How Parents Go to Extremes to Support Kids’ Hockey in MN

How Parents Go to Extremes to Support Kids’ Hockey in MN

The time and money spent supporting kids’ hockey in Minnesota may seem extreme. But to those with hockey in their blood, it’s never enough.

Nick Seeler was only three when he laced up first pair of skates and stumbled onto his family’s backyard rink in Eden Prairie. Thirteen years and roughly 1,800 hours of organized ice time later, he has scored the ultimate hat trick: skating as a defenseman on two AA state high school hockey championship teams (Eden Prairie in 2009 and 2011), receiving a scholarship to a Division I university, and making the fifth-round draft of an National Hockey League (NHL) team—the Minnesota Wild.

Along the way, there were countless early mornings on the ice, sore nights, and anxious moments. And there was a time when it seemed almost impossible to continue. “In my sophomore year, I was only five feet, six inches, and weighed 135 pounds. I wasn’t playing much; it was a tough time,” Seeler recalls. The next summer, he grew quickly and worked even harder during off-season practices: “I’m glad I stuck with it, and I amped up from there.” He also eventually reached 6 feet, two inches, and 185 pounds.

Nick’s quest to play in the NHL isn’t over yet; he will play in the United States Hockey League for at least a year with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in Michigan. And he’s committed to play at least one year for the University of Nebraska, Omaha, before he can even hope to suit up for the Wild. He still might not achieve his dream of playing in the NHL. “It depends on how he develops,” says Dan Seeler, Nick’s father. 

That’s been the story of Nick’s life—as well as that of his parents, who have invested hundreds of hours and a sizable amount of money for him to develop the skills that have brought him this far in the world of Minnesota hockey. And their story is similar to that of thousands of other families across the state that also go to great lengths—some would say extreme lengths—to see their child, or children, become high school hockey stars. 

High school hockey is a Minnesota institution. Kids from across the state are groomed for it from the time they first step on the ice—especially in northern communities such as International Falls, Warroad, and Eveleth, and Twin Cities metro area suburbs including Anoka, Edina, Eden Prairie, Maplewood, Roseville, and Minnetonka. More than 50,000 kids under the age of 18 lace up to play on youth association and high school hockey teams in Minnesota each year. As they get older, competition, time commitments, and costs increase, making kids’ hockey not only one of the most time-consuming and expensive sports to participate in, but a $100 million-a-year industry.

Ultimately, 20 players a year will reach the holy grail of hockey in Minnesota—winning the annual AA state hockey tournament. A select few will go on to play with a Division I college or NHL team. But for the majority of kids, the only real payoff will be the exhilaration of pursuing such goals.

 

Pricey Ice

Dan Seeler hasn’t kept track of how much his family has invested in hockey over the years. “And my gut tells me if I threw out a number, it would be too low,” he says. Other parents also haven’t added up just how much money they’ve spent on kids’ hockey, or are reluctant to share such tallies publicly.

Twin Cities Business analysis of several factors, including ice time, gear, association fees, and related injuries, finds that on average it costs $30,000 to guide a child through everything that it takes to become a contender capable of playing in the state high school hockey tournament—and from there, perhaps earning a position on a postsecondary hockey team along with either a college scholarship or paycheck. And this excludes donations to related booster clubs and the costs associated with sending him or her to a prestigious, privately owned hockey camp each summer. Include those and other costs, and the total bill can easily exceed $50,000.

Despite these expenses and the pressures of the recession, hockey remains the high school sport for thousands of families across the state, especially in northern Minnesota and the more affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities. 

“Hockey is like a religion,” says Mike Snee, executive director of Minnesota Hockey, the organization that oversees the state’s 160 youth hockey associations. “In soccer and basketball, you don’t get as many people that are as devout.” 

“People will sacrifice others things in their lives to make sure kids get to play the sport,” says Bill Lechner, longtime hockey coach and athletic director for Hill-Murray School in Maplewood. “Some will even work a second or third job, or get an early-morning paper route.” 

Lechner, who played for Cretin High School (now Cretin–Derham Hall) in the early 1970s and then the University of St. Thomas, also skated his way through youth hockey. But, he says, “when I was growing up, my dad wouldn’t have made the same sacrifices some parents are making today.” 

Times have changed. “We took out a home equity loan. We took out a line of credit. We were spending more than our income,” says Alexandra Djurovich, who along with her husband, Tim McMillen, supported their daughter through hockey. Milica McMillen is among a pool of players that eventually could play for an Olympic medal. “My husband wanted to give our daughter the same advantage that people with money had,” Djurovich says. 

Sally Guentzel worked part-time jobs so her sons could play. “My work is my spending money so I can travel and help pay for expenses,” Guentzel says. She and her husband, Mike, who’s the associate head hockey coach for the University of Minnesota Gophers, supported three sons through association hockey. “Our vacations have always been around hockey,” she says.  

