Jake Gardiner's decision wasn't that difficult.
In an effort to explore his options, Gardiner, already a star defenseman at Minnetonka High School, arranged a tryout with Des Moines of the United States Hockey League. It went well. He made the team. But he decided not to go.
"I chose to stay in high school," said Gardiner of that decision, made years ago. Gardiner, a first-round pick by Anaheim (17th overall) in the 2008 NHL draft, finished at Minnetonka, played three seasons for the University of Wisconsin and then played 10 games for Toronto's minor-league affiliate at the end of last season. "I felt I could develop there. I didn't want to leave my family. High school hockey keeps getting better. I didn't feel I had to go somewhere else to develop."
That was his decision.
Others have chosen different paths to arrive at the same place: highly regarded Minnesota hockey players chasing their NHL dream. Many, like Gardiner, choose the more traditional route: high school to college to the pros. But there are other ways. Some choose to leave high school early to play junior hockey. A select few go to Ann Arbor, Mich., to become part of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which began in 1996. Some go the major junior route in Canada, or attend Sidney Crosby's old haunt, Shattuck- St. Mary's in Faribault, as a hockey finishing school.
One way or another, a bunch are finding their way into the limelight.
Minnesota always has produced hockey players. But in recent years there has been an impressive boom in top-end talent.
From 2005 to '07, 19 Minnesotans were taken in the first two rounds of the NHL entry draft. Over the past three drafts, an additional 14 went in the first two rounds, 22 in the first three.
That list includes Gardiner, the 17th pick in 2008 (who was traded by Anaheim to Toronto in February). Nick Leddy and Jordan Schroeder were both first-rounders in 2009. Last spring, Derek Forbort, Nick Bjugstad and Brock Nelson all went in the first round.
This week the Wild will be the host of the 2011 draft at Xcel Energy Center. Interestingly, this is one year where Minnesota players aren't expected to make a big impact.
Call it the exception to the rule.
"In Minnesota it's been a marvelous ascension,'' Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said.
Burke, who graduated from Edina High School, said the state is in the middle of a big up cycle.
"Regions tend to ebb and flow with talent," he said. "But Minnesota? There was a time when many teams were discussing going to part-time scouts in Minnesota. Now everyone is moving back in, full-time."
Why? There are as many theories as there are ways to get to the top. There is huge participation at the youth level. Once talent is identified, there are many ways to develop it -- private facilities, summer leagues and, for older players, elite leagues in the fall. It's a year-round preoccupation. The result is that the best players are developing more quickly and more completely.
"Kids have a lot more options now," Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "If you talked to a kid in high school 10 years ago, their goal was probably to play for the Gophers. That's still probably the case in a lot of situations today. But, for many, the goal is to play in the NHL, and those players are looking for the best avenue to get there."
The Shattuck path
For Zach Parise, the decision was easy.
Parise is a high-scoring left winger for the New Jersey Devils. Years ago he was a Bloomington kid about to move to Shattuck-St. Mary's along with his father -- former North Stars standout J.P. Parise -- who had just been hired by the school.
"We thought it was better, hockey-wise," said Parise, who took advantage of the nationally recognized program to develop into the 17th overall draft pick in 2003. "You played more games, you played against better competition. If I had stayed [in high school], I only would have played 25 or 30 games in a season. Think about it. Competing with guys playing major junior, getting in 65-70 games a year? I would have been a step behind. There is no way I would have been as well-prepared."
One of the biggest changes in Minnesota hockey is the amount of hockey being played. And it starts young. At its entry levels, Minnesota youth hockey is very inclusive. In most states youth hockey is club-based, but in Minnesota it is mostly community-based. Club hockey is set up to cull lower-level players at a young age. Here there usually are both "A" and "B" teams. That means players have more time to develop.
But once that talent is identified? Watch out. Options emerge at a young age. There are AAA summer teams such as the Minnesota Blades and the Minnesota Machine. There are private training programs such as FHIT (Flex Hockey Institute of Training) in Mendota Heights. Or Bernie McBain's Minnesota Made programin Edina.
As players get older, options for even top-end high school players flourish. They can play in an invitation-only elite league that runs in the fall before the high school season.
"In the past, Minnesota players never played as many games," said Ben Hankinson, an Edina native who played for the Gophers and, briefly, in the NHL. He is now a player agent. "Good or bad, hockey has become a year-around sport. Kids are getting a ton of ice time, it's very competitive."
Ben's brother, Casey, who also made it to the NHL, scouts Minnesota for Anaheim.
"Here is the story," Casey said. "It used to be the high school season started in December. For 90 percent of the players, it ended March 1. Three months. Now it's way beyond that. You have summer leagues, the Elite league. Kids are just on the ice more."
Going the NTDP route
It was a decision Erik Johnson had to make.
Today, Johnson, the first-overall pick in the 2006 draft, is a defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche. But when he was 16, he had to make a tough choice.
"I was a kid who needed more of a structured environment, " Johnson said. "I kind of had to make a mature decision at an immature time of my life."
Johnson started out at Holy Angels but decided to move to Michigan to play for the National Team Development Program for the immersion in the sport the program allowed. "Sometimes that can be too much," he said. "For some kids, they can burn out. It was what I needed."
Johnson, Gardiner and Parise are three examples of young men who took different amateur paths to the pros. What has made Minnesota such a robust area for top talent? Burke believes the Wild bringing the NHL back to the state gave kids something to shoot for. Everyone agrees that increased ice time and year-round training has helped.
"Look at the way kids train now, and the quality of the coaching," Flahr said. "It's impressive how organized it is."
The fruits of that labor can be seen everywhere. Some athletes have chosen not to compete in high school, but things such as the elite league and the success of youth hockey has kept the talent crop in the state strong.
"Talk to any scout that comes to Minnesota and they'll tell you they are shocked at the enthusiasm here," Casey Hankinson said.
But nobody should be shocked by the results.