In the shadow of the heralded boys' state hockey tournament, another battle is being joined regarding top players who are steadily leaving Minnesota high schools to pursue their puck dreams out of state.One of them, Benilde-St. Margaret's freshman Alec Baer, will watch his former teammates play Wednesday night for a chance to return to St. Paul, where last March they won one of the most stirring state championships in recent memory.
The 15-year-old missed a practice earlier this month to visit Vancouver of the Western Hockey League. Three days later he found out he was no longer a Red Knight.
Last spring, a member of the state's high school hockey coaches association, which advocates for players to remain in high school through their senior years, left the executive board after his highly regarded son left to play in the WHL, part of Major Junior hockey.
Six promising high school players left to join the league in the past two seasons. They share the ice with others who have signed NHL contracts. In part because they are paid, they lose their NCAA eligibility.
High school hockey advocates, while acknowledging player departures are inevitable, say it's time to draw a line.
"I don't think we're trying to send a message of, 'Don't come into our backyard,' " said Ken Pauly, coach of Benilde-St. Margaret's and president of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association. "But we want it to come through loud and clear what we are about, what the high school experience is about and continuing to stand by those things."
Baer made an impression at the Vancouver Giants rookie camp in August. Rated the No. 1 freshman in Minnesota by a college hockey blog, Baer led the camp in scoring and drew comparisons to Giants alum Gilbert Brule, a former first-round NHL draft pick.
Making good on what Bob Baer, Alec's father, called a "sort of open invite" to attend a game at Vancouver, the two of them visited on Feb. 1. Three days later, Bob Baer said, Pauly told Alec "he was not on the team and didn't really see a way it could be reversed."
"It's clear to me that our son's consequence had a lot more to do with this ongoing battle than missing a team practice," Bob Baer said. "If he is being used to send some type of signal to others, that is quite infuriating."
Out of playing options, Baer signed with Vancouver on Feb. 15. He plans to make his on-ice debut with the Giants on Friday. Bob Baer said his son will finish this year at Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic school located in St. Louis Park, and play with the Giants on weekends.
Darryl Wolski, an agent with The Sports Corporation working as the Baer family advisor, said he is "concerned a kid can go visit Duluth or Wisconsin on a weekend without repercussions."
Pauly said his decision to dismiss Baer "is related to Major Junior hockey" but declined to comment further because Baer remains a student.
Speaking as the president of the coaches' group, Pauly said: "A trip to a college is in keeping with the overall mission and vision of high school athletics. I don't believe the Major Junior and Minnesota high school model are complementary pieces."
Major Junior is seen primarily as pipeline to play pro hockey, not graduate from college. Players who don't sign a professional contract can get scholarships to a postsecondary institution of their choice.
Crookston coach Jon Bittner remains an advocate of the Minnesota high school hockey mission even though his son, Paul, left to play in the WHL. Bittner later had an hour-long phone conversation with Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association. They agreed Bittner, the board's executive dirctor for about 10 years, should resign.
Bittner, a social studies teacher and high school hockey coach for 28 years, said he understood the "contradictory" nature of his decision.
"I still take pride in community-based programs," Bittner said. "The only problem is I had one of those kids" who wanted to play in the WHL.
Paul Bittner joined Cody Corbett, Keegan Iverson, Travis Wood and brothers Ben and Jack Walker as players who left local high school programs early for Major Junior.
Competing hockey interests also affected Tommy Vannelli, a top Minnetonka defenseman, who was asked by USA Hockey to play with the Under-18 team for two games in February. One of those games would have meant missing a key game against Eden Prairie.
Top boys' and girls' players often compete with national teams overseas, generally in lieu of local holiday tournament games with less at stake.
Minnetonka coach Brian Urick said a compromise was reached, allowing Vannelli to play against Eden Prairie and with the U-18 team on a Sunday.
"Families have a choice in terms of what's best for their kids, and I'm not here to tell them what that is," Urick said. "But once you commit to your team, the borders should be closed for that season."
Baer said he learned too late "that showing interest in a non-NCAA program might not be met with roses at a college preparatory school."
WHL Vice President Richard Doerksen said Baer's situation raised awareness about keeping better boundaries with Minnesota players and their teams.
"We're going to do everything we can so that this doesn't happen again," Doerksen said. "We weren't bringing him in as anything different than a recruiting trip. It's just unfortunate that high school hockey in Minnesota looks at us as something other than an opportunity to develop hockey skills."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574