Elite League Mourns the Loss of Founder John Russo

by Elite League

New Hope, MN – April 20, 2023 -- The Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League, regarded as one of the premiere development leagues for high school hockey players and a model program for player development in North America, announced the passing of its founder, John Russo.

Concerned about the increasing exodus of high school players to various AAA and junior hockey circuits in North America, a small group of player development experts formed the “Elite League” in 2001 to provide the region’s top players with an opportunity to play with and against top competition, while maintaining their eligibility to play high school hockey in their respective communities.

Russo, with initial input from legendary collegiate and Olympic coach Herb Brooks and longtime Minnesota Hockey player development icon Ted Brill, formed the Elite League under the guise of the Project Prep player development plan.

Russo tirelessly lobbied the state’s amateur governing body of ice hockey, Minnesota Hockey, and the Minnesota High School League, to sanction a competitive alternative for the state’s top players, to reduce the risk of players leaving high school and to increase their developmental trajectory to NCAA and professional ice hockey. 

While many individuals contributed to the Elite League’s success, Russo was regarded as the league’s heart and soul, immersing himself for 12 years in virtually every facet of league administration, game day operations, player recruitment, and public relations.

Under Russo’s firm and steady leadership, the league became one of North America’s top player recruiting venues for NCAA D1 programs and offered a unique, “early look” to professional scouts preparing for the NHL Entry Draft. It was not uncommon for the Elite League to draw 100 coaches and scouts to games and thousands of players benefited from its existence. Hundreds of Elite League alumni have moved on to college and professional hockey, including the likes of current NHL stars Ryan McDonough, Jordan Schroeder, Anders Lee, Jake Guentzel, Nick Leddy, Brock Nelson, Nick Bjugstad, Brock Boeser, Casey Mittelstadt, Justin Holl, Nate Schmidt, Neal Pionk and many more.

“Bringing life to this league was not an easy task in the tradition-rich and risk-averse State of Hockey,” said Jack Barzee, a former scout with NHL Central Scouting and a resident of Burnsville. “John Russo’s unique blend of business intellect, political savvy, developmental focus, and willingness to stand his ground made it work. I believe John had one thing in mind, doing what was best for high school hockey players.”

An icon in the Minnesota hockey community, Russo also coached at the high school and youth hockey levels for over 20 years and penned a regular column for Let’s Play Hockey, a regional hockey newspaper. A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Russo played collegiately at the University of Wisconsin and is a member of the UW Hockey Hall of Fame along with his 1963-64 teammates.