Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 3/8/12
Three Minnesota Wild players are skating for their NHL team this week while keeping one eye on the Minnesota state boys high school hockey tournament. After all, before dreaming of playing in the NHL, center Matt Cullen and defensemen Tom Gilbert and Nate Prosser just wanted to make it to state. "As a Minnesota kid, it is all you ever dream of playing for the high school team," said Cullen, a Moorhead native. "To get to play high school hockey and to play for your hometown it is just such a good experience." High school hockey in Minnesota is elite, the competition is fierce, and players take pride in being able to represent their home town on the ice. When they slip on their jerseys, young boys hope to someday compete against the state's very best. The state tournament, which is going on now at the Xcel Energy Center, started back in 1945 at St. Paul Auditorium, and since then it has spanned several generations and spawned countless memories. Cullen, 35, played in three state tournaments for Moorhead High School in the early 1990s at the St. Paul Civic Center, and the memories are still with him. "It was really cool, it was such a cool atmosphere and we had some good teams, and we had a lot of fun," he said. "Every time I drive through downtown St. Paul, I think about the good memories." For the most part, Gilbert, a Bloomington native, grew up without professional hockey in Minnesota. The North Stars left the state in 1993, when he was only 10. When the NHL returned to Minnesota for the 2000-01 season, he was a senior in high school. Gilbert, now 29, found his inspiration in high school hockey. Growing up as Gilbert's neighbor was Joe Bianchi, who made it as far as the AHL as a pro. A standout at Bloomington Jefferson, Bianchi helped lead the high school to consecutive state tournaments in 1992, 1993 and 1994. Gilbert looked up to Bianchi, who still remains Bloomington Jefferson's all-time leading goal scorer with 85. "As a kid it was like the coolest thing ever," Gilbert said. "My dad built a rink in our back yard one year, and he (Bianchi) would come over and shoot pucks with me. Just to be around a guy who was in the state tournament, that was a real cool experience for me." Gilbert made it to the state tournament, by then played at the Target Center, with Bloomington Jefferson in 2000. "Just making it there was an accomplishment for me, and it is a memory that will last forever," he said. The state tournament sells out every year, and for most young players it is the first time they play in in front of such large crowds. "Just the size of the crowd that was there when you get to state tournament -- as a kid there were probably 3,000 to 4,000 that came to your game," Gilbert said. "When you get to the state tournament, it was packed, 14,000 to 15,000. Just being a part of that and seeing your student section that fills the stands, it was just such a rush to be there." Prosser had the opportunity to play in the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center as a sophomore with Elk River. The 25-year old still remembers how loud the crowd of more than 18,000 was. "To get the opportunity was pretty amazing," he said. "It is something I will always remember. The crowd was huge, and everyone gets so electric over the state tournament. You are in awe of how loud it is and how many people are there. The student sections and bands playing it is so loud." For Cullen, Gilbert and Prosser, hockey has gone on long after the state tournament, but for some their hockey careers end with the state tournament, and that makes it even more memorable. "The memories last forever," Gilbert said. "A lot of kids don't go onto play after high school. It is your buddies you grew up with playing with ever since you were in elementary school. It is so cool to go out there in give it one last shot before everyone parts their own ways and goes to college and makes new friends. It is cool experience to watch."
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