To borrow a line from Hunter S. Thompson, the Minnesota State High School hockey tournament is like the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby final all wrapped up in one. I love this tournament. In terms of pure amateur athletics, it's a great scene where players from around the hockey-mad state go for glory while playing with their childhood best friends one last time.
Every year, we see NHL prospects at the boy's tournament and some of these players easily could have stayed in the USHL all year long, playing tougher competition. But the allure of a Minnesota State title draws them all back in the middle of the campaign and the single-elimination format of the tournament makes it a nail-biter every time.
This year's tournament will be especially chaotic because the regular season was different: teams played as close to home as possible, so there weren't a lot of typical "big games" between powerhouses from different regions. That meant there were a lot of blowouts during the year, but it also makes things difficult to handicap now.
The tourney is broken up into two classes, one for small schools, the other for bigger institutions. Needless to say, most of the NHL talent plays in the big school bracket, but not all. Having said that, small-school favorite Hermantown has already been eliminated after Covid protocols forced the Hawks to dress a team mainly composed of junior varsity players. Also, Hill-Murray has withdrawn from the big school tourney due to Covid. With that in mind, here are some of the key players to watch this year in the big bracket.
Jackson Hallum, C, St. Thomas Academy: The Fastest Kid in the State (not trademarked, but it probably should be), Hallum is a Vegas Golden Knights pick who went in the third round of the 2020 draft. He's a University of Michigan commit who played some of this season in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers, where he threw up a hat trick in his first game. Back in Minnesota, he led the Cadets in scoring.
Jackson Blake, RW, Eden Prairie: High school hockey has been very fun for Blake this year, as the 2021 draft prospect has really gotten a nice canvas for his skill and creativity. A North Dakota commit and the son of former NHLer Jason Blake, the right winger also played for the USHL's Chicago Steel this season. He put up monster points for the Eagles and while small, Blake is feisty.
Luke Mittelstadt, D, Eden Prairie: Casey's kid brother makes a lot happen for the Eagles, leading the Eden Prairie defense with 30 points in 21 games. A University of Minnesota commit and 2021 draft prospect, Mittelstadt has great hockey sense and plays good defense in his own zone. He also played for USHL Lincoln this year.
Mason Langenbrunner, D, Eden Prairie: Another big name on the Eagles, Langenbrunner is a Boston Bruins pick, going in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. Jamie's son has great size and a smooth stride, helping the Harvard commit make an impact at both ends of the ice. He also played for USHL Sioux Falls this season.
Kyle Kukkonen, C, Maple Grove: He's not big and he's not fast but boy, can Kukkonen own the offensive zone. A Michigan Tech commit and 2021 draft prospect, Kukkoken has great hockey sense and a wicked shot, which helped him put up a gaudy 72 points in 21 games for the Crimson. He also spent time in the NAHL with Minot and had some great games for the Minotauros.
Henry Nelson, D, Maple Grove: The second of the Crimson's big names, Nelson is a Notre Dame commit and another 2021 draft prospect. The kid can skate, he can shoot and he has smarts with the puck on his stick. He put up two points a game for Maple Grove, leading the team's 'D' in scoring.
Cade Ahrenholtz, RW, Lakeville South: A big-bodied kid who can really impose his will at the high school level, Ahrenholz is a Colorado College commit who will likely draw interest in the latter rounds of the 2021 draft. He's part of a massive top line for the Cougars with Cam Boche and Tanner Ludtke.