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Can the Magicians impact the USHL?

By frederick61, 08/02/13, 8:30AM CDT


The Minnesota Magicians will open the 2013-2014 season playing four games at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine. The Magicians first home game series at the Richfield Arena will be played Saturday and Sunday September 28 and 29. The Saturday game starts at 7:00

Junior hockey is a place for players to continue their development in hopes of landing a college commitment and/or a professional dream.  In today’s hockey, few high school or midget level players ever go directly to college hockey or the professional ranks.  Most will play junior hockey first.  That means most junior aged players aged 17, 18, 19, and 20 will play USA Hockey Junior Hockey.  Once 21 or older, if they haven’t found a place to land as a player, their on ice careers can be over.

The coaches and scouts believe that when a player is 21 they will know if that player will make it to the next level (college and/or pros).

What is Junior Hockey?

USA Hockey has divided junior hockey into three tiers and defines rules for all tier teams to play under.  Some USA Hockey rules apply to players and game conditions.  For example, the number of foreign born players on a junior team is limited to four.  But USA Hockey does not define rules for all junior leagues (Canada, AAU, etc.).

The most important set of rules result in how USA Hockey has “tiered” the leagues.  Each tier is defined by cost to the player and by a “level of play differentiator”.

The cost is simple; a player on a Tier I team plays for free, gets equipment for free, and gets room and board for free; a player on a Tier II team plays for free, pays for some equipment, and pays for room and board; and a player on a Tier III team pays to play, pays for equipment, and pays for room and board.

The level of play differentiator is more vague and harder to understand.  Basically Tier I gets first choice, Tier II gets second choice, and Tier III gets third choice.  But that “differentiator” can be attributed to cost savings that creates a higher level of play.

It is easy to understand why all the players want to try out for a Tier I team.  Cost of room and board is not cheap especially if the player is hundreds of miles from home.

Some players tryout for Tier I junior hockey and don’t even realize it.  The USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) has their USA U17 and USA U18 teams listed as Tier I junior teams.  They submit their protected player list to USA Hockey.  If a Minnesota player participated in Minnesota Hockey’s Reebok High Performance Program 16’s and 17’s this past summer, they were trying out for Tier I junior hockey.  If a player was offered a position on one of the NTDP teams and accepted, they were placed on that NTDP tier I team’s protected list for the 2013-2014 season.

For the 2013-2014 season, there are 15 other teams playing Tier I hockey teams besides the two NTDP teams.

Those other 15 USHL Tier I teams protected a total of 352 players in their June 2013 protected lists submitted to USA Hockey.  Only 29 players on the 15 protected lists played Minnesota High School Hockey in the 2012-2013 season (that includes 6 Shattuck-St. Mary’s players).

There is a natural “pecking order” among the three tiers and it is mostly money driven.  All the junior age players want to play Tier I.  If they can’t make a Tier I team they try out for Tier II.  If they can’t make Tier II and they can afford the financials, they try out for Tier III or for an Independent team.  The Minnesota Iron Rangers is one of a half dozen independent teams playing junior hockey this coming season.

Junior Hockey Dynamics

People assign Tier I as the best hockey because the Tier I teams have their choice of players.  The finances favor them and they have built a reputation for the best junior hockey.  But the USHL teams suffer the same problems as the Tier II and Tier III teams.   They get the players only after college gets theirs.  If a top college hockey team wants a player out of high school, a USHL team can protect that player, but he is usually gone.

All junior teams experience some turmoil during the season.  Last season, the USHL’s Cedar Roughrider team ended the season with 24 active players listed; but over the season 35 players wore the Roughrider jersey.  The NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs finished the season with 27 players on their active list.  In all, 42 players wore the Ice Dogs jersey last season.

The Magicians plan to have more stability in their roster once the team gets set.  They will be competing in the Midwest Division of the North American Hockey League in the 2013-2014 season.  That is Tier II junior hockey.
Some Minnesotan’s would call Tier II “glorified high school hockey” and would point to the USHL as a step up and better hockey.  Others would point to the Elite High School League starting up this month and say that is better hockey.  But the NCAA scouts at the NAHL Showcase held last September in Blaine were not scrutinizing the Elites, the Midget, or the Propects teams playing in the showcase, they were focused on the NAHL teams.  Why?  Because the NAHL was the better testing environment for the players.

