The Beach Boys had a hit song called “Be True to Your School” in that bygone era known as the 1960s, a sentiment that seems quaint sometimes during this current era of kids leaving their schools via open enrollment or, in hockey, to play juniors. Three departed hockey players have been on a lot of puck fans’ minds lately.
To be fair, dumping your high school team for juniors is not necessarily a bad idea. Many locals were livid in 2004 when Elk captain Nate Prosser left a strong team in mid-season to play juniors in Sioux Falls but the path Prosser took led him to Colorado College and then to the Minnesota Wild, where he’s a capable NHL defenseman in his third full season. Prosser is a nice Christian fellow, married to his hometown sweetheart, with one child and another on the way. And he’s helping keep the Wild in the playoff hunt. Hard to stay mad at a guy like that.
Perhaps Prosser’s example influenced others making the same difficult decision. Last summer, Blake Hillman, an all-conference defenseman for the Elks as a junior, elected to pass up his senior season to play juniors in Dubuque, Iowa. Blake’s mom called recently to report that Blake will accept a full ride to the University of Denver and that the Gophers had offered him an 80-percent scholarship.
“It was really hard for him to do that, especially with a good team this year and hosting Hockey Day Minnesota,” Des Hillman said. But Blake has gotten far better exposure and opportunities by playing juniors, she said. Even NHL scout approached him and said, “Where’d you come from?”
Then there’s Andrew Zerban, who, two days after scoring his 47th career goal in the Elks’ Hockey Day Minnesota win over Stillwater, abruptly left to join a juniors team in Fargo. It was a shocker for longtime teammates on a squad with a fighting chance to reach state for the first time since 2005. The exasperated question heard around town was, why not just wait another month?
For what it’s worth, since Zerban’s departure, the Elks have lost to three teams they beat before. On his Force profile page, Zerban said he hopes to play in the NHL. So far he’s playing sparingly on a 6-31 team, but he’s just 18.
More murky is the situation for Emily Antony, who, after scoring a school-record 67 goals for Rogers in grades seven through 10, moved away with her family to play her junior year for Achievers Academy in Vadnais Heights, an online private school in just its second year where students can devote more time to hockey.
The Aces were one game from the Class A state tournament – Antony had three goals in two playoff wins – when the Minnesota State High School League, acting on a tip, questioned the eligibility of several players regarding family residency rules. Achiever pulled out of the section championship game just hours before face-off and forfeited all their wins.
One has to feel bad for Antony, who, with her family (her dad, Rob, is the Twins’ vice president), made a decision they felt would help her get into college hockey; after all, there’s no juniors for girls. Adding to the pain for Antony and her teammates is Achiever’s demise being applauded by a long list of jeering hockey rivals (in emails to the Star Tribune) who were resentful of this unorthodox new entity and skeptical of its legitimacy as an MSHSL team. Antony has a year of high school hockey left; it will be interesting to where this jolting episode leads her.
Most hockey players are as true to their school as other athletes, but the act of leaving the old hometown behind is far more common in this sport than any other, perhaps because there’s so few colleges with hockey teams and skaters are eager to seize any edge they can get.
Local fans may resent such athletes for leaving, but in the long run, we should hope it works out for them.