Lacrosse offers blueprint for prep hockey’s local growth

This evening, 29 locals will hit the ice at George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum with the hopes of earning a spot on the roster for Shreveport’s 2022-23 junior varsity hockey team.

Yes, local high school hockey not only exists, but it’s growing.

Shreveport’s varsity squad just completed its third season. The 2022-23 campaign will be the sophomore season for the JV unit.

“The amount of local kids who want to be hockey players is phenomenal,” Scott Muscutt, general manager of the Shreveport Mudbugs, a member of the North American Hockey League (the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior league in the nation), said. “The list of people responsible for that is endless. It’s truly remarkable.”

Shreveport’s high school hockey program, also dubbed the Mudbugs, is the only prep team in the area and includes players from several area schools. The team travels to Dallas every other week to play doubleheaders in the AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League.

The growth of this non-traditional sport is impressive, and it’s something Michael Pabst knows all about.

Hockey was first introduced to the area in 1997 with the Shreveport Mudbugs of the Western Professional Hockey League. Around that time, the idea to make lacrosse a local high school sport was born.

Like the problem “youth” hockey faces now, one team was developed back then for those interested in high school lacrosse in the area. And they had to travel to Texas to find games.

“It was all Karl Mitchell,” Pabst said.

Mitchell, an Air Force transplant and former college lacrosse player, started a pickup league by holding practices at Shreveport’s A.C. Steere Park. Eventually, youngsters took notice and asked Mitchell if he’d coach them should they get enough kids for a high school squad.

A church team (St. Paul’s) turned into a team at Loyola College Prep. In the early 2000s, Caddo Magnet had enough players to form its own team, and so did Byrd.

Mitchell, the godfather of Louisiana lacrosse, coached until his untimely death at the age of 48 in 2013. Pabst served as an assistant under Mitchell before taking the Yellow Jackets’ job.

“I hadn’t held a stick in 20 years, but I knew how to yell at teenagers,” said Pabst, a product of Massachusetts who helped organize local youth lacrosse and eventually founded the sport’s premier youth organization in the area, Red River Lacrosse.

Pabst now coaches the Renegades, the home for high school lacrosse athletes who do not attend a school with its own team. The Renegades and other area prep teams are members of the Louisiana High School Lacrosse League. They are no longer forced to travel to Texas to find games.

Pabst says the key for the growth of lacrosse was the recruitment of middle schoolers, something the Mudbugs have done in the past.

Hockey’s growth in the area has endured speedbumps. In fact, it almost never began. With the arrival of professional hockey in the late ’90s, there was an idea to get kids involved in the sport, but there were tempered expectations and naysayers.

“We didn’t even have enough confidence in our ability to put kids on the ice,” said Muscutt, the first player ever signed to play professional hockey in Shreveport. “People said, ‘Roller hockey is as good as it’s going to get.’ We questioned that and said, ‘Why is that as good as it’s going to get?’”

The Junior Mudbugs program eventually hit the ice at the CenturyTel Center (now the Brookshire Grocery Arena) in Bossier City. Today, there are hundreds of members of the Junior Mudbugs.

One Junior Mudbugs graduate, Brayden Cook, has made his way to the NAHL’s Springfield Junior Blues.

Jason Campbell, a former Mudbugs player and assistant coach, now coaches the Mudbugs NAHL squad. He was instrumental in getting high school hockey rolling.

“It does George Cloutier proud,” Campbell said.

Cloutier was a local goaltender whose life ended at age 12. His name graces the playing surface at the Hirsch Coliseum – the only sheet of ice in the area.

“His family and their love for the game had a supreme effect on Musky and myself and our community,” Campbell said.

Even at a young age, Cloutier believed hockey could bring a portion of the community together. He was right.

“I never would have projected the success high school hockey has brought, but it’s been phenomenal,” Muscutt said. “And now these kids are going on to play college hockey. That would never happen without high school hockey.”

While hockey faces limitations that don’t exist in lacrosse — one being limited playing surfaces — one thing local high school hockey can offer is the ability to wear the Mudbugs logo.

Today, those kids will compete for a shot to wear the same logo as the Mudbugs they watch at The George on weekends. The same colors as the players who’ve won two national championships in the past four years.

“I’m glad it opens up their heart and makes me even happier when I see it opens up their eyes and they realize there is a responsibility when you wear the logo,” Muscutt said. “‘What is my sportsmanship like? How to I treat my teammates. How do I walk into the rink? What clothes am I wearing? How do I walk out of the rink? How do I speak to officials?’

“I hope it comes with the culture that it represents for every person who wore it, no matter the level.”