Cole Koepke became the latest product of Hermantown High School and the University of Minnesota Duluth to sign an NHL contract on Tuesday, agreeing to a two-year, entry-level deal with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

A sixth-round draft pick of the Lightning in 2018, Koepke’s deal will begin with the 2021-22 season. In the meantime, he’ll report to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League on a professional tryout (PTO) to begin his professional career.

“It’s exciting. It’s something I dreamed about literally since I can remember,” Koepke said of his first NHL deal. “It’s a pretty surreal moment. It was awesome to have family and friends around. Just to go through it was a dream come true. I’m really excited and excited to get to work with them.”

Koepke led the Bulldogs in goals in 2020-21 with 15 and was third on the team in scoring with 23 points. The two players above him at UMD on the scoring chart, junior center Jackson Cates (Philadelphia Flyers) and senior wing Nick Swaney (Minnesota Wild) also signed NHL deals in the last three days.

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Koepke finished his college career at UMD with 27 goals and 37 assists in 64 games, while the Bulldogs also reached Frozen Fours in 2019 and 2021 and won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title and national championship in 2019.

Playing in all those big games, growing physically and learning a lot about the game told him he was ready to make the jump to the pros, Koepke said.

“I’ve grown a lot the last three years here and I’ve played with a lot of great players,” Koepke said of his time at UMD. “Obviously the coaching staff has been unbelievable and just the rest of the staff in general. They’ve helped me grow a lot as a player.”

Prior to winning championships with the Bulldogs, Koepke was doing the same at Hermantown, helping the Hawks capture the 2016 Minnesota Class A state championship to end a streak of six straight losses in the final.

Minnesota Duluth's Dylan Samberg  (4) and Cole Koepke (17) celebrate a second period goal against North Dakota during a Jan. 2020 game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Both Hermantown natives have signed NHL contracts now in back-to-back years. Samberg signed with the Winnipeg Jets after the 2019-20 season and Koepke with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Duluth's Dylan Samberg  (4) and Cole Koepke (17) celebrate a second period goal against North Dakota during a Jan. 2020 game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Both Hermantown natives have signed NHL contracts now in back-to-back years. Samberg signed with the Winnipeg Jets after the 2019-20 season and Koepke with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. (Clint Austin / File / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Koepke is the third Hermantown Hawk in the last five years to sign an NHL contract, joining Neal Pionk (New York Rangers) in 2017 and Dylan Samberg (Winnipeg Jets) in 2020. All three have played at UMD.

“It’s special, Hermantown has done a lot of great things in the last year,” Koepke said. “There have been some unbelievable players that have went through and they have excellent people in Hermantown helping to develop those kids and make hockey fun for them.”

Koepke said he'll be heading to Syracuse shortly after squaring away a few academic matters at UMD. The Crunch currently sit third in the AHL's North Division with 13 games remaining in the regular season after Tuesday and Wednesday's series at Utica. The AHL has not announced any plans for a postseason in 2020-21.

BULLDOGS TURNING PRO:

Hermantown's Cole Koepke celebrates after scoring the first goal of the 2016 Minnesota boys Class A state championship game on March 5, 2016 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Koepke, then a senior, had a goal and two assists as Hermantown beat Breck 5-0. (Holly Peterson / St. Paul Pioneer Press)
Hermantown's Cole Koepke celebrates after scoring the first goal of the 2016 Minnesota boys Class A state championship game on March 5, 2016 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Koepke, then a senior, had a goal and two assists as Hermantown beat Breck 5-0. (Holly Peterson / St. Paul Pioneer Press)