My favorite sport to watch is high school hockey and lucky for me, the Eagan Wildcats are fielding quite the squad this year.
The departure of goalie Tommy Bodeker left a lot of questions about this season and their goalie situation. But those questions were answered when senior Christian Butler showed up from Montana to play for the Cats. Who better to back him up than freshman Andrew Lindgren, who is the younger brother of NHL-hopeful Charlie Lindgren from Lakeville North?
The Cats lost many forwards, a defenseman and both goalies this year, but they have added a lot of depth. In the preseason rankings, Eagan was ranked second with only second place finishers in the 2011 State Tournament Duluth East taking first place. That's all "white noise," according to coach Mike Taylor.
The Cats played Hastings on December 1st, and won 8-1 easily. They took on Eden Prairie on Saturday, and fought hard against defending State Champion Eden Prairie but lost 2-1.
My apologies for releasing this article late, but I had finals to study for!
In this article, there will be the the players to watch, impact games and a prediction for the Cats.
A year ago, Christian Butler was playing high school hockey for Billings West High School in Billings, Montana. If you told him he would be playing for a hockey powerhouse in a year, he wouldn't have believed you. "I moved here to be closer to my family, and the difference between Montana hockey and Minnesota hockey is huge. Minnesotans play a way higher caliber of hockey then kids from Montana. My old team won the State Championship last year, but if we played Eagan, we'd lose 10-0." Christian has been playing goalie since he was 6 years old, and one thing he has developed over his playing career is his quickness. "I think my reflexes are the best part of my game. But on the other hand, my weakness is playing the puck. I'll definitely focus on that during this season." When asked about playing against Christian, senior captain Eli May said, "He's pretty quick with his glove, and he's extremely hard to score against."
When Eagan played their season opener against the Hastings Raiders at home, Butler let in the first shot he saw. But he settled down and shut out the Raiders during the rest of the game. "Oh you know I was nervous playing out there. But I have to say I was impressed that there were so many people at the game!"
Christian Butler is a good goalie, and seems to being having fun playing for the Wildcats. I asked Christian who his funniest teammate was and he responded immediately with, "Is that even a question? (senior defenseman Connor) McGovern for sure."
The 2nd line for Eagan in nicknamed "The Junior Dream" because it features juniors Zach Glienke, Zach "Ponch" Schultz, and Cullen Willox. These guys have been on the same team since they played on PeeWee A in 7th grade. They have great chemistry and know the game very well.
Zach Glienke-: Zach's a left wing, and is one of the taller players on the team. Glienke is the line's sniper, and has a very accurate shot. Contrary to most snipers, Glienke will throw his body on the ice and is willing to take a hit. When asked about his biggest strength, junior center Will Peterson said, "He skates very well for being so big." My prediction is that Glienke will have the most goals on "The Junior Dream".
Zach "Ponch" Schultz: Received the nickname Ponch after his Spanish name was Poncho in 8th grade. Ironically, Zach Glienke gave him the nickname. Ponch is a multi-talented player, who has very good hands. Ponch is very good at winning faceoffs and setting his teammates up to score off the faceoff. "Ponch moves the puck very well to Glienke and Cullen." says teammate Will Peterson. Ponch will definitely be a player to watch as he anchors himself in the faceoff circle for the Cats.
Cullen Willox: Cullen is an excellent two-sport athlete, not only dominating the ice, but commanding the lacrosse field as well. He is the strongest of the three, and brings a physical presence on the ice. Willox says, "My biggest strength is my stickhandling, but I'm putting my focus on my skating speed because I'm not very fast." According to Will Peterson, Cullen Willox is "the dangler of the line. He has very good hands. He's also extremely physical." Willox also has an extremely hard shot and is deadly from the point. His shot accuracy is "one of the best on the team" says Peterson. I asked Cullen about his favorite moment in his hockey career, and he immediately answers with, "Beating Apple Valley 1-0 in the section final game last year." Willox had the only assist in that game.
On a team dominated by seniors, "The Junior Dream" will have to step up and provide help to the first line, while getting better for next season. But let's just focus on this season.
There are many sets of twins that play sports at Eagan High School, but none of them have a bigger impact on their team than Nick and Derick Kuchera. Nick plays on the forwards first line, and Derick plays on the second defense line, but they are often on the ice at the same time. During last year's third place game between Eagan and Edina, Nick sniped two goals for Eagan. For both of the goals, the announcer said, "Scoring for Eagan, #3 Nick Kuchera! Assisted by #4 Derick Kuchera!" That is just an example of the amount of chemistry these guys have together on the ice.
Nick Kuchera: Nick's best asset is his hands. His nickname is "Johnny Appleseed" because he plants the seed to scoring opportunities, or something like that. "My biggest strength is my playmaking ability. I believe I excel in setting up (Will) Merchant or (Mike) Zajac for a goal." Nick has a enthusiasm for hockey and has played since he was 4 with Derick. "Derick and I definitely have a passion for hockey, and before every game we always play each other in ping pong."
Derick Kuchera: If you look at the scoresheet after a Cats game, you will see Nick Kuchera under the assist column numerous times. One thing you won't see is the amount of hard work Derick Kuchera plays with. Derick runs down every puck, never backs down, and doesn't let any forward by him. "I have very good vision of the rink, what's happening in front of me and how to react to it." says Derick. I have a class with Derick called Advanced Power Volleyball (notice the Advanced part), and I frequently rub in how I am taller than him. Although the size of his body isn't his biggest strength, the size of his heart and passion for Eagan hockey is unbelievable.
The Kucheras are key players to Eagan's success and will have a huge impact on them this year. With Nick's playmaking abilities and Derick's effort, the Wildcats are that much better of a team.
