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Eastview's Natalie Snodgrass, center, has scored game-winning goals in section play as well as in international competition. (Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune)

After years coaching powerful slapshots and board-slamming checks, Eric Johnson realized he was in a new world.

The year was 2005, and Johnson was coaching his first girls’ hockey game at Minnetonka.

“Girls, we don’t have backup sticks,” Johnson said. “What’s going on?”

A player politely provided an explanation.

“We don’t have backup sticks,” she said. “I haven’t broken a stick in four years.”

Johnson was stunned.

“I was like, ‘Oh, jeez … that’s interesting,’ ” Johnson said.

That was then. This is now: There is now a backup stick for every player on Johnson’s Minnetonka squad. Johnson estimates his top players break close to one stick per week.

Since girls’ hockey became a high school sport 21 years ago, the shots are harder, the players are stronger and the game — despite concerns about its growth leveling off — is better than ever.

“This game of hockey is legit,” said Johnson, whose Skippers team included senior Presley Norby, who has played on three gold medal-winning national teams. “The girls are playing the game at such a high level, and it’s advanced so fast that I think we should applaud that. Do we need to get more numbers out there? Do we need to build the base? Yes, we do. But looking back on how we started and where we are now …”

International success

Scanning the roster of the Team USA U-18 team, 16 of the 22 players are from Minnesota high schools, counting three from Shattuck St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault. In January, that team won gold at the 2016 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship in St. Catharines, Ontario.

“Team Minnesota basically just beat the world,” Johnson said.

Seven of those players are on teams competing this week in the state tournament, including Eastview junior Natalie Snodgrass. She scored two goals in the world final to lift Team USA to the gold medal and is committed to follow in the footsteps of her sister, Emily, and play college hockey at Connecticut.

Snodgrass said the biggest difference between Minnesota and the rest of the country is likely high school hockey, where elite players spend at least four months of the year practicing and playing every day. Minnesota is considered to have the best public school hockey competition in the country, and its benefits showed in Ontario.

“To win with that group of girls, it was probably the best moment of my life,” Snodgrass said.

Evidence of the rise of girls’ hockey in Minnesota is everywhere.

This year, 68 Minnesota girls are signed to play Division I college hockey.

When girls’ hockey started in 1995, there were two dozen teams in the state. By 2006, there were 130. Now, there are 115.

But even when there were only a few teams, skills were harder to find.

“I’ve heard stories from coaches that your fourth line or your top JV line, they were just learning how to skate,” said Dale Sager, coach at Elk River/Zimmerman and president of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association.

Hopkins/Park coach Chris Erickson, who has coached girls’ hockey since before it was an exclusive high school sport, was around when Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell became the state’s defining generation of female hockey stars. Those type of stars are still around, but that’s not where the talent growth is most evident.

“It’s night and day,” Erickson said. “When I started coaching at Jefferson, each team had a couple good players. Now, each team has two pretty good lines, and they still have the star power.”

North/Tartan coach Allie Thunstrom has played for Team USA at the Olympic level and played collegiate hockey at Boston College. She knows the landscape of the game both nationally and internationally, and she said there’s still no place better than Minnesota to produce hockey talent.

“You’re going to find talented players everywhere, but I think the quantity is definitely higher in a place like Minnesota,” Thunstrom said. “We have so many opportunities, so many rinks, so many places for people to play. You’re not going to get that everywhere else.”

Boom and bust?

Impressive as the talent level might be, the sport still is fighting its share of issues.

The Hopkins girls’ hockey team, which made deep runs in the state playoffs in 2009 and 2010, didn’t exist this past season — at least not completely. Hopkins formed a co-op with St. Louis Park before the seasons because of shrinking numbers for both schools.

Erickson said this wasn’t exactly a shock. In Hopkins, youth participation fell from 74 players in 2012 to 54 in 2015. Statewide, 8U participation in girls’ hockey fell 5.7 percent between 2011-12 and 2012-13. Hockey is an expensive sport that has struggled to appeal to diverse demographics. Statewide, numbers at the youth level coincided closely with the U.S. economy’s slow recovery from The Great Recession.

“It’s a little frustrating to see programs that were in the state tournament three or four years ago, that brought medals home, and now numbers are so small that they have to co-op,” Sager said.

The 115 teams in the state is down from 121 in 2011-12. Fifty-five of the teams participate in a co-op, but that doesn’t mean the skill level has dropped. In fact, state coaches tend to agree at least some of the participation drop is related to the growth of talent in the game.

