John Russo had a vision. Eleven Years ago there was some concern about the number of Minnesota kids leaving their High School hockey teams for the junior leagues in an effort to not only improve their game, but also their chances of lacing up the blades at the NHL level.
In an effort to combat that migration and to give the state’s best players a chance to play together, the Upper Midwest Elite League was born. The Elite League could be a way to keep these kids home and give them the chance to play against better competition, but also with a schedule that was compatible enough with the things that come with being a High School kid during the week, like fall sports and after school activities. With the games played primarily on the weekend, it would give the players what they want without becoming a conflicting time commitment.
“We’re just a part of the train when it comes to Hockey in Minnesota, from mites to The Wild,” says Russo.
The Elite League serves as a supplement to the State High School season; the self-contained league only operates for roughly three months before shutting its doors following the Bauer National Invitation Tournament the first weekend of November.
“We get requests all of the time, to take teams to participate in tournaments not just elsewhere in the United States, but also in Europe,” Russo adds. “That’s not what we are about. We aim to keep the best kids here by giving them the best hockey. The speed of the games, I think, are faster than Juniors although not quite as rugged. But that’s exactly how we envisioned it. This league gets the kids ready for the High School season.”
The Elite League is more than just a league; it’s become an umbrella for a number of other programs designed not just to develop players across the state, but also to foster its growth. Girls in Minnesota have their very own Elite League and underclassmen have the Elite Prep Development League, which is akin to the “big league” but provides opportunities to the 14-16 year olds to not only play, but get the chance to get called up, much like the NHL, to fill in a roster spot for a game or two in the big league if a player is injured, ill, or unable to play.
While the main rosters are typically filled with Seniors and Juniors (1993’s, 1994’s and some 1995-born) a couple of Elite Prep D kids have played numerous games; 1994, 1995, and even some 1996 born kids have seen time taking a regular shift. One 1996, defenseman Jack Glover, has essentially cemented a spot on Team Northeast’s blueline with his play.
Russo also has initiated pilot programs in Southern Minnesota, not traditionally a hockey-centric part of the state, to encourage the growth of the game with the hopes that the region can produce players who can play in the Elite League when they are older. The extent of the league’s influence is wide ranging; chances are if there is a Minnesota or a Wisconsin kid who gets a college scholarship or his name called on draft day, he’s played in the Elite League. Mario Lucia, Nick Bjugstad, Jake Gardiner, Joe Pavelski, and even Sidney Crosby, who suited up for Shattuck St. Mary’s.
There is a brotherhood forged as well. Players from both teams got together in little groups on the ice to catch up and talk.
“That’s what the League is about” says Russo. “You’ll watch games during the high school season, and you’ll see the Elite Leaguers get together on the ice after the game to catch up with each other.”
The 24 game schedule consists of Tuesday Night “showcase games” (primarily the Metro area teams and Shattuck St. Marys) and weekend tournaments, where all of the teams are split between two locations; for example, 4 teams where in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and the other four were in Moorhead, Minnesota. There is a season ending tournament, and players from the league will be invited to play for Minnesota in the Bauer NIT the following weekend.
This compressed schedule attracts scouts of all levels; the sign in sheet at times will be 40 names deep, and teams ranging from the NAHL to the NCAA to the NHL. At times the portfolio-carrying, coffee drinking crowd will outnumber the parents and fans in the stands.
All in the grand design says John Russo, who will be entering his final year as Commissioner next fall.
“This may not be the most important hockey they’ll ever play; some will just play high school, some will play college, and some will play in the NHL. But this league is the most important exposure they will ever get.”
Article courtesy Dan Shrader