During a recent game at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena, a defenseman wearing gold corralled a rebound near his net in the defensive zone and curled behind the goaltender to set up a quick transition breakout.
It would have to be quick, too, since a pair of forecheckers in green had doubled back to pressure the puck. Both forecheckers were collapsing furiously, and one, coming from hard around the corner with good speed, had a bead on the defenseman.
As his mental clock ticked down, like a quarterback sensing the pressure in a pocket, the defenseman surveyed his options, ready to move the puck. The nearest forechecker barreled forward. The defenseman stared down the chaos in front of him, took a step into the fray and fired a pass to a winger on the wall.
And that’s when something refreshing happened.
The defenseman was not leveled by an amped-up teen who had fired his engines 10 steps earlier in hopes of driving his opponent through the glass and into next Tuesday.
By now, you may have realized we’re not talking about a Golden Gophers game, and that the team in green is not North Dakota. We’re talking about a sort of oasis for junior high and high school-age players who found the XL Hockey League.
The play from behind the net serves as an allegory.
XL is a league free of checking, and it attempts also to free itself from the sometimes-stifling approach kids find when they sign up for activities these days. Now wrapping up its third season, XL comes with the tag line, “a new youth league with a new vision,” and tries to live up to its billing as a breath of fresh air.
The idea is to give players a place to play and less to worry about when they do. Look no further than the time commitment: One game a week. Every Sunday during the season, a dozen teams filed into the premier facilities at Mariucci and Ridder Arena, they played hockey, had some fun, and that was it.
There are coaches, referees, scoreboards, penalties and all the other elements of the game, but without checking or practices.
"Right now, hockey can often be an all or nothing proposition, and it doesn’t have
“What this is really about,” says Greg Anzelc, who has helped build the league from its inaugural season, “is simply giving more kids the opportunity to play, once a week, and without a four- or five-day-a-week commitment.”
This isn’t an 82-game season for young players with busy lives. Want to go snowboarding with the family over Christmas? No problem. Want to carry a rigorous school workload? By all means. Want to devote more time to another organized sport? Go right ahead.
It should be noted, however, that the league is not attempting to be un-competitive so much as it’s meant not to be ultracompetitive. “It’s competitive hockey,” says Dave Jensen, another force behind the league from its earliest days. “They’re going hard. The only difference is that it’s no-check hockey and it’s only one day a week.”
Though it can be a tough sell for some in a hockey-mad culture, therein lies its strength as an alternative. XL is designed to expose players to the joys of a sport that keeps so many of us playing into our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. As adults, we look forward to popping into the room one night a week, saying hello to our buddies, catching up, having a laugh and spending the next hour trying not to hurt ourselves.
In fact, adult hockey served not only as an inspiration, but also as a motivating factor behind launching a league. Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey found there was a drastic drop in membership after Bantams, which seemed to set up as the tipping point in terms of commitment. XL responds with a bridge for players to take from youth hockey to adult hockey.
“Once they graduate from high school,” Anzelc says, “they’re going to go play intramurals somewhere or men’s league. But if they don’t have a place to play in between, they take those skates off and they probably don’t put them back on for a long time.”
Jensen and Anzelc point out that the league, which split this season into two separate divisions, ranges from beginners to players who barely missed playing for local high school powers, some of which find 80 kids trying out for their varsity teams, and outstanding players from other sports. One player qualified for the state golf tournament, and there are others who captain their baseball and soccer teams.
“These are well-rounded athletes,” Anzelc says.
Among them is Patrick Boyd, a senior at Hill Murray, which won the prestigious State Tournament in March. Boyd grew up playing hockey in area programs and served as his team’s manager while devoting his Sundays to XL hockey.
“Everybody gets along together even though you just met them,” says Boyd, who heard about the league on the radio. “It’s fun to play. It’s not as big a game as some people have. You just come out and have fun.”
Boyd’s father, too, is impressed after watching most of his son’s games over the last three seasons.
“The XL League is just one of those leagues that lets kids play the game and have fun,” Tim Boyd says. “They have fun in the locker room, and my son has met a lot of new kids there. Every kid on the team comes off the ice with a smile on his face.”
In spirit, it can be viewed almost as a men’s league. If there is any truth that we gain some sort of perspective as we age, the XL League may be among the more evolved youth hockey concepts in the country.
“It has been a great experience working with these players, coaches and parents,” says Anzelc. “It’s a very refreshing atmosphere at the rink. Everyone has a smile on their face, they get their hockey fix, and then go on with their week. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Photos By Jim Rosvold