EAGAN – While the road to the Excel Energy Center and the 2018 Minnesota State High School Hockey tournament won’t official begin for another few months, in the state of hockey, the game is a year round affair.
The Owatonna High School boys hockey team looked to start laying the foundation for that journey roughly four weeks ago. However, Friday was a chance to step onto the ice and skate stride for stride with players not wearing blue and silver.
Led by head coach Josh Storm, the Huskies made the quick jaunt up I-35 Friday afternoon to the Eagan Civic Arena for the 2017 Summer Meltdown Tournament to face some of the state’s premier programs in a two-day, three-game tournament.
“Hockey’s not a game where you can show up in November and expect to play,” commented head coach Josh Storm. “You got to be skating a few months in the summer and get on the ice. Everyone does it and if you don’t, that’s just how you get passed. It’s very important our guys are here and they want to be here. So it’s good.”
The two-day event marks for first time that a vast majority of the Huskies’ players faced true competition as most have recently finished a rigorous spring sports’ schedule. In fact, for a select few of the varsity players in action, Friday marked the first time they may have tightened up the skates since Owatonna’s 10-2 loss to Lakeville North in the Section 1AA tournament back in January.
With a slew of veterans (Mitch Wiese, Mason Oland, Breck Henderson, Mattew DeHaan) mixed with a handful of players who were quite possibly getting their first true taste of high school hockey, Storm noted the weekend helps better service a player’s progress.
“It’s nice to be able to see a player’s progress despite the season being so far out,” he stated. “It allows us to have an idea of what’s best for their development because it’s not what’s best for the program; it’s what’s best for them.”
Games in the tournament operated on a slightly different system than what players will see in November. Rather than playing the traditional three 18-minute periods, the tournament operated with two 20-minute halves. However, stoppage in play for icing, penalties and other situations that would call for a face-off applied. There would also be no overtimes.
Facing off against Prior Lake, things started off slow for the Huskies as the Lakers were able to establish an offensive presence early and often. In fact, despite official stats not being recorded, Owatonna faced a lopsided shots on goal deficit. For some of the players seeing their first action, Storm noted that it may have been an eye-opener for them.
“They needed those older guys to kind of help them out, pat them on the rear and say, ‘you’re okay, make next shift a little better’ and they’re good at that,” he added. “You could see the confidence grow in our guys as they go here today.”
After making a kick save despite being shielded, Owatonna goaltender Zach Wiese – the younger brother of OHS upcoming senior Mitch - was unable to recover to stop a rebound, giving the Lakers a 1-0 lead seven minutes into the first half. Just minutes later, Prior Lake extended the lead to 2-0 after a Lakers’ forward made a nifty move on Wiese after receiving a nice centering pass.
From there, the young goaltender appeared to get into his zone.
Whether it was making an diving save or simply sliding from one edge of the crease to the other, it became clear that the Huskies’ depth between the pipes could be the backbone of the program for years to come.
“I thought Zach was really, really good for a first time goalie in a high school game,” Storm said. “He kept us in that game. It probably could have been a little worse than it was.”
While Storm noted that there were plenty of players that continued to build on their strong offseason, he had high praise for senior defenseman and returning Captain Mitch Wiese.
“What I saw today was him (Mitch) with a new confidence with the puck,” he added. “I’ve seen it all camp, but today against true competition, it was the first time I saw take over the game. He really did take over the game. He’s going to be dang good this year that’s for sure.”
Despite falling to Prior Lake 2-0 and dropping to 0-1 in the tournament, the Huskies have a chance to rebound with a pair of games Saturday, starting with Eastview.
Puck drop is set for 9 a.m. on the East rink.