It won’t take long until you come up with the word seemingly everyone comes up with watching Eau Claire North junior forward Sam Stange play hockey.
You’ll watch him glide his 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame across the ice with a certain ease. How precise and quick his shot is with the flick of his strong wrists. If he wants to hit a certain stitch on the net, chances are he will. The way he can poke a puck away or toe drag to create a little extra room for himself on a shot.
Before long, you’ll probably hear yourself say a sentence containing the word “smooth.”
“I think it is more of a skill game in high school right now,” Stange said. “I get to use my speed a lot more and developing my hands and shot, I’m able to use that a little more out here.”
On skates since he was about 3 years old, hockey has always been who Stange is. And now, as a junior leader on a team with big-time potential, the rest of the state is getting to know all about him.
A year after tallying 48 points (15 goals, 33 assists), Stange has gotten off to a hotter start than any player in Wisconsin. Through three games, he’s got eight goals and six assists for a state-best 14 points. In fact, he was named the Wisconsin Prep Hockey player of the week after leading North to a 2-0-1 start.
He played for Team Wisconsin in the offseason, learning how to play against bigger and faster players. It’s paying off now as the ice at the high school level looks like a chess board to him. Stange has spent the early part of the season saying checkmate to any goaltender in his path.
“He’s incredibly smart, and he understands the game and understands how to anticipate,” North coach Ryan Parker said.
If it looks like the game slowed down so much for Stange that it looks effortless, it’s not a coincidence. Playing all offseason with Team Wisconsin allowed him to see the game differently.
“When I’m out there, it slows it down for me a bit,” Stange said. “When I look at film, it looks a lot faster than it feels out there. So I think playing with the higher competition and then coming back here helped me a lot.”
Stange could probably find a way to get himself to the net every play if he wanted to. But he’s all about making the right hockey play. Whether that’s dishing off to a streaking teammate on a 2-or-1 or getting the puck to the net for a redirect, he’s doing whatever he can to put the Huskies in a position to win.
“He makes everyone around him better,” said linemate Jeff Pippenger, who has three goals and two assists himself this winter. “He has a great hockey IQ. He knows what he’s doing. He gets shots on net.”
In the spring, Stange was taken in the 19th round of the USHL draft by the Sioux City Musketeers. He’s an affiliate of the club, coached by Eau Claire native Luke Strand.
Stange might just be scratching the surface of his hockey potential. There’s no doubt in the minds of many he’ll be a permanent fixture in Sioux City at some point in time. And then from there, he’ll surely want a college hockey career. In an area that’s produced many great college hockey talents, he may be next in line.
But his high school team is pretty darned exciting too and not just a one-man show. The Huskies are an honorable mention in state polls. Five years ago, you would have thought that was a typo. Parker has transformed the program into a legitimate state contender.
This year’s Huskies have more speed and skill than perhaps ever before. Eau Claire Memorial, the state’s No. 2 team and riding an eight-year state tournament streak, is awfully good and in North’s sectional. The Old Abes beat then-No. 2 Wausau West and No. 4 Green Bay Notre Dame over Thanksgiving weekend.
With strong talent all around, Parker hopes they can be right there.
“We always want to put ourselves in that situation,” Parker said. “Those teams are the real deal, and we like to think we put ourselves in that category. It will just come down to execution in those games.”