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A Troubling Trend For RI High School Hockey

Monday, February 11, 2013

 

Mount St. Charles' athletic program has taken steps to dissuade its hockey players from leaving high school early.

It’s no secret that the days of Rhode Island’s elite high school hockey players jumping straight to Division I colleges are dwindling, if not over. The question is, why?

The presence of junior hockey and prep schools plays a significant role, with many talented prospects leaving high school early in search of exposure they believe will land them a college scholarship.

But whether that’s the correct approach is hardly set in stone.

“I will say to anyone that, in my years of experience, I’ve seen that these kids get to a point where what they thought was on the other side of that doorway is not there,” said Richard Lawrence, who has served as Mount St. Charles’ athletic director since 1974. “I don’t see anything on the other side. I don’t know what they’re achieving.

“I’m thinking that the families involved in this process believe that there’s a greater opportunity. Not only a greater opportunity, but they also think that this is the only way that it can be done. There’s a belief that that’s what you have to do.”

That belief did not always exist. According to Hockey-Reference.com, 18 Rhode Island natives have played in the National Hockey League. None, however, were born after 1982, well before the rise in popularity of junior hockey and prep schools.

Should they stay or should they go?

Lawrence suggested that the trend can be traced to Division I coaches pushing the idea that players leaving high school prematurely is their best road toward stardom.

“I may be incorrect, but I think college coaches are saying, ‘OK, we want to get the best of the best, so if we get them to do this, they’ll be bigger, faster and stronger,’” Lawrence said. “Maybe it comes from what a lot of college coaches are saying, but I think in the end the kids lose out because there are so few actually selected.

“I don’t want to suggest that these college coaches and programs are unethical, in that they’re leading these people to believe something is there at the end of the tunnel, but I don’t see it at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know what they’re telling the kids.”

Last summer, Lawrence spoke with a notable Division I hockey coach who told him that high school players should stay in school.

It’s a sentiment shared by Hendricken athletic director Paul Alianiello.

Stephen Buco played junior hockey after graduating from Hendricken. He now skates for Division I UMass-Lowell.

“Personally I think you can graduate from high school, do a prep year, play juniors and be in the same position as you were,” said Alianiello. “We have a kid at UMass-Lowell now [Stephen Buco] who graduated from here, played four years here, played junior hockey and then went to UMass-Lowell. I think that’s the route from a kid’s perspective, because to have two or three years of high school and then to miss your senior year, all that entails being a senior in high school – the prom, the social things, the athletic things – that’s probably where you’re going to have the biggest opportunities for leadership and stardom at the high school level. You throw that all away … and for what?

“If you’re good enough and you want to play Division I hockey, I think [leaving school early] is not the only route to that. There’s other routes to it. We have a lot of guys that kind of proved that.”

La Salle’s Bryan Lemos is an example of someone who opted for a middle ground. The junior spent his first two years with the Rams before moving on to the Boston Junior Bruins U18 team this season. Yet the forward, who has verbally committed to Providence College, remains enrolled at La Salle.

“In the case of a kid like Lemos, we knew that he was probably good enough right from the word ‘go,’ that it was a good step for him,” La Salle athletic director Ted Quigley said. “There are other kids who go to juniors and go to prep school where it didn’t work out, and they’re probably never going to get back their high school experience, which most kids appreciate once they’ve gone through it.”

A dilemma here to stay

At Mount, Lawrence has attempted to build an environment that dissuades players from departing before they graduate. Those selling points include the school’s holiday tournament, which attracts top squads from across the Northeast, non-league meetings with premier Massachusetts teams and unique opportunities such as last year’s Frozen Fenway game against Springfield Cathedral at Fenway Park.

Still, it’s not always enough to sway the players and their families, lured by the appeal of a Division I scholarship.

“We try to create that experience, but somehow there’s a delusion that people are thinking things are going to happen,” Lawrence said. “I suppose the analogy is, ‘I’m going to take myself out of school and put myself in the NBA draft because people are telling me I’m going to go in the first round, and then I don’t go in the first round.’”

What’s certain is that the landscape of Rhode Island high school hockey has changed. And the clash of interests between players and their high schools isn’t going away.

“It’s unfortunate for us. It’s good for them,” Quigley said. “That’s the nature of hockey now.”

 

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