One of the many bright spots in Michigan high school hockey, Team Michigan represented the state proudly yet again at the 2019 CCM NIT and beyond. The entire process is unique as well as significant in the growth and development of MI-HS players as a whole. From the evaluation process in which hundreds of players from around the state vy for roster spots, to the select 40 that are chosen to display their talents in front of scouts in Plymouth, Minnesota, it is a rare instance in which everyone stands to benefit from the Team Michigan exercise.
Certainly, the 20 juniors and 20 seniors chosen to compete at the CCM NIT stand the most to gain from the experience and exposure, but make no mistake that their collective performance at this year’s event — a combined 4-4-0 record with a win over Minnesota Seniors and dominant victories over Wisconsin Juniors (9-1) and Team Massachusetts (11-3) — sends a long-lasting ripple effect throughout the Mitten state.
A deep talent pool at tryouts breeds good competition.
Good competition brings out the best in top players.
A wealth of top players forces evaluators to focus on every detail.
Paying close attention to detail leads to effective decision-making.
Quality decision-making produces the most prepared teams.
Prepped teams generate the best results both individually and as a group in Minnesota.
Positive results in Minnesota draws the attention of scouts.
An increase in attention leads to more eyes on the game back home.
More scouts watching in Michigan means more exposure for ALL high school players.
A showcase, a tournament, a weekend event is just that... one weekend. It happens on occasion, but very rarely are decisions made solely based off of a three- or four-game stint. If a scout likes what they see during that three-day event, they will want to see more from a prospective player. That means an uptick in scouts at spring and fall high school leagues and showcases as well as regular-season games and events. More scouts in the building is great exposure for every player that touches the ice, not just the initial prospect who drew the attention of evaluators in the first place.
"I think the program once again did an outstanding job representing Michigan High School Hockey,” said Juniors coach Dave Mitchell. “It’s an intense two weeks, but I think, in the end, the players, parents and staff felt like we saw the teams grow and get better and that was reflected in the play out there. I really feel that many are now taking notice of just how good Michigan High School hockey players are.”
The CCM NIT is a great litmus test to see just where MI-HS hockey stacks up on a nationwide spectrum. Minnesota’s reputation goes without saying, Wisconsin regularly sends its top players to the USHL, as does North Dakota with 10 alumni in the league today and Massachusetts stands as one of the top high school associations in the New England region.
So when players like Cam Blanton (Trenton, 2019) lead the tournament in assists with six and Luke Blasy (Midland Dow, 2020) scores a tournament-high four goals with others like P.J. Donnelly (Houghton, 2019) and Kyle Gaffney (Detroit Catholic Central, 2020) finishing in the top ten in scoring, it merits national attention.
"Our players do an outstanding job in Minnesota,” said general manager Don Wright. “Each year, our two teams do really well. Again this year, we were in the finals and the junior team was in the top consolation game. Bottom line, every year there is great interest in Michigan high school players. Scouts from all over attend and have noticed the continued growth of our players.”
Both teams started the tournament 2-0-0 and very narrowly missed out on an all-Michigan championship game. The Junior Team fell in its finale, 5-4 to the Wisconsin Juniors decided by a shootout while the Wisconsin Seniors scored three third-period goals to pull away from the Senior Team, 5-2 in the championship.
To put the competition level into perspective, The Wisconsin Junior team had not one, but two players that were already committed to Division-I schools with ‘02 defenseman Casey Roepke and ‘01 forward Barrett Brooks. The Michigan Seniors handled that HP-18 team 9-1 in the opening game of the tournament and the Michigan Juniors’ loss in a shootout certainly shows just how razor thin the opposing teams were separated by.
While there’s certainly noise about how the Minnesota Senior team doesn’t always feature the state’s top high school players, it still drew the likes of three seniors who finished their winter seasons in the NAHL, as well as two USHL Draft picks and one WHL Draft pick. That Minnesota team was defeated by the Michigan Juniors after six different players scored a goal in the 6-3 win during pool play.
Performances like those by both Team Michigan squads in 2019 should definitely help shift the opinion of the national high school hockey landscape. MI-HS has made significant strides in amateur hockey with alumni moving on to virtually every relevant junior league in North America as well as NCAA and some at the game’s highest level in the NHL.
While Minnesota continues to be a sterling example of what high school hockey can — and should — be in the U.S., the CCM NIT is a pretty evident sign that the gap between “The State of Hockey” and the state of Michigan isn’t as radical as one may think. With an oversaturated triple-A presence in the state, Michigan will never achieve Minnesota’s level of prestige. However, with its ever-growing pool of talented players and some innovative coaching minds, Michigan should certainly be considered among some of the top high school associations in the country.
“Almost half of the senior group has already signed with junior teams for next year, including teams from the NAHL, CCHL, and AJHL,” said Senior coach Ryan Ossenmacher. “I’m confident that several more players will also move on and contribute at the next level. There are definitely some college hockey players in this group.”