One of the things he told me recently was he believes no kid from Minnesota should ever go to the U.S. National Team Development Program. The reasoning is twofold: 1) that program is better used when it's helping develop kids from non-hockey areas (i.e. Matt Donovan of Oklahoma and Jason Zucker of Vegas); and 2) the development in Minnesota high school hockey is just fine, thankyouverymuch.
I don't necessarily agree, because I don't think there is any blanket rule that can be made to govern what is best for every high school hockey player. I chose not to look down on Derek Forbort for his move to the NTDP last year. Yes, a lot of people in East Duluth were upset about it, but their loyalty is to the Greyhounds, not to Derek Forbort.
Forbort has to be allowed to do what he and his family thinks is best for his development as a hockey player and a person. If that's major junior, we have to let him go and not hate him for it. If that's the NTDP, the response has to be the same.
None of this means the kids who stay in their community or neighborhood school shouldn't be celebrated. Nothing beats a group of kids who grew up together leading their varsity team to the state tournament. Not only that, but it's a rarity these days. All the more reason to celebrate it.
Now, word has come down that another top Duluth East defenseman has chosen to spend his senior season away from home, and not helping the 'Hounds try to get back to state. This time, it's future UMD Bulldog Andy Welinski, who is going to play for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL this fall.
Welinski will finish high school as scheduled, attending classes while playing for the Gamblers, and he will be back at East to graduate next spring with his class. He's just going to miss the hockey season, because he'll be playing against some bigger and older players.
“If hockey’s what you want to do, then you have to make a couple decisions based on hockey,” Welinski said earlier this week. “And hockey, right now, is what I want to do.”
... “Either way, if I was going to go or stay, if I was going to get better I would need to motivate myself and improve that way,” said Welinski, who has committed to play college hockey at Minnesota Duluth. “Having other players with the same capability as me, working with them and having them challenge me, will make me that much better than staying here.”
This is what Welinski truly believes. If that's the case, he's not wrong to say it.
He downplayed any friction his father had brought up with longtime East coach Mike Randolph, who is one of the better hockey coaches you're going to find anywhere.
“I like Randolph as a coach,” he said. “He’s had tough times with some people in the past, but I’ve never had any troubles with him. He’s a great coach who knows hockey. I guess his coaching style is to be strict, and sometimes it turns out against him.
“Personally, (his return) did not influence my decision.”
Reality is that Welinski's words read like the words of a young man who made a very adult decision. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with that, even if you might not like what he decided.
But, naturally, the USHL coach who benefits from Welinski's deliberation and decision has to do the classy, dignified thing, and stick his chest out after he "wins" the player he wanted.
“USHL hockey is better than high school hockey,” (Gamblers assistant Jon) Rogger said. “It’s going to prepare you more for college and you’re playing against older and stronger kids like they will be in college. At the end of the day, it’s in the kid’s best interest — if they are good enough to leave high school early, then they should do it.”
This is what I expect a CHL coach or GM to say when his team poaches a kid who has already started the season with a U.S. college.
The USHL might be a level above U.S. high school hockey, but that doesn't make it automatically a better developmental option for a high school kid. Not only that, but implying that any kid should feel the need to leave high school to play in the USHL is just selfish and unnecessary.
No avenue for development is the be-all, end-all. No method is perfect, and there isn't one way that is going to work for every kid who is looking to get better.
Some kids need to leave high school because they feel the longer, more grueling USHL schedule will help them get better faster. Others do just fine developing in high school, and they don't ever really need to play in the USHL. There will be some that go from the USHL to college, but others will jump to the CHL.
Kids go from high school to the CHL. They go from high school to college. They go from high school to the NAHL, then the USHL, then college.
The last thing we need is to start chest-thumping because one or two kids do things a certain way.
More important than Rogger's need to show everyone how great his league is, it's vitally important that USA Hockey continue to churn out quality players.
After all, there are gold medals to defend, and other gold medals to win.
Good luck to Andy. He has chosen what he feels is the best developmental path for him, and at this point, my sincerest hope is that he shows up at UMD as a player prepared to make an impact and show all that potential the coaches saw in him.