Kyle Ahlschlager was hunched over, resting as best he could on the hockey stick perched atop his knees. The Waseca sophomore, tied for No. 3 among the state’s scoring leaders, was out of breath and, in his quest to lead the Bluejays to an upset victory over New Ulm, about to run out of time.
A two-line team from a town that has traditionally been ambivalent at best about hockey, Waseca lost 3-1 on Saturday to a New Ulm squad that, by comparison, enjoys an embarrassment of riches in what is something of a southern Minnesota hockey mecca.
The Eagles, who won their 13th straight game to improve to 13-2-0, have a decided edge over most all of its neighbors when it comes to quantity of varsity players, quality of facilities, level of community engagement and on and on.
New Ulm can deploy four mostly equal-in-caliber lines, Waseca, if everyone is healthy, has two. New Ulm has a junior varsity. Waseca does not. The Eagles’ home rink, the New Ulm Civic Center, is a modern brick-and-glass, two-ice-sheet facility with ample seating, wide concourses and an abundance of natural light. Most other small-town rinks in the swath of farmland that runs from Mankato to the east to the South Dakota border to the west are are ancient, bare bones structures made of tin and steel.
“I mean, look at it, they’ve got a nice facility for southern Minnesota,” Waseca coach Chris Storey said while standing outside the Blue Jays locker room. “Their Mites were on right ahead of us and they had tons of kids out there. We’ve got 13 skaters and four goalies.’
Ahlschlager, who is drawing attention from scouts from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, among other programs, assisted on Brendan Brown’s third-period power play goal to boost his season points total to 53, tied with Dodge County’s Brody Lamb and trailing co-leaders Zam Plante of Hermantown and Kyle Kukkonen of Maple Grove by three.
“He’s obviously putting up a lot of points and he’s a pretty good player,” said New Ulm junior Braxten Hoffmann, the Eagles’ scoring leader with 31 points, including an assist in Saturday’s victory. “We shut him down pretty good.”
Helping contain Ahlschlager was a group of big, hard-hitting Eagles defenseman who were rarely caught out of position. New Ulm’s forwards backcheck with ferocity. Goaltender Joey Gag, who improved to 6-1-0, allowed precious few second-chance opportunities. And when one group of Eagles was fatigued, another, then another hit the ice, allowing plenty of time to restore oxygen levels.
“Usually, by the third period, we’ve still got gas and they’re usually running low,” Hoffman said about the Eagles’ depth compared to that of most of their Big South Conference opponents. “It definitely benefits us.”
New Ulm has made five trips at the state Class 1A tournament since 2010, each appearance helping fuel the town’s passion for hockey. Hoffman was once one of those pint-sized kids worshipping New Ulm’s varsity players and dreaming of someday stepping under the bright lights of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“When I was younger I always knew that’s where I wanted to be and that’s what I wanted to do,” Hoffman said. “I always looked up to those guys, and I’m glad to finally be there.”
Sixth-year Eagles head coach Ryan Neuman once was one of “those guys”, a former varsity player whose passion for the game remains steadfast. He started coaching in the town’s youth system as a 20-year-old and served as a varsity assistant before taking the helm of the program. He has worked hard to integrate the youth and high school programs, and in past years helped organize and run “Skills Night” for youth players of all ages on Mondays (before COVID-19). He said the varsity coaching staff stayed after high school practice to work with the youngsters well into the evening, loving every minute of it. “We’re at the rink from 3:30 to 10,” he said.
Storey, who played high school hockey for Warroad, would love to emulate New Ulm’s run of success. As he does his best to manage Waseca’s current lack of numbers, Ahlschlager’s scoring exploits and the team’s 10-6-0 record (a follow-up to last season’s program-best 18-9-0 mark) have captured the attention of the traditionally basketball- and football-focused town.
While Waseca can’t match New Ulm’s legions of youth players (Waseca has about 9,000 residents compared to New Ulm's 13,000), Storey sees a bright future for the Blue Jays. He said there are 22 sixth-graders playing hockey this season.
“This is unchartered for our little town,” he said.