At the end of a championship game, tears are most often reserved for the losing team.
But on the ice of the Xcel Energy Center, the tears being shed were happy ones. They came from the Eden Prairie boys’ hockey team. The Eagles had just captured a state championship, a moment that was a long time coming for many players, including senior forward Carter Batchelder.
A long wait
More than a decade before Batchelder took the ice for the Eden Prairie varsity squad, the golden age of the Eagles’ boys’ hockey program was underway. With no state championships prior to 2009, that streak was broken.
Under head coach Lee Smith, Eden Prairie captured state championships in 2009 and 2011. Those runs were spearheaded by the likes of Nick Leddy, Kyle Rau and Nick Seeler. All three have since gone on to spend time in the National Hockey League.
From 2012 on, however, the Eagles found themselves in a spiral of sorts that left them short of adding to that state championship haul.
For the next nine seasons, strong Eden Prairie team after strong Eden Prairie team took the ice. There were the three Mittelstadt boys, including Casey. He nearly got the Eagles a state title in 2016 before going on to be Mr. Hockey and a first-round pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL Draft.
The list of solid prospects to come through Eden Prairie is robust and unprecedented for this program. However, the state titles were hard to come by.
During this time, Batchelder and his classmates were making their way up through the Eden Prairie youth system.
“(Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith) loved those state championship teams,” Batchelder said. “He really wanted to get back there and win it again.”
Soon enough, Batchelder would have his own set of near-misses like his head coach. As a sophomore, the forward was part of an Eden Prairie team that found its way into the state tournament.
As the No. 3 seed, the Eagles were in no way favorites to win the title. Yet, Eden Prairie made it to the finals before falling to arch rival Edina in overtime. Though just a sophomore, Batchelder and a number of his classmates were key contributors. He finished the season with 10 goals and 8 assists. That included five goals in the run to a section championship.
Come 2019, Batchelder and his classmates saw their roles increase. He and Drew Holt became major parts of the team’s second line. Once again, Eden Prairie made its way to the state tournament. Batchelder posted a 17-goal, 12-assist junior campaign. But much like 2018, the Eagles had their hearts broken in the state final. This time, the favored EP squad fell to Hill-Murray.
As Batchelder and his fellow juniors lamented a second consecutive runner-up finish, they started to prepare for an unusual 2021 senior season.
An additional challenge
The 2020 boys’ state hockey tournament at Xcel Energy Center could possibly be one of the last “normal” sporting events prior to shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the boys’ hockey season wrapping up before COVID-19 restrictions, the players did not have to deal with the unusual circumstances brought on by the pandemic until this winter when they suited up for the 2021 season.
“We got eight less games than before,” Batchelder said. “Put the differences aside, all we cared about was getting back to (Xcel Energy Center).”
Despite the unusual circumstances, the Eagles soared in their first two games of the shortened 2021 season, picking up wins against St. Michael-Albertville and Wayzata to open the season. Next, Eden Prairie matched up with rival Edina at the EP Community Center.
Though the Eagles came in as a preseason No. 1 in the Class 2A coaches’ poll, they suffered a 3-1 setback against the Hornets on home ice, dropping Eden Prairie out of that top spot.
Shortly after that loss, a fresh burst of energy came into the Eagle locker room in the form of forward Jackson Blake. In a shortened 2019-20 season due to transfer rules, Blake wowed opponents, including a 9-point postseason effort.
With uncertainty surrounding the boys’ high school hockey season, Blake set his sights on playing in the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top junior hockey league in the U.S. However, he decided to return to his local squad shortly after the Edina game.
“We were working out when (Blake) came back and surprised us,” Batchelder said. “We were excited now coming off a loss. It helped out a lot of us and made us better.”
Though Blake’s return sparked some excitement, adjustments were going to have to take place. In his first year on the varsity squad, Blake played alongside seniors Ben Steeves and John Mittelstadt. His new linemates were Batchelder and Holt.
“The first couple practices were a little different,” Batchelder said. “Practice after practice, we started to adapt.”
Though there might have been some adjustments, it didn’t affect the play of Eden Prairie on the ice. The Eagles did not lose a game in the regular season in the aftermath of Blake’s return. Eden Prairie took down top-end opponents such as St. Thomas Academy, Minnetonka and Benilde-St. Margaret’s along the way.
