Small-town hockey has its perks. Among them, at least in some locales, is virtually unlimited access to the local ice arena.
Most times, it’s not hard to find someone who has a key. Heck, in some towns they just leave the place unlocked. Call it an “open door” policy.
No player in the state spends more time at the local rink than Mora/Milaca’s Parker Mitchell. Between practices, games and extended weekend work shifts, Mitchell logs more hours at the Mora Civic Center than he does at home. Give him a cot and a pillow and he’d never leave the joint.
It’s not an overstatement to say Mitchell knows every nook and cranny of the metal structure located in the heart of Mora, considering he’s probably power washed and painted every speck of it.
Then there’s the puck buckets. Mitchell has emptied and filled those puck buckets thousands of times. It’s a never-ending cycle for a player with an insatiable desire to improve. Think Karate Kid, only replace the karate with hockey. Puck in, puck out. Puck in, puck out.
“He’s probably shot over 100,000 pucks here since his freshman year,” Mora/Milaca coach Kevin Nolt said. “He stops working, he goes and shoots a bunch of buckets of pucks. And then he goes back to work and paints. And when he gets tired of painting he goes and shoots some more pucks.”
Part of the payoff for all those summer shooting sessions in that often empty, dimly lit arena has been Mitchell’s 52-goal regular season, the best in the state. Mitchell, a senior, is eight ahead in the state goal-scoring race as the Mustangs head into tonight’s Section 5A quarterfinal game against St. Cloud Cathedral.
Mitchell, who hopes to play junior hockey in the North American Hockey League next season, has 10 games of three-or-more goals this season, including a five-goal outing against Minnehaha Academy in a 9-2 win Dec. 29. His 84 points rank third in the state. He has 110 career goals among his 192 points, both totals putting him in an exclusive group featuring some of the state’s all-time great scorers.
“It's awesome being able to play with him,” Mustangs senior Carter Ashworth said about Mitchell, a varsity standout since he was a freshman. “He gets us better every day in practice and pushes us to be our very best. He always wants us to do everything right.”
Indeed, this isn’t a solo endeavor for Mitchell. When the rink is open, which is always, he’s texting his teammates to join him there. He expresses his blistering competitiveness in myriad ways, one of which was creating a trophy in woodshop class that goes to the Mustangs group (forwards or defensemen) who won the most battle drills in practice that week.
“We have two teams called newspapers and fruit salad, the names based on jersey colors,” Nolt said. “Every day when we start doing those drills we’ll say, ‘Who is winning?'
“What all this does is say that what we’re doing in practice is important here.”
All that healthy competition in practice manifests itself in games, the vast majority of which the Mustangs have won. They are 18-5-2, including a 1-0 win over St. Cloud Cathedral Jan. 31. Cathedral (12-13-0) received Section 5A’s No. 3 seed. Mora/Milaca is seeded No. 6.
“My freshman year, we had a really good team,” Mitchell said. “But this is probably the best team I've played on in my four years.”
When coaches and teammates talk about Mitchell’s skill set, the conversations never includes the usual topics like skating ability or shot accuracy or puckhandling prowess. They always focus solely on his Mitchell’s competitive drive and desire to make the team better.
“He likes to go hard, very hard in practice,” Mustangs goaltender Presley Patrin said. “He gets on our teammates when they're not working hard.”
“He cares a lot,” said Mustangs senior Jack Kritzeck, the state’s top-scoring defenseman. “He pushes guys every day.”
“All summer, he’s getting the guys together,” Ashworth said. “Team bonding … he wants us together all the time.”
Driving the Zamboni is among Mitchell’s Mora Civic Center duties. He loves it — as long as no one is watching. While he’s perfectly capable of hopping aboard the machine and cleaning the ice between periods of, say, a Mustangs varsity game, it’s an outlandish notion that he never entertained.
“You know that kind of scares me because I don't like driving in front of big crowds,” Mitchell said. “So it's weird. My nervous system is good in hockey but when it comes to driving things and lots of people, I get scared.”