ST. PAUL -- The Wild will be out of town this weekend as the Minnesota State High School League Boys Hockey Tournament kicks into high gear at Xcel Energy Center.
But the tournament itself certainly won't be far from the minds of many on the team, specifically some of the Minnesota natives who grew up watching and taking part in the pageantry.
"It's disappointing being gone this weekend. It's one of my favorite weekends of the year," said Wild forward Matt Cullen, who played in the event with Moorhead at the old St. Paul Civic Center (before Xcel Energy Center even existed). "We'll be watching though. It's such a fun thing."
A three-time Stanley Cup champion and veteran of more than 1,550 NHL games (including playoffs), Cullen still cites his participation in the state tournament as one of the highlights of his hockey career.
"I'll never forget it," Cullen said. "Playing in it was unbelievable. It was such a unique experience. It's one of those things you never forget and you treasure it."
As a kid, Cullen used to travel to the Cities from Moorhead with his father Terry Cullen. The trip down was an annual affair, as it is for so many children and parents now.
His own sons haven't experienced their first tournaments, but will this weekend, even with dad on the road.
Whenever Cullen retires from the game as a player, he said, he and his family will retreat back to Moorhead full-time. But a yearly jaunt to St. Paul for this weekend in particular will become a regular thing. It's something Cullen said he's already looking forward to.
"I really do, I plan on coming down every year," Cullen said. "I remember coming down to the state tournament with my dad and walking around with my brothers and thinking what a wonderful experience it is and how cool it would be to play in it someday. And to ultimately get to play in it, it was awesome."
Nate Prosser, a native of Elk River, remembers similar memories. The Elks won the state championship when Prosser was a bantam player, a memory that helped fuel his own dreams of one day playing in the tournament.
Current San Jose Sharks defenseman Paul Martin was one of the key members of that team, and provided Prosser with someone to look up to.
He also remembers watching former NHLer and Elk River native Dan Hinote play in the tournament when he was even younger.
"It's always a fun time of year," Prosser said. "It's usually about the time of year when the weather starts getting warmer, and getting a little nicer. Driving in [for practice on Wednesday], and you see all the busses filled with students in downtown St. Paul ... that's a fun thing to see. It just brings back so many memories for me."
After watching Elk River win state as a young teen, Prosser reached the state tournament as a sophomore.
"Every level that you get to, you create a new bond with your teammates," Prosser said. "High school was that bond where we were able to make the state tournament, but we did it as a community and as a team. It was a great time, and I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys. It's one of those memories I'll have forever."
Wild goaltender Alex Stalock backstopped South St. Paul to the tournament in 2004, earning All-Tournament team honors and helping the Packers to a fourth-place finish.
As he dressed in the Wild locker room before boarding a bus to TRIA Rink for practice on Wednesday, Stalock watched as players from Mahtomedi and Mankato East arrived at the arena in awe.
"It's so exciting to see those kids walk in. They're so pumped up. That's what you work your whole youth hockey career for, is to get a chance," Stalock said. "I was thinking, couldn't believe it's been 14 years since I played in it; it's amazing its been that long."
Stalock said he had the same feeling of deja vu as he saw the school busses loaded with fans around the arena Wednesday.
"It's really cool. A lot of students that never really came out to watch the normal games, they come out and watch the state tournament. All of the sudden, you've got a full house," Stalock said. "It's an exciting time. I got to play with my brother and with all of my buddies in high school. I think those are the things you remember most about it."