I've had a college coach chime in with his insight on the issues confronting the lack of player development in Massachusetts. Below was his input, followed by my response:
I think the decline has to do with the state of high school hockey in Massachusetts. I grew up in Massachusetts and played youth and high school hockey there. I was neither the best player ever to skate for my high school team nor the worst, however much like my friends and teammates, I bled the school colors. And the reason for this love is clear to me. There is a sense of belonging and identity in growing up playing youth hockey on successful town teams; its almost like you are in the farm system of the big club, and that hopefully you'll get called up for a chance at the apple. We all wanted to taste it, the crowd, the prestige, the win.
The state of professional hockey in Boston did not have much influence on the development of my friends and me, and although we dreamed of growing up and playing in the NHL our true heroes were on the high school team. If you ask any of us who graduated around 1990 about our fondest memories watching hockey, they will most likely take place in a packed home rink during high school games against our rivals, at The Garden or in State Championship games.
Our idols and heroes would be the alums at our high school who had successfully moved on to college. For some, the goal after high school was to play college hockey. The route to college hockey was clear as well. Massachusetts high school kids were not leaving for prep-schools and juniors until maybe after their senior year. There was pressure from both sides where high school coaches could promote their talent to colleges and your teammates growing up saw it as a betrayal for leaving the town team. I think that familiarity is gone, with it the desire, and players today might not know what it takes because the path is not clear and lay out in front of them. The goal isn't there every winter weekend for them to feel, hear and see. The passion in those high school games was electric and moving. A sense of pride and respect for the town, the high school players and coaches was created by the local climate you grew up in. The rivalries that exist between different towns stem deep throughout the entire youth hockey system and all school sports. You grow up despising talented kids from other towns and will do anything to beat them in a game. All the moves you make coming up have a major influence on the way the coaches and players view your talent and commitment level when you get to high school. Peter Masters comment as he "refers to the parents' role in creating ego driven players unwilling to work as hard. 'Back then, parents would yell at their own kid, skate harder, move,' now the parents are yelling at the other players or the coaches or the refs" in some ways reflects my opinion. If you were lazy or bad kid, the word spread throughout the whole system all the way to the top, which was the varsity coach. You learn to take what coaches dealt; to get tough, to skate all day, because you had to, there was nothing else. That's what made kids better. Now the kid will just go to another team, which isn't that big a deal because it works for others. Now the coach has no control.
Kids have so many avenues now, that the focus is sometimes gone. It used to be hard for a freshman to make our high school varsity team, almost all played junior varsity. It was a right of passage. God, there were seniors on the j.v.. Now you see tons of freshmen on their varsity teams, because the better developed older players have most likely left. Look at high school hockey in states like Minnesota, and combine it with your comment of "Well, Minnesota did not send its players to the Select 14 festival." Why? They have the protection of the high schools still being the big show (packing the State Tourney), they don't have all the prep schools to worry about, most of their early departures go to the USHL (without all the Junior A, B and C teams that exist out east), they have their own junior elite league which actually promotes the high school hockey culture, the player pool is more condensed and the competition is greater, and because they don't want to turn into Massachusetts. I think that in order for Massachusetts hockey to improve from the bottom up, it would have to change at the top first.
My response on this issue:
You're probably right that this is a factor for many kids, but I still question how much it plays into the issue for the elite kids. No doubt the average hockey player will be more motivated by the prospect of playing HS, but my question focuses more on the lack of elite kids in Mass/NE. As you know, those kids usually hit the radar as early as age 14, as freshmen in HS. But looking at the tourney results for that age bracket, the Mass kids already are behind the curve. There are few Carpenters, Ryan Whitneys, etc. out there, and this is before the impact of their high school coaching or junior hockey. Its not a case of Mass having elite 13 or 14 year olds, but their skills stagnating from 14-18. So the issue to me is whether (1) the kids in Mass no longer have the skills (in comparison to Minn, Mich, etc.), or (2) the Mass. kids with those athletic skills are going into other sports, because they play baskeball/baseball instead of stick hockey at ages 8-13. My sense is that kids in Mass no longer play pond hockey, as hockey in the metro area is all finding a rink, which restricts access to playing (in comparison to the Land of 10,000 lakes, where the culture still has them playing pond hockey). Without the social "pressure" of it being the thing to do (created to a large degree by whether Boston is a hockey town), kids or their parents are less inclined to plunk down hundreds of dollars for ice time during the formative years. Hence, the smaller talent pool manifesting itself as early as age 13.