hockey director Mike Guzzo, to learn the THYHA Board had voted to end all partnerships between the two organizations during its April 9 meeting.

"We were expecting to sit down on April 10 and basically discuss what the next season as far as what levels we were going to play at as North Shore teams," Guzzo said. "Unfortunately, we were told that Two Harbors Youth Hockey voted to not play as North Shore teams in 2018-19."

The THYHA Board spent significant time over the winter talking amongst themselves, meeting with its coaching board and surveying members regarding the continuance of the partnerships, said Jesse Lundgren, THYHA Board member and hockey director. The Board and Two Harbors coaches were "overwhelmingly" in favor of ending the cooperative relationship and a "majority" of parents surveyed were in favor of Two Harbors-only teams. Lundgren declined to provide the News-Chronicle with the results of the survey.

"We decided that what's best for our youth players is to not agree to have that agreement coming up," Lungren said. "So we didn't really end anything. We just decided not to continue having a cooperative team at those levels."

Since 2013-14, the two hockey clubs have cooperated on the three teams, which have experienced some success. Over the past three years, combined teams have advanced to state regional tournaments six times, LeBlanc said.

Lundgren described a variety of reasons why the THYHA Board made its decision. He believes the change will be a positive for youth hockey on the North Shore.

First, having teams based solely in Two Harbors makes hockey less of a time commitment and a financial burden for parents in both communities, Lundgren said. The combined teams' 75-minute practices require at least three hours to travel the approximately 30 miles between Two Harbors and Silver Bay, attend practice, pack up and drive home.

What's more, families already strained financially because of the costs of playing hockey, face even larger gas bills because of the travel between communities, Lundgren said. With less travel to and from practice and games, players will have more time for other school activities, homework and to spend with their families.

Highway 61 can be unsafe during the winter, and the THYHA was concerned about the potential for accidents, injured players and parents as well as the liability issue for parents driving other people's children to and from practice in car pools, Lundgren said.

Hockey players in northern Minnesota travel significant distances for ice time at arenas, so the distance between Silver Bay and Two Harbors isn't out of the norm, according to LeBlanc. Further, Highway 61, as the only ambulance route between the Canadian border and Duluth, is better maintained than many other roads driven for hockey practice or games, he said.

The THYHA is focusing on USA Hockey's "American Developmental Model" (ADM) for player development. ADM focuses more on skill building than competitive results in youth hockey and stresses "age-appropriate, age-specific competition and training for boys and girls," according to the ADM website.

"We're implementing those policies to try to raise the skill level of our players," Lundgren said. "Sometimes, that's hard to do when you don't know what's going on 30 miles away."

Lundgren also said THYHA has "no problem" with the North Shore Storm varsity and junior varsity cooperative teams between William Kelley High School in Silver Bay, Two Harbors High School and Cook County High School in Grand Marais. The schools have had cooperative teams for the boys since 2012-13 and the girls combined in 2014-15. The varsity and junior varsity players are bussed between the two communities, reducing time on the road and the financial burden for parents and families.

Guzzo, also the varsity boys hockey coach, believes it more beneficial to the high school program for kids to begin working together even before joining the school team. One Peewee player from Grand Marais was playing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but chose to move to the Blue Line Club because of the combined North Shore program so he could begin working with players that will eventually move into the cooperative high school program.

Decision factors

While Lundgren stressed the choice to end the cooperative teams was made in the best interest of players, Guzzo, LeBlanc and parents in Two Harbors and Silver Bay questioned whether the decision will truly benefit players.

The original reason for the cooperative teams was low numbers in both Silver Bay and Two Harbors. The girls' 12U team had just seven players from Two Harbors this season. Lundgren would not confirm that was the number, but did acknowledge it was "in the neighborhood." He believes, however, that the reduced time commitment of Two Harbors- and Silver Bay-only teams will increase registrants in both communities.

Guzzo, however, disagrees. He says a more likely scenario to fill out teams is to combine the 10U and 12U girls' teams, which goes against the ADM's recommendation for "age-specific competition."

"What it means for North Shore hockey, at the youth level, the kids are going to be playing at a lower competitive level than they have been playing at," Guzzo said. "There's no way either association can put out competitive teams at their levels they've been competing at. The other part is players are probably going to be asked to play not in their defined age groups and when you talk about USA Hockey and ADM models, that's a big thing."

Silver Bay is in a particularly tough spot with the girls 12U level and boys Bantam levels. The Blue Line Club will either have to combine their Bantam and Peewee teams as well as the 12U and 10U girls teams or make the choice to disband the 12U and Bantam programs.

"It's a backward decision," Guzzo said. "How many programs have combined, you're not seeing hockey come back on its own in all these small rural communities. They've consolidated and I'm sure if you looked at the numbers, Minnesota Hockey has registered a lot more combined teams than they've had go back on their own."

Guzzo pointed to a similar situation in Ely and Babbitt when the two communities' youth hockey associations "couldn't get along." The groups ended their partnership with the Babbitt program eventually folding. Instead of cooperative teams, players from Babbitt must play with Ely Youth Hockey and travel to Ely for all practices and home games.

Guzzo questions where Silver Bay kids will be able to play.

"Are they going to go to Canada to play? Are they going to go to Ely or Hoyt Lakes? No, they'll go to Two Harbors or Duluth to play."

Lundgren and THYHA Board President Rick Hogenson referenced "behind-the-scenes" problems that influenced the decision, but declined to elaborate in the interest of staying "positive." Both Lundgren and Hogenson have children on the 10U Two Harbors girls team and will soon move to the 12U team. Lundgren became angry when asked if his children playing on the 10U team influenced the decision to end the programs and said the questions were "not relevant."

Hogenson did not respond to a request for comment.

Lundgren also said if there aren't enough girls to play 12U hockey in Silver Bay next year, those players are "welcome" to join the THYHA and play in Two Harbors in 2018-19.

Hockey boards meet

While Lundgren said the THYHA Board had no plans to revisit the issue without the demand of its members, Blue Line Club members continue to hope their counterparts in Two Harbors reverse course at the May 14 board meeting. Even if the THYHA Board does rethink its position, damage has been done to the relationship.

"If it goes through all the way to next season and the kids don't play hockey as North Shore, I think there's going to be a lot of not-so-happy people," Guzzo said. "If they get back together, I think there's going to be some rough times for everybody because a lot of feelings have been hurt."

Representatives of the two boards met Tuesday evening. Blue Line Club members hoped to reach an understanding and extend the partnership for at least one more year. The Blue Line Club was told there were irreconcilable differences between the two entities on a variety of issues that extended as far as the purchase of jerseys and socks.

Blue Line Club members even offered to resign from the board if THYHA Board members would do the same in favor of a new, North Shore hockey association, but those overtures were rebuffed by Two Harbors representatives.

"We're willing to do whatever it takes to make it work for the kids," Blue Line Club Board member Shane Hoff said. "That doesn't mean all our kids have to go to Two Harbors — it has to be a fair agreement."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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