Hockey hotbed faces off against change

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- It's a Saturday afternoon in March, another great day to play hockey in what is self-reverentially, but not inaccurately, described as the "State of Hockey." Inside the Bloomington Ice Garden, a non-descript community center comes alive with the sounds of blades, sticks and pucks in action, percussion to the bass line of the collective yelps and grunts of the thousand or so citizens invested in the result.

That investment runs deep. Compared to other states, Minnesota has an abundance of ice, in part because of state funding of facilities designed to make the game accessible and affordable to all. The governing body for the sport in the state also has rules that aim to preserve the traditional model of community-based hockey, limiting kids to playing with teams from within their local area -- during the winter season at least.

They play with their classmates, from the Mites to Bantams and right into high school. Friendships are forged and rivalries deepen, with the dream of one day advancing to a state prep tournament every bit as grand as that of Texas football or Indiana basketball. That is the psychological context for today's game in Bloomington, a state semifinal showdown between the top PeeWee teams from Farmington and Grand Rapids.

"Let's go Rapids!" one side of the arena chants, then goes clap-clap, clap-clap-clap.

Pre-teen girls in orange wigs and face paint hold up cutely worded signs. Others wave pom-poms. Dads pace nervously. Moms work the video cam. Older folks with no kid in the game, just a local rooting interest, watch quietly, intently. Hello, Norman Rockwell.

One man's Americana, however, is another man's idea of un-American.

The latter man would be Bernie McBain, 47, who argues that the nation's laws protecting competition in the marketplace have been violated by Minnesota Hockey. The owner of Minnesota Made Hockey Inc., a private business with its own winter leagues in nearby Edina, the entrepreneur is making a federal case of it, pursuing an anti-trust lawsuit that challenges the controlled, if egalitarian world order drawn up by that state's hockey leaders -- or "poohbas," as McBain calls them.

He objects to a rule introduced last June that goes one step beyond the longtime prohibition on kids playing for Minnesota Hockey teams outside their districts, and declares that kids can be kicked off their community team for joining any other team during the winter months. Minnesota Hockey's rationale: concerns about burnout and overuse injuries.

McBain sees a plot to put him out of business, one that has grown rapidly in recent years by positioning his program as a conduit to athletic scholarships and pro careers.

Citing the lawsuit, McBain declined to speak with ESPN.com. But in a deposition, he said, "Why are people leaving the association and coming to us? Because we're better. It's plain and simple. We have better coaching, we have better programs, we have better ice, we have better ice times."

Not really, said Hal Tearse, coach-in-chief for Minnesota Hockey.

"It's a fabrication," he said, of the claim kids get better training. "It's just salesmanship."

The dispute is more than an intramural food fight. A legal victory by McBain could portend a fundamental restructuring of the sport in Minnesota, the nation's No. 1 hockey market -- and the last bastion of community-based hockey. There are no free agents here during the winter season, boys and girls hop-scotching from one elite, regional team to another. But that could change, if McBain is able to throw open the door to club teams and entrepreneurs who can recruit top players to traveling teams.

Club hockey dominates in other states, and it's often more expensive. Some families spend north of $10,000 annually on year-round traveling teams created at ever-earlier ages. In Minnesota community programs, where games are kept local and the coaches are volunteers, costs runs about $2,000, Tearse said. Travel teams can form only in the off-season months.

The situation is being closely followed by Minnesota Hockey's national affiliate, USA Hockey, where officials have sounded the alarm on a host of issues at the youth level nationwide -- from excessive tournament play, to coaching techniques that are not age-appropriate, to violence that underpins a concussion rate as high as any in team sports. They've launched a series of reforms, and their ability to implement them depends in part on their ability to compel state and local organizations to get on board.

"Our challenge is not to mandate but to educate all groups to develop kids," said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director for USA Hockey and a Rochester, Minn., native. "I put that challenge onto all groups, whether private or community hockey. If entrepreneurs are going to be involved, we'll have to find a way to make it work."

McBain, whose club does not hold a USA Hockey membership, was a taxi cab driver when he got his start in the hockey business, holding clinics on the side on rented ice in the early 1990s. His profile rose later in the decade with his coaching a highly successful off-season traveling team featuring his son, Jamie McBain, now a defenseman with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. Eleven players on that team went on to receive NCAA Division I scholarships, and eight got taken in the NHL drafts of 2006 and '07.

