With a huge cheering section, former Bulldogs, Stillwater star Noah Cates makes his NHL debut close to home
His now-former college teammates made the trek from Duluth to Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday to hoot an holler for Noah Cates as the Stillwater native and UMD standout got his first taste of hockey as a paying career.
ST. PAUL – After Tuesday night, Noah Cates may play 1,000 more NHL games, but he will almost certainly never get another pregame reception like the one he experienced upon stepping onto the ice at Xcel Energy Center.
Wearing a white sweater with No. 49 on the back in the bright orange numerals of the Philadelphia Flyers, Cates kept with pro hockey tradition and took a solo lap on the rink that is the most prominent cathedral in the State of Hockey to a thunderous round of cheers, applause and pounding on the glass from a few dozen men who were his college teammates just 72 hours earlier.
“I honestly can’t believe this right now. We were just saying, the smile on his face makes us all happy,” said Bulldogs forward Blake Biondi, who played with Cates the past two seasons at UMD. “Every time he skates by we’re laughing and he’s smiling and we’re pounding the glass. It’s honestly a weird feeling because we just played here, like, two weeks ago. To see him playing for the Philadelphia Flyers is just nuts.”
Biondi’s calendar was actually a bit off. It was just 10 days earlier that Cates and the Bulldogs had beaten Western Michigan on this same downtown St. Paul ice sheet to win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
After the Bulldogs’ season ended on Saturday with a loss to Denver in the Loveland Regional title game, Cates inked an entry-level deal with the Flyers, who had picked him in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft.
“It happened pretty quick. Obviously disappointing that my four years at Duluth are over. It was an awesome four years with all the memories and people up there that are so special to me,” Cates said before the game. “Just closing the page pretty quickly, coming down here. It made it – not going to say hurt any less – but I kind of turned the page a little quicker. That was kind of nice. Obviously I miss my teammates and glad they're able to make it down here.”
Originally from Stillwater, Minnesota, Cates turned 23 in February, about the time he was headed across the Pacific to skate for Team USA in China during the Winter Olympics.
Former Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo, now behind the Flyers bench on an interim basis, did the right thing on Tuesday and gave the hometown boy the start on the left wing. For the Flyers, that might have been the night’s highlight, as things went the Wild’s way pretty much whenever the rink was free of a Zamboni. With a 21-35-11 mark after Tuesday’s loss, the Flyers are very much a work in progress, but that may work out well for an up-and-coming player like Cates.
“He made the decision to come back and play his senior year and obviously we came up a little bit short, but great for him to have this opportunity,” said Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, watching the game from club level with his family. “I think he’s going to get a great opportunity here with the way their team is so hopefully he can prove to them he belongs.”
For Yeo, it was actually a reunion of sorts with Cates, roughly a decade later. As a teen, Cates and Kyler Yeo – Mike’s son – were youth hockey teammates for a time.
“It's making me feel really old,” Mike Yeo joked earlier in the day. “I just remember at that time just thinking, I don't know if I'd ever seen another player at that age where we could just see the hockey sense.”
Cates finished his NHL debut with nearly 15 minutes on the ice and three of the Flyers' 33 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Wild. Teammates joked that for a team that is mathematically eliminated from the playoff race a month before the season ends, the cheers for Cates in warmups may have been the best part of the night.
For his part, Cates acknowledged the Bulldogs who had made the trip down from Duluth, but focused his attention on the many kids in Stillwater youth hockey sweaters that he saw pressed up against the glass before the game started.
"Having them there with signs, supporting me was obviously very special," Cates said. "I was that kid back in the day, so it's special that they can see a Stillwater alum playing in his first game in the NHL, in Minnesota."