Team takes to the ice in Minneapolis.

It would be fair to say that much of my life centers around ice hockey these days.  When not blogging about injury updates in the Middlesex League or assisting in HockeyBarn's weekly Power Rankings of girls' hockey in Connecticut, likely you'll find me participating in one of three activities: playing hockey, coaching Bantams, or teaching 5 and 6 year old mites in Connecticut how to skate. 

So it's not much of a surprise that my vacations also fall within this hockey theme.  Last weekend I had the opportunity to reunite with a handful of my old college teammates at the 5th Annual U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis, MN.  Our team finished 3-1 before the rain gods saw to it that play was suspended on championship Sunday (18 inches of ice lay beneath a 3 inch swimming pool at the surface).  But truth be told, playing hockey outside with 1000 other ice-a-holics was not the highlight of my weekend, perhaps in part due to the conditions.  The highlight of our Minnesota sojourn was reserved for the 20 minute trip my teammates and I took on Saturday night to Minnetonka, a Minneapolis suburb with a population of 55,000, to catch the #1 Minnetonka Skippers take on the #2 Edina Hornets; the top two high school teams in the state duking it out for Minnesota hockey supremacy.

I know I don't have to waste my breathe informing everyone here about how popular high school hockey (And just to be clear: public high school hockey) is in Minnesota.  But put into context of our own site that promotes high school hockey across New England, here is Minnesota's version:  [If you're trying to read into the future of our site, look no further than this Minnesotan equivalent]

The rink that Minnetonka plays out of is in the same campus as the high school.  It is called the Pagel Activity Center, which may sound like a funny name for a hockey rink, until you realize that's because all the activity in the town revolves around what goes on inside this arena.  If anyone has ever circumvented the booster club parents collecting the admissions to high school games in New England, I can tell you that tactic would assuredly not work at Minnetonka.  That's because the rink entrance actually has its own ticket box office and gate.  We waited in line with a dozen others before purchasing our $6.50 admissions into the game.

Edina's Head Coach Curt Giles captained the North Stars
Game time was at 7PM on Saturday, and we made sure to get to the rink early to get good seats to the game.  But we fell short of that feat, and arriving at 6:45PM, were relegated to the standing room only section above the rink and behind the end wall netting, as each of the 2,000 seats (I'm guessing here) had already been occupied by a dizzying array of team supporters, parents, youth players, and those who just understand that the place to be on a Saturday night in Minnesota is the local rink.  Walking right in front of me as I entered the arena was a teenage girl wearing a jersey-replica Edina sweatshirt that read "Budish", which I realized later was in reference to Zach Budish, the Edina graduate from last season who was drafted #41 in the 2009 NHL draft by the Nashville Predators.  Zach Budish was not the only NHL connection to this game.  Minnetonka senior defenseman #7 Troy Hesketh was drafted #71 last year by Edmonton.  Imagine playing high school hockey against someone who's already been drafted into the pros!  Then there's the NHL connection through Minnetonka's other senior captain Max Gardiner.  His older brother Jake Gardiner was drafted 17th overall in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks.  He's now playing for Wisconsin and recently took home a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.  Finally, there's the pro association through three out of Edina's four coaches, each of whom played in the National Hockey League at some point in their careers.  This includes Head Coach Curt Giles, captain of the Minnesota North Stars from 1989-91.

Note: Rick click and select "View Image" to zoom in.
The game got underway after all of the typical pre-game theatrics of a high school sporting contest, and Edina dictated play during the opening minute of the first period.  But emphasis on the word "minute," not "minutes."  Edina was capable of playing with Minnetonka on even strength, but could not hold a candle to Minnetonka's power play unit, which received its first opportunity just 1 minute and 10 seconds into the first period when #21 Charlie Taft received a minor for roughing.  Minnetonka capitalized on the opportunity when Max Gardiner, a soon-to-be Minnesota Gopher and likely early round draft pick in 2010, one-timed a crisp pass into the high slot.  Minnetonka's next two goals in the period were scored off the hands of #10 Justin Holl.  The senior defenseman scored his first while on another power play, and netted his second while shorthanded at 12:12.  Minnetonka led 3-1 after the first period.

For his efforts, Justin Holl was in my view the most dominant player on the ice.  Holl is listed 54th among North American skaters in the current NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings. He is one of three Minnetonka players on that list:  Max Gardiner at #36 and senior defenseman Andrew Prochno at #155 are the others.  Holl skates as a defenseman, but is really an offensive talent in disguise.  Not a shift went by where Holl wasn't able to either carry the puck cleanly up the ice or anchor the power play at the blueline.  Through 19 games this season he has 15 goals and 10 assists.  An interview published less than two weeks ago on reveals that Holl, a University of Minnesota recruit (though he may play a year first in the USHL), is joined by Troy Hesketh and Andrew Prochno as one of three Minnetonka defensemen that will be playing DI college hockey next season (Minnesota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State). 

Yet so far this season the scoring production each of Gardiner, Holl, Hesketh, and Prochno, all of whom are likely to be drafted by 2010 or 2011, has been eclipsed by the performance of a Minnetonka Skipper who is guaranteed NOT to be drafted within the next two years nor to even see a college commitment letter come his way during that time.  Amidst all the talent aboard the ship, it is FRESHMAN Max Coatta who leads the team in goal scoring with 16 tallies on the season (16-17-33).  In just his first season, Max has even earned himself a spot on the starting line along with Gardiner and junior Derek Frawley.  Coatta, a crease-crasher not afraid to broach the low slot area, is often the beneficiary of the offensive playmaking abilities of Max Gardiner, who through his combined pedigree and raw talent has become the icon of the Minnetonka team this season.  What perhaps speaks volumes of high school hockey in Minnesota is that even with those accolades, Max Coatta has only received 4% of the total fan votes for Freshman Player of the Year, and is well behind three other players for that honor.

Back to the game...

The second period got underway only after a 25 minute hiatus that allowed for the Minnetonka Mites to play two mini-periods before the Zamboni hit the ice.  The second stanza was more of the same for Minnetonka.  The Skippers recorded three goals in the first six minutes and did not look back.  Later in the period Derek Frawley netted his second goal of the game, Minnetonka's 7th and final goal of the tilt.  Each goal that the Skippers scored was greeted with young players from the youth system reaching over the boards to catch high fives from the Tonka players.  Shown below is an excerpt of one of the team's power play opportunities during the second period.  The final score was Minnetonka 7, Edina 1.

Minnetonka on the power play during the second period.

I'll let each reader be his/her own judge of how the hockey shown above compares with hockey in New England.  As a point of comparison, Catholic Memorial defeated Holy Angels 4-2 two weeks ago in Boston.  Catholic Memorial has been atop our HockeyBarn DI Power Rankings in Massachusetts for the majority of this season.  Holy Angels is the top team in the Missota conference in the Minneapolis area.  They've lost 6-3 and 6-2 in a home and home series against Minnetonka this season.  Here are what the Minnesota forums said about Holy Angels' trip out East >>

In my view, high school hockey in Minnesota doesn't disparage the high school programs on the east coast, but on the contrary, sets an example of the levels of energy, excitement, and talent that the programs on the east aspire to attain.  Of course this reference will allude to the timeless argument over the role of prep schools and junior programs taking a bite out of public/catholic school hockey in the New England area.  We'll let the pundits debate over that argument in the comments section below.  For now, all I'm saying is to look out for the name Justin Holl.  From where I sit he looks like the second-coming of Mike Green...