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Minnesotans Lead the Way to Europe

By Brian Halverson, 07/23/09, 11:14AM CDT


Five MN high school players heading to Slovakia with U.S. Under-18 Selects

USA Hockey announced the final roster for its 2009 U.S. Under-18 Select Team on July 22 and nearly a quarter of them hail from the state of Minnesota. The team is slated to compete at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka Memorial in Piestany, Slovakia from Aug. 11-15.

The annual tournament – named for the late Czech coaching legend who succeeded Herb Brooks as Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000 – will include teams from Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland in addition to the United States. 

Of the 21 players drawn from USA Hockey’s Boys’ Select 17 Player Development Camp – held July 7-13 in Rochester, NY – all five Minnesotans chosen were plucked from the state’s high school hockey ranks, including three repeat selections.

Mike MacMillan—the Executive Director of the Minnesota High School Hockey Coaches Association—was not surprised.

“We historically—over the last 10 years—have put anywhere from four to seven players on the Under-18 or Under-17 teams respectively out of the summer festivals,” said MacMillan. “I think it speaks well to the development that they’ve received in high school hockey and the opportunities they’re given when they stay home.”

In fact, a quick perusal of the team’s roster reveals that only eight players total competed for academic institution-affiliated teams in 2008/2009. Click HERE to view the team roster and schedule.

The trio consisting of defenseman Ben Marshall (Mahtomedi), who’s seven points (4 goals, 3 assists) led all defensemen at the Select 17 Player Development Camp, and forwards Nick Bjugstad (Blaine) and Christian Isackson (St. Thomas Academy) return to the tournament for the second consecutive summer.

Add Eden Prairie forward Kyle Rau and goaltender Zane Gothberg of Thief River Falls to the mix and Minnesota's quintet leads the nation with Michigan’s three-player contingent coming in second. Minnesota’s view from the top of this list is a familiar one.

According to MacMillan—who also serves as the boys’ varsity hockey coach at Buffalo High School—Minnesota is “usually the number one state” in regard to placement of high school players on USA Hockey’s elite high-school-aged teams.

MacMillan says that high school hockey’s 25-game schedule and unlimited scrimmages contribute to that success rate. But he feels the principle factor is likely the amount of practice and development time—including dryland training—which Minnesota high school players are afforded during the course of a season.

“Most high school teams are skating as much as some division III teams,” boasted MacMillan.

Each of the five players heads overseas packing impressive credentials:

  • Rau’s 45 points (24-21) in his sophomore season topped the scoring chart for an Eagles team which capped off its season with a state championship.
  • On the strength of an outstanding 20-5-2 record and sparkling 1.54 goals against average, Gothberg helped Thief River Falls reach the Class 1A, Section 8 championship game in 2009. The Prowlers, however, were the unfortunate 3-2 victim of a red hot Warroad Warriors team en route to a runner-up finish at the state tournament.
  • Marshall, who spurned an offer to play for the U.S. National Developmental Team Program a year ago, was second in scoring among all Minnesota high school defensemen last season as a sophomore with 46 points (19-47) and led the Zephyrs to a state tournament berth.
  • Behind Bjugstad’s potent point production (26-25-51), the Bengals advanced all the way to the state semifinals before falling to Rau’s Eden Prairie Eagles. Blaine rebounded the next day to defeat Cretin Derham-Hall 3-1 for third place.
  • Isackson’s 48 points (16-32) were good for top honors on the stat sheet for a high-powered Cadet squad of which much was expected and nearly all of it realized. STA’s hearts were ultimately broken with a season-ending 4-1 loss to Marshall and his Mahtomedi teammates in the Class 1A, Section 4 final.

St. Cloud State University assistant Eric Rud is the team's head coach while University of Alabama-Huntsville Head Coach Danton Cole will serve as Rud’s assistant.

After exhibition games with Canada and the Czech Republic leading up to the tournament, the U.S. faces Russia on Aug. 11 while taking on Finland and Slovakia on subsequent days to round out pool play competition. The tournament concludes with medal-round games on Aug. 15. 

Canada defeated Russia 6-3 in the final game of the 2008 Ivan Hlinka Memorial to capture their 13th gold medal in the tournament's 18-year history.

The United States has medaled nine times in the tournament, most recently in 2006 when the Americans took home their 6th silver medal. The team's lone gold medal came in 2003 when the U.S. also defeated the Russians.

Also known as the Under-18 World Cup and previously known as the Pacific Cup and the Nations Cup, the event, held annually since 1991, was named for Hlinka in 2004 following his tragic death.

Ironically, like the man he replaced in Pittsburgh, Hlinka lost his life in an automobile accident on Aug 16, 2004; exactly one year and five days after Brooks' fatal crash.