Thirty-five years ago the Sabres spent one of their three first-round picks in the 1982 NHL Draft on a defenseman out of South St. Paul high school in Minnesota. The kid was Phil Housley, and the move paid off. Housley went on to a Hall of Fame career and returned to Buffalo as its new coach last week.
Now nearly four decades later, the lure of high school hockey remains strong for prospects hailing from the state of Minnesota. Just ask Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Samberg, two of the prospects in this year's draft who both delayed their junior careers to take runs at state championships.
Mittelstadt, a center who ranks third amongst North American skaters according to NHL Central Scouting Services (he also checked in at No. 3 on Kris Baker's list), split time between his team at Eden Prairie High and his USHL club in Green Bay. It sounds like a lot, but if you're wondering why he made the choice to take another stab at states, take it from Mittelstadt himself.
"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 Minny, 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.
"Every time the state tournament comes around, it pretty much ends up being a holiday. I know I probably haven't been to school those days probably for the past 10 years."
Mittelstadt scored 64 points (21+43) in 25 games for Eden Prairie and earned the Mr. Hockey Award as the state's best player, but his team was upset in the semifinal round of the state tournament. He responded with six points in three games during his first week back in Green Bay.
Samberg, a defenseman who ranks 67th among North American prospects, recalled making annual trip to the state championships from his hometown of Hermantown, Minn. since he was in middle school. The tournament is played at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"You'd go down there watching and you're just hoping one day that you get that opportunity to play there," Samberg said.
The defenseman got his wish and more. Not only did he win back-to-back class A titles with Hermantown High, he scored the tournament-winning goal in double overtime of the championship game.
Afterward, Samberg joined the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL for their final six regular-season games and then scored three points (1+2) during an eight-game playoff run.
Regardless of where Mittelstadt and Samberg are drafted, their time in Minnesota won't end just yet. Mittelstadt is committed to the University of Minnesota for next season, while Samberg will play his college hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth.