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Face Off: Midwest vs. East Coast Hockey
With his 6-3 frame often towering over opponents on the ice, and over his teammates in the Minnesota Wild locker room, it’s hard to think of Charlie Coyle as a plucky underdog. But as a skinny high school freshman who stood just 5-6, he played that role perfectly.
Charlie helped the Wildcat varsity team advance to their first ever finals appearance. He went on to play one season for the Boston University Terriers before he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks.
That year Coyle and his teammates from Weymouth High School, a public school in suburban Boston, upset a trio of Catholic schools and advanced all the way to the Massachusetts state championship game, played at the Boston Bruins’ home rink. They would fall to a Catholic school in the title game before an impressive crowd, but the experience cemented a love for the game in Coyle that helped drive him to the top of the pro ranks.
“We filled the lower bowl with about 10,000 people there and it was unbelievable,” Coyle recalls. “It was such a cool experience.”
Of course, when his career took him to Minnesota, and Coyle first experienced that state’s legendary State High School Hockey Tournament, it was another eye-opener.
“Then you come out here and they pack this place for every game and it’s like, holy cow,” Coyle exclaimed, after a recent Wild practice inside Xcel Energy Center, which is sold out each March for high school games. “It’s like a different level. But both are pretty good hockey communities and are growing the game and that’s good for the sport.”
Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler made the opposite journey to the NHL from Coyle, playing high school hockey in Minnesota, winning a state title for Breck, a private school in suburban Minneapolis, then ending up with the Bruins for parts of three seasons after college.
He noted the differences between high school hockey in his home state and Massachusetts right away, seeing the eastern scene dominated by prep schools, which play in a league separate from the public and Catholic schools. In Minnesota all schools – public and private – play together, for one trophy.
“You have the big ‘public versus private’ debate in Minnesota all the time,” Wheeler said. “It’s more of a prep school feel out East. You have the big schools where the best players go, year after year. Here it’s definitely more of a community feel, a little bit more kids growing up together and playing together all the way through, then making the state tournament. That’s really what you care about. You make that state tournament and the rest is gravy.”
Minnesota and Massachusetts high school hockey teams surely play their games in different realms, but there are constants that make them both great, like sticks, skates, a puck, ice and throngs of fans who stand in line to cheer their schoolboy heroes.