With just one loss on the Eagles’ record, they earned the top seed in the Section 2AA tournament. After easy wins against New Prague and Holy Family, Eden Prairie met up with nearby rival Minnetonka in the section final. The Eagles won the first regular-season matchup, 9-5 before settling for a 2-2 tie in the most recent matchup on March 5.
After so much success, Eden Prairie faced its share of adversity. After jumping ahead 1-0 in the first period, the Eagles fell behind 3-1 in the second period after a rush of scoring from the Skippers. Eventually, Batchelder scored to cut the deficit to one goal in the second frame.
Trailing by a goal heading into the third period, Eden Prairie got the equalizer thanks to Holt. The two teams headed to overtime with a spot in the state tournament on the line. Phil Feinberg, a forward on the second line, tipped in the game-winner in the extra session to send the Eagles back to the state tournament.
“We didn’t know how that game was going to go,” Batchelder said. “It was the best feeling in the world.”
Completing the mission
Despite falling in and out of the top spot in Class 2A, Eden Prairie found itself as the top seed in the big-school state tournament. The Eagles earned that spot but had a worthy opponent in St. Thomas Academy. Though EP had defeated the Cadets twice during the regular season, St. Thomas Academy defeated heavy favorite and top seed Andover in the 2020 quarterfinals.
“We just tried to not see ourselves as the No. 1 seed,” Batchelder said. “We needed three more wins.”
Through two periods, there was certainly some anxiety among the Eagle faithful. The two teams played to a 1-1 tie. Then, the floodgates opened as Eden Prairie exploded for five goals in the third period to storm to a 6-2 win.
Next up for the Eagles was Maple Grove. The Crimson had lost just one game all season prior to this semifinal tilt and had a stellar top line to match the likes of Eden Prairie’s top trio that featured Blake, Holt and Batchelder.
“We’ve known those Maple Grove kids for a long time,” Batchelder said. “We knew they were going to have some great lines.”
In a game that was billed to be a great one, this one lived up to the hype. The teams traded goals, including one stretch where five goals were scored in less than two minutes. Batchelder said he’s never seen a stretch like that.
“I didn’t really know what to think,” Batchelder said. “It was one of the most intense moments. All the energy flowed back and forth.”
Batchelder himself was a key piece prior to overtime. He tallied a pair of goals as the two teams skated to a 5-5 tie at the end of regulation. In the extra session, the two teams traded golden chances before one finally stuck for Eden Prairie.
“(Blake) was going through the middle and the puck got tipped,” Batchelder said. “The puck got tipped. Holt got it, gave it to me with a wide open net.”
Batchelder converted on the big chance to give the Eagles a 6-5 win and third consecutive appearance in the Class 2A state final.
Next up for Eden Prairie was a date with Lakeville South. The Cougars had emerged as a force out of the south metro in recent seasons but ran into the buzzsaw that was the Eagles. In 2018, EP won a dramatic, triple-overtime game against Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. The two squads met again in a similar fashion in 2019 when the Eagles defeated the Cougars easily.
“We definitely thought they were going to want it a lot,” Batchelder said. “No team was wanting to end its season to the same team three years in a row.”
Batchelder’s run in the state tournament continued as he scored the game’s first goal in the first period. But that’s the only goal that was scored for Eden Prairie in regulation, looking to break a two-year streak of falling in the Class 2A final.
Eventually, the Cougars tied the score up at 1. The two teams continued to battle as the Eagles relied mainly upon their top line.
“We did a lot of skating at the end of practice to get that extra conditioning,” Batchelder said. “I didn’t think we’d be able to play that much.”
The amount of time on the ice for Batchelder, Holt and Blake continued to climb as the game went on to a second overtime. Then, the moment finally came. After Holt got the puck to the net, Blake pounced on the rebound to score the game-winning goal and give the Eagles’ their third boys’ hockey state championship.
“Once I started skating back to celebrate, we all started crying,” Batchelder said. “We’ve always wanted this so bad. It was all glory from there.”
In the days following the overtime victory, Batchelder said there was plenty of time spent together basking in the state championship glory.
With the high school season in the rear-view mirror, Batchelder and others are moving on. Before playing for Colorado College, Batchelder spent some time in Waterloo in the USHL. So too did others such as Blake this Spring.
While the last time being together on the ice has now passed Batchelder and his teammates, this group will remain one that will live on in infamy.
“I’ve never had a better team to play with,” Batchelder said. “I think throughout the entire locker room, nobody complained. Team chemistry was really great.”
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