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Where have all the Bay Staters gone?

by Staff Writer / Ottawa Senators

Now that Jeremy Roenick, 38, is a grizzled veteran, Massachusetts hockey enthusiasts are asking where have all the players gone from our state?
When Jeremy Roenick was growing up just south of Boston, a variety of artists covered the Pete Seeger song Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Now that Roenick, 38, is a grizzled veteran, Massachusetts hockey enthusiasts are asking where have all the players gone?

"It's a question on everyone's mind," said Gary Eggleston, who covers New England for NHL Central Scouting. "Why are we not developing kids like we once did?"

Eggleston and others said it is a combination of factors. The fact Massachusetts has the eighth-lowest population growth rate in the United States certainly doesn’t help, but there are parts that are growing north and south of Worcester, in the central part of the state, and around New Bedford-Fall River in the southeast. Those areas never have been hockey hotbeds, although John Henrion, a promising member of the 2009 draft class, is from Holden, just north of Worcester, and will play next season with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then join the University of New Hampshire hockey team for the 2009-10 season.

As a percentage of the national population, Massachusetts has fallen 25 per cent since 1950 and 15 per cent since Roenick was born in 1970. Demographically, there is a higher percentage of childless households, and those who do have children have fewer.

"The population decline is definitely a factor," said Mark Leach, a Melrose, Mass., native and a Detroit Red Wings scout. "The population has also spread out. Many people moved over the border into New Hampshire. They just don't have as many kids playing the youth game as there was in the heyday or the '80s and '90s."

Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said there are many factors, but the one that most concerns him is not limited to Massachusetts.

"It's not just one factor, it's a bunch of factors," said Nill. "It's the cost, the declining population, the decline in high school hockey and the competition for athletes from other sports. But the one factor that I worry about most is the rising costs for equipment. I don't know if there are a lot of families that can afford to have two or three children playing hockey at a high level."

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There also is the collapse of the high school leagues as generators of high-level talent – first the public schools, then the powerful parochial schools, like Matignon and Catholic Memorial.

"Nobody with aspirations plays high school hockey anymore," said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and a three-sport athlete at suburban Winthrop High School. "They go into the prep schools or the American junior leagues, the USHL and the Eastern Junior league. A few go to Canadian major juniors or the NTDP (in Ann Arbor).

"If you were to try to measure the competitive levels, Massachusetts high schools are not competitive with the prep schools. Cushing Academy, where Zach Bogosian (No. 2-ranked North American skater by Central Scouting) played, would beat an Eastern Junior team by five goals, and the Omaha Lancers, the USHL champs, would beat Cushing by eight goals. The good athletes are taking the high-level junior route if they can't qualify for the national program in Ann Arbor.”

That saddens Waltham, Mass., native Shawn McEachern, a 14-year NHL veteran and former Ottawa Senator who now is the assistant coach at UMass-Lowell. McEachern loved carrying the mantle of representing Matignon High School and being recognized for that by classmates.

"It really meant something and it was awful to lose," McEachern said. "If we lost, all day the next day we'd have to answer our classmates asking us, 'Why did you lose to Arlington Catholic? You should have beaten Arlington Catholic.' Junior hockey, to me, doesn't have the same meaning. Sure, your parents are in the stands, but not your buddies, the kids you grew up with."

Eruzione points out something USA Hockey officials should consider:

"The national program spends a lot of money to benefit 30 kids," he said. "What about the other hundreds of thousands of American kids playing hockey? For that reason, I don't watch it as much."

Boston University won the 1995 NCAA championship with Massachusetts players Chris O'Sullivan, Mike Grier, Mike Prendergast, Shawn Bates, Jon Coleman, Jay Pandolfo, Chris Kelleher, Mike Sylvia and goalie Tom Noble. BU lost the 1991 NCAA Final to Northern Michigan with a lineup that included Bay Staters McEachern, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, Dave Sacco, Ed Ronan, Mike and Mark Bavis and Kevin O'Sullivan.

The roster of the Boston College team that won the 2008 NCAA Tournament had nine Massachusetts hockey players, including three of the top six scorers – Joe Whitney, Benn Ferreiro and Brian Gibbons – and goalie John Muse.

