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Casey brings the 'Team Mittelstadt' competitive spirit to Sabres

EDINA, Minn. – The thought hits Casey Mittelstadt's mom in the middle of her meal. It's a relatively rushed restaurant salad an hour before a game, like she's probably done hundreds of times in her life. Only this time, she's asked between bites of roasted Buffalo chicken to ponder how fast things are really moving for her family.

"In 13 months, Casey has played on five teams," Dede Mittelstadt said in amazement last week. "That's just crazy. I wonder how he processes it all, but it doesn't bother him. I can barely process that. He's 19. It just shows what can happen, how quickly it goes and what you can really do."

She rattles off the teams quickly without hesitation: Eden Prairie High School, the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Team USA at the World Juniors and, of course, the Buffalo Sabres.

Mittelstadt played for all those units from March 2017 through his first stint with the Sabres that ended this April. He almost played in the World Championships in Denmark in May but a groin injury scuttled those plans. He did add another this summer, playing for Team BIC (the pen company is the sponsor) in Da Beauty League, the summer showcase here full of NHL players.

But what's the most important unit to the kid the Sabres have heaped plenty of expectations on for this season?

Just call them Team Mittelstadt.

There's his father, Tom, who was the keeper of the backyard rink at the family home in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. Tom Mittelstadt, 50, runs a large format printing business and his wife, 51, works there in human resources and accounting. There's brothers John, 16, and Luke, 15. Casey committed to play for the University of Minnesota before his sophomore year in high school; both John and Luke made similar earlier choices in June.

John is a forward who will be a junior at Eden Prairie while Luke is a defenseman who will be a sophomore. Wisconsin was a thought but not really. This is a Minnesota family. They all want to be Gophers. Just like Casey was last season.

"It's a dream growing up here, especially for me," Casey said after his game later that night in Braemar Arena, a classic Minnesota barn. "My weekends consisted of Minnesota hockey, maybe going to play a tournament and going to play pond hockey. As soon as the Gophers were on TV, we'd go inside to watch them and go back outside when they were over. Or we'd be going to the games.

"I probably did that 10 years straight. I always grew up wanting to be a Gopher and it was everything I ever imagined. Now I'm in the NHL. Crazy."

"We have had season tickets while they were all growing up," Tom said. "These guys have been going to Gopher games since they were 4 or 5. Throw that into the mix and you understand their decisions."

Casey Mittelstadt's brothers Luke, 15, John 16, and his mom Dede watch a game from the stands in Edina, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Special to The News)

It's been just 14 months since Casey was in Nashville for the NHL's top prospects tour of the Stanley Cup final and then was drafted No. 8 overall by the Sabres in Chicago. And less than five months since he made his NHL debut in KeyBank Center for the Sabres.

It's just more than a month before he reports to training camp, expected to be a Calder Trophy candidate and key piece for an NHL team starting the long road back from last place overall.

"A year and a half ago, he's playing high school hockey," marveled John, whose blonde hair and facial features make him a dead ringer for his older brother. "I started in high school hockey last year. It's unbelievable really."

Sabres Notebook: Mittelstadt's return sparks memories of Cup final visit

NHL debut frazzles family

When the Sabres played Detroit on March 29, it was Game 77 of a long-lost season. But there was a buzz in the building because Casey Mittelstadt was making his debut after signing his entry-level contract. The family felt it, too.

"It was all so weird," John said. "I still can't deal with it almost. You're nervous for him but super excited for him too."

No one really knew what to expect.

"The first game was a little more nerve-wracking than fun," Tom said. "You're thinking, 'OK, is he going to get killed out there? Will he be embarrassed?' You didn't know. It was all unknowns. Once you saw he was fine with the speed, you felt you could enjoy the next one."

Dede said she felt composed when she went into KeyBank Center, a building she got comfortable with while attending the World Juniors. But this was clearly different. The nerves started accumulating at warmups – when the Sabres let Casey take the first couple of laps on his own – and didn't stop as faceoff approached.

"I actually got lightheaded, almost like I couldn't breathe," she said. "I was excited and I thought I was handling it pretty well until that first shift. And then. ... "

Laughter erupted at the dinner table.

"Mom started shaking, literally shaking," John said.

Added Luke, looking at his mother: "Oh yeah, you were freaking out."

Sabres again taken to school in Mittelstadt's debut

Casey Mittelstadt had an assist that night for his first NHL point and finished with five points in his six games. That included his first NHL goal on a power play during the Sabres' penultimate contest in Tampa, a wickedly sniped wrist shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

"I was at that one and it was huge because I know he didn't want to go into next year without that first goal," Tom said. "I was with a buddy in the stands in Tampa and I went crazy, just crazy, and everybody is kind of looking at me weird.

