Minneapolis has produced hockey standouts dating back to the early 1900s, including multiple college players and several who have gone onto the NHL.
The city appears ready to add another to that list: Jake Hale of Southwest High School.
Hale committed to University of Minnesota-Duluth in September, becoming the first Minneapolis player to do commit to a Division I school since current Minneapolis coach, Joe Dziedzic, signed with Minnesota in 1990. The tenth-grade forward led the Minneapolis boy’s varsity team this year in scoring and assists as of Feb. 3.
“It’s pretty special,” Hale said of his commitment after a practice last month. “It’s pretty humbling.”
Hale is part of a Minneapolis hockey team that has undergone a change in identity since Dziedzic took over in 2012. Dziedzic switched the team out of the Two Rivers Hockey Conference, which included just one team within about 20 miles of Minneapolis. He also worked to have the team’s name changed from the Minneapolis Novas to Minneapolis.
The team has seen positive results. It went 16-9-2 last season and was 10-10 this year as of Feb. 3, despite nine games against teams in the top 20 in the state.
“The vision is to get where they’re a competitive team,” Dziedzic said. “It’s going to take some kids like Jake Hale who stick around and say, ‘I can do this. I can go where I want to go and still play for Minneapolis.'”
Minneapolis’ most recent state tournament appearance came in 1994, when Edison, one of six MPS hockey teams, lost in the quarterfinals. The district sent 40 teams to state between 1946 and 1993, highlighted by Southwest High School’s seven appearances in the 1970s.
But Minneapolis became less of a hockey powerhouse by the mid-’90s because of several factors. Families in the city were getting older, and people weren’t moving out of their homes, according to Steve Jecha, executive director of the Minneapolis Storm youth hockey program.
There was also a change in neighborhood hockey culture, Jecha said, with fewer kids hanging out at their local rinks. More families also began choosing private and parochial schools, especially those with young hockey players, he said.
“We have kids that could have played in Minneapolis who play for private schools,” Jecha said.
The district dropped from six to four teams in the late ’90s and by 2010 had one team, the Novas. Dziedzic began working to keep kids from the Minneapolis Storm youth hockey program in the district, but it hasn’t necessary been easy.
About 45 percent of kids in the Storm program attend private elementary schools, according association president Tim Hanson. According to Dziedzic, about two-thirds of the top youth boys players will be attending private school next year.
The high school program is starting to benefit, however, from an increase in participation in the Storm program. The Minneapolis association has nearly doubled in size since the Southwest and Washburn associations merged in 2009, according to Hanson, and now has around 800 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 15.
Jecha estimated that Minneapolis likely has one of the 10 biggest youth-hockey associations in the state. He added that he expects there to be increased competition for slots on the Minneapolis high school team next year.
“Hockey is not dead in Minneapolis,” he said. “We’re still producing a lot of high school players.”
Changing hockey culture
Hale began playing for Minneapolis’ varsity team last season after years in the Storm program, scoring 14 goals in a season shortened by injury. He has 18 goals and 19 assists through 19 games this season.
“He competes hard, he battles (and) he wants to win,” Dziedzic said, calling Hale a player that “comes around once every ten years.”
Hale said the hockey culture is changing in Minneapolis, with guys willing to compete and hit the weight room in an effort to restore the program back to its earlier success. He noted how the team is playing a tougher schedule this year, with multiple games against teams in the top 10 in the state.
His being on Minneapolis’ varsity team wasn’t always guaranteed, however. Hale said he thought he would end up going to the private Benilde-St. Margaret’s for high school, following in his older brother’s footsteps. But his coaches, parents and friends convinced him to stay in Minneapolis, noting that scouts would find him wherever he played and that he could still get a good education.
“When you’re a good player, you’re a good player,” Dziedzic said. “The scouts will tell you, they don’t really care where you come from. If you’re from Minneapolis or Hill-Murray, they want to find the best guys.”
Dziedzic pointed to victories the past couple years over private school Holy Angels as a sign of the program’s improvement. Most of his varsity team comes from Southwest, Washburn and South, but the team has its first player from Edison this year since he took over.
There is still work to do. Dziedzic said he has to spend more time developing his players’ basic skills such as shooting and catching passes, whereas other teams are working on their offensive systems.
He said having Hale around is a step in the right direction.
“He’s not the biggest guy on the ice, but he sure isn’t shy (about) being physical,” Dziedzic said. “He’s definitely a big part of our team’s success.”