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From Rabid Rivalry to a One Town Team: The Decline of Minneapolis Hockey

A look at the current state of high school hockey in Minneapolis.

More than 40 years removed from his greatest high school glory, the mention of Brad Shelstad's name still sparks memories for thousands of Minnesota hockey fans.

Now a teacher in Wadena, MN, Shelstad made his first fame in the goal crease at Met Center in Bloomington on a March night in 1970. The goaltender for the Minneapolis Southwest Indians, Shelstad served up an improbable 1-0 shutout of powerful Edina in the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament's title game.

Nothing he would do later—not even backstopping the University of Minnesota hockey team to its first NCAA title four years later—would so permanently cement Shelstad's name onto the wall of Minnesota sports legends.

But to demonstrate just how much can change in four decades, it's worth nothing that the rink where Shelstad and Southwest made their mark on the Minnesota hockey scene is now a Swedish furniture store. And where once we had hotly-contested in-city hockey rivalries like Washburn vs. Roosevelt and Southwest vs. Edison, this year they'll all be playing under one banner.

Seven Minneapolis high schools will combine to pool their talent and form the Minneapolis Novas this season. They'll field varsity and junior varsity teams for boys and girls.

"It was a very tough decision," said Ryan Lamberty, the athletic director at Minneapolis Southwest. "We went to four teams in Minneapolis about 15 years ago, and had two programs last year, but the numbers just weren't there."

It's a combination of factors that has led to the current state of high school hockey in Minneapolis. Mike Snee, the executive director of Minnesota Hockey – the state's governing body for amateur hockey—lives in Minneapolis where he is raising young hockey players and has seen reasons for the numbers decline first-hand. He cites the changing demographics, the perceptions about the quality of Minneapolis public schools and the proliferation of private schools with hockey programs nearby as contributors to the changes.

But Snee looks also at the success of youth hockey programs like the Minneapolis Storm and sees hope, and a challenge, for the future. He noted that of the 14 second-year bantam players skating for the Storm last season, 13 of them are playing high school hockey outside of Minneapolis this winter, at both public and private schools. The more immediate challenge is to get young players in Minneapolis to try hockey. They've put together a task force within Minnesota Hockey to address that issue, and the cost of the game, which looms large for many families.

"Most associations have done a good job of making mini mite hockey affordable, because there is an expense to it," Snee said. "It's always going to be more expensive than basketball. That's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but we do have people working in the core cities, introducing kids to the game."

Lamberty sees the Storm youth hockey program as a key to future success, offing Minneapolis high schools a successful feeder program for the first time in recent memory. And he says the numbers of young hockey players in the city are increasing for the first time in a long time. Over the summer, the Minneapolis schools hired Shawn Reid to coach the first combined team. Reid, who recently moved back to Minnesota from the East Coast, has a challenging job on many fronts. He first has to combine two teams into one, pick the best among the 50 players he expects to try out, field a competitive product on the ice, and work to sell Minneapolis high school hockey to the kids coming up through the city's youth program.

"Part of my job is to work closely with the youth hockey programs," said Reid, who plans to start a mentor program so young hockey players get to know and identify with members of the Novas. "I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be an awesome experience."

According to Snee an effort to sell hockey to the immigrant communities in the city as a part of Minnesota culture that is worth trying, as a way to make recent arrivals from throughout the world feel like they're part of the "State of Hockey" a little bit. With those efforts and the potential uptick in the numbers of youth hockey players in the city, he sees better times ahead for high school hockey in Minneapolis.

"It's probably unrealistic to think we're going to get back to the days of Roosevelt versus Southwest, but I definitely think that it's going to get better," Snee said.

The Novas play their first game of the 2010-11 season on Nov. 30 at Parade Ice Garden.

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