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Staying and playing

07/19/2019, 10:00am CDT
By Bryan Zollman, Let's Play Hockey

Five of Minnesota’s best who opted to stay with their high school programs were drafted by NHL teams

About seven months before getting selected in the 2019 NHL Draft, Bryce Brodzinski, Mike Koster and Rhett Pitlick each participated in the Minnesota High School All-Star Prospects Game. Photos: Nick Wosika

For Aaron Huglen, staying and playing with his Roseau High School team as a senior was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to go back to try to get to the state tournament,” he said. “And there aren’t a lot of things more special than playing with the group of guys you’ve grown up with. So it was a pretty easy decision for me.”

Huglen was one of five Minnesota high school players drafted in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. The Roseau native was chosen by the Buffalo Sabres in the fourth round, 102nd overall.

Huglen was at his home in Roseau with family and friends when he got the call.

“It was pretty special to spend that with family and teammates who helped me get to where I am today,” he said.

Eight picks later, Ryder Donovan of Duluth East went to the Vegas Golden Knights. The 6-4 winger also decided to stay with his high school team despite opportunities to play elsewhere.

“I had other outlets to leave to go to NTDP my junior year or to go to juniors this past year,” he said. “But I worked it out between the Elite League and then the regular season at East.”

Like Huglen, and like just about every other top-end player who returns for their senior season, Donovan wanted to play in the state tournament with the guys he has played with his entire life.

“All I wanted was another shot at the tourney with the boys,” he said. “I had faith that it wasn’t going to affect me either way in the long run, and if anything it helped me become a better leader, for sure.”

Donovan had a couple of short stints playing juniors prior to and after his high school season. He is confident he is ready for the next level, which will be playing at the University of Wisconsin.

“I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter where you are, it matters what you put into it,” he said.

Donovan was in Madison when he received the news. He and his brother Shay, and good friend Mike Vorlicky (Edina), biked to the Kohl Center to recover from workouts and watch day 2 of the Draft.

“After throwing on the Normatec Boots for a while, I finally heard the pick come in on the TV and ended up finally getting the call I had been waiting for.”

Donovan’s stock is high because of his size and skating ability. He said the entire process was long and had its ups and downs.

“You go through a lot of peaks and valleys during your draft year,” he said. “Throughout the entire year, the combine, the meetings, the different ratings ... when you finally get the call at the end of it all, it’s unreal.”

Donovan said he enjoyed meeting with the Golden Knights prior to the Draft.

“They were my favorite meetings, and I just liked everything about them,” he said. “So to finally see that pick pop up is a great honor and something I’ll never forget.”

Chaska’s Rhett Pitlick was chosen by Montreal in the fifth round (131st overall). The speedy winger was with his parents, brother and a close friend. He was in the basement when he heard the others screaming his name.

“I assumed I had been drafted and I was pretty excited,” he said. “Knowing my name is associated with the Montreal Canadians is a good feeling and I am very grateful to have this opportunity.”

Pitlick is the latest in a long line of family members to either play in or be drafted by an NHL team. His father, Lance, played at the University of Minnesota before spending eight seasons in the NHL with Ottawa and Florida. His cousin, Tyler, was a second round pick in 2010 by the Edmonton Oilers and currently plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. His older brother, Rem, was drafted 76th overall in 2016 and after finishing his collegiate career at Minnesota this past season, signed a two-year deal with the Predators and played in one NHL game.

Being around former and current NHL players gave Rhett some insight into the benefits of staying in high school through his senior season.

“I always hear NHL players say how cool high school hockey is and playing in the state tournament is like nothing else,” he said. “Although my team didn’t make it to state, there is no other place where your teammates are people you grew up with.”

Pitlick said he wouldn’t trade his senior year of playing with his buddies for anything.

“Going to the rink every day where you can get better and have fun is something that rarely happens at other levels,” he said.

His teammate, Mike Koster, echoed his sentiments. Koster was chosen 15 picks after Pitlick by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I wanted to learn how to win and win a state championship,” he said. “I also wanted to grow as a leader.”

Koster said he is very happy he stayed, despite Chaska not getting to the coveted state tournament.

“We did not achieve our goal, but I was able to learn how to deal with adversity as a team as well as an individual,” he said. “I will benefit form that for the rest of my life.”

Bryce Brodzinski was the final Minnesota high school player chosen in the draft, going in the seventh round to Philadelphia. Brodzinski was the 2019 Mr. Hockey winner and his Blaine team did reach the state tournament.

All five players were happy with their decision to stay in high school their senior seasons and play one last time with their friends in front of their families. Judging by their draft status, it certainly didn’t hamper their development. And according to players like Donovan, it helped them learn how to become better leaders.

Now, the five players among the 12 Minnesotans who were chosen in the 2019 NHL Draft, have the same goal – help their college teams win a national title, and one day to play in the NHL and help their team win a Stanley Cup.

“My goal is to be  a professional each day by doing the little things such as skill development, eating healthy, etc.,” said Huglen. “I just want to improve each day.”

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