WINNIPEG — When Casey Mittelstadt left for the first time, his parents, Tom and Dede, would make frequent trips to Green Bay from the family's home in Minnesota to check on their oldest son.
When Mittelstadt's hockey journey brought him to Buffalo for his first NHL training camp in August, again, his parents made the trip to make sure their 19-year-old son was settled. The couple has continued to attend Sabres games during Mittelstadt's rookie season, beginning with the season opener and even last weekend when the Vancouver Canucks were at KeyBank Center.
The Mittelstadts' next hockey pilgrimage is much closer to home, and this time they'll be accompanied by dozens of family and friends. Five days before his 20th birthday, Mittlestadt will play his first NHL game near his hometown Saturday night, when the Sabres face the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
Drafted eighth overall by Buffalo in 2017, Mittelstadt grew up in Eden Prairie — 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis — and played one season at the University of Minnesota before beginning his pro career. Now, the Sabres center will return to the same sheet of ice where he played his final high school hockey game, a 3-2 loss in the state semifinals, just 20 months ago.
"It should be exciting, I think," Mittelstadt told The Buffalo News. "I haven’t seen a lot of those people since I’ve been to Buffalo in August. It will be fun to see them, see all my buddies from home. They’re all going to be there. That will be the best part, I think, and hopefully we can get a win."
Mittelstadt's ready for it to be over. He's expecting anywhere from 40 to 50 friends and family to be attendance. His father joked the guest list is closer to 500. The text messages haven't stopped, either, forcing Mittelstadt to refer all ticket requests and questions to his parents.
This isn't a typical homecoming, after all. Mittelstadt was regarded as one of the state's best high school hockey prospects in more than a decade and was named Minnesota's Mr. Hockey as a senior in 2017. He began that final prep season in Green Bay of the USHL but opted to return to Eden Prairie to try to win a state title.
There were four consecutive state tournament appearances, as well as two Associated Press Player of the Year awards. Mittelstadt then joined the Gophers, a program for which his family held season tickets throughout his childhood. He had 30 points in his 34 games there and tallied an assist in his debut with the Sabres last March.
When Mittelstadt made the Sabres' roster out of camp, the family immediate began planning for the homecoming.
"Obviously, we had this date on our calendar because the family's got tickets and they're all excited," Tom said during a phone interview Friday. "It's going to be hectic but fun. We're all looking forward to it. I think he's playing pretty well. They want him to play center, which is like a third defenseman, so he's been working really hard on the defensive side of things."
Mittelstadt's coach knows what he's going through.
Phil Housley grew up in St. Paul and played junior hockey there before he was drafted sixth overall by the Sabres in 1982. He returned to Minnesota as a rookie to face the North Stars, when his teammates pranked him by remaining on the bench after Housley was the first on the ice for warmups.
"It’s going to be special for him," Housley said. "It’s the place where he grew up. He has a lot of friends and family there, which is really important to be able to play in front of your friends and family. It’s going to be a special honor for him getting back to Minnesota and playing in front of his home crowd."
Housley also knows how difficult the transition can be. Rookies across the league are having success, most notably Elias Pettersson of the Canucks, and the transition to playing center is particularly difficult for a young player. Mittelstadt has more defensive responsibilities than a winger, and he's only two years removed from playing high school hockey.
Still, he's proven his speed and skill are ready for the NHL. Now he gets to show that in front of family and friends.
"This should be fun," Mittelstadt said.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters Friday that winger Zach Parise is expected to return to the lineup Saturday against the Sabres. Parise, who has seven goals and nine assists in 18 games this season, was scratched Thursday because of an illness.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby was absent from practice again Friday and is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Crosby has skated by himself but has not rejoined the team. It's looking unlikely he'll return in time to face the Sabres on Monday in Pittsburgh.