On March 16, Minneapolis Hockey will hold induction ceremonies to welcome new members into the Minneapolis Hockey Hall of Fame. Included in this group of luminaries are Olympians, National Team players, pros and pioneers. Rotsch, Arundel, Anderson, Burg, Oss, Labatte, Nelson, Hendrickson, Moe and Brown. They will join the 30 Hall of Famers inducted in 2017, including prominent Minneapolis hockey families, the Lundeens, Merediths and Alms, NHL players Dziedzic and Chorske, Miracle On Ice gold medalist Mike Ramsey, women’s players McMullen, Middlebrook and Ozmen, and coaches Peterson, Johnson and Baxter. Even the long-gone Minneapolis Arena is honored in the Hall of Fame. It will be a celebration of more than 120 years of Minneapolis Hockey.
The man behind it all is Steve Jecha, the former Executive Director of Minneapolis Hockey and the driving force behind the revitalization and resurgence of youth hockey in Minneapolis over the last two decades. Jecha’s first involvement with Minneapolis hockey occurred in 1999 when he began coaching in the Southwest Mite program. In 2004, he was named President of Southwest Hockey, which together with Washburn and Edison, were the only three remaining competition-based youth programs in the city.
This was a far cry from the heyday of Minneapolis hockey in the early 1970s when 11 Minneapolis high schools fielded varsity hockey teams, each being fed by neighborhood Bantam teams. In 1975, three Minneapolis high school squads were ranked in the top 10 in Minnesota when Southwest was state runner-up. A slow, but sure decline in the number and quality of youth players in Minneapolis began in the 1980s and, by 2005-06, only Southwest and Washburn had organized youth programs. In 2009, Minneapolis high school varsity hockey was reduced to two consolidated teams, Minneapolis East and Minneapolis West.
“Our youth teams were having difficulty staying competitive with other districts”, Jecha said. “In essence, Minneapolis was fielding B1 and B2 teams at the A level. The East and West high school teams were so thin on talent that freshmen players who should have been playing Bantams were skating varsity. In 2010-11, East and West were gone and Minneapolis was reduced to one varsity high school hockey team.”
A prime contributor was the loss of Minneapolis skaters to private schools and open enrollment. Jecha points to the 2005-06 Washburn Bantam A team as a prime example.This was as good a Bantam team as Minneapolis had fielded in years. Of the 14 players on that team, 10 either went to a private school or open-enrolled at a suburban school. Jecha was determined to eliminate this pattern, to rewrite the existing culture of mediocrity in Minneapolis hockey. It would prove to be a challenging task.
The first hurdle he encountered was that the Southwest Youth Hockey Association was almost $100,000 in debt. While some encouraged declaring bankruptcy and starting a new organization, Jecha recognized that two of the board members had personally guaranteed the credit line for the association. So he instead solved the debt problem. Jecha oversaw the restructuring of the underperforming charitable gambling operations, organized fundraisers, and eliminated excess and unnecessary association expenses. Jecha also approached Washburn youth hockey about joining forces to create a single, united Minneapolis youth hockey program. Washburn declined. At that time, Washburn youth hockey was financially solid. It did not want to take on Southwest’s significant debt.
Instead, Jecha approached St. Louis Park youth hockey president Paul Omodt about consolidating the two organizations. St. Louis Park was suffering from the same issues as Minneapolis hockey, too few numbers and non competitive teams. St. Louis Park welcomed Jecha’s proposal and the Minneapolis-Park Storm youth hockey co-op was formed. The results were impressive. In 2008, the Minneapolis/Park co-op sent four teams to state tourneys –Bantam A, Bantam B1, PeeWee A and PeeWee B1. In response to the Minneapolis-Park co-op success, Washburn youth hockey, whose numbers had dropped below 200 skaters, contacted Jecha stating that they had reconsidered the proposal made three years earlier and would now like to join forces with Jecha and Southwest to form a united Minneapolis youth hockey organization. St. Louis Park, their recruiting and program reinvigorated by the co-op’s success, did not object and in the fall of 2008, the Minneapolis Storm Youth Hockey organization was formed.
In forming the Storm, Jecha stated that while being a highly competitive youth program was a primary goal, the Storm must absolutely provide equal opportunity to both boys’ and girls’ players and teams. Jecha also wanted to make sure the disadvantaged had full opportunity to participate and compete, and raised funding for scholarships to cover the costs of equipment, ice time and transportation.
The Minneapolis Storm Youth Hockey Association was launched in the 2009-10 season with 400 skaters in their boys’ and girls’ teams. That number would ultimately double over the next 10 years to 800. To help further the positive and competitive resurgence of Minneapolis youth hockey, Jecha formed community partnerships with Minneapolis public schools which allowed the Storm to send information about Minneapolis youth hockey home with the students. That first year, over 10,000 information flyers went home from school with Minneapolis students.
At one point, in 2006, only 20 percent of the skaters in Minneapolis youth hockey were public school students with the rest attending private schools. As a prime example, Lake Harriet Community School had only a handful of students playing youth hockey. That number has increased to over 70 skaters in 2018-19. In addition, Jecha oversaw the placement of hundreds of yard signs encouraging pride and participation in Minneapolis youth hockey. Jecha added a further, extremely innovative twist to Minneapolis youth hockey.
A former player on the U.S. National Bandy Team, Jecha began in 2007 taking boys and girls to Sweden over MEA weekend to play both hockey and bandy in a sports and cultural exchange and will do so again in October 2019. He also took charge of the American International Summer Bandy camp which runs for a week each August at Richfield Ice Arena. The camp is entering its 20th year and again over 100 Minneapolis youth hockey players will participate. In March 2019, five Minneapolis women that came through these programs will be participating for the U.S. in bandy at the Universiade games in Krasnoyask, Russia, and five young men will be participating in the 17U Bandy World Championships in Arkhangelsk, Russia as part of the U.S. National Team.
The results of this transformation of Minneapolis youth hockey? It’s not only the doubling of the number of boys and girls skating and competing. It’s also resulted in a far greater ability to compete at all levels with the top youth programs in Minnesota. Since 2009, many Minneapolis teams have made it to a state tournament after over two decades of zero participation. In 2013, the PeeWee A team won the state championship, the first for a Minneapolis team in 50 years, and in 2015, the Peewee AA team were state runners-up.
Jecha is quick to emphasize that he did not do all this on his own. Of the hundreds of volunteers who have worked with him over the years, he gives a loud shout-out to two people who were essential to the resurgence of Minneapolis Hockey – Paul Larson and Mike Shogren. On March 16, at 2:30 p.m., Jecha will not only oversee the Hall of Fame inductions. March 16 is also Minneapolis Youth Hockey Day, also conceived of by Jecha, where for almost a decade an awards program will recognize all teams in the Storm program and over 100 team and individual awards will be given out. It will be a great day for Minneapolis Hockey and a proud day for Steve Jecha, the man who made it happen.