More than six hours separate Eden Prairie from Chicago by car, a voyage that Noah Deraney and Tommy Hartle had just completed as they sprinted through the concourse at United Center. Deraney and Hartle were two of seven teammates from the Eden Prairie High School varsity hockey team who had made the trip to see two fellow Eagles, Casey Mittelstadt and Nicky Leivermann, be drafted into the NHL last month.
But Chicago can be a difficult city to navigate at rush hour, a lesson the group had to learn the hard way. First, they ran into trouble finding their hotel. Once they checked in, it took four tries before they were able to find a ride.
By the time they got through the traffic and arrived at United Center, they were 10 minutes late for the 6 o'clock draft. Mittelstadt was projected to be taken anywhere in in the top 10. Surely, they hadn't come all this way to miss their teammate's (and for some, their lifelong friend's) name get called.
So, they ran.
"Once we got there we were literally sprinting in," Hartle recalled. "All the workers were trying to calm us down."
For most North American prospects, the path to pro hockey lies in one of two routes: junior hockey or the NCAA. It's rare to see a high-end prospect remain with a high school program into his draft year. When it does happen, it's often a kid from Minnesota.
Mittelstadt, in spite of outside pressures to take a more traditional path, was one such case. It was a controversial decision in NHL circles; he was putting his draft stock on the line, in a way, by opting to remain at the high school level rather than facing stiffer competition in the NCAA or USHL.
To understand his decision, though, it helps to first understand the relationship he had with the boys who were sprinting through an NHL arena just to hear his name.
Deraney's earliest memory of Mittelstadt dates back over a decade, to their first game together at the Mite level.
"He was just a beast back then, too," Deraney said. "We used to play in a small 3-on-3 rink and he would just tear it up. I can just picture him skating around those guys."
Mittelstadt's friends speak about him with a level of reverence, almost as if they still can't believe the type of competitor he is even after knowing him for most of their lives. He comes off in their stories as something of a tall tale hero.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it," Deraney explained. "You could literally be doing anything, he's going to win somehow."
Anything? Deraney lists the activities Mittelstadt's dominated over the years, from football and basketball to pickle ball and, yes, even video games (Deraney says he's never beaten Mittelstadt in EA Sports' NHL, although he did get close once in 2K basketball).
"It seems like I'm exaggerating a little bit, but I wish you could see this kid do anything with us," he says.
"He's just a pure athlete," Hartle added. "If he does something and he keeps doing it, he's just going to get really, really good at it. And that's kind of what happened with hockey."
Like many children who grow up playing hockey in Minnesota, Mittelstadt honed his skills outdoors. He was 5 when his father, Tom, saw a "Sport Court" being advertised on TV and decided his family needed one in their backyard.
The court became an unofficial practice ground for Casey's minor teams, among other uses. In the summer, the boys would use it to play basketball, pickle ball and floor hockey. In the winter, Tom would flood the court and turn it into an outdoor rink.
"He'd just go out and play," Tom Mittelstadt said. "You have no coaches. Try a stupid move, you don't have to worry about turning it over. I think it made him that much better."
Sometimes, the boys would head over to play 3-on-3 hockey, only to find that Casey had already been outside shooting and stickhandling for hours.
"He's been working so, so hard on it. It's not just like it's pure talent," Hartle said. "Obviously he has super good talent but he put in so many hours. It was so evident. We all saw him."
Together, the friends would play 3-on-3 until the neighbors signaled it was time for them to go inside.
Hartle first met Mittelstadt in fifth grade, when the two were teammates at the Squirt level. The team won the Fargo Squirt International Tournament for Eden Prairie that year, a 64-team tournament that includes top travel teams from Minnesota and throughout the United States.
It was a big deal, Hartle explains, because the Fargo Tournament was looked at as the Squirt equivalent to Minnesota's High School State Championship. It had only been a few months prior when Eden Prairie High School won that tournament for the first time, and Mittelstadt and his friends took notice.
"You see those older guys, and they're all your idols, win that, and oh my gosh," Hartle said. "Right when we saw that game, ever since then it's been a goal. Even playing the state tournament is such a big deal in Minnesota."
Mittelstadt put that goal in perspective while speaking at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo this past June.
"I think it's really hard to explain to someone who's not from there. You kind of grow up and when you're from Minney, a state championship is almost equal to a Stanley Cup," he said. "I don't think I mean that to minimize the Stanley Cup in any way, I think it just shows how much it means to the kids and to the people around."
Seven years later, the boys nearly accomplished that goal. Mittelstadt scored 59 points that season at Eden Prairie High, and the Eagles advanced to the Class 2A championship game against Wayzata. With a 3-1 lead in the second period and a five-minute power play, the title was at their fingertips.
Instead, Eden Prairie found itself on the wrong side of a memorable comeback. Wayzata scored once shorthanded, drew a penalty to negate the remainder of the Eagles' power play and then scored again to tie the score before eventually going on to win 5-3.
If the loss wasn't difficult enough, the team was facing the prospect of losing their best player in Mittelstadt. Not only could he leave to play for his USHL team, the Green Bay Gamblers, but the University of Minnesota was also requesting he leave high school to join its program a year early.
Mittelstadt had grown up attending Gophers games with his father. Saying no the program, Tom says, may have been the most difficult aspect of his son's decision. On top of that, NHL scouts and analysts would be skeptical of the decision to continue playing against high school competition (Deraney and Hartle contend that playing junior hockey was actually easier for Mittelstadt, as high school teams would sometimes revolve their entire game plan around covering him).
But the allure of the state title remained, and with that Mittelstadt made his decision. He would begin and end the season in Green Bay, but in-between, he'd play out the high school season with Eden Prairie and take one last shot at a state title.
"I think that just says so much about him, that he wanted to come back," Hartle said. "It says a lot about his competitiveness too, the fact that he wasn't satisfied with second place before. But it wasn't just about that, it was about playing with all us guys and it was just a whole lot of fun.
"I think that showed his confidence in his game too," he added. "He definitely knew what he was doing and I think he was confident with his decision. But it was definitely kind of a leap of faith for him with everyone telling him differently."
The boys never did win the state tournament; Eden Prairie entered as the top seed but was upset in the semifinal round. Mittelstadt's decision, however, worked out. He won the Mr. Hockey Award as Minnesota's top high school player and was impressive in 24 games with Green Bay, scoring 30 points. Next year, he'll still get to live out of his dream of playing for the University of Minnesota.
As for his draft status, staying in high school clearly didn't hurt that much. Which brings us back to United Center.
They cut it close, but Deraney, Hartle and their group made it to their seats up in the 300 level in time for the first selection. They'd wait seven more before Jason Botterill called Mittelstadt's name, drafting him to Buffalo with the eighth overall pick.
For Botterill, it was the first selection he'd make as an NHL general manager. For Sabres fans, it was another promising prospect added to the organization. But for the boys watching from up in the nosebleeds, it was the culmination of countless nights spent in the backyard and in high school rinks throughout Minnesota.
"When Casey's name was called, it was incredible," Deraney said. "I don't even know how to describe it. He's a life-long friend. It was unbelievable.
"We hung out with him later that night. It was just a great end to the high school career."