When Jakob Stender stepped off the ice at the Runestone Community Center on Feb. 20, 2018, for the Alexandria boys hockey team, he didn't know his next game in that building would be 1,166 days later.
Stender, who was a freshman when the Cardinals beat Fergus Falls 6-2 in the Section 6A quarterfinals in 2018, returned home for one last hoorah at the RCC. Stender currently mans the point as a defenseman for the NAHL's Aberdeen Wings (SD), who played a road series against the St. Cloud Norsemen in Alexandria this past weekend.
"It was crazy how this happened," Stender said. "I heard back in December there was a chance we could be playing here. I was hoping for it, and it worked out. It was pretty special."
The Norsemen typically play home games at the MAC in St. Cloud but needed a temporary home for one weekend. The RCC hosted an NAHL team from 2003-2012 before the franchise relocated to Brookings, SD. In 2019, the franchise moved again and rebranded to the St. Cloud Norsemen.
Stender's freshman season as an Alexandria Cardinal was the only one he played before transferring to Northstar Christian Academy. He played 18U prep hockey in the Knights' first two seasons in program history before foregoing his senior year to play juniors.
In 49 games, Stender has four goals and 13 assists. He's embracing his role as a physical defenseman that's able to jump into plays offensively.
"The game is a lot quicker in the NAHL," Stender said. "I have to move pucks a lot quicker than I used to. I had to learn that I can't hold onto the puck as long I used to at this level. There's a lot of hitting and more physicality when you get to juniors. As a team, we play pretty physical. We can match what other teams do in that sense. It makes it pretty easy when you have good teammates around you that play this way."
Stender and his teammates aren't just good. The Wings are putting together one of the best seasons in league history with a record of 47-4-0-1 (95 points), including a pair of wins over the Norsemen last weekend. Aberdeen has 15 Division I commitments already, with more expected to come. To end this season with anything other than a deep postseason run would be an underachievement.
"It would definitely be a disappointment," Stender said. "Since the beginning of the year, we've had our eyes on the prize. That's what we work for every single day. We want it, and we're playing like we want it."
The last time Stender played at the RCC, he was a third-line forward on a team that finished second in the Class A state hockey tournament. While at Northstar, he transitioned to defense. Stender can look back over the last three years and see how far he's come as a hockey player.
"I've grown tremendously," Stender said. "My coaches thought I would be a better defenseman at Northstar. It's worked out ever since. I've learned so much everywhere I've played, including this team. The group of guys that we have is awesome. We work hard every single day. There's always that positive attitude on and off the ice."
Stender has played in 49 of Aberdeen's 52 games this season. It's a feat he attributes to keeping his cool in high-pressure moments.
"The speed is crazy," Stender said. "I think my composure has improved a lot over the year. I don't feel as rushed as I used to. I know I don't have lots of time with the puck, but I don't feel like I have to rush plays anymore. I want to make the smartest plays out there."
Getting one last chance to play at his childhood rink was more than a happy coincidence for Stender. It was an opportunity to share how far he's come as a hockey player in front of friends and family.
"It's better than I can describe," Stender said. "I had quite a few people here watch me come out and play these two games. It's cool to see everyone again. I haven't been home for a couple of months. It was just really special."