"College hockey is also a big draw for kids in Boston," McEachern said. "Boston College has had great players. Brian Leetch went there. We had Amonte and Tkachuk. I hope the next great group of Massachusetts players comes from watching the college game as well."

So on more than one occasion, the NCAA finalist has been peppered with a majority of Massachusetts players.

"'The Miracle on Ice' spurred hockey to a new level in New England. Those kids were 12 or 13 years old and just getting into hockey big time when the Americans won. It shows in the NHL players who were drafted in that era. As we got further in time from the Miracle, the enthusiasm wore off. The silver medal in 2002, like the silver medal in 1972, didn't do much to help. Although that was a very good accomplishment, you don't get the same exposure as in winning the gold." - Mark Leach, Detroit Red Wings scout

"All of that was born of the Bobby Orr era," Eggleston said. "I don't know if it attracted better kids to hockey or if it was the amount of time kids spent playing hockey. I've looked at the programs from that era from ‘Hockey Night in Boston,’ and the number of kids that played Division I and in the NHL is mind boggling."

"The Miracle on Ice (when the U.S. stunned the Soviet Union en route to winning gold at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics) spurred hockey to a new level in New England," said Leach. "Those kids were 12 or 13 years old and just getting into hockey big time when the Americans won. It shows in the NHL players who were drafted in that era. As we got further in time from the miracle, the enthusiasm wore off. The silver medal in 2002, like the silver medal in 1972, didn't do much to help. Although that was a very good accomplishment, you don't get the same exposure as in winning the gold."

"When I was a kid, I was always watching the Bruins with my dad," said McEachern. "We lived and died with Bobby Orr and the Bruins. We had a pond out behind our house and my dad started us playing there. The Miracle On Ice was, in my opinion, the greatest sports event ever and that fired people up.

"I would say that those of us who were inspired by the Bruins were the first generation of Massachusetts players to go to the NHL and guys like Chris Drury, who were inspired by the Miracle On Ice, were the next generation. We had great hockey memories from childhood."

Eggleston also said the top players don't complete their youth-hockey development in Massachusetts. And because Central Scouting lists players as being from their most-recent schools or junior teams, it's not always easy to recognize a player’s origin.

"In recent years, the national program has peeled off the top layer,” Eggleston said. “Major juniors peeled off the next level. The talent pool beyond that is disintegrating. I've seen midget teams from California, Texas and Arizona. The top 1990-birthdate kids from California would beat the Massachusetts kids, hands down. They're doing a great job of developing kids and part of the reason is that parents and kids there are not jaded. A Texas father who played high school and college football told me he wished they had hockey when he was a kid."

Without getting too deeply into past controversies, Eggleston and others said there also have been costly struggles among public schools, parochial schools, prep schools, the junior leagues and elite tournaments for players. Politics run rampant in hockey programs, and the state tournament was divided into “elite schools” and "common-place" schools, generating more anger.

"Too many people want in on the pie," Eggleston said. "There are all sorts of subsidiary tournaments. A lot of people are making money off hockey, but the kids aren't developing."

Eruzione and Eggleston said there are too many games and not enough practices to develop skill.

"You don't see the kids doing the backyard stuff, dribbling a rubber ball for an hour or shooting 100 pucks against a wall," Eggleston said. "The parents only want to know when is the next tournament or game. Skating around pylons is boring. Grand Theft Auto is waiting."

Then there is the change in scholastic curriculum, fought by many parents, some of whom have been willing to go to jail. Some opponents of the curriculum call it the feminization of the schools and it is the subject of Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War On Boys. Can such an environment continue to produce boys willing to play contact sports?

Eggleston is familiar with the controversy.

"They don’t want kids to go the way of barbarism," Eggleston said sarcastically.

There are dissenters to the gloomy predictions.

"I really don't think that, other than a possible slight dip in some cyclical phase, that there is any more or less players coming out of New England and Massachusetts," said E.J. McGuire, director of NHL Central Scouting.

Leach has lived through the downturn but he, as well, doesn't believe it has to be permanent.

"I believe it's cyclical," he said. "It will come back. There will always be one or two kids who arrive."

Author: John McGourty | Staff Writer

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