Penguins prospect Clayton Phillips grew up in Edina, Minnesota, playing youth and high school hockey at Braemar Arena in his hometown.
This summer, he's sharing that same ice surface with over 60 players from the NHL and AHL, including fellow Penguins Jake Guentzel and Teddy Blueger, as part of Da Beauty League.
"It's really cool," Phillips said. "You're a small fish in a big pond out here with all these really good hockey players. It's a blast, though."
Da Beauty League was established in the summer of 2016 in an effort to bring pro hockey to Minnesota on a year-round basis. Octagon Hockey, an agency based in Minnesota, played a big part in starting the league. They represent both Guentzel and Blueger and approached them about participating that first year. The guys thought it was a cool idea, and it's turned out to be quite the unique experience.
The league's goal is to combine all the skills of pro hockey with the intense and friendly rivalry of a pickup game, and they achieve that balance perfectly. The most important rules are "Have Fun!" and "No room for Non-Beauties," which pretty much sums it up.
The rink gets filled with fans looking to watch some high-end talent, and the games are played 4-on-4 with two 23-minute halves. All rules of hockey apply, sans hitting, and players are encouraged to move their feet, move the puck and light the lamp.
"I got asked to do it the first year they did it. Obviously, I jumped all over it," Blueger said. "Nobody knew what it was going to be like and it turned out great. The games are decently high-paced and a lot of fun. It's fun getting to play with a lot of the NHL guys and stuff and getting to know them."
Blueger, who moved to Minnesota from Latvia at 14 years old to play high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Marys and college hockey at Minnesota State-Mankato, admitted that sharing a locker room with players from other teams was weird at first, but that feeling quickly wore off.
"Most of the NHL guys know each other and have played with each other, especially because they're all from here so they skate with each other in the summers and stuff," he said.
"This is my third summer training up here, so I've skated with a lot of these guys and played with and against a lot of the guys too, even in high school. You get to know each other quick. For the most part, the core group of guys has been the same over the years. It's a lot of fun."
This summer, all three Penguins are on separate teams. When we came to watch on Wednesday, Phillips' Team Tria played at 5:30 p.m., Blueger's Team Walser played at 6:45 p.m. and Guentzel's Team Tradition played at 8 p.m.
Guentzel has been friends with Blueger for a while now, as they were teammates and roommates for about three months down in WBS during the 2015-16 season, and the Woodbury native has made some new friends as well. He and Brock Nelson, a forward for the New York Islanders, requested to be on the same team again this year after playing together last year.
"We saw the teams this year and we both vetoed them, trying to be on the same team, so it was good," Guentzel said with a laugh.
There were plenty of recognizable names on the rosters, with Zach Parise, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Anders Lee all playing on Wednesday. Brock Boeser even had a camera crew from Hockey Night in Canada following him around.
But the player who may have gotten the fans most excited was Guentzel, who gave the fans plenty to cheer about as he scored a hat trick in his team's 11-7 setback.
As he got off the ice, Guentzel stopped to sign for young fans crowded around the Zamboni gate screeching "JAKE! JAKE!" Those cries followed him as he left the building, again stopping to sign for the kids gathered around as he walked to his car in the parking lot.
"I'm not really used to it, to kind of see that and to hear little kids scream your name," Guentzel said. "Definitely a little adjustment period, but definitely cool to see knowing that you're maybe a kid's favorite player."
Guentzel, Blueger and Phillips are using this league as an opportunity to get ready for the upcoming season. Phillips will be returning to the University of Minnesota, where he's currently living on campus, while Blueger and Guentzel will be reporting to Penguins training camp in September.
"It's good preparation for the season," said Blueger, who's been focusing on building up strength, working on his shot and continuing to get better and faster. "Most of the stuff you do in the summer is skills or skating, you're not really in game situations. But here you have rushes and stuff like that. It's good to work on that and just have a lot of fun."
"It's just kind of a fun thing to do," agreed Guentzel. "Starting to skate more and more now, so this is a good time to get on the ice and obviously you get a little competition in the summer and that's always good. You're itching to get back for the season, so it's good to get out here."