BUFFALO – For years, it was a family tradition. Dede and Tom Mittelstadt would take their son, Casey, out of school in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, so they could drive to St. Paul and watch the state high school hockey tournament.
For those unfamiliar with high school hockey’s wild popularity in Minnesota, the best comparison would probably be football in Texas. Almost 20,000 fans pack the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild, to see a champion crowned.
“It’s pretty much a holiday down there,” said Casey Mittelstadt, a high-scoring center expected to be an early first-round pick at the NHL Draft on June 23 in Chicago.
Mittelstadt, 18, wanted to celebrate that “holiday” and win a state championship so badly he passed up a full season in the junior United States Hockey League. Instead, he started the 2016-17 campaign with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, returned home in early November to play his senior season at Eden Prairie High School and then went back to the Gamblers.
The move, of course, was unusual for a top NHL prospect. Some people probably thought he made the wrong decision. His parents, however, let him choose his own path.
“It’s pretty hard to explain to someone who’s not from Minnesota,” Mittelstadt said Friday at a media event during the NHL Scouting Combine. “But I think the main reasons are I’ve had the same teammates since I was 4 or 5 years old. We’ve all been playing together for a long time.”
Ultimately, Eden Prairie fell short, finishing third in the state tournament. Still, Mittelstadt doesn’t regret his decision.
“It was a last great year with all my buddies,” said Mittelstadt, who plans to attend the University of Minnesota next season.
Mittelstadt’s superb season only boosted his draft stock. Thanks to scoring 21 goals and 64 points in 25 games, he earned Mr. Hockey honors as Minnesota’s top senior. He was also voted the United States’ top high school hockey player for the second straight season.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Mittelstadt also thrived in the USHL, compiling 13 goals and 30 points in 27 contests.
“Puck skills, his ability to make a play in small areas, being able to shoot in awkward areas, is just so elite,” Green Bay coach Pat Mikesch said about Mittelstadt’s talents.
Mikesch let Mittelstadt leave and return because he was totally committed during his time with the Gamblers.
“That was biggest I talked about, like you can’t be half in,” Mikesch said. “If you’re going to be here, you are like everyone else while you (are here), and right from the start he was.”
Mittelstadt said he has spoken to 15 teams at the combine, including the Sabres, who have the eighth overall pick. He finished third in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings of North American skaters, up two spots from the midterm list.
Mittelstadt hasn’t been a huge prospect for years. In fact, he was cut from an under-16 team.
“He was a pudgy-faced, shorter kid,” said Mikesch, who knew him then. “He was undersized for that age.”
But Mittelstadt grew about five inches in a short time.
“Looking back at time, it probably felt like the end of the world,” he said of not making the team. “But I think right now, I’m sitting here. I think it helped me a lot in the long run.”
Naturally, getting cut also motivated Mittelstadt, who Mikesch said is a “hockey geek.”
“He’s consumed by it, like in all the little things,” Mikesch said. “Like the amount of time he spends doing extra stickhandling and shooting and everything like that. He wants to learn as much as he can, day in and day out. He’s a real student of the game.”