When high school girls’ hockey first started, the sport was open to anyone who had some idea of how to skate. Schools wanted to fill teams and join in on the girls’ hockey boom. That surge created a generation of girls who grew up playing the game and developing advanced skills at a young age.

It made the on-ice product better, but the game also became less accessible. If you weren’t serious, hockey wasn’t easy to pick up. A recent NCAA study revealed 95 percent of Division I women’s hockey players started playing by age 9.

Johnson said he believes that indicates a natural leveling off, similar to the ebbs and flows of an economy.

Rebuilding

In the 2014-15 season, 3,901 girls 8-and-under played hockey in Minnesota, up almost 5 percent from the previous year. And in several communities where youth numbers had been falling, the trend reversed.

“It was no longer, ‘This is the state of hockey, people are going to play,’ ” said Glen Andresen, Minnesota Hockey’s executive director. “There was a realization that we need to go out and bring girls into the sport and make the sport accessible.”

In 2014, the Bemidji Youth Hockey Association (BYHA) launched its Little Lady Lumberjacks program. The town of just over 14,000 people had 74 girls between ages 4-10 sign up despite never playing hockey before.

Each year the BYHA holds Try Hockey For Free days and runs a program allowing new skaters to play their first season of hockey for free with equipment included.

In 2015, the BYHA partnered with the Minnesota Wild’s Little Wild Learn to Play program. Sixty new players from the surrounding area signed up, and half registered with the BYHA for the 2015-16 season.

In Minnetonka, where girls’ hockey continues to expand, participation jumped from 191 players to 255 players in four years. Johnson said it’s doubling the growth rate of boys’ hockey.

Even in places where hockey isn’t as high profile, high school programs are making new efforts.

At Spring Lake Park/Coon Rapids, coach Sandy Nelson said her high school program visits elementary schools and offers incentives for younger kids to attend games. Wear a hockey jersey and get in free. It promotes “blue-line buddies,” which allows younger girls to go on the ice for introductions with varsity players.

“We’re aware of the problem with girls playing hockey at the younger levels,” Nelson said. “It’s just being aware of it and being proactive and instilling excitement around it. … You really do have to be more involved than you used to be.”

Most around the sport agree that if girls start playing hockey young, there’s a good chance they’ll stick with it. And if they stick with it, their skill level naturally increases.

“The game is becoming more competitive, and that’s a good thing,” Johnson said. “We built it from the top down when we started. Now we have to rebuild it from the bottom up.”

Five state tournament story lines

1. Three-peat in sight

Undefeated Hill-Murray (27-0-1) seeks to become the second Class 2A program to win three consecutive titles, following Minnetonka (2011-13). The Pioneers boast experience and depth of talent. Seven players have committed to play for Division I college programs. But the most impressive statistic: Hill-Murray has allowed only 19 goals in 28 games.

2. Championship session returns

Once again this year, Saturday’s Class 1A title game starts at 4 p.m. rather than noon, and the Class 2A title game starts at 7 p.m. Fans can buy one ticket good for both games. The format change, begun last year, helped draw more fans. The announced attendance of 3,709 was up 31 percent from the 2013-14 tournament.

3. Stars on the rise

Two Ms. Hockey finalists — Mekenzie Steffen of Hill-Murray and Blake’s Carly Bullock — lead their top-seeded teams. Both players were selected to the Star Tribune All-Metro first team, along with Eastview junior Natalie Snodgrass. Electric in clutch situations, Snodgrass scored the tying goal in regulation and added the overtime winner in the Class 2A, Section 3 championship game. She did the same thing to Canada in the Under-18 World Championship gold medal game.

4. Under their own power

St. Paul United, the No. 3 seed in the Class 1A bracket, took a more conventional rout to its second state tournament. Two years ago the team, made up of players from St. Paul Academy and Summit School and Visitation, got placed in the state tournament when Achiever Academy withdrew from competition hours before the section final. United junior Joie Phelps tallied a school-record 59 points this season.

5. Faces fresh and familiar

Four teams are making their state tournament debuts: Luverne and Northfield in Class 1A, and Maple Grove and Sartell/Sauk Rapids in Class 2A. The payoff is extra sweet for Luverne coach Tony Sandbulte. In 2013-14, he jumped from the Cardinals boys’ program to the girls and missed the boys’ first state appearance. Maple Grove coach Amber Hegland, meanwhile, led a second program to its first state tournament. Her first came with Wayzata in 2005.

DAVID LA VAQUE

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