The idea has been bouncing around for a few years.

The number of girls playing hockey in the St. Cloud, Sartell and Sauk Rapids youth hockey associations has been fluctuating from season to season. Some seasons, there is a shortage in one age bracket and a slight surplus in another.

Sartell and Sauk Rapids associations have combined for girls youth hockey since 2012 and it is the feeder program for the Sartell/Sauk Rapids high school team.

St. Cloud has been the feeder program for the St. Cloud Icebreakers high school team, which is a co-op for players from Apollo, Tech and Cathedral High School.

In April, talk heated up about taking all of the girls from the three associations and combining for all of its travel teams for 10-and-under, 12-and-under and 15-and-under age groups. By July 6, a Facebook page for the Central Minnesota Riverblades had been created and the team had a logo.

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"The last three or four years, we've been having conversations with Sartell and Sauk Rapids about how can we help each other out when we have high numbers, low numbers to make sure we have a place for our girls to play hockey at where they belong," St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association president Jared Smith said. "Nothing had ever come to fruition.

"I would say the conversations started seriously at the end of April. It's been a very, very quick turnaround. There's been many meetings and emails back and forth."

Getting a consistent number of girls to play hockey has been a problem. For instance, St. Cloud has not had a 15-and-under girls team since 2016-17; Sartell/Sauk Rapids had a 15-and-under 'B' team last season.

"With the pairing of the three (associations), I think what it allows us is to No. 1, have a 15U team, possibly two if there's enough numbers," Sauk Rapids Youth Hockey Association president John Prelvitz said. "The same thing at the 12U. In the past, the solution was we would just waiver St. Cloud girls over to the the Stormin' Sabres or the other way around. People are having to shift back and forth and it was almost like a (three associations) co-op before.

"Why not just join forces and become a community team? You think about North Wright County is St. Michael-Albertville, Monticello and Annandale. They probably have more community members than us three do."

A look at the black jerseys for the Central Minnesota Riverblades. (Courtesy of Central Minnesota Riverblades)
A look at the black jerseys for the Central Minnesota Riverblades. (Courtesy of Central Minnesota Riverblades)

Playing with the right talent

There are two big concerns with the 12-and-under and 10-and-under teams in the associations.

For St. Cloud girls, not having a 15-and-under option means that players are going from 12-and-under directly to the high school teams.

"To go from a U12 'B' level up to high school is a big jump," said Smith, whose daughter played last season for the Icebreakers.

"This year, St. Cloud was stuck (with low numbers) at the 15U level and Sartell/Sauk Rapids was a little stuck at the 12U level," Sartell/Sauk Rapids High School coach Marty Anderson said. "Once we took a look at those two (levels) to be shared, you probably get the most benefit by going all in (with three associations)."

For teams in the previous arrangement, the other main concern is the reality that there are players at such a wide range of skill that few of the players are actually playing on teams at their proper skill level. The hope is that the Riverblades program will also help with the number of girls participating.

"I think it should, hopefully, help retain players because they will get an opportunity to play at their proper skill development level," said Anderson, who is beginning his 13th season as the Stormin' Sabres head coach. "When you get stuck in a one-team setting, you get some 'A' players and some 'B' players and some beginning players.

"It's hard to bring the lower level players (skill) up and it's hard to let the upper level players thrive. The goal would be to let girls play at the proper age level, but more importantly, also playing with similar skill players. So 'A' players get to make the jumps that they can and the 'B' players can develop at the proper pace ... Hopefully, you don't have girls dropping out because they can't play with the better players and you don't have the better players looking for different options."

Amanda Pickett, a former St. Cloud State women's hockey player, has coached youth and high school hockey for Sartell/Sauk Rapids. Last season, she was an assistant coach for the St. Cloud Icebreakers and she was named that team's head coach in June.

She agrees with Anderson and likes the prospect of players playing at the proper levels should have some good long-term effects for the high school teams.

"In youth hockey, we play pretty well against District 5 teams, but then when we go against Twin Cities teams, we are so far behind," Pickett said. "This is our way of not only trying to help each program, but trying to help all of Central Minnesota hockey. We need to grow Central Minnesota hockey.

"It's good to have new girls start when they're older because we want the numbers. But there can be quite a difference between your top and your bottom (players) ... The biggest thing is that if they're a 10U player, they should play 10U. We shouldn't have girls moving up levels just to create teams.

"(In recent seasons), if you just have a 'B' team, you have the top guns where they do everything and score all the goals. It's tough to develop those middle kids when they're out there."

A look at the white jerseys for the Central Minnesota Riverblades. (Courtesy of Central Minnesota Riverblades)
A look at the white jerseys for the Central Minnesota Riverblades. (Courtesy of Central Minnesota Riverblades)

New roles for volunteers

Last season in St. Cloud, there were 22 10-and-under players for two teams and 14 girls who played in 12-and-under. In Sartell/Sauk Rapids, there were 48 girls who played from the 10-and-under through the 15-and-under teams.

Players can still sign up to play this season, but the early numbers have 98 players from the three associations that will form three 10-and-under teams, two 12-and-under teams and one 15-and-under team. One of the reasons for the bump in the number of players is that the St. Cloud high school team is selecting some girls to play 15-and-under instead of playing on the high school team this season.

With the Riverblades coming into existence, volunteers from all three associations are coming together to help run it.

There is an operations committee that is managing on-ice functions. Those functions include player development, coaching coordination, number of teams, team size, tryout process and procedures. Members include Anderson and Pickett and two members from each association. The members from Sauk Rapids are Noel Johnson and Randy Lindberg, members from Sartell are Jen Carlson and Cory Oberg and St. Cloud members are Phil Layne and Craig Boyle.

There are also three members from each association (one of which must be a board member, none of which are presidents of any association) to manage the off-ice hockey functions and day-to-day operations. The off-ice volunteers from Sartell are Kyla Ditlefsen, Jen McCormack and Melissa Torborg. The volunteers from Sauk Rapids are Amanda Carlson, Kayleigh McGinnis and Nichole Steinberg. The volunteers from St. Cloud are Theresa Fleege, Sara Makarrall and Jeremy Mathiasen.

Team colors for the Riverblades will include colors from all three associations: black, red, green and blue.

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