VIDEO: "Novas" Aim To Spark Minneapolis City Prep Hockey Revival
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Their team photograph depicts this year's Minneapolis Novas team posed around the famous 'Spoonbridge and Cherry' sculpture bolstered by a four-word block-letter summation of the team's singular mission: "Our City. Our Team."
The Novas are a union of seven Minneapolis city high schools all playing varsity hockey under a single banner.
The union is a necessity, as numbers have dwindled for city programs since their heyday tapered off in the 1980's.
The seven schools playing under the Novas banner have made a combined 44 State Tournament appearances, but none since Minneapolis Edison played at State in 1994. Minneapolis Southwest's state title in 1970 is the championship.
"It's frustrating," admits first-year Novas coach Joe Dziedzic. "Part of it is the makeup of the city. Certain demographics and certain minority kids just aren't playing hockey. Let's face it, hockey is an expensive sport. Sticks are 200 dollars and it starts to add up. People don't have that kind of money to spend. It makes it an easier choice to play soccer or basketball."
Adding to that problem is the contagion of open enrollment and the migration of top players to perennial powerhouse programs at nearby private schools.
"It's difficult, especially when it's some of the top guys," says Novas star Henry Christman. "It kind of stinks some guys have parted ways and gone to different schools, but we stay together strong and it's gone pretty well. You just gotta deal with it, it's kind of the way it is now."
If you listen to Dziedzic and his assistant coach Tom Chorske, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Dziedzic and Chorske - Edison and Southwest grads, respectively - have accepted the task of trying to build the Novas program. Both played varsity hockey at city schools, later progressing to play for the University of Minnesota and onto the National Hockey League.
They are the only two city players ever to be named Mr. Hockey - an honor bestowed on the state's top player each year. Dziedzic won in 1990, Chorske was the award's inaugural winner in 1985.
"I think I can relate to some of the things they're going through," Dziedzic says. "Whether it's the number of kids trying out for a team or facilities or the other distractions - I've been through it myself."
"It's great to know we have two guys with us that came through the city," Christman says. "(They) went thru the same things we did. Now they're just trying to help make us better and improve as a program. They both came from here to the NHL, played for the Gophers. It's just really exciting knowing they're here and want us to do well -- I'm grateful for it."
Christman, a senior at Washburn High who came up in the Minneapolis Storm youth hockey program, is exactly the kind of kid the coaches want in their redevelopment plan: a good student, a strong player and - most of all - a proud 'city kid'.
"My dad went to Washburn, graduating in '79," Christman says. "It's kind of cool to look at that and go through old videos he shows me."
Christman has put together a staggering season statistically. His 41 goals and 72 points through 22 games lead the metro and stand second in the State (according to statistics kept by MnHockeyHub.com).
In a surreal stretch of mid-January, he ran off a string of four straight games with four goals in each.
"It seemed he was getting some puck luck," Dziedzic says. "Rebounds were coming to him, but he worked for it, though. He went to the right spots and I told him that goal scorers know where to go and the puck follows them... and that's what happened. So I tip my cap to Henry."
Christman is having the kind of season - and the kind of high school career - that may lead to future opportunities in hockey. Dziedzic hopes Christman is an example to future players of the level of success that can be attained in the Novas program.
"He's been our face of the program so far," Dziedzic says. "He's a super kid, doing well in school, has a high GPA... all around he's a great kid. I hope he can continue playing some college hockey somewhere next year."
Asked if he ever considered departing Washburn for other opportunities, Christman quickly shrugged saying, "I just kind of wanted to stay true to the city."
He admits holding some jealousy when he sees other single-school programs that have devoted followings within their community.
"It's a little different, because it's called the 'Novas'," Christman admits. "If it's not the 'South Tigers', or 'Southwest Lakers', they think it's not really affiliated with the school, but it is. It's just kind of hard to draw people in and have us come watch."
Dziedzic admits pooling players from various schools and communities requires a jump-start to bond other teams may not require. However, he insists the progress was quick.
"They're coming from different schools, so they're friends during the winter them maybe during the fall they're playing football against each other or rooting against each other at the soccer match," he says. "It's a unique situation, one that these kids have learned to embrace. Maybe in the beginning it was a little tough or strange but once they kind of go, 'Hey, we're in this for hockey' - guys become friends pretty quickly once you start playing together."
On the plus side, Christman already stresses he feels the momentum of the early stages of Dzeidzic's revitalization program, especially within the Novas' youth hockey extension - the Minneapolis Storm.
"There's at least ten pee wee teams now, so hopefully he can draw 'em all in here," Christman hopes. "I wish it could happen right now, we gotta keep moving forward. Hopefully it can happen again."
It's the kind of forward momentum Dziedzic knows his program must continue.
"If they see they have quality coaching, a program headed in the right direction I think that'll make it harder for them instead of just automatically going to a private school," Dziedzic explains. "This is going to give them a chance to say - 'hey, they're going in the right direction, I want to be part of this program'. We can have a good team and run a good program."
Above all, Dziedzic knows wins and losses are the ultimate form of persuasion. The Novas are coming off a Two Rivers Conference title last season, and are 18-3-1 this season.
"To try to re-energize the program, to keep kids here - they'll do it if we're competitive, if we're winning," he says. "If we're not competitive and not winning it's easy for them to go somewhere else because they think it's not a big deal. But we need to keep doing the little things we've been doing."
The Novas are taking a huge step as they move into the second season of Dziedzic's promising turnaround next year. After dominating competition in the Two Rivers conference they are set to leap into the frying pan of the Tri-Metro conference - where St Paul city schools Johnson and Como Park await along with perennial private school powerhouses Breck, St Paul Academy and Blake.
"It's going to take a little while," Dziedzic concedes. "It's not going to happen overnight. But if we can grow the program and show people we're serious and we have good coaching, good facilities, you know what, good schools... I think the sky's the limit."
He even sees the possibility of escaping the shadow of that 19-year drought.
"We gotta pay our dues and take care of little things, but the end of the day our goal is to be competitive and get to the state tournament... and I think we can do it."