The seemingly incessant prairie winds that buffet the Red River Valley have taken some getting used to for Jack Peart, a talented defenseman from Grand Rapids, Minn. Peart, 17, is spending the first few months of his senior year of high school away from home, prepping for the start of the United States Hockey League season with the Fargo Force. He misses his “boys” from back home in northern Minnesota, but admitted recently that there is no place he would currently rather be.

“I’ve heard a lot of people who don’t like junior hockey but I think it’s probably one of the best times of your life,” said Peart, who is committed to St. Cloud State. “You wake up in the morning, go play hockey and then maybe have a class or two to do. It’s the life.”

Still, Peart is prepared to walk away from that life in the next six weeks or so, depending on what the Minnesota State High School League determines about how high school hockey will proceed. At their most recent meeting, with limiting the spread of coronavirus in mind, the MSHSL voted to allow prep teams to play an 18-game regular season, but did not yet determine whether there will be playoffs or a state tournament.

Those decisions are likely coming at the MSHSL board’s next meeting in December, and at that time, players like Peart will have a decision to make.

“I still want to go back to high school, depending on the circumstances,” he said, before a recent morning practice in Fargo. “If there’s a state tournament, and depending on how many games that we’ll actually have, those are the biggest factors. I’ll probably make a decision right when the (high school) season starts, if it starts.”

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Moorhead head coach Jon Ammerman motivates his players as they take on Hill-Murray School in the second period of a Class 2A quarterfinal game of the State Boys' Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Moorhead head coach Jon Ammerman motivates his players as they take on Hill-Murray School in the second period of a Class 2A quarterfinal game of the State Boys' Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Xcel is essential

Coaching high school hockey in Minnesota remains one of the underpaid jobs in America, when one considers the many challenges and pressures placed on the guys with the whistle. In this year, with the pandemic changing so much about daily life, the challenge has been ramped up a notch, with many of the top-end players in the state either considering leaving their high school programs early, or at minimum playing a “before and after” schedule where, like Peart, they skate with a junior team until the high school season begins, and return to juniors once the high school season ends.

That was Plan A for Joe Miller, who averaged more than a goal a game for The Blake School last winter as a junior, and helped the Bears earn third place in the Class AA state tournament. The Minneapolis native, who was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs last week and is a Gophers commit, began the current season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel uncertain whether he would come back to the Twin Cities to play his final season of high school hockey. With the MSHSL’s reduced regular season decision, and no decision yet about the state tournament, Miller has recently made up his mind.

“I’m planning on staying in Chicago,” he said this week. “With high school, there’s so much uncertainty about the state tournament, and with an 18-game schedule, I think this is best for me. I’m ready to take the next step. I love it down here, I love the guys, and the coaches are great. So I think it’s best for me to stay in the USHL for the year.”

Where in the past notable Minnesota talents with opportunities to play elsewhere as high school seniors have opted to stay home and take one more crack at getting to the state tournament with their life-long friends, for some the decision easier is this fall.

“Ultimately, a lot of the pull for high school hockey is playing at home, playing with your buddies, playing for your community, with a chance for a state championship at the Xcel Energy Center,” said Moorhead High School coach Jon Ammerman.

Ammerman feels that the state tournament question, more than the reduced regular season schedule, may cause some preps to remain in junior hockey, and they are all waiting to hear what the MSHSL eventually decides. “Here, our biggest draw is the opportunity to play in a state tournament of some kind. I’ve heard from coaches around the state that a lot of kids are interested in what that decision is going to be in December.”

Blake School head coach Rob McClanahan gives his players instructions in the second period of a Class 2A semifinal game of the State Boys Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Friday, March 6, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Blake School head coach Rob McClanahan gives his players instructions in the second period of a Class 2A semifinal game of the State Boys Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Friday, March 6, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Fewer junior opportunities

Hockey historians rave about the “Original Six” days in the NHL, when -- prior to 1967 -- there were just a half-dozen teams playing pro hockey at the highest level. The competition between Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and the New York Rangers was intense, and the talent level was sky-high, with only 150 or fewer NHL roster spots available.

The pandemic and other factors have caused two USHL franchises and three North American Hockey League franchises to suspend their operations for the 2020-21 season. That means 125 junior hockey roster spots are gone (the USHL rosters in Cedar Rapids and Madison were dispersed via draft to the league’s other 14 teams), and the competition to skate for a team in either of those leagues is at a level not seen before.

Fewer USHL roster spots means more players headed down a junior level to the Tier II NAHL. Fewer NAHL roster spots means bubble players from that league going to the NA3HL or other lower-tier junior leagues if they want to keep playing.

“The players have always been there, it’s just the opportunities — this year more than any other — are limited because of the trickle down effect,” said Force coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux. “There are fewer roster spots for kids, and it’s made it that much more competitive to make a team.”

Then there are players like Force defenseman Ryan Siedem, who played college hockey for Harvard last season and may return to the Ivy League school if and when they restart the currently postponed hockey season there. Siedem is one of a few dozen college hockey veterans skating in the USHL for the time being.

“The teams are already loaded, so any high school kid that thinks they’re going to leave and play juniors had better look again,” said Blake coach Rob McClanahan. “That’s an eye opener. It’s too bad, but it’s the nature of the beast.”

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