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Singing the praises of Fienhage

by John McGourty

Defenseman Cory Fienhage jumped up 25 spots
to No. 36 in the latest Central Scouting rankings.
Word to the wise: If you're that rare outstanding, young hockey player who also sings tenor in the school choir and you're being interviewed by an Irish guy named McGourty who asks if you can sing Danny Boy, don't do what star Minnesota high school defenseman Cory Fienhage did and tell him you don't know the words.

What's this world coming to?

Ah, but 'tis I who must abide and do the right thing by young Fienhage, ranked No. 36 – up from No. 61 at mid-term rankings in January – among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and spread the word from glen to glen and down the mountainside of his considerable skills. For it was when the valley was hushed and white with snow this past season that Fienhage stood above his peers and became a finalist for the coveted title of Mr. Hockey of Minnesota.

Fienhage credits co-coaches Bart Larson and Drey Bradley at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minn., for his improvement this season. Eastview plays a difficult schedule against historically tough teams such as Edina, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Chaska, Bloomington Jefferson and Bloomington Kennedy.

He followed an unusual path to reach his high status. Fienhage was born in Kansas, where there is relatively little organized hockey. His parents took him skating at age 4 after watching a semipro game, and Fienhage was hooked. The Fienhages later moved to Jackson, Ohio, and drove an hour to every practice and game when he played for the Athens Bobcats.

"I've always loved hockey and I believe I have the passion that every athlete needs to succeed," Fienhage said. "I can see how fast and hard everyone goes in the NHL and I'm willing to put in the work that's necessary to get there."

He moved to Apple Valley when he was in the third grade, and one of his idols growing up was Eastview's David Fischer, who just completed his sophomore season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Fienhage also tries to model his game after Chris Pronger because "he plays physical and doesn't try to do too much with the puck. He just makes the smart, easy play."

"I worked a lot with Coach Bradley, the defense coach, on making the smarter pass and quick moves to escape pressure," Fienhage said. "I learned better to recognize when there was no teammate open and then to get the puck out of the zone, up the boards. Coach Bradley worked me hard so I'd have quicker feet and he always gave me great analysis of my game. I thought our whole defense looked more experienced than we were because of our coaching."

That coaching helped Eastview reach the final of the important Schwan Cup Tournament, conducted during Christmas vacation, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the home of the Minnesota Wild. It's no small thing for a teenager to play in an NHL rink, and Fienhage loved it.

Some say an athlete has to be single-minded in his pursuit of his goal, focusing solely on hockey if he wants to make the NHL, but others argue that a well-rounded person matures more quickly and has a broader outlook. Fienhage had an opportunity to play last year in the top American junior league, the USHL, but chose to stay home and play high school hockey and football. He earned All-Conference honors in football and sang whatever songs tenors sing when they don't know the words to Danny Boy.

"The experiences you have with your friends and long-time teammates are important," Fienhage said. “You can develop the skills that are needed in Minnesota high school hockey. I wanted to play football and be with my friends one last time for my senior year. We did well during the season and bonded really well but we lost the second game of the playoffs because of unlucky bounces. We should have won. I thought we played really well.

"I love football but hockey is the best sport out there if you want to be a true team athlete. I was still able to play in the USHL because after my high-school season, I joined the Indiana Ice for 12 games."

Fienhage had a goal and two assists and was plus-5 for the Ice.

"It was great, but for the first couple of games, it was hard to get used to the speed," Fienhage admitted. "After I got the speed down, I think I played pretty well and I was able to handle the physicality pretty well. It was just a case of stepping up and handling a faster, harder level of hockey."

Fienhage said the junior league and colleges have been in contact with him for the past two years.

"Wisconsin was the first college to contact me and then Waterloo of the USHL drafted me," Fienhage said. "I also got offers from other big schools. I told Waterloo I wouldn't come for a full season so they dropped my rights and Indiana picked me up in the futures draft."

Fienhage is committed to attending the University of North Dakota in 2009, so he expects he'll go back to Indiana in the fall, unless the NHL team that drafts him directs him elsewhere. However, he's carefully watching the decisions of another standout Minnesota native now competing for the Fighting Sioux.

"If Taylor Chorney turns pro, there's a possibility I could go to North Dakota in the fall," Fienhage said. “If I don't, I'll go back to Indiana.

"I stepped into a room with coach Dave Hakstol and assistants Dane Jackson and Cary Eades and I knew right away that UND is where I wanted to be. It just felt right and I liked coach Hakstol a lot."

The Danny Boy question was the last of the interview. A friend who had been waiting and several NHL executives heard me ribbing Fienhage and joined in the laughter. Fienhage took it with grace and a wry smile. He's a confident, mature, good-natured, well-raised and well-rounded hulk (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) who, barring injury, likely will play in the NHL.

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