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The Magic of High School Hockey

By Drew Herron, 11/14/23, 9:00AM CST


One day when he was in third grade and playing Mite hockey, Cole Saterdalen had a hero of his, Casey Mittelstadt, come into his classroom to read them all a book.

Nine years later, Saterdalen still beams with joy as he recalls the book (Charlotte’s Web) and the kind of experience that can only be delivered through community-based hockey.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Saterdalen says. “I just thought, ‘holy crap’, that’s Casey Mittelstadt. And he’s in my classroom…reading to us.”

Mittelstadt would soon go on to win Mr. Hockey (2017), star briefly but brightly for the Gophers, and now centers the Buffalo Sabres’ second line and powerplay unit. But before that, he was a student in Eden Prairie Schools and developed in the Eden Prairie Hockey Association.

“(Former coach Lee Smith) was a teacher at my school,” Saterdalen adds. “And he was really good at incorporating his players with the younger kids to build the next generation of Eden Prairie Hockey.”

Saterdalen, a senior forward with a developing scoring knack, now also lives the life as a varsity star after starting as a Mini-Mite in Eden Prairie. Though the people and experiences interchange, it’s part of what makes hockey development in Minnesota unique and special.

“I think our hockey culture is unmatched anywhere else in the country,” Saterdalen says. “Where else can you find players who are committed to D-I programs and have all these junior team opportunities, yet they choose to stay home and play with your friends that you grew up with and have played with since Mites? It’s the coolest thing.”

A Growing Hockey Hotbed in Southeastern Minnesota

Brett Ludvigsen’s story is a little different, but no less impactful. Saterdalen’s teammate in the Upper Midwest Elite League, the smooth-skating junior forward, averaged better than two points per game last year at up-and-coming Class 1A program Dodge County in southeastern Minnesota. He is another brick that is helping build and carry on a vibrant new sense of tradition set forth by another product from his youth association and high school program, Brody Lamb. 

Lamb is now one of the Gophers’ top forwards, and his success energizes a growing hockey community in southeastern Minnesota. Ludvigsen was a freshman and junior varsity player when Lamb led Dodge County to the State Championship Game in 2021, but he got to practice with him every day, and his work ethic was contagious. 

Lamb returns to Dodge County in the summer and over winter break to occasionally skate with the younger players, Ludvigsen says, and watching the former Wildcat decked out in Minnesota Gophers gear lights a fire under the entire hockey community. 

“Hockey wasn’t as popular compared to some other sports,” Ludvigsen said. “But ever since Brody and that group came through, it’s growing, and younger teams are getting better and better. I see younger players now with a ton of skill, and the numbers at Mites are growing. More kids want to be a part of it.”

Hockeytown USA

No story about community-based hockey in Minnesota could be complete if it didn’t touch on Warroad and the open invitation to skate at the Warroad Ice Gardens. 

Ryan Lund, a senior defenseman for the Warriors, says it’s hard to put into words what it’s like to grow up in Hockeytown USA, and the lineage of greatness that you can reach out to. 

“It’s hockey all the time, and good people to be around,” Lund says of Warroad. “We can skate when we want, and it’s free. To go up there (Warroad Gardens) and be a part of that community and be with your friends is pretty special. You want to be around it and to be part of it as much as you can.”

The hockey culture runs deep in the town of 1,800, where the Garden brims with photos and artifacts of NHL and Olympic greatness that serve as constant reminders for the next generation.

“T.J. Oshie and Brock Nelson,” Lund says. “I’d look at those guys and think about how bad I want to be just like them when I get older. You start to understand how hard those guys work, and it motivates you to work harder.”

State Tournament Impact

At Eden Prairie, they have had their own share of hockey success in recent decades, having won three boys’ state titles in the last 15 years and three girls’ state championships in the last 17 seasons. For kids like Saterdalen and his teammate Nick Koering, it seemed like an annual tradition in March to take the day off from school and head down to the Xcel Energy Center.

That experience might do more to inspire, motivate, and light a fire under younger players than any dollar amount spent on hockey equipment or development. 

“We didn’t make it as a team last year, but we went to watch, and it makes you want to be part of it so badly,” Koering says. “I remember the championship (2021) and how special it was. What it means for our community.”

Koering watched his older brother, Ryan, a Colorado College commit, play as a sophomore on that ‘21 state title team that defeated Edina in overtime as a blizzard raged outside the X. He enters the season highly motivated to help write the next chapter in the storied history of the program. 

For as long as he can remember, Saterdalen has been headed to the “X” each March with his dad and grandfather. He is too young to have witnessed the history written by the Saterdalen name during the 1980s and 90s with the Bloomington Jefferson dynasty and the five state titles won by his grandfather, Tom. Rather, Cole’s memories were missions to cheer on the Eagles, and he sat there and dreamt of wearing an EP varsity sweater.

When the day came, he could hardly believe it. 

“The first time I put it on,” he says. “It was an incredible feeling. I just felt like, although I wasn’t really like those guys yet, I have the chance to be in that same class that plays for Eden Prairie.”