Once is an anomaly. Twice might be signaling a trend.
Earlier this year, former Eden Prairie and Hamline standout defenseman Chris Berenguer became the second straight Minnesota high school hockey product – and second consecutive MIAC player -- to win the Sid Watson Trophy as Division III national player of the year.
Two years ago, Gustavus Adolphus’ David Martinson (St. Louis Park) took home the award. Like Berenguer, Martinson also played through his senior season of high school before moving up the ladder.
“It was kind of out of the blue,” admitted Berenguer, who was playing with the Trenton Devils (ECHL) when he got a call that he had been nominated for the award. Six hours later, he got another call telling him he’d won it.
His coach at Hamline, Scott Bell, was less surprised. In the school’s press release announcing the award, Bell gushed, “Chris Berenguer is the best player to ever put on the Hamline University sweater and he is without question one of the best to ever play in the MIAC. He scores as well as any defenseman in college hockey, to be sure — his 32 points rank him third nationally and his 13 goals are second nationally among defensemen — but more importantly, he scores the big goals.
"None of his scoring prowess takes away from his play as a defensive defenseman. He is a rock in front of the net, and lugs the puck up the ice consistently and steadily.”
Those traits were all on display at Eden Prairie High School, where the athletic Berenguer starred for three years.
The son of former Minnesota Twins’ fan favorite Juan “Senor Smoke” Berenguer earned All-Conference honors in both of his final two seasons, including All-State honorable mention as a senior. He was also, not surprisingly, a centerfielder and pitcher for the Eagles through his sophomore season before focusing on hockey.
“I think my strengths were that I was pretty good defensively and very good transitioning between the offensive and defensive game,” said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Berenguer. “I was able to make plays when they were there. Overall very steady.”
In his junior year of 2002-03, Berenguer and players such as Chad Rau, Ryan Hawkins, Nick Peters and Dave Watters helped the Eagles reached the semifinals of the state Class 2A tournament before falling to Roseville. It was also at that time that Berenguer began to attract interest from junior programs. But he wasn’t interested in leaving school early.
“I kind of felt that it was better to stay back and finish up with my friends that I’d had since I was seven or eight years old,” Berenguer said. “The state tournament was amazing. I’ll always have those memories of being with all those guys at state.”
While Eden Prairie didn’t get back to state in Berenguer’s senior season, losing in an upset to Minnetonka in the Section 6AA quarterfinals, Berenguer doesn’t have any regrets.
“I don’t think I’d ever change it,” said Berenguer. “You’re only in high school once and those are friends that you’ll have the rest of your life. I could never have moved on early. I preferred the route I took.”
That route included taking his time at each stop, developing his game further before moving on to the next level. It’s a trip that’s taken him to the cusp of the NHL.
After graduating from Eden Prairie, Berenguer played with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede and earned an All-Star berth in 2005-06. Recruited by numerous schools, including Hamline, he committed to D1 Northern Michigan. But his hockey career hit a snag when his enrollment was held up by the NCAA Clearinghouse process. Berenguer patiently waited for his chance to shine in college, playing “rink rat” hockey back in Eden Prairie.
Bell didn’t give up, continuing to call Berenguer and encourage him to become a Piper. Bell’s persistence paid off midway through the 2007-08 season when Berenguer enrolled at Hamline.
“We were excited to get him,” Bell said.
But Berenguer’s first college game almost finished his hockey career.
“It felt like I hadn’t skated in four years,” laughed Berenguer. “I got hit every which way. I thought I was going to quit right there.”
Instead, he blossomed into the best player in Division III. In an abbreviated freshman season, Berenguer scored 16 points in 18 games and earned a spot on the MIAC All-Rookie team. He followed it up with three straight first-team All-American seasons as a sophomore (14-25--39), junior (6-22--28) and senior (13-20--33). In each of his final two seasons he was named the MIAC player of the year.
The New Jersey Devils’ organization took note, signing him to a contract and sending him to Trenton to end the winter. In eight games with the Devils, Berenguer registered six assists.
Now just 25 years old, Berenguer is one short step away from the NHL, despite following the mode of slow and steady development. When he was ready, Berenguer advanced – and excelled.
“You can always individually work on things before and after practice,” Berenguer said of a steady development model. “The thing you’ll get most from being there is being with all the guys you grew up with. You’ll know them the rest of your life. They’re almost like family.”