MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) –The boy’s state hockey tournament starts Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Every year, it’s the place to see many of Minnesota’s top players.
This year, after it’s over, a surprising number of those top players will be heading off to play in college at schools that aren’t anywhere near Minnesota.
Four of those top players are attending the same school in Omaha, Neb.
Like most Minnesota kids, Luc Snuggerud and Steve Spinner learned to play hockey in their home state.
The two Eden Prairie, Minn., seniors have been playing together for quite some time.
“I can’t even remember when I met him to be honest, it was so long ago,” said Spinner.
They’ll continue that streak as they head off to college together, where they will be joined by Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson and Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu.
Snuggerud, Spinner, Peterson and Beaulieu are four of the 10 finalists for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award.
They are also all choosing to pack up, move out of Minnesota and head to the hockey hotbed that is the University of Nebraska Omaha.
In the place famous for steaks, Huskers football and Peyton Manning’s vocal cords, Omaha coach Dean Blais has pulled off quite the recruiting coup in hockey.
How can he get so many of these elite players out of Minnesota?
It starts with his recruiting pitch, which centers on the fact that he’s at the school himself.
Blais won two national titles at North Dakota, which works to his advantage when selling the university to perspective players.
“I picked Omaha because of the coaching,” said Spinner.
However, Blais’ recruiting pitch is a little more involved than that.
It also involves the history, and that there isn’t much when it comes to hockey.
The program started only 17 years ago, so there’s plenty of opportunity for players to be a part of creating a history and traditions.
It also gives players a chance to define the Mavericks name.
“You know, people asking us, ‘Oh, where do you play?’ ‘Nebraska Omaha.’ And, ‘Oh, the Huskers?’ And you’re like ‘No, the Mavericks,'” said current player Nick Seeler.
The Mavericks currently play in the nearly 16,000-seat CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha, where their attendance over the last several years has consistently been among the top five in the entire country.
In 2015 they’ll be opening their own brand new, on-campus arena — another thing that Blais can pitch to players.
“Kids look at different things. They look at facilities, tradition … coaching staffs, and I think our coaching staff matches up with anyone,” said Blais.
Anyone like the five Division I options right here in Minnesota.
Only one of the 10 Mr. Hockey finalists is staying in state at St. Cloud State.
So why can’t Minnesota schools get them to stay?
“Dean Blais isn’t here in Minnesota. I think if Dean Blais was in any one of those institutions that might make them an instant player for some of those kids,” said Ken Pauly.
While it might be in Nebraska, the program is about as Minnesotan as it gets. Blais is from International Falls, a Gopher grad and there are already seven Minnesotans on the roster.
No other state has more than two.
No one on the team is from Nebraska.
“Just have a Minnesota culture around here, has obviously, for me it made an uh, easier adjustment. And obviously guys back in Minnesota, I think they see that and they like that so they obviously want to join the club,” said current player, Jake Guentzel.
“It’s really not that much different than Minnesota. And I mean, they have, like, such great stuff that they can offer. So I mean, it was really a no brainer for me. To choose that over staying, sticking around in Minnesota,” said Snuggerud
It’s important to point out that a number of Minnesota’s best high school seniors choose to play in juniors instead of at their high schools, making them ineligible for the Mr. Hockey Award.
It’s entirely possible Minnesota colleges would have had several finalists had their recruits chosen to stay in high school.