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Dave LeGarde: NHL playoffs feature many local ties

The NHL has endured its share of criticism over the past few years. From a lack of national media exposure to muddled rules that confuse casual fans, professional hockey continues to skirt the mainstream of the sporting public.

The NHL has endured its share of criticism over the past few years. From a lack of national media exposure to muddled rules that confuse casual fans, professional hockey continues to skirt the mainstream of the sporting public.

This problem does not exist in northern Minnesota, where passion for this enormously popular game takes an upturn as the playoffs begin.

With the Minnesota Wild in this year's mix, intensity is reaching a fever pitch as the home team looks to contend for a Stanley Cup championship.

It's not hard to understand the immense interest in our area. In no other sport can locals experience the close contact involved with professional hockey.

In watching just about any game, one can see players who are from the area, played here in their younger years or perhaps competed for opposing teams against Northland squads.

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I'm certainly not an authority when it comes to the NHL. Other than a basic interest in the Wild, it really doesn't capture my attention until the playoffs begin. The college level has always been more to my liking.

Despite limited interest, even I recognize players who have passed through on their way to playing in the best league in the world.

Through the years, University of Minnesota Duluth has certainly provided its share. Several Bulldogs have advanced to the NHL, with a few lucky enough to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Brett Hull, Dave Langevin, Derek Plante, Shjon Podein and Glenn Resch are among those fortunate enough to have this honor.

Hundreds of UMD opponents have also played here prior to joining the NHL, taking to the DECC's ice before professional stardom.

Players such as Neal Broten, Chris Chelios and Mike Richter come to mind when considering some of the best to ever take on the Bulldogs. Countless others could comprise this list that grows with each season.

This year there's an abundance of talent with local ties on the rosters of NHL teams competing in the postseason. Almost every televised game offers athletes familiar to fans throughout the region.

The Wild themselves have Duluth East graduate Sean Hill skating a regular shift. Hill, a veteran defenseman with a Stanley Cup title to his credit, is with his eighth NHL team.

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Mark Parrish is another Minnesotan currently with the Wild. The Bloomington native spent his college career at St. Cloud State.

The Wild's first round opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, feature former Minnesota Gopher Jordan Leopold and St. Cloud native Kurt Sauer.

Leopold, who was awarded the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player in 2002, has returned to the Avalanche lineup after some inconsistency and is playing well.

The New Jersey Devils are another team with connections to the area. Three players spent formative years in and around the state.

Cloquet native Jamie Langenbrunner has become one of the better clutch performers in the league, scoring key playoff goals while helping two teams capture championships.

Zach Parise is a former University of North Dakota star who is fast becoming one of the league's best players, while Elk River's Paul Martin has become a steady NHL defenseman.

This is just a brief rundown of players we've seen around here. There are dozens of others also playing in the NHL, as well as in the minor leagues and overseas.

The unique thing of having a regionalized sport like hockey is that it allows us to follow these guys throughout their hockey lives, sometimes beginning from the time they were little kids.

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Our state high school tournament has for decades showcased prep standouts who would eventually play the game for a living.

The five Division I college teams attract talented players from throughout the United States and Canada.

Minnesota offers the best amateur hockey in the country, and from the standpoint of athletics it provides great identity for our state.

Dave LeGarde is the Duluth Central basketball coach. Readers can e-mail questions and comments to dlegarde@charter.net .

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