Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in Lockroom Logic are solely those of Dan Bauer and do not reflect the opinions of Wisconsin Prep Hockey or its partners. Dan presents his opinions based upon his lifetime of teaching and coaching experience and we present them unedited.
There was a time when loyalty was an admirable and sought after quality. It was revered and rewarded with plaques, gold watches and for dogs a pat on the head. While our canine companions are forever wired to be unconditionally loyal, we mere mortals have lost our way.
For many today loyalty is considered an antiquated and unimportant trait. National sports media personality Collin Coward says that, “loyalty is worthless today”. He believes there is no value in it, but when he speaks of value, he is talking primarily about money. He goes to question why fans remain loyal to bad teams. His logic is if you go to your favorite restaurant and you suddenly get two or three bad meals, you don’t go back. So if your favorite sports team has a run of bad seasons, find another team. It is a cultural theme that sees adversity as evil. Thankfully in the case of the Green Bay Packers, fans didn’t heed that advice from around 1968 to 1991 when the team and its fans endured an awful stretch of futility. Loyalty in times of despair and abject failure takes what former Northwestern football coach Gary Barnett calls “belief without evidence”.
While most Packer fans remained loyal and hung on to the belief that the glory days would return, athletes at all levels have joined in on kicking loyalty to the curb. Professional athletes follow the money, like those in the business world, and in amateur sports athletes follow the wins. Leaving your high school and playing for a rival, once as taboo as eating your own loyal pooch, is now a common occurrence made possible by open enrollment. In 1999 the first year of open enrollment in Wisconsin just over 2,500 students participated. Twenty plus years later there are over 70,000 taking advantage of the program. It has drastically and undeniably changed the geography of high school sports.
I have witnessed it first-hand here in Wausau where athlete’s choices have had a dramatic effect on local sports programs. It is honestly not a subject most are willing to openly discuss here and while the impact on hockey is strikingly evident other sports have also been affected. When I got to Wausau East in 2002 we had 34 players tryout for the team. This season the East/Merrill United co-op had only ten East players. In the three games between EM-United and crosstown Wausau West this year, the Warriors swept all three by a combined 33-0 score and outshot the BlueJacks 208-22. The last time East beat West was 2005. What was once an intense Marathon Park filled with rabid fans rivalry is no more. I can’t imagine how anyone could defend that the state of Wausau hockey is in a better place. Those who have chosen to send their kids across the river in search of more victories cannot escape their share of the responsibility. It can be a difficult and emotionally charged decision. Established in 1972, Wausau East, one of the state’s oldest hockey programs, is now a co-op with an uncertain future.
As West ended the EM-United season I saw a photo on Facebook that caught my eye. It was BlueJack senior and captain Eli Pagel, in a post-game photo with seven Wausau West players. As a group they had played together since their Warjacks youth hockey days. In Wausau there is a single youth program that feeds both high school hockey programs. When it was time to move on to high school Eli chose to stay at Wausau East while his friends and former teammates would play at West. Open enrollment would have been an easy solution to allow Eli to stay with his youth teammates. Eli has been in my summer program in the past so I knew firsthand that he was a skilled player, but more importantly an outstanding young man. I wasn’t surprised that he had stayed, but wanted to hear his story.
“Yeah it was a super tough decision for me,” Eli recalled, “I was the only kid besides Blake Raddatz who graduated last year, to be from the East side of town (on our youth teams) and it pretty much stayed that way throughout my entire youth hockey career. I had to not only think about where I wanted to go to school but why I wanted to go there.”
A three-sport athlete Eli had established himself as a key contributor in both soccer and baseball on the eastside. Those teammates and friends became a big part of his decision. East soccer coach Ken Smith, said he never doubted Eli would stay. “Eli might be the highest character athlete I've worked with, according to Smith. “He is always so appreciative of being coached and has always been a team first guy.”
While EM-United logged twelve wins during Eli’s entire career, his former teammates at West won sixty-eight games and made a trip to the state tournament his freshman season. Eli called playing on a line with his younger brother Zach, “very cool” and was grateful to be able to finally play together. Along with freshman Nicholas Bodner, the trio was the BlueJacks top line all season combining for 52 points. As he looked back on his four years, Eli, who led his team with 25 points this season, still believes he made the right choice.
“This is something that I too have thought to myself throughout all of the past four seasons with the BlueJacks,” he said. “It is tough not seeing the wins, but I feel that wins/losses are a bad way to look at the amount of progress that we made as a team. You have to remember that it is just a game and you are there to have fun. You have to just push through the hurt and remember that it will pay off. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision not only for hockey but for my high school experience as well.”
Eli believes his coaches taught him a very important lesson whether they were winning or losing. “I have learned selflessness, and that family is the most important thing when it comes to becoming a team,” said the 2022 Wisconsin Valley Conference Honorable Mention selection. “That’s something that from the time I started playing for Wausau East has been preached by all of my coaches. I truly thank my coaches for that. It’s something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Family has shown me that you can get through any hardship not only in sports but in life as well.”
Last September, Eli’s father, Nate Pagel, stepped in at the eleventh hour to be the new EM-United coach. Upbeat and character driven, Pagel has begun the task of rebuilding the program in the wake of the local sentiment to potentially merge the East and West hockey programs, if not the entire high schools. The debate within the community continues with many feeling it is just a matter of time. Pagel sees pros and cons to both sides of the debate, but admits, “With the majority of the top end players from East and Merrill transferring to the other school, it makes it difficult to compete in the conference and section that we play in.” Eastside youth numbers show promise, but only if they make the same decision Eli made and stay. Pagel believes that influx “will be able to start changing the perception of this program”.
The elder Pagel remains optimistic about East’s future and understands the value of the athletic experience goes way beyond wins and losses. “I believe hockey has helped shape Eli into what he is today,” Nate offered. “At the end of the day wins and losses don’t really matter. It’s the effort we give and how we treat people that we are remembered for. I believe Eli understands that and I am most proud of the person he has become. Sports are just a short part of his story.”
The epidemic of players fleeing struggling high school programs continues to skew the competitive balance in all sports. Coaches can no longer depend upon players to come their way based on geography or school loyalty. Out of season teams influence players decisions and for some it has become a twelve-month obsession, minimizing the importance of games and fragmenting player’s loyalty to their many teams. The pride once felt in representing your town and your school has been stifled by open enrollment, co-op programs, the myth of specialization and the promise of exposure. Sadly, only old school traditionalists like me see this as a problem in need of a solution. The majority innocently dismiss it as “the new normal”.
While canines have long been the guardians of loyalty and soon may be the lone purveyor, Wausau East’s Eli Pagel demonstrated that loyalty can still be found in high school sports. Some may feel he and many others like him made the wrong decision to face the struggle, but I for one can only respect and admire their character.
They say nice guys finish last, maybe on the scoreboard, but in the game of life they are champions.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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Please also keep “woofing,” taunting, and otherwise unsportsmanlike behavior to a minimum. Your posts will more than likely be deleted, and worse yet, you reflect badly on yourself, your favorite team and your conference.