On a recent frigid January evening, Pagel arena in Minnetonka was the hottest chapel in the State of Hockey. The Minnetonka Skippers, the number one ranked boy’s hockey team in the state, squared off against Eden Prairie, the number five ranked team and the defending state champions, for an epic battle of hockey heavyweights that had the faithful whipped up in a religious fervor. Make no mistake; this wasn’t David versus Goliath, the classic biblical tale of an underdog facing down a giant. With each roster loaded with Division I talent, the match-up was Goliath on Goliath. As the chilly air was peppered with the bumpity boom-bap of the Minnetonka high school band, eager fans piled to the rafters.
Amongst the din of noise stood Nick Leddy, the former Eden Prairie star defenseman (and Minnesota Wild 2009 number one draft pick) who last season led the Eagles to their first state boy’s hockey title. Even though Leddy has moved on from Eden Prairie and now skates for the University of Minnesota, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to wade back into the frozen waters of our states religion and attend the stellar high school match-up. Leddy’s short hockey career reads like a fable: amateur star leads his high school team to a title, awarded Metro Player of the Year, granted a Division I scholarship, and drafted in the first round of the NHL draft by his beloved Wild. Besides all of those accolades, one of Leddy’s main distinguishing qualities is his belief in the virtues of Minnesota high school hockey.
“There’s just nothing like it,” Leddy said. “You got all these people coming out to watch your school. It’s such a rich tradition that’s been going on for generation after generation. It’s unlike anywhere else in the country.”
As the state draws closer to “Hockey Day in Minnesota” - a statewide celebration of puck on January 23rd that features outdoor high school games, collegiate games, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships
, and a Wild game - it is clear that Nick Leddy embodies everything the day stands for. After accomplishing the holy trinity of Minnesota hockey (state title, college scholarship, NHL draft), Leddy remains a rink rat to the core. His father was a player, his uncle was a player (who ironically was Wild coach Todd Richards defensive partner at Armstrong high school), and it is all he has dreamt
“Oh, yeah,” Leddy said, his native accent rolling into the air like steam on a cold day. “Minnesota hockey is in my blood.”
If high school hockey is the very backbone of Minnesota’s statewide religion, its beating heart is the outdoor shinny games of our youth. On the pure sheets of outdoor ice, we take our first communion with pucks. Just like thousands of Minnesotans, Nick Leddy learned the game on a homemade backyard rink that his dad built. From there, he excelled in the ranks of amateur hockey (In a rather serendipitous event, he even won a between-the-periods on-ice skill game during the Wild’s first season). Leddy was offered the opportunity of a lifetime when the United States National Development Team, a full time development program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that prepares elite American born hockey players for a future on U.S. National teams and the NHL, asked him to join the team. But his roots were so deeply embedded in his home state that he decided to remain with his high school team. In essence, Leddy turned down his country in favor of his state.
“It was a choice I made with my parents,” Leddy said. “I just really enjoyed playing with the group of [Eden Prairie] guys. The main reason I stayed was to try and play in the state tournament, and win a state title.”
When it is all said and done, after a nice collegiate career, and after hopefully a long successful NHL career, Leddy will most likely return to where it all started.
“I definitely think I’ll head back to the pond,” Leddy said, as he let out a boyish grin.
Rest assured, though, that there is a lot of hockey for Leddy to play between now and his retirement from the sport. But for one night, he had a stellar high school game to watch. He left his solitary post up on the top deck and waded back into the swelling crowd. Within seconds, he was awash in the congregation and immersed himself back in our state’s religion.