Senior Kyle Kukkonen is a key reason Maple Grove started the season with seven victories and holds the No. 1 ranking in Class 2A. Photos by Loren Nelson, SportsEngine.com
Kyle Kukkonen entered the Maple Grove locker room after a crushing quarterfinal loss in the Class 2A boys’ hockey state tournament in no mood to commiserate with teammates.
“He told us, ‘We’re all staying and we’re going to come back and win this thing next year,’ ” goaltender Jack Wieneke said.
In past seasons, Kukkonen’s words might have rung hollow. Maple Grove has reached three state tournaments in the past nine seasons, results disproportionate to the ample talent in the youth ranks. Repeated early departures of top players have slowed the Crimson’s maturation into an annual state power.
But Maple Grove’s roster returned intact this season. The Crimson’s 7-0 record to start this week and its No. 1 ranking in the Let’s Play Hockey poll give credence to Kukkonen’s projections.
“I just knew we had a special group and I had to let them know that we were going to stick around and do something special for ourselves and the community,” said Kukkonen, a senior center on the top line who missed much of his junior season with an injury.
The community is taking notice, albeit in new ways during a pandemic. Indoor attendance has been capped at 150 people by the Minnesota Department of Health. So fans are going virtual. Kukkonen said the Feb. 4 home game against then-No. 10 ranked Andover drew a “record-breaking number” of livestreams provided by the Crimson Sports Network. The platform is funded and produced by various Maple Grove sports booster clubs.
“Our success this season does help sell keeping our kids in our program,” said coach Todd Bergland, a native of Thief River Falls. “When I was growing up, you wanted to be a Prowler. We’re trying to get our kids in the youth program feeling the same way about being a Crimson.”
Ranked No. 2 in the first two weeks of Let’s Play Hockey polls, Maple Grove ascended to No. 1 on Jan. 27 and has remained there, turning back its strongest challenges to date.
A 5-1 victory against Andover on Feb. 4 featured two goals each from top-line senior wings Chris Kernan and Sam Jacobs. Two days later, in an 8-2 thrashing of Blaine, eight players scored as Maple Grove outshot the Bengals 66-14.
Goaltender Jack Wieneke began the season as a contender for the Frank Brimsek Award.
Bergland harps on “movin’ and move,” Jacobs said, which means skating with purpose and passing the puck. Speed and skill throughout the Crimson lineup has translated into outscoring its first seven opponents by a 58-13 margin and an equally gaudy 8.3 goals per game.
Behind the big numbers, however, are players aware of the playoff grind ahead, when momentum can turn on every shift.
“Being number one is pretty cool but it also doesn’t matter until you get to the state tournament — and not even then,” Kernan said. “We take a step back after we win games to look at where we turned the puck over and what we need to tighten up.”
Kukkonen held up the defensive-minded forward line of Ian Barbour, Grant Zick and Matthew Gruss as an example of the team’s commitment to disciplined play.
“They do the little things well for us,” Kukkonen said.
Defensively, the quartet of Ethan Elias, Jacob Hicks, Henry Nelson and Cal Thomas each have three seasons of varsity experience. Wieneke began the season as a senior goalie to watch for the Frank Brimsek Award.
Kukkonen, who has committed to Michigan Tech, and Thomas (Vermont) both declined options to leave after last season. Bergland said he believes “scouts will find the players who have the skills” and said the Andover game drew 15 National Hockey League scouts.
“I have commended all of our high-end seniors for staying,” Bergland said. “They’ve made a statement for high school hockey. We’ve got a good thing going right now and I’m excited for our future.”