The High School Elite League is often seen as a prerequisite for local hockey players yearning for the next level.
Heading into his senior year last fall, Eddie Wittchow wasn't selected.
"I got a little down on myself," the Burnsville defenseman said. "But nothing too big -- I know I can play at that level. I didn't really let it bug me, but I used it as a little chip on my shoulder."
That shoulder got big, angry and might soon become property of the National Hockey League. With the 2011 NHL entry draft coming this Friday and Saturday to Xcel Energy Center, Wittchow has suddenly found himself on the radar of numerous NHL organizations, not to mention some of the biggest college hockey programs.
After scoring two goals and five assists as a junior, Wittchow made big strides -- both in stature and points -- tallying nine goals and 14 assists for the Blaze in the regular season, along with two goals and one assist in three section playoff games. He also unleashed his mean streak.
"I love giving hits as much as I love getting them because it gets me into the game," Wittchow said. "I like getting into their heads."
Always known as a smooth skater with sound defensive fundamentals, Wittchow experienced a rapid growth spurt that left him a bit uncoordinated.
As a sophomore, Wittchow came in at 6 feet. He reached 6-2 his junior year, losing some of his speed and hands while the body took time to adjust.
Now, he's approaching 6-4. Burnsville head coach Janne Kivihalme noticed everything really fall into place this past season.
"His body started to catch up," Kivihalme said. "He was always a good skater and a mobile defenseman. Now he can play the physical game."
Wittchow credited his trainers at FHIT, where he regrouped and rejuvenated himself after hearing the elite league news. He's training five days a week with guys such as former NHLer Erik Rasmussen and St. Cloud State alum Geno Parrish.
Hard work and recent exposure have thrown Witt- chow on the map at an opportune time. The shutdown defenseman said he recently turned down an offer to play for Wisconsin next fall because he didn't feel physically or mentally ready for that step.
For now, he'll play for the Waterloo Black Hawks, who selected him fourth overall in the United States Hockey League entry draft last month.
"I want to go in and have a great freshman season -- not just get in the lineup every other game or even less than that," said Wittchow, who could play more than 60 games with Waterloo next season. "I really feel the junior route is the best for me right now."
Wittchow, who grew up a Badgers fan through family ties, is also receiving interest from Minnesota, Ohio State, Colorado College, Bemidji State and North Dakota.
"He's got many good qualities," said Kivihalme, who's been contacted by junior, major junior, college and NHL teams about the defenseman.
"That overall combination I think is why people are starting to take notice of him."
In April, Wittchow cracked NHL Central Scouting's final rankings at No. 111 for North American skaters.
While the news was exciting, he knows that each team has its own lists, and that one ranking is no guarantee.
"If I go undrafted, it makes no difference," Wittchow said. "As long as I work hard and want to get there, there's no reason I can't make it if I'm not drafted."