Seniors Michael Zajac and Will Merchant can both agree on one thing: their favorite hockey moment was stepping on the ice at the Xcel Energy Center last year to take on powerhouses such as Moorhead, Eden Prairie, and Edina. One thing Eagan hockey fans can't agree on is, "Who's better, Merchant or Zajac?"
"Merchant has more goals!"
"Zajac has more assists, and is bigger!"
The argument could go on forever, and in my eyes, they are both equal. Will's the scorer of the line and Mike's the two-way player.
Will Merchant: In my eyes, Will Merchant is NHL Entry Draft ready. I can guarantee he will get drafted this year by an NHL team. He has all the skills necessary to play at the next level. He can score with a pinpoint accurate shot, he can pass and had 20 assists last year, and can hit, which he proved when the Cats played Eden Prairie this season. Although Merchant has goals for himself as a player this season, his team goals are more important. "Our goals are to win the conference, win sections, and ultimately win the State Tournament." said Merchant.
Mike Zajac: Mike Zajac stands at 6'2", weighs 215 pounds, and towers over kids in the hallways of Eagan High School. When you see his physical appearance, you would think he is a stereotypical jock who is mean to everyone except for his close friends. That is a false statement because he is one of the nicest kids at Eagan. He always says hi to everyone he sees and is very friendly. But when Zajac laces up the skates, he becomes the contrary: a physical specimen that uses his size to his advantage. "I really use my size to alter the other team's gameplan. I also try to incorporate my strength into my game" said Mike. Zajac has a heck of a shot, and goalie Christian Butler says, "It really sucks when one of Mike's shots hits me in a bad area because I can expect a bruise to show up the next day."
Zajac and Merchant are NHL ready and are expected to get drafted this year in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. They are leaders of this team and it will fun to watch their post-high school careers on the ice.
Will Merchant, Mike Zajac, and Nick Kuchera don't make many mistakes, but when they do the other team tries to take advantage of it. That is very difficult with defensemen such as Sam Wolfe and Eli May. Sam lives in the cul-de-sac next to mine, and Eli lives two doors down from me so I've grown up with them. In fact, I played on the "Millawaukee Brewers" with them when I was in kindergarten. I've learned one very important thing from growing up with them; these guys love hockey. They are always away at hockey tournaments, hockey practice, or anything to do with a stick and puck. Their families have invested lots of their time to their careers, and they have younger sisters that are also very good at hockey.
Sam Wolfe: When I watch Sam Wolfe play, I classify him as a defensive defenseman, meaning he will stay farther back and not shoot the puck very much. But I am bewildered when I see that he scored 10 goals and 19 assists last year. I'm not saying he's a bad player, but I'm shocked how he can play such a defensive game and have so many points. He has a very big physical presence on the ice, and hits with a vengeance. You can tell his passion for the game by the amount of hits he takes. He's not afraid to get hit into the boards, and seems to do anything for the Cats to come out victorious.
Eli May: People have something important they cherish. I cherish my $206.47 lacrosse stick because it's the most expensive thing I've bought with my money, a friend of mine cherishes his Crucifix because his religion is very important him. But I have never seen someone be so enthralled by hockey, or any sport in that matter, then Eli May. I've been neighbors with Eli since I was 5, and I've grown up with him. I always saw him taking shots on his net outside his house or rollerblading in the cul-de-sac working on his stickhandling. Hockey is always first in his life. At Eagan High School, "The Pit" is the cheering section at football games, and Pit Captains, who are seniors that are nominated by the previous year seniors, pump up the crowd and start chants. Eli was nominated as a Pit Captain because he's one of the loudest kids out there, but he turned it down so he could attend his Friday night Elite hockey games. That goes to show how much Eli May has invested his life into Eagan hockey. Now that you know about Eli's life outside the rink, let's go over his on-ice abilities. Eli commands the ice he plays on and steps out as the leader, which can be attributed on why he wears a "C" on his jersey. "I see what my teammates and what my opponents do, and I react to it. I have good vision on the ice, and I use my size to my advantage." Another reason why Eli is a captain is because he cares for his teammates so much. "The team is my second family, and we're always there for each other, on the ice or off of it."
Sam Wolfe and Eli May prevent a lot of bad things from happening to the Cats. If they let anything by (which is rare), new goalie Christian Butler can make a spectacular save. But let's hope that doesn't happen too much.
Hill-Murray is a perennial powerhouse when it comes to hockey. They are off to a slow start at 0-2, but they have played tough competition in Benilde-St. Margaret's and Burnsville. They have a good fanbase, and the Cats will be tested in this game. I believe that Butler will bring his A game for this matchup. It will be a close defensive matchup between the nostalgic Pioneers and the up and coming Cats.
The Skippers always have a solid team, and the Cats will need to bring their "A" game when they travel to Minnetonka on January 3rd. Coach Mike Taylor will have his team ready to take on the 2010 State Tournament runner up Minnetonka. The Skippers had a bit of a disappointing season last year by not making it to the State Tournament, and they will have a fire in their hearts to do whatever it takes to get back there.
My favorite arena to travel to has to be Burnsville's because it's like a log cabin. The whole place is covered in wood, and you feel as if you're in the Great White North watching a game in the deep woods. But in this game, the Blaze will leave their wooden wonderland to come to the Eagan Civic Arena to take on the Wildcats in a post-Valentine's Day matchup. Eagan has always had a tough time against Burnsville, and it will be interesting to see how they plan against the Blaze this year.
Between the Cats' impact players and their tough schedule, it will be a fun season to watch and report on. Eagan made it to "the Tourney" last year, and they have their minds set on not only punching their ticket to the X, but taking home the gold.
With the ferocious skaters and brick wall goalie, the Eagan Wildcats will have a season filled with big hits, hard shots, sick celeys and amazing saves.
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Henry Dorgan is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.