Photo by Mitch Highman, MJoy Photography
When Riley Tufte’s name is called at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, NY it will be a large celebration for multiple groups in the hockey community. The Ham Lake, MN native has played for USA Hockey internationally, the Fargo Force in the USHL and Blaine High School in Minnesota throughout his busy first year of NHL Draft eligibility.
After playing 12 games with Fargo earlier this season, Tufte was thrown into the national spotlight when he was left to make a difficult decision: continue playing with the Force or return home to Blaine. Upon deciding with the latter, Tufte was criticized in some circles for leaving America’s top junior league known to be favored by NHL scouts to return home, something that was a priority for the acknowledgment of his life-long youth development.
“I went to Blaine not knowing if we would be good or not,” said Tufte. “We were ranked second at one point and then sixth during the season, we had overall success and everyone got better as the season went on. I thought it was a great season, just not the way we wanted to end. I’ve always worn a Blaine sweater and it’s great that my development came from there.”
“Being involved in the Minnesota high school system for 11 years, I get it more so than someone who hasn’t been through that and know the pressures and camaraderie and everything that goes with it,” added Fargo Force head coach Cary Eades. “There’s probably other parts of the country that don’t understand it as well.”
Blaine High School head coach Chris Carroll knew how difficult a decision Tufte was facing too. Carroll had known Tufte for more than five years, and coached him for the past two seasons. Over the past two years Carroll saw the forward selected first overall in the 2014 USHL Phase I Draft, an indication that Tufte may forgo his senior high school season, but stayed focused on helping him develop.
Being able to make an unpopular decision in the eyes of some was difficult, but something Carroll believes Tufte grew from.
“It says a lot about who he is,” said Carroll. “He’s an unbelievable kid. When I found out he was coming back to high school I knew he’d be good on the ice, but the gift he brings off the ice is amazing. Everyone knows how special he is on the ice, but it meant more to our program about he who is off of it. To have the gifts that he possess will be the intangibles he’ll take with him to the NHL.”
Tufte would go on to score 47 goals and 78 points in 25 games with Blaine High School this season. At the conclusion of his season just two week ago Tufte rejoined the Force for a pivotal game with Fargo, at the time four points back from a playoff spot, facing the Western Conference’s top team. Tufte and the Force came out swinging, outscoring their opponents 5-2 in the first period. With the quicker pace of the USHL, the high school standout needed some time to get comfortable, but would eventually score his sixth goal of the USHL this season in his first game back.
“The pace took a couple shifts to get back into it from high school and then scoring in the second period all of my confidence came back and felt good to be back,” said Tufte. “It felt great sweeping one of the best teams in the league, there’s no better feeling. The boys played well this weekend.”
In the stands were classmates and friends rooting for Tufte and Fargo. Back at home Carroll was watching highlights and hearing updates about Tufte’s performance. Many skeptics believe there is a war waging between the USHL and Minnesota high school hockey, but what occurred Friday night in Fargo was a celebration of development and progression. During starting lineups, the name “RILEY TUFTE” was synonymous with Blaine. It’s a point of pride Tufte will take with him, as will every USHL player, as they advance through their hockey careers.
Minnesota, the state with the most players represented in the USHL, is not just home to Tufte and Carrol, but a community they both have deep roots in. That’s not something lost on either.
“I think that the community is special for these kids,” said Carrol. “That badge of honor does exist because of the roots and community base. They’ve been involved with these programs their entire life.
“It’s cool to follow him. I’ve followed the USHL since he left and will text him. I’ll get out to a couple of locations to see him play and maybe fly out to the NHL Draft and see him. Myself and our staff, and the majority of the Blaine community is following online. So many folks are excited for him.”
That excitement and camaraderie doesn’t necessarily end in Blaine. Tufte was welcomed by Force staff, players and coaches with open arms last week in Fargo. He was also named a starter in Friday night’s game, literally putting the spotlight on the highly touted forward as he skated to center ice during pre-game introductions.
“I got there Wednesday night and saw the guys after practice, they all gave me a warm welcome and were happy to have me back,” said Tufte. “It was special to have all the guys come up to me and ask how my high school season was. The crowd had a warm welcome when my name was called during introductions. It’s cool to see everyone excited to have me back.”
“A lot of that has to do with Riley as a person: he’s a good person,” said Eades. “He’s a good teammate. The guys who were here in November, knowing he had a tough decision, respected that decision, and spent a lot of time with him involved in that decision. Guys are all-in about the team being successful, there’s not a lot of ‘what’s in it for me’ or ‘I need to protect my turf.’
“If Riley wasn’t as good of a teammate or person as he is, that’d be much more difficult to orchestrate for sure.”
With 15 games left in the season, Tufte still has a lot left he wants to prove; NHL scouts will be watching to see how he compares to the best players in the country, all while Tufte commutes back and forth from early week schooling to end of week practices and games. Teammates know he has joined the all-in locker room mentality heading into the final stretch.
With the team goal in mind, Tufte has ignored the NHL buzz and media chatter surrounding him and is focusing on one goal.
“I want to win a Clark Cup championship,” said Tufte. “I want to be a champion.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.