NCAA filled with players from State of Hockey

There will be a decided Minnesota feel at the NCAA men's hockey tournament when the first puck drops Friday, not just because all five Division I Minnesota teams made the field for the first time in history. Other rosters are loaded with Minnesota players, too.

Overall, 115 Minnesota-born players made the tournament. The next closest state, Michigan, had 33.

"It just confirms what many people know: Minnesota has been producing a tremendous amount of quality hockey players for a long period of time," former Gophers great Lou Nanne said.

Minnesota players comprise about 26% of the tournament total, and their presence will be felt in all four regional tournaments. Forty-two players from Minnesota will be in Loveland, Colo., 30 in Fargo, 23 in Albany, N.Y., and 20 in Bridgeport, Conn.

The five Minnesota teams have a combined 73 players from the State of Hockey, led by the Gophers with 20 and Minnesota Duluth with 17.

But there's more.

"Minnesotans just don't play at Minnesota schools," said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc. "More so that any state in the country, they play at schools outside of the state."

Backing that up is this: Even if you exclude those 73 Minnesotans on the Minnesota teams, there still are 42 players from Minnesota who are on teams that qualified for the tournament. Every NCAA tournament team except for Boston University has at least one Minnesotan on its roster.

On Thursday that number took a hit, when seven Minnesotans saw their chance to play in the tournament end, with Notre Dame's withdrawal because of COVID-19 issues. The Fighting Irish were to play Boston College on Saturday in the Northeast Regional in Albany, N.Y.

Winning with MinnesotansWhile there will be plenty of star power among the five Minnesota teams in the NCAA field — the Gophers' Sammy Walker of Edina, Minnesota Duluth's Nick Swaney of Lakeville and Minnesota State Mankato's Cade Borchardt of Burnsville are three examples — teams from outside the state are thriving with Minnesotans, too.

Top-ranked North Dakota, the oddsmakers' 5/2 favorite to win the tournament, features seven Minnesotans, led by All-NCHC defenseman Matt Kiersted of Elk River and forward Grant Mismash of Edina, a second-round 2017 draft pick of the Nashville Predators.

Big Ten regular-season champion Wisconsin also has seven Minnesotans, led by Roman Ahcan of Savage, a forward who has 21 points.

For Boston College, there's Farmington's Drew Helleson, a puck-moving defenseman who was a second-round 2019 pick of the Colorado Avalanche.

At Quinnipiac, there's Hobey Baker Award finalist Odeen Tufto of Chaska and St. Thomas Academy. Tufto leads the nation with 38 assists and ranks second in points with 45.

Nebraska Omaha, the Gophers' first-round opponent in the West Regional on Saturday night, has nine Minnesota players.

"It's not just the most players," Nanne said of the Minnesota talent, "it's among the best. That's something we really should be proud of."

From the grassrootsSnee credits the Minnesota model of youth and high school hockey for helping produce so many college players.

"Having the five Minnesota schools in the NCAA tournament is directly related to the development model that has long been in place in Minnesota, which is community associations feeding into high schools," he said. "The people involved in that are making it a better version of itself every year."

"… There's no doubt that Minnesota's impact on high-level players is entirely because of the unique way that an aspiring hockey player in Minnesota plays their hockey," he added. "They play for their community as a kid and their high school as a high schooler. That is the absolute norm, not the exception in Minnesota. That's not how a Chicago kid does it or a Boston kid does it."

Added Nanne: "Our high school program is stronger than anywhere around the country. That is what solidifies Minnesota as being a top producer, but it also enhances guys' opportunities."

Beginning Friday, the strength of Minnesota hockey will be on display in the four NCAA regionals, and Scott Sandelin, coach of two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth, couldn't be happier for the players in general and the five Minnesota teams in particular.

"It's awesome … It's great for our state," he said. "It's great for all the guys, all the coaches because they're friends of mine. I'm just glad we won't see any of 'em until later.''