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Primarily because of the costs of equipment and practice facility time, hockey is more expensive than other high school sports. An average pair of high school varsity-level skates, for instance, typically runs $600—compare this with the average $100 to $250 cost of football or soccer cleats. And kids practicing hockey need their own clothes, pads, helmet, and skates, as well as an ice rink; players of other sports can practice far more easily and affordably.

There’s also the need to be really good if one wants to make a potentially tournament-winning team. Hockey provides fewer spots for aspiring athletes than most other high school sports. Across the state during the 2010–11 season, there were 384 football, 428 basketball, and 373 baseball teams for high school boys to join, according to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). There were only 158 boys’ high school hockey teams, and those teams are usually limited to 20 players each, whereas some football teams have more than 100 players.

The Allure of Minnesota Hockey

“Hockey is just the Minnesota sport,” says MSHSL Executive Director Dave Snead. “In Indiana, it’s basketball; in Iowa, it’s wrestling. Minnesota has always been the hotbed of hockey.”

From the days of ice polo in the late 1800s, through the advancement of Canadian-born ice hockey in the 1890s, Minnesotans have had an affinity for using sticks to hit things on ice. Each generation has loved playing and watching the sport and its heroes, from Eveleth’s John Mayasich and John Mariucci to St. Paul Johnson High School’s Herb Brooks and Roseau’s Neal Broten. And since its earliest days, hockey has been the number one high school tournament sport, where kids from unequal backgrounds and communities have had a chance to compete fair and square.

“Minnesota is the state of hockey, and hockey is the mainstay of the Minnesota State High School League. It’s the crown jewel,” says Tim Leighton, who has covered high school sports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for more than 20 years.

It’s also lucrative. The MSHSL pulled in nearly $1.5 million in revenue, with a 77 percent profit margin, from the 2011 boys’ state high school hockey tournament. The next highest revenue producer was football, which brought in $822,015 with a profit margin of 60 percent—45 percent less revenue, even though four times as many Minnesota kids play football than hockey each year.

Indeed, Sports Illustrated has highlighted just how big a deal high school hockey is in Minnesota at least twice, dubbing our state’s annual tournament “America’s premier schoolboy event.” (Girls’ hockey has become an increasingly popular attraction as well.)

A big part of the allure of high school hockey is the fact that Minnesota develops more collegiate hockey players than any other state. During the 2010–11 season, 814 NCAA male and female hockey players came from Minnesota, according to the American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) in Boston. The next-highest ranking state was Massachusetts, with 697 players. When looking only at men’s NCAA Division I hockey players, it’s a similar story: Minnesota ranks first, with 182 players; Massachusetts comes in second, with 115.

 

The Road to St. Paul

The time and financial commitment that many believe is needed to make the state high school hockey tournament in St. Paul, and, ultimately, an NCAA team, starts early—before six years of age, when boys can become “mini-mites,” and girls can become “U6” team members. 

At this level, association fees can cost upwards of $400 a year in the metro area. Still, a parent’s cost and time commitment are fairly contained as kids try out their blades. Equipment costs are also low; some association fees include the use of secondhand equipment, excluding skates, which average about $30 per year.

The cost for kids who move into the next level of play, at around ages nine and 10 (typically “squirts” for boys and U10 for girls), can reach $800 a year in association fees in the metro. Equipment costs also increase to about $510 per player over the two-year period, according to estimates provided by Strauss Skates and Bicycle in Maplewood.

For most parents, the time commitment required to drive their kids to and from practices, games, and hockey-
related events is minimal during those years, compared with what is yet to come. But some can still spend upwards of 100 hours per season. Others find ways to reduce driving times. In some communities, “young kids can walk to the rink, and parents can help each other out by carpooling,” says Mike Randolph, head coach for Duluth East High School.

The costs and time commitment begin to intensify as kids reach the next level of play, “peewees” or U12, at around ages 10 to 12. Association fees rise to $1,200 in the metro, and parents’ drive time increases to an average of 125 to 150 hours per year. The cost to play at the next level—“bantam” or U14 for kids 14 and under—goes even higher: Metro-area parents can pay as much as $2,000 in association fees per player per year. 

Then comes high school. On average, six to 10 positions open on a school’s junior-varsity and varsity teams each year. At the top hockey schools in the state, competition is stiff. Hill-Murray’s Lechner, for example, says he has to turn away more than half the kids who try out. “It’s right after bantams that reality sets in,” he says. “Through bantams, you just pay your money and you get to play.” On the other hand, Duluth East’s Randolph says all boys trying out for his team will make it this year. And some schools in areas of the state not known for hockey still struggle to fill out team rosters. 

For families whose kids make it through tryouts with competitively ranked high school hockey teams, costs escalate. High school and other fees are generally reasonable and schools provide some team equipment. That’s little consolation to most parents, though, since out-of-school training does not pay for breezers (hockey pants, typically around $110), gloves ($150), or helmets ($150). When the cost of that gear is added to that of other needed equipment—$600 for an average pair of skates, $70 for elbow pads, $80 for shin pads, $125 for shoulder pads, and $200 for a stick—parents of high school–age kids can spend roughly $1,500 on gear. 

And then there are all the sticks. Matt Nelson, a junior and defenseman for Edina High School, breaks about 20 hockey sticks a year, according to his father, Brad Nelson, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Minnesota and the medical director for Gopher sports. For Matt, that’s about $4,000 if he purchases top-end sticks. The business of hockey sticks is huge. Using a seasonal average of 10 broken sticks for every high school player in Minnesota adds up to more than $18.6 million that families spend on sticks alone each year—assuming that they purchase high-quality ones. 

Going Above and Beyond

For many Minnesota families, there also are spring and summer training programs as well as private lessons, skate sharpening, travel, and booster club donations. Coaches and parents estimate that about half of all kids playing hockey beginning at the peewee level (that is, at age 12) take at least one camp each summer, which means Minnesota families spend roughly $7.4 million per year on basic summer camps.

Still, Mike McMillian, executive director of the High School Hockey Coaches Association believes that getting a child from association play to high school varsity doesn’t need to be financially draining. A good off-season camp run by a school coach typically costs $500. “And kids don’t have to do the off-season training,” he adds.

Those who want to get on the winning team, however, typically do—or they find some other way to practice, practice, practice!

Milica McMillen, for instance, plays hockey nearly every week of the year. She shoots at least 2,000 pucks a week in the basement at home, receives private and semi-private skating lessons, and attends training camps geared to high-end players. All told, she’s able to spend close to 550 hours a year on the ice.

Sally and Mike Guentzel’s son Jake, who now plays center for Hill-Murray, spends about 300 hours a year on the ice, about the same as Seeler put in. Like Nick Seeler and Milica McMillen, he’s been at it almost his entire life: He became a mite at the age of three. 

 

Return on Investment

Ask most hockey parents and kids whether all the time spent on hockey was worth it, and they’ll say it was—though plenty will add that it felt all consuming at times. “I had three sons playing,” Sally Guentzel says. “My husband and I never really wanted to know how much time I actually spent in arenas.” 

Dan Seeler, who also has a daughter playing defense for the Minnesota Gophers, says he wouldn’t trade hockey time for anything: “The amount of one-on-one time I had with my children—in the box, on the ice, in the car, in the hotel room—was priceless.” 

So the time may be worth it. But what about the financial investment? The answer to that depends on whether it leads to one’s child playing in a state championship game—and perhaps getting recruited to play in the junior leagues, a college scholarship, and a chance to play in the NHL. 

Only one of every 142 boys high school hockey players this year—about 2.5 percent of the estimated 5,600 kids playing this season—will end up playing for a Division I college team, estimates John Russo, the founder and director of the Elite League, an invitational league for 120 of the best varsity-level players. 

“If you don’t play Division I, you won’t play in the NHL,” Russo notes. That means most kids will end their playing careers at the end of their senior year, after playing the sport for much of their lives.

But there are those who go on. Milica McMillen was recruited by the University of Minnesota between her sophomore and junior years and will receive athletic scholarships. The Guentzels’ oldest son, Ryan, received a partial scholarship to skate for Notre Dame, while their middle son, Gabe, received hockey scholarships to Colorado College. Chances are that Jake could also receive a scholarship.

Twin brothers and 2011 Eden Prairie graduates David and Mark Rath are now playing junior-level hockey for the Cornwall Colts in Canada. The Raths have not yet chosen a college. “Our family goal was not about getting them athletic scholarships,” says their father, Steve Rath. The plan was to capitalize on the boys’ hockey skills to increase their eligibility at schools ranked highly for academics. “The hockey gets them to the front of the line,” Rath adds. “It is expensive, but the kids stayed out of trouble. They are on the ice so much they don’t have time to get into trouble.” 

For Nick Seeler, the payoff could be substantial. If he signs with the Wild, his base salary could be anywhere from $525,000 to $900,000 per year, says Chris McAlpine, a hockey agent and a former varsity player for Roseville High School who went on to play for the New Jersey Devils’ 1995 Stanley Cup team. 

“When I was growing up, I always wanted to be an NHL hockey player,” Nick Seeler says. “It’s always been my dream, so it would be disappointing for sure not to make it.” If he does make it, he’ll become one out of about 400 Minnesota high school players (0.0025 percent of the total) who make it to the NHL each year, Russo says. 

That might sound like slim odds, “but if you want to pick a sport where you’ll have the best odds at playing pro, and you are a good athlete, hockey is the best choice,” Russo says. “Minnesota has the best development [program] in the United States, maybe the world.” 

And for those who don’t make the NHL, there’s always the minor leagues, Russo notes: “You might only make 60 or 70 grand in the minors, but it beats going to work.”

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