Turning at the stoplight off of West Road and being funneled in single-file, bumper to bumper, greeted by three volunteers huddled around a burn barrel on a cold, February day in Michigan. Three dollars to park, not to line the pockets of staffers or tournament directors but because parking comes at such a premium, space is limited to those willing to fork over a few green backs.
The next 5-10 minutes are spent circling the blacktop looking for a vacant spot like a hawk searching for any scraps he can find. That’s when the size of the event sets in and you realize the magnitude of the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League (MIHL) Showcase; a premier party that you are apparently late to.
Approaching the front doors with buses parked — some chartered, some yellow — engines still puffing clouds through the exhaust into the crisp winter air. A steady trickle of players coming out of the arena, hair still wet from post-game, reminiscing about a game moments earlier while others sling a bag over a shoulder, hockey sticks and jerseys in the opposite hand, headphones covering their ears and a blank stare leading them into the venue for their turn to take the ice.
Thursday night’s 5:20 p.m. contest between University Liggett and De La Salle kicked off the 2020 event and the scene throughout the parking lot, bustling lobby, arena restaurant the Hat Trick Bar & Grill and all three sheets of ice at the Kennedy Recreation Center would remain relatively unchanged until Rochester United and Grosse Pointe North shut the place down after Saturday’s 7:00 p.m. tilt.
Two-and-a-half days of THE BEST teams in Michigan High School Hockey from around the state all under one roof for one weekend. Forty-two teams including 23 of the top 25 according to MyHockeyRankings, the No. 1 ranked team from Ohio in St. Ignatius and the No. 1 ranked Wisconsin-based Notre Dame Academy.
The MIHL Showcase has every bit the feel of a high-profile, triple-A weekend tournament with the pageantry and pride of prep sports.
Parents, players and scouts line the boards along all three sheets, displaced from the metal bleachers that are as cluttered as the parking lot. Other onlookers peer down from the second-floor restaurant windows and Trenton’s version of luxury boxes that hang over the Feldman Arena.
Four-man officiating crews on every sheet from sun up to well past a winter sundown, and goal judges one button push away from lighting a red lamp stationed behind every net. All for an endless rotation of fast skaters, stifling goalies and brilliant coaching minds showcasing the best that Michigan has to offer for representatives from the OHL, USHL, NAHL and college programs from across the country. Top all of that off with broadcast crews — both TV and radio depending on the hockey program they traveled with — and the environment that has been built at the showcase over the last 20 years can be quite the spectacle for a first-time attendee.
There’s a buzz in the weeks leading up to the event with participating teams revealed and matchup announcements. There’s electricity in the air throughout the extended weekend and the prestige it brings. The impact leaves a lasting effect on teams embarking on the final leg of their season.
Each game always seemed to deliver on that edge-of-your-seat, pull-the-goalie, dive-head-first-shot-block type of intense feel to it with the moment living and dying on the next goal.
If you’re here, it is the highlight of your season. If you’re not, you need to be.
An endless cycle of close, competitive games across the broad spectrum of teams in attendance. 30 matchups of the 42-game spectacle were decided by two goals or less.
Forest Hills Central pulled off two wins over catholic schools. One of the state’s smallest single-school enrollments in Riverview Gabriel Richard took down D-I power Howell. Teams from the U.P. traveled more than eight hours on a bus to knock off nearby local teams like Cranbrook, Brother Rice and Utica Eisenhower. Perennial powers like Detroit Catholic Central and Livonia Stevenson still proved the state’s road to a title runs through metro Detroit.
The MIHL Showcase is everything high school hockey should be. It is everything the MI-HS state playoffs COULD be. Division-I or Division-III? Doesn’t matter. Traveled 500 miles or five? Oh well. Schools with a student body of 2,400 or a graduating class of 64? Irrelevant. All that matters is the talent on the ice pitted against each other based on their resumes and ranking to this point in the 2019-20 season.
Imagine a playoff system not based solely on enrollment or geography — two traits generally outside of a student-athlete’s control — but a scheme that took into account a team’s body of work and ability on the playing field. THAT is what the MIHL Showcase is, it’s just a shame we’re limited to one weekend out of the four-month long season.
Of course, it’s not the only option for programs with the Chelsea Showcase last weekend, the North-South event in Traverse City and the still young MIHL-KLAA Showcase in just its third year, among others. But I challenge anyone to find the sheer volume of top-tier teams and must-see matchups under one roof, for one weekend, anywhere else on the calendar.
It is an absolute testament to hockey people like Chad Clements and everyone from the MIHL involved, who do such a tremendous job maintaining this event’s luster EVERY YEAR, arranging qualified candidates and then providing them with adequate matchups. To the hockey-rich community in Trenton that would parallel Permian, Texas, and it’s football reputation that Hollywood makes movies about. The BIGGEST of thank you’s to the parents and volunteers who sacrifice time out of their weekends to operate the gate tables, stock and restock the hospitality room and weather the elements to file patrons into the parking lot in an orderly fashion. There is no event, however, without the passionate coaches behind the benches and immensely underrated, quality hockey players on the ice that fuel the engine.
Everyone outside of Minnesota is in awe of the high school playoffs in The State of Hockey and pleads “Why can’t that be us?!” Truth is, with events like the MIHL Showcase, I think Michigan is a little closer than some hockey people might think.
It may not ever pack Little Caesars Arena in the same fashion the Minnesota state championships sell out Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, but it has all of the excitement centered around talented players on top-tier teams competing in elite matchups with competitive and entertaining games wire-to-wire.
The showcase is proof that high school hockey is alive and well in Michigan and, with some good people, a solid strategy and logistical thinking involved in the decision-making processes, the high school game is exciting, electric, next-level type of hockey... and we’re just getting started.
That’s the best thing I saw this week, were you there? Tell me about your experience on Twitter and what players stood out to you.