As the calendar turns over into a new year, March 11 is a crucial date for boys hockey teams in Minnesota. If you are playing on March 11, you are one of the final teams still on the ice. The dream is to play for a state championship on that date at Xcel Energy Center.
There are months to go before then, of course, but hearts and minds are focused on the biggest day of the hockey season. Players, coaches and teams are working to eliminate their weaknesses and build up their strengths, all in the hopes of lacing up the skates on the second Saturday in March.
Two of last season’s final four teams in Class 2A are Eden Prairie and Grand Rapids. The Eagles defeated the Thunderhawks in the 2015 state semifinals before losing to Wayzata in the championship game; Grand Rapids defeated Stillwater in the third-place game.
It can be safely assumed that those teams are doing everything in their power to get back to state.
“Having made it to the state tournament last year, if nothing else, it raises our expectations,” said Grand Rapids coach Trent Klatt. “We’ve been there and our goal is to go back. This group doesn’t want to just make it there and take fourth place or third place. That’s great, but they want to win.”
In one of the premier regular-season boys hockey events, Grand Rapids went 2-1 at the Edina Holiday Classic. The Thunderhawks defeated Edina and Eden Prairie and lost to Elk River/Zimmerman, which also went 2-1 in the three-day event at Braemar Arena. Eden Prairie and Edina finished 1-2.
Heading into New Year’s Eve, Grand Rapids had a record of 9-1-1, Eden Prairie was 6-3-2, Elk River/Zimmerman 10-2 and Edina 7-3.
The most well-known player in the state is Eden Prairie senior Casey Mittelstadt. He was the only prep player invited to be on the U.S. national under-18 team that won bronze at the world championship tournament last spring, and he was one of only two high schoolers among 42 players who took part in the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Philadelphia in September.
Before the current high school season began, Mittelstadt had options other than returning to the Eagles. He could have enrolled early at the University of Minnesota and started his collegiate career, and he could have played the entire season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. He chose to begin the USHL season in Green Bay and came back to Eden Prairie when the high school hockey season started.
“It’s a great thing for high school hockey to have him back,” Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. “He’s a great kid besides being a great player.”
After last season’s state tournament, Mittelstadt told Smith he would be back for his senior season.
“He’s always been a man of his word,” Smith said. “I know he put himself into a position where he could have been at the university. I’m glad he chose to stay back.”
Mittelstadt’s decision was the subject of a full-page story in the New York Times on Dec. 10. The story said, “Elite American prospects like Mittelstadt, projected to be a first-round pick in June’s N.H.L. draft, usually do not play high school hockey, or they stop after their sophomore or junior year.”
“Obviously it’s a cool thing,” Casey said of the newspaper story. “But the main thing is we have to be better out here and make sure we get the wins. That stuff will be cool when it’s all over.”
Eden Prairie lost in the state semifinals two years ago, so Mittelstadt has come close to two championships. One last opportunity to win it all was a prime reason for his return to the Eagles.
“When it all comes together and you think about it, the guys in the room are the reason I fell in love with the game,” he said. “I think I owe it to them. It was a pretty easy decision.”
If Mittelstadt had not returned, “We would still have a good team,” Smith said. “He’s a difference maker, someone the opponents put a lot of time and effort into. I still think we could have a chance to go to the state tournament, but with him we have a better chance of maybe winning the state tournament.”
Playing in the Edina Holiday Classic was a good test for all four teams. Scheduling top-flight opponents is one way to improve as a hockey team, and Grand Rapids is taking full advantage, no matter the mileage required. Of the Thunderhawks’ 25 regular-season games, 11 of them are in the Twin Cities. Their northern Minnesota opponents include teams like Duluth East, Hermantown, Bemidji and Moorhead,
“We want to play the best teams in the state,” Klatt said. “We need the challenge. We need to see what our weaknesses are. And when you play high-quality teams, that’s when you’re exposed. You make a lot of mistakes, it doesn’t look good, but boom, there it is. Now we can work on it, now we can improve, and hopefully by the end of the year we can fix some of the problems.
“The drive, the determination, the passion, the goals, it’s clearly visible. They’re really hungry.”
The march to March 11 is on.
BY THE NUMBERS
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