Eden Prairie boasts a team beaming with star power. Players such as John and Luke Mittelstadt, younger brothers of Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Mittlestadt, have the instant name recognition. They are committed to play at the University of Minnesota, just as big brother Casey did.
Senior Jack Jensen, a Mr. Hockey finalist, is also headed to Minnesota. Sophomore Carter Batchelder has committed to Colorado College.
Then there’s Garrett Smith. A third-line winger with four goals and 19 assists. Smith, the son of longtime Eagles coach Lee Smith, already has had a remarkable career considering the mountains he’s been forced to climb.
Garrett Smith underwent brain surgery when he was 2 years old. There were no guarantees he’d reach age 3.
“When I had that tumor, my parents didn’t know for sure if I was going to make it,” Smith said last winter after scoring his first varsity goal, an overtime winner against Hermantown. “They didn’t know if it was cancerous or not.”
The year the tumor was removed, Smith broke his leg. He broke the same leg twice more, when he was 4, and then again at age 14. He didn’t crack the Eagles varsity lineup until he was a junior. Now he’s playing an under-the-radar role for a team hoping to win its third state Class 2A championship.
Smith scored two of his goals midway through the season in a 4-3 loss to Blake. He assisted on Jensen’s opening goal in the Eagles’ 3-1 section championship victory over Holy Family.
“I feel good for him because he has had to overcome a lot to become a player on a high school team,” Lee Smith said last winter.
Any discussion about White Bear Lake and the state tournament has to address the elephant in the Bears’ locker room.
Heading into Wednesday’s morning Class 2A quarterfinal against Blaine, White Bear Lake had appeared in 18 state tournament quarterfinals. The Bears’ record in those games? Zero and 18.
The next longest run of quarterfinal futility is believed to belong to New Ulm. The Eagles’ 6-0 loss to Mahtomedi in Wednesday’s Class 1A quarterfinals was their sixth opening-round loss in as many tries.
Blaine junior forward Carsen Richels hears about it often at home, how his father has a goal in the state tournament but he does not.
Al Richels was a senior forward on the Bengals’ first state tournament team in 1992. He notched two assists in a quarterfinal victory and tallied the goal oh-so-important to bragging rights in a semifinal loss.
“He always holds that over me,” Carsen said with a smile.
The son has a chance to draw even Thursday as he skates in his first state tournament. Richels, a talented 6-2, 200-pound wing, has 39 goals and 38 assists this season. Overshadowed at time by center Bryce Brodzinski, a Mr. Hockey Award finalist, Richels is a major part of No. 2-seed Blaine’s success.
Welcome back, Janne
First-year Lakeville South coach Janne Kivihalme earned a great deal of respect from his peers by coaxing a state tournament appearance out of an unheralded roster.
Kivihalme brought Burnsville to state in 2007 and 2016 and might have made more trips had the Blaze not been in a section for years with Edina.
Patience was paramount for gettin the Cougars to this tournament. Kivihalme’s roster included inexperienced seniors and eight sophomores.
“It took a while to understand what was required to get consistency in our game,” Kivihalme said. “Past teams I had usually got there in January. This team took a little longer.”
Kivihalme emphasized defense, figuring a team that’s hard to score on is hard to beat.
“Defensive structure is our backbone,” he said.
And here are the Cougars (14-12-1), a sub-.500 team before the postseason began, making a surprise run reminiscent of the football team’s run to the Class 6A semifinals last fall. Two players, Cade Ahrenholz and Jacob Malinski, got to experience both journeys.