Tearse considers McBain more of an aggregator than a cultivator of talent -- akin to an AAU basketball coach who cherry picks budding stars from across a region to chase summer tournament titles. "The only reason he's considered a super coach is because he had a son who was genetically predisposed to be a pro," he said. "And good players tend to gravitate to other good players. But getting all the good kids on one team is not development. He didn't develop any of those kids."

The success of Jamie McBain and his teammates helped Bernie in 2006 to open his own facility, Minnesota Made. With two sheets of ice, he now claims to service 3,000 kids a year in his various programs, from Learn to Skate programs, 6 a.m. stickhandling clinics, summer travel teams comprised of players from around the region -- and now in-house leagues that encroach on the winter season. These "Choice" leagues, as he calls them, are not open to all, just the Mites, Squirts and PeeWees he selects.

To McBain, part of the problem with community-based hockey is that the best young prospects sometimes have to share the ice with less-advanced players. Another of his stated concerns is it fails to provide these children who have "the potential to one day become world class" to drill, drill, drill like grade-schoolers in certain other sports.

"When you look at other skilled sports like gymnastics, figure skating or even the performing arts, hockey is behind," his Minnesota Made website says. "These sports and the arts try and identify potential elite children at a young age and start their training early. When the athlete reaches the age of 15 they are world class or are well on their way. How do they do this? By using a focused methodology, including an incredible amount of quality repetition."

In the lobby of his facility, McBain displays a 2006 letter from a USA Hockey official praising him for his work with the team his son played on. But some of his theories sit at odds with those of the national governing body, which promotes the principles of Long Term Athlete Development. Sports scientists who have studied the pathways of elite athletes consider women's gymnastics to be an "early specialization" sport -- but not hockey or most other sports. Until age 9, USA Hockey says, the focus should not just be on fundamentals but fun. And players are encouraged to play multiple sports through 16.

USA Hockey was motivated to issue its recommendations after a study showed that 60 percent of children dropped out of hockey before age 10. Hall of Fame player Mark Messier, now a youth coach himself, chimed in at an Aspen Institute event in New York in January, issuing a harsh critique of coaches promoting the idea that training for the NHL needs to start in grade school.

"It's not going to matter one bit if these kids are [on that track] at 7, 8, 9 years old," Messier said. "I've seen it a hundred times. But the people who control the ice, and the people selling this propaganda that 'this is what the kids need to do in order to become a professional hockey player,' are in it for the money. It's a business for them, and they've managed to sell the Kool-Aid to the parents. It's horrifying to see."

Tim Dupey is fine with the arrangement at Minnesota Made. The middle-aged father is standing, attuned to the Farmington-Grand Rapids game because the former team is local and so he has a rooting interest. But he notes that he's placed his 9-year-old son Parker with McBain, after losing faith in the volunteer coaching in his town program. "Kids play tag, instead of working on actual drills," he said.

McBain also appears to have the most important party in his corner -- U.S. District Court John Tunheim. In January, Tunheim denied McBain's motion for a preliminary injunction but wrote that he was likely to prevail at trial. The judge treated Minnesota Hockey as a monopolist, not a steward of the game, and noted that its local district didn't stop kids from playing other sports during the winter that might over-tax bodies and schedules.

The order puts pressure on Minnesota Hockey to settle the case, while trying to preserve its community-based model. They feel it's worth fighting for. Minnesota not only has as many hockey players as any state in the nation, more elite talent bubbles to the surface -- 182 NCAA Division I men's players alone this year, according to one analysis. Michigan, where elite club teams dominate, was second, at 131.

In Minnesota, community programs often have A, B and C teams in each age group, allowing room for the late bloomer to grow into his or her body and interests before getting weeded out. "The structure in Minnesota allows kids to play longer at whatever level that is," Johannson said. "Minnesota Hockey has done a great job. I would hate to see entrepreneur versus community cause any harm to the game of hockey in Minnesota."

Just inside the entrance of McBain's facility is a gigantic photo bolted to the wall, of a bunch of boys on a classic frozen pond. A latter-day Spanky's Gang in mismatched jerseys, with sticks and blades. It's a posed shot from 2000 when Jamie McBain and his teammates were about age 12, and one that at first blush looks like a salute to the past.

But it's not the pond his dad is selling. It's the NHL dream. And it's powerful.

Tom Farrey is an ESPN correspondent for Outside the Lines. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com.