Coaches and scouts are cautious, their reputations and jobs are on the line.  They also have limited travel budgets and time.  That is why the Showcase in Blaine in September is so popular with the scouts.  They get to see all 24 NAHL teams over a four day period and it is one trip.

A 60 game plus regular season schedule against rough competition is a better a proving ground to assess a player for a NCAA scholarship or a professional opportunity.  Scouts at the Showcase saw Tier II hockey as the best scouting ground (in part because most USHL players have commitments).  At least that was the opinion of scouts at the Showcase.

The Magician players and their opponents will have constant exposure to scouts over the season.  The Magician’s arena is only a 15 minute drive from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.  College and professional scouts constantly come through the Twin Cities area.  It will be easy for them to stop to see a game.  It beats traveling to a Sioux Falls SD.

The Anomaly

The Magicians next few seasons will be a test of what could create an anomaly in the USA Hockey’s junior hockey structure.  The Magicians could have a Tier II team that plays at Tier I levels.  Some will find that an incredulous idea, but listen to the possibility.

First, the Magicians will be closer to the source of talent than any USHL team.  That negates the one distinguishing cost issue between Tier I and Tier II hockey, the cost of room and board.  Why tryout for the Sioux Falls USHL team when a good player can stay home and play locally in front of a home crowd of friendly fans.  If he does, he essentially plays for free at the junior level.

The magic question for the Magicians will be “is there enough of a talent pool to draw from locally to compete at the upper levels of the NAHL?”  The Magicians will test that theory this season with a 50/50 mix of Minnesota players and out-of-state players.

Second, the USHL teams are all located in smaller towns all outside Minnesota.  These towns have limited hockey being played during the season which is why they have USHL teams in these towns.  The USHL teams do not have to compete for the local hockey dollar.

The USHL has not been successful in the Twin Cities in part because of venue (the State Fair Coliseum lacks the intimacy of a smaller arena like Richfields’ arena) and style of play.  The USHL teams could not compete for the same dollars that people spent to see the Gophers, the Wild, St. Thomas College, and high schools like Edina.

A few years ago, the USHL Twin Cities based teams did not draw enough fans, but times are changing.  Today, ticket costs to Gophers and the Wild are high and their hockey environment scaled to a large crowd.  Most fans attending a Gopher or Wild game are looking at the monitors to see how that goal was scored.  At the Magicians’ home arena in Richfield, the sight lines and seating is reminiscent of the old (not the new) Eveleth Hippodrome sans the chicken wire backstop.  Magicians fans will be sitting on top of the action at Richfield.
The USHL teams today have to import most of their talent to the smaller non-Minnesota cities and that creates a harder sell.  Most Twin Cities Hockey fans know Mario Bianchi or Travis Koepke having seen them play throughout the past few years at the high school level.  Bianchi’s Holy Angels team use the Richfield Arena as their home arena.  A number of fans will show up to see how they or Matt Colford or Logan Von Ruden will play because they know them.

All of that speaks to good potential fan interest for the Magicians in the coming season.

But the real dynamic is can the Magicians play competitive hockey in the Richfield Arena.  If they do and do it in a typical NAHL game setting style, they will appeal to the hockey fans with a hockey product that is more rugged then “glorified high school” and is not the sterile style of what existed with USHL teams when they played in the Twin Cities a few years ago.  NAHL hockey is serious hockey and the Magicians on ice game will be up front, personal, and a fun hockey experience for the fans.

If that happens, then a future Magicians’ game story could open with “last night, the Magicians game was remindful of an old high school donnybrook played at the Eveleth Hippodrome between Duluth East and International Falls in an early 1960’s Region 7 battle to go to the state tourney.  The Magicians’ game started just like the Falls/East game did when the Bronco’s Huffer Christiansen checked a Greyhound into the stands…and the fans went crazy”.

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