EDEN PRAIRIE -- A total of nine banners, seven of them red, hang from the ceiling above the visitor's bench at the Eden Prairie Civic Center's Rink 1. They serve to chronicle each of the Eden Prairie boys varsity team's trips to the state tournament. The outliers, primarily black in color, represent the Eagles' 2009 and 2011 Class 2A state championships.
Eden Prairie senior forward Casey Mittelstadt will not rest until a third black banner is raised.
"You see guys come through here who have won it like (Nick) Leddy and (Kyle) Rau and, obviously, it would be pretty special to throw a banner up there," said Mittelstadt, the leading candidate for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey award. "We came up short last year and my sophomore year, so it would be a dream come true."
Mittelstadt, a projected first-round NHL draft pick, is a man on a mission after spurning opportunities to forgo his senior season at Eden Prairie to play full-time with the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers or enroll early at the University of Minnesota, a place he's dreamed of playing since he was a young boy wearing his cherished Gopher jersey.
"I think the decision to stay in high school or go to the 'U' or play in Green Bay was a tough one for him," said Tom Mittelstadt, Casey's father. "I think maybe just calling (Minnesota coach Don) Lucia and saying, 'Hey, I'm not coming' might have been what was so difficult for him."
But after coming up short at the state tournament the past two years, his desire to chase the state title that has, so far, eluded him and his childhood friends was too much for those offers to overcome.
"They're the reason you fell in love with the game in the first place," Mittelstadt said of his teammates. "I've got the earliest memories of playing hockey with them, and I think once you figure that out, it's a pretty easy decision."
Eden Prairie senior defenseman Nicky Leivermann, a close friend of Mittelstadt's growing up, said the decision was respectful of his teammates and demonstrated maturity.
"It was unbelievable hearing he was coming back and playing with the guys he grew up with," Leivermann said.
Moments after his team's thrilling but disappointing 5-3 loss to Wayzata in the Minnesota Class 2A boys high school state championship game last March, Mittelstadt sat among his stunned, teary-eyed teammates contemplating his future.
Mittelstadt's final 12 points of an 80-point 2015-16 season were good enough to lead the state tournament in scoring and help the top-seeded Eagles to the title game. Already a top prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft, Mittelstadt had a spot waiting for him in Green Bay.
But right there in that somber locker room, Mittelstadt notified his teammates of his intention to return for his senior season and join them in their quest for a state championship.
"At that time, we thought maybe he was just saying that because his feelings were hurt over the game," Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. "But he owned up to his word and he came back because he wanted to be an Eagle and wanted to help his team do something special."
After two months consulting with friends, his coach and his parents, Tom and Dede, Mittelstadt made his decision public in May.
"My parents were really good about it," Mittelstadt said. "They just let it be up to me and if I asked them for any kind of advice they'd give it to me."
Mittelstadt began the season in Green Bay, playing 16 games before returning to Eden Prairie despite leading the USHL in scoring with 21 points (eight goals and 13 assists). Not even those gaudy numbers were enough to alter his plans at the last minute.
"He's just so loyal to his teammates and I think that he truly feels that there is unfinished business," Smith said.
Some would argue Mittelstadt is stunting his development and, in turn, risking his draft position by not making the jump to a higher level. He isn't at all concerned about it and neither is Boston Bruins scout Mike McGraw who fully endorses Mittelstadt's decision.
"I think it shows a commitment to the kids and the program that helped develop him," McGraw said. "He comes from a great family, he's playing for a great program and I don't hear any negative things about him. He's going to be a first-round pick and he may go a lot higher than what people are giving him credit for right now.
"So coming back [to Eden Prairie] I don't think is a detriment at all to him."
Mittelstadt's return affords him the added bonus of joining his teammates in a battle of high school hockey Goliaths when the Eagles take on Stillwater in one of the featured match-ups of the annual Hockey Day Minnesota celebration Jan. 21 at Stillwater's Lowell Park.
Mittelstadt and Leivermann are both eager to lace up their skates outside near the St. Croix River.
"You grow up watching the entire Hockey Day, I guess, when you're young so it'll definitely be cool to be a part of it," Mittelstadt said. "I've never played an actual real game outside so it should definitely be fun; I'm looking forward to it."
"We both have had outdoor rinks our whole life, and we've been skating together on them since we were probably squirts," Leivermann said. "So getting to do it one last time as a high schooler, especially with him being there, it's gonna be one of the greatest memories I'll probably ever have."
Mittelstadt is intent, however, on making sure outdoor hockey isn't even Leivermann's greatest memory of the season's final two months before he makes his return to Green Bay.
But with Minnetonka and Holy Family Catholic in Eden Prairie's path in section 2AA, even reaching the state tournament is far from a given. But even if the Eagles fall short of their goal, Mittelstadt says he won't have any regrets.
"I can't imagine being anywhere else right now."