Gloves and sticks flew through the air as Minnetonka hockey players rushed to the home side of the ice. A pile of Skippers in the goal crease as they celebrated a 2018 state boys title over Duluth East.
Twenty-seven wins in 31 contests, a roster full of future collegiate stars, a 165-pound sophomore wing, Bobby Brink, stole the show with five goals in the state tournament; eight goals in six post-season games.
“Growing up in Minnesota, everyone wants to play for their high school team and play for a state championship in the Xcel Energy Center in front of a packed house,” Brink said to USA Hockey in 2018.
Brink, coming off a 21-goal, 35-assist season, along with a handful of standout state champions returnees, were set to defend their state title in the 2018-19 season. Brink, though, remained in Sioux City, Iowa, bypassing his junior high school season for the United States Junior Hockey League.
Brink, between time in the USHL and the U.S. National U18 team, played 50 games. While he was scoring 41 goals and totaling 76 points, Minnetonka was unbeaten through 18 games, and was ranked No. 1 for much of the season, before being upset in the section playoffs.
The transition to Juniors helped Brink join the University of Denver just weeks after turning 18. A rare feat in collegiate hockey. That summer also saw Brink selected 34th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the National Hockey League Draft.
“I thought it’d just be better for my development, getting to play against older guys,” Brink said to SB Nation’s Mile High Hockey in February 2020. “You get more time in the gym to get bigger and stronger. I think those are the two areas where I could use it.”
For every Brink success story, leaving high school early for Juniors, there’s a story like Chaska’s Mike Koster. It was those 2018 Skippers that ended Koster’s junior season. Some thought it was the final game for the Chaska defenseman; like Brink, he would head to the USHL.
“It was a tough decision. I’ve talked to a bunch of people considering both options. Every decision I’ve made is to further develop my game. We started something together our freshman year and this is the year we all said we can do it. I wanted to come back, finish what we started,” Koster said in September 2018, playing his senior year at Chaska.
Koster and the Hawks ended up one goal short of the state tournament in 2019. He showed no regret with the decision throughout the season.
Last year he played 37 games in the USHL for the Tri-City Storm in Kearney, Nebraska. This year Koster is a freshman on the blue line for the Minnesota Gophers. He has been in the line-up all six games, all wins, assisting on a goal in a victory over Ohio State.
Athletes leaving early, not participating for their high school teams, is not exclusive to hockey. Many of the top gymnasts in Minnesota compete for clubs, including Tori Tatum of Minnetonka High School. Tatum is headed to Louisiana State University next season.
There are also some dancers, such as Miss Dance Team Minnesota champion Jordan Fasching of Chanhassen High School, who compete only for their studio team.
Opportunities in other sports are popping up as well, heightened by the 2020 COVID pandemic. While high school activities were canceled last spring, club teams pressed on, sports such as volleyball, basketball and softball standing out.
When the Minnesota State High School League voted in August to postpone football and volleyball seasons, 7-on-7 passing leagues and a new fall club volleyball league were formed. Recently, bridge-to-the-season leagues happened for boys and girls hockey.
Many of the top teams and cross country runners from across the state of Minnesota also ran unattached from their high school-sponsored programs at a pseudo state meet at Atwater Golf Club.
The question has been asked often during the last six months: when the pandemic is over, will things look the same for the Minnesota State High School League?
IN THE RED
The MSHSL has had extensive discussions around membership dues in recent months. Many schools in the metro area are facing around 300% increases in MSHSL bills through a combination of fee increases and new fees.
With the loss of the boys basketball state tournament and all spring sports in 2020, the League’s 2019-20 budget listed $9,167,422 in revenue and $9,574,850 in expenses, putting the MSHSL about $400,000 in the red.
That was before the decision was made to not host fall state tournaments. The deficit growing into the millions.
That was with the MSHSL membership fee increasing to $110 and the fee per activity also increasing to $110. By February of 2020, those numbers were $120. This fall, those numbers were bumped up to $160.
A new COVID-19 fee introduced in September billed high schools with enrollment between 1,234 and 3,276 students, the 64 largest schools, with two payments of $5,500, totaling $11,000.
The first COVID-19 installment was due Nov. 30 with the second due on Feb. 28. These payments from every high school across the state, ranging from $1,000 to $11,000, will generate $3.11 million along with the $1.9 million in current membership fees, for about $5 million.
It is the only way the MSHSL believes it can sustain its roots as a “non-profit voluntary association that provides service, leadership and extra-curricular opportunities to more than 500 member schools. Through interscholastic athletic and fine arts activities, the League’s mission is to provide educational and leadership opportunities for students across its membership of public, private, online, charter and home schools.”
The League consistently ranks among the top state associations across the nation with more than 240,000 high school students participating annually in athletics and fine arts activities.
The fee increase was a kick in the gut to one metro private school coordinator, while another said there was no vision for future models when the MSHSL won’t face the hardships it currently faces with COVID.
If the MSHSL is forced to cancel the 2020-21 winter season, or shift some sports into the spring, thus sports such as baseball and softball happening in the summer, how will teams and athletes respond?
Many in the softball community feel it could be the end of high school softball, or at least a lesser product, at least at the metro-heavy 3A and 4A levels. Top-end players, which pay thousands of dollars for year-round training and travel tournaments outside the state, will end committing to their club teams.
Sydney Schwartz, junior pitcher at Chanhassen High School, who last played a game with the Storm due to COVID in 2018, recently committed to the hometown Gophers. Next summer she is slated to play for the Beverly Bandits 16U Premier team of Illinois.
Opportunities such as this, or even on top Minnesota programs such as Midwest Speed that travel out-of-state, give athletes a better chance to be seen by collegiate coaches than high school programs.
Will athletes choose their club team and bypass the high school season? Will the MSHSL allow for both to co-exist at the same time?
Could we be seeing an end to the MSHSL as it is now?