"My buddy took over and he was like to the people around us, 'That's his kid. It's his first goal in the league.' So the rest of the game, the people started cheering for Casey and they were still Tampa fans rooting for their team, too. It was fun and I'll always remember that."

Relayed the stories that were shared at the meal, Casey had a good laugh but said he's always been aware of the support he's received.

"It's been a crazy time, but I'm definitely thankful to have my parents, my brothers, my coaches from the past," he said. "I can bounce anything off the people that are close to me and have supported me. It's been a whirlwind but it's been a blast, too."

High school heaven

To learn the essence of what hockey means in Minnesota, you have to review Casey Mittelstadt's career path.

The story was told numerous times by national media outlets in advance of the 2017 draft, but Sabres fans might not be as familiar with it because Mittelstadt was not expected to be around when Buffalo's turn came at No. 8.

The Minnesota state high school tournament is a longtime legendary event here. It's played in front of crowds of 18,000 in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center – the home of the Wild. In 2015, Mittelstadt led Eden Prairie to the semifinals before the Eagles were eliminated. In 2016, they suffered a gut punch in the state championship game against Wayzata – blowing a 3-1 lead and falling, 5-3.

It was a devastating defeat and a tearful Mittelstadt told teammates after the game he would return for his senior season. His coaches believed that was said in the emotion of the moment. His parents might have, too. Most star players leave high school early for the USHL or Canadian juniors. "The U," as it's called here, had a standing offer for Mittelstadt to immediately start his college career that fall.

But Mittelstadt was true to his word. College could wait. In his senior year, he opened with Green Bay and then left the USHL for high school hockey, even as some NHL scouts and draftniks wondered if that was the best decision for him.

In the state quarterfinals, Eden Prairie avenged the loss to Wayzata the previous year. But in the semis, another crusher. Despite a 49-28 advantage in shots on goal, Grand Rapids sent Eden Prairie home with a 3-2 defeat. His career ended without the elusive state title and Mittelstadt then returned to Green Bay to finish the USHL season prior to the draft.

"It was a tough decision at the time but looking back now, I see a lot of those guys and it was something pretty special," Casey said. "If I could go back, I would make the same decision 100 times out of 100. Absolutely. It was one of the best years of my life. I wouldn't change a thing."

"That shows how unselfish he is and how much he cares about people around him," said John. "He really wanted to bring a title back to Eden Prairie."

Casey has been forced to make many tough decisions the last couple years. He had the same dilemma in March, when Minnesota's season collapsed on the final day of conference tournaments as an unfathomable combination of results in other games left the Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament.

Soon, longtime coach Don Lucia stepped down. If the Gophers go to the Frozen Four, and maybe even if they just qualify for the NCAAs, there's pretty much no time left in the Sabres' season and no start to the NHL career.

Maybe there was some fate involved. The Sabres had the contract waiting and just needed Mittelstadt to sign. When he met reporters the day he signed in March, Mittelstadt said matter of factly he wanted to be "both feet in" about going to the NHL. He was.

"We had an absolute blast at the World Juniors and the college games," Tom said. "We thought he was gonna stay, but the coaching change may have given him that little edge to make that decision. I told him, 'If you're leaving because you think you're ready, go. If you're leaving because the coach resigned, that's not the reason to go.' He said he was ready so I was like, 'OK, we're all in.' "

Mike Harrington: How soon can Mittelstadt come to Buffalo and stay?

A familiar name

Team Mittelstadt has other key members. There's agent Ian Pulver, who co-founded the Will Sports Group with Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov. There's also a name familiar to Sabres fans who has become Casey's personal trainer and understands the path from the "State of Hockey" to Western New York.

Erik Rasmussen was the Sabres' No. 1 pick in 1996 and is best known for a backhand shot that became the game-winning goal in Game 5 of the 1999 Eastern Conference final in Toronto. The 4-2 victory sent the Sabres to the No Goal Stanley Cup final against Dallas, 24 years after their only other appearance.

Mittelstadt was chosen as Mr. Hockey in Minnesota in 2017 – 22 years after Rasmussen was the 1995 winner for St. Louis Park. Rasmussen played for the U for two seasons before heading to Buffalo. To say he's impressed with Mittelstadt is an understatement.

Rasmussen is the director of player development for MAP Hockey, a skill development center in the St. Paul suburb of Mendota Heights that's along the lines of HarborCenter's Academy of Hockey. It trains players from youth levels all the way through the NHL on the ice and off. Clients include names such as Washington's T.J. Oshie and Minnesota's Zach Parise.

"I don't know if we're going to make Casey into an all-star. That's up to him," Rasmussen said. "My job is for him to understand how to prepare. I'm upfront and honest about the mistakes I made and he can take that and have a much longer and better career than I had."

