This time last year Moorhead graduate Carter Randklev was verbally committed to play hockey for Arizona State. The Sun Devils, just coming off their first season with a Division I schedule, were his only full-scholarship offer.
Randklev led the Spuds to the Minnesota Class 2A state boys championship game in his junior season the previous March, scoring three goals and notching two assists in three games in the state tournament spotlight. His dream had always been to play Division I college hockey and get his education paid for. He had reached that goal, committing to ASU a month after the high school season.
What awaited him in the upcoming year was something he never saw coming.
"I haven't had a whole lot of time to sit and think about how things have went," Randklev said fresh off an invite to the Minnesota Wild development camp. "It's not even so much this year, but the last 10 years of my life. Since I moved to Moorhead things have been crazy. Each year it seems to be a new thing. I like the way things are right now, but I know there's a lot to get going. I haven't really sat back and thought about it."
Randklev is now committed to play hockey for the University of North Dakota. His high school career with Moorhead ended in the section championship game, the final shot of the season coming off his stick firing high from the left circle at the buzzer of a 6-5 loss to St. Michael-Albertville. He screamed as he came off the ice.
His United States Hockey League season with Fargo ended with a Clark Cup, the first in franchise history for the Force. He had three goals and two assists in seven games during the playoff run, separating both shoulders along the way. Randklev had never been injured in his life. A goal Randklev scored during his high school season appeared as a top play on ESPN. He scored that goal with UND men's hockey coach Brad Berry watching. Randklev visited UND the next day.
"How did I even think to do that?" Randklev said when he saw video of that goal.
A documentary of the Moorhead hockey season was featured on Fox Sports North. Randklev scored the winner in overtime in Moorhead's Hockey Day matchup against Centennial on FSN. He was a Mr. Hockey finalist and finished his career fourth in Moorhead history in goals. When all was said and done the 5-foot-8 forward, who many doubted due to his size, was contacted by UND, St. Cloud State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Northern Michigan and Bemidji State to come play hockey.
"I thought in general he had Division I talent," Moorhead hockey coach Jon Ammerman said. "He's been a kid that's been extremely talented in terms of skating, puck handling, and hockey IQ, but he was small. I don't know if it was a lack of exposure, but it was more him getting an opportunity to prove to people, although he's a little undersized, his skill and skating ability make up for it."
Before the college offers, before former Minnesota coach Don Lucia and Berry came to Moorhead Sports Center, before national TV spots, before an invite to the Minnesota Wild development camp and before climbing the Moorhead record books, there was doubt.
Randklev was a healthy scratch for the first six USHL games with the Force, seemingly destined for a spot on the practice squad. He had started since he was a sophomore for Moorhead, so watching hockey games was not something he was used to.
Randklev even made a trip to Aberdeen, S.D., with the idea of leaving the Force and playing in the North American Hockey League.
"I had never been in that position," Randklev said. "I knew I needed to keep practicing and show myself I could play. When I got the opportunity I went with it."
Randklev got his opportunity in late October. He had two goals and five assists in his first four games in the USHL season.
"We saw a player with great hockey sense and a guy that makes some plays and scores some goals," Force coach Cary Eades said. "He's a real competitor. Even for his size, he really battles for pucks and wins pucks as good as anybody."
Randklev would decommit from ASU in the middle of Novemember.
"I committed to Arizona because it was my first full offer. I didn't really take my time with it," Randklev said. "I thought about things and I've had dream schools. I know a Minnesota kid is supposed to go to a Minnesota school, but North Dakota I never thought it'd be an option. When I found out it could be an option that changed everything for me."
Randklev got a UND hockey jersey for his ninth birthday. It was around that time he went to his first UND hockey game. It was also around that time people were telling him he's too small to play hockey. That's when his focus turned to stickhandling. Randklev says when he's bored he doesn't watch movies, he works on his stickhandling because "stickhandling is going to get you somewhere whereas a movie isn't."
In a span of less than two months, Randklev went from a practice squad player for the Force with one offer from ASU to a player all the top colleges in the area wanted.
"As a sophomore we saw the ability," Ammerman said. "He just continued to have confidence to make plays and I think going to the USHL really gave him that confidence he could come back and dominate at our level. Especially for a player like him confidence is so important because he has to be confident to do the things he does."
From there, Randklev experienced tears when his Moorhead career ended without a trip to the state tournament, suffered the first real injuries of his career during the Force playoff run and hoisted the Clark Cup in Youngstown, Ohio. He's fresh off an invite to the Wild development camp, which ended last week.
"I don't think in my whole life I've ever been given so much information, whether it was nutrition or the psychology aspect or stuff on the ice or off the ice, I was given it all," Randklev said of the camp. "All those guys are NHL coaches, AHL coaches, they know what they're talking about. It was nerve wracking for me because I know there were guys who played in the AHL or played three years in college and they know what it takes, but I was just trying to soak in as much information as I could."
Randklev will play next season with the Force before heading to UND. He won't be a healthy scratch to start the USHL season.
"We're looking forward for him to establish himself as a top-six forward and playing in key situations for us," Eades said. "He's had his cup of coffee with us and now we expect him to be an impact player."
Through the ups and downs of the last year, Randklev hopes there's a lesson somewhere for athletes.
"There's always been one thing that's hindered me and that's obviously been my size," Randklev said. "There's plenty of small guys in the world that play this sport and make a career out of it. I've been told I'm too small, I've got cut for being too small. I found a way to get around it and work on other skills. That's probably my best advice to anyone that can relate to my size. Whether you're 5-8 or 6-8 there's always a spot for you as long as you work on a skill that can get you to the next level."