Two members of the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team now have ties to the United States Hockey League -- and one of them may not be a Lumberjack for much longer.
Forward Karson Kuhlman, who shattered Jamie Langenbrunner's school record for points by a freshman three seasons ago, now may emulate the two-time Stanley Cup winner by foregoing his senior season with the Lumberjacks to play junior hockey.
Kuhlman, who scored 27 goals and added 24 assists for the 'Jacks during his junior year while skating in all 27 of the team's games, also got 27 more games with the Dubuque Fighting Saints after the CEC season came to an end in February.
In fact, he's been down there ever since, helping the Fighting Saints win their second Clark Cup championship as USHL champions in the last three years. He scored a goal and added eight assists in 16 regular season games and then scored four more goals and two assists in 11 playoff games.
His intention is to stay in Dubuque next winter.
"I'd like to come back here," Kuhlman said from Iowa. "I still have to go through training camp next year but if I make the team, I'd like to come back down here for next season, though that's not set in stone."
Minnesota State High School League rules allow players to take part in junior hockey once their teams' regular seasons have concluded, and Kuhlman's family made arrangements with the Esko School District to continue his education remotely.
"I've been down here full time, skating all week and having practices all week," Kuhlman said. "My schooling has been mailed to me and we figured it out. It worked pretty smoothly."
Kuhlman was impressed with the atmosphere in Dubuque, which supports its team well.
"It was an awesome experience," he said. "Everyone was nice and after we won the Clark Cup, we had a banquet at the rink and about 1,500 fans showed up to see us with the trophy."
Kuhlman may have played his last game for CEC in the team's Section 7AA semifinal loss to Duluth East, but another player with USHL ties expects to be back next season.
Koby Bender, CEC's freshman forward who scored six goals and added six assists in 24 games last winter, was selected by the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers with the 115th pick in that league's recent draft.
His intention is to play high school hockey.
"Green Bay has talked with us about coming to training camp," said Bender's father, Tony, a former CEC hockey assistant coach. "Koby made the USA Select 15 team last year and this year went through the whole thing again to make the 16 team, but he's gung-ho about high school hockey."
"I just think it's awesome," Koby Bender said. "It's good experience if I go and play there but I'm definitely playing high school hockey this winter."
Bender said he learned about being drafted from teammate Weston Michaud, who informed him during a baseball game.
"He told me I had been drafted," Bender said. "Then I talked with Karson."
Kuhlman called Bender the night of the draft and told him what he might expect.
"We talked, and he had a lot of questions," Kuhlman said. "I think that's one thing that sets him (Bender) apart from a lot of kids. He uses his resources around him. He's good about taking constructive criticism, and he works hard. This is a spot in your career where you can take advantage of things."
"He said congratulations and to keep working hard," Bender said. "It would be weird to maybe play against him sometime since he's a teammate, but it would be fun too."
Both players said coming up through the Cloquet program was a definite help.
"Coach (Dave) Esse has really helped me," Koby Bender said. "I've had lots of good coaches and it's been great."
"A great experience," Kuhlman added. "But Dubuque will probably help prepare me better for UMD (where Kuhlman signed an early tender). We talked with them and they are all for whatever I feel comfortable with and won't push me one way or the other. I'm thankful for that. I get to make up my own mind."