Rasmussen, 41, scored 33 goals in part of five seasons with the Sabres and added 19 more with Los Angeles and New Jersey before his NHL career ended in 2007. He had two goals in 52 career playoff games, none bigger than his tally in '99.

"He's been on my side everywhere I go," Casey said. "His affiliation with Buffalo has helped me. He's a great guy who does a lot for me. We bicker back and forth, but it's all good. He's there to do nothing but help me."

"He's extremely talented and having him around guys with the habits they have and treating it as a profession has made the biggest impact for Casey," Rasmussen said. "He knows you can have a bunch of fun but you have to work at it. This is your job now.

"As far as pure skill set, I can't tell people in Buffalo where the ceiling starts or ends. You haven't seen close to a peak yet. He hasn't peaked physically."

Rasmussen said he's told Mittelstadt cursory stories of the Sabres' '99 run but not a lot of details. Mittelstadt said there's not a lot of time for Rasmussen to tell war stories of the shot that beat Curtis Joseph and sent the Sabres to the final.

"I see 'Ras' almost every day and he hasn't told me that one," Mittelstadt said with a laugh. "He's sitting in the weight room yelling at me or some of the others."

"What I have told him is how much I loved Buffalo," Rasmussen said. "My time there was great. Went to the final. I played with guys who are very close friends. I had a blast. I loved the city and I told him that. It's all about opportunity. I got it there and he will, too. He's going to force that opportunity."

'Crazy competitive'

With Ryan O'Reilly traded to St. Louis, Mittelstadt seems to have the early lock on the Sabres' No. 2 center slot with just six career games under his belt. That's fine with his family.

And Sabres fans who watched those six games and this summer's development camp know what's coming: Mittelstadt has some sick mitts to keep control of the puck and can dangle it all over.

"His IQ is unbelievable," Luke said. "He makes plays so quickly. He sees them, he makes them right away. No hesitation."

Then there's Casey's hate-to-lose side. It's what the Sabres need plenty more of. Jack Eichel certainly has it and getting more of that into the dressing room can't hurt.

"I don't know if the Buffalo Sabres fully understand his compete level yet," Tom said. "He is unbelievably competitive. People don't know yet. From ping pong games to Sequence, he's there to win."

"Oh my God," John said, covering his eyes. "Sequence."

What's that? It's a board game where the object is to form rows of poker chips on the board by placing them on spaces that correspond to cards in a player's hand.

"That's one thing Casey really is not that great at," John said.

"It's a lot of fun but it gets competitive and, well, I had a little freakout this year," Casey said. "My brothers have always been a huge part of everything with me. It started with my dad putting up the rink in the backyard and we started competing at a young age. That turned us to be competitive kids to this day in everything we do."

Rasmussen has seen that, too.

"He's just crazy competitive and you can't emphasize that enough," Rasmussen said. "He's not afraid of anything he's ever done. Not just hockey IQ, but he's very intelligent. He wins and it bugs him more to lose than he likes winning. So I think he's got a really high ceiling."

Mittelstadt a work in progress during promising first NHL stint

A summer to prep

Casey was in the backyard with friends playing pickleball, a paddleball game like badminton, during the NHL draft lottery in April. His father had the draw on his phone and they saw the Sabres were in the final four.

Two hours later, when the Sabres won the No. 1 pick and the right to pick Rasmus Dahlin, everyone was inside in front of the TV celebrating the Sabres' victory.

"It was perfect for them," Tom said. "He's a defenseman who was by far the No. 1 pick. It's absolutely something they needed to add."

"Playing against him in Juniors, I saw how hard it's going to be for people," Casey said. "It's great for us. Then we go to camp in Buffalo and you learn he's as good a person as he is a player, which is going to be really important for us."

Casey said summer in Minnesota has been ramped up this year because he knows he's an NHL player now. He's played golf with some Sabres in the area and Eichel has been a visitor.

He's skated regularly with Zach Bogosian and even faced Bogosian's team last week in summer league play.

"It's good to get to know him as a person, but it's fun to see him as a young kid eager to get things going and become a star," said Bogosian, who is on the road back from hip surgery. "We're lucky to have him and I'm excited to see him because I wasn't in any of his games.

"We need as many guys with that kind of skill playing at the top of their game as we can get."

Casey knows what kind of expectations are on him right from the first puck drop of the Prospect Challenge early next month.

"Minnesota is a pretty small community with the pro guys here and it's been nice how they've welcomed me," he said. "When they traded O'Reilly, I was surprised. He was a really good guy to me and I know he was a big part of the team."

"I was surprised they traded O'Reilly too," Tom said. "But that made it pretty clear to me: They're going to rely on Casey a lot and they think he's ready to step in."

Mike Harrington: Healthy Bogosian wants to fast-forward to Sabres camp

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