By Jim den Hollander
The recent college commitment for Elliot Van Orsdel is probably no surprise to anyone who knows him. The path was locked in when he moved as a youngster with his family to Eveleth, MN, home of the US Hockey Hall of Fame.
After 15 years honing his craft in the State of Hockey, Van Orsdel will visit the nation’s other hockey hotbed when he takes his act to New England, more specifically, the University of Southern Maine, this fall.
From a youth player to a member of a storied varsity hockey program, featured in a hockey documentary along the way and finally, taking his act to the State’s capital to play for the Minnesota Mullets junior hockey team, the journey for Van Orsdel has been epic.
The move to Eveleth started it off in his first year of school.
“I was extremely fortunate to grow up in an area with so much hockey culture,” recalled Van Orsdel in an email interview. “I moved up north from St. Cloud with my family right before kindergarten and didn’t have a clue what hockey was. It didn’t take but a day of school for me to come home begging to get a pair of skates.”
After playing his youth hockey locally, Van Orsdel lived the dream of any Minnesota-born youth, playing for his varsity hockey team, the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears.
“We didn’t have the numbers some schools had, being from a small town, but the passion was unmatched,” said Van Orsdel adding the unorganized matches of his youth were as memorable as the ones in front of spectators.
“I still remember packing my backpack for school with my skates, so all of us rink rats could play pond hockey until sundown. Some of my best memories are playing out on the rink. It was a place to escape and just have fun.”
Playing youth and high school hockey with the same jersey worn by local legends like Mark Pavelich, a member of the Miracle on Ice team or earlier, John Mayasich, another local that found success with the US Olympic teams in 1956 and 1960 was an honor for Van Orsdel.
“The games were always electric, especially in my latter years of high school,” said the 6’2,” 180-pound forward. “As I got older, we got better and with Eveleth being such a small town, the whole community supported us. I am thankful and proud to be a Golden Bear.”
Following his junior season, Van Orsdel took some big strides in shaping the next stage of his career, beginning with a 10-game stint with the Minnesota Iron Rangers from the Superior International Junior Hockey League, a Tier 2 junior circuit that includes teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Northwestern Ontario.
“I loved playing in the SIJHL,” said Van Orsdel. “We had a local team and when my junior year ended, I wanted to keep playing. I was lucky enough to know the coach and earn a spot on the Iron Rangers. It was definitely an eye opener. At the time I had never seen hockey like that. Coming from a Single A high school to what looked to me like grown men, I was shocked. I learned a lot from that experience though. I saw the intensity and passion of junior hockey before I even graduated which was helpful down the line. I am glad I got to call myself a Ranger for those 10 games.”
The other saw him playing in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League, a high caliber group of teams that play a short but intense schedule leading up to the varsity high school seasons.
“I was fortunate to make what we call ‘Elite League.’ The Best of Minnesota and Wisconsin in a summer-long tournament. Just my team alone, we had 6-8 D1 (College) commits. I grew a lot that off-season between Elite League and SIJHL. I could tell coming into my senior year, I was the best I had been to that point, and it paid off.”
It sure did as Van Orsdel returned to his final season of varsity, putting up 21 goals and 50 points in 25 games, adding three more in a pair of playoff contests.
“We ended up having some great wins,” said Van Orsdel. “The best one was against Greenway who finished second in state the season before. It was a hell of a game, topped off by my goal in overtime. We had never beaten them, so it was a great feeling for all of us seniors.”
Some of those exploits were captured in a hockey documentary film called Hockeyland which was released to theaters in 2021.
Van Orsdel was a key figure in the movie and counts it as another great experience the sport has brought him.
“It was quite the experience for sure,” said Van Orsdel. “I was hesitant at first, having a camera on you for months, everywhere you go from school to the rink. It was strange, but I’m glad I did it. The movie was unbelievable, so emotional and real. I’ll never get back those moments with my teammates, but we are lucky our whole senior year was captured on film. I think as I get older, I’ll come to appreciate it even more.”
Van Orsdel finally had to leave his small town to take the next step and moved to the heartbeat of the State of Hockey, playing in the Twin Cities for the Minnesota Mullets. He clearly made an impression on Head Coach Chris Walby who gave the forward a ‘C’ for his jersey and the responsibility of helping man the ship as the squad moved on from the graduation of many aged-out players.
In two seasons with the ‘Mullies,’ Van Orsdel played 78 games, potting 26 goals and collecting 90 points.
“We were a great team together. I learned a lot from Walbs,” said Van Orsdel. “He’s a great coach but more importantly, a great person. I always found myself to be a leader, not in a selfish way, but simply trying to help the team in any way possible. I’m passionate and competitive. I can’t turn that off.
“We weren’t just a team, but a family and that directly stems from Walby’s influence. We played for each other as a family and that’s how you create accountability. I can’t thank Coach Walby enough. I am honored to say I was captain of the Minnesota Mullets.”
The admiration goes both ways as Coach Walby, ironically a one-time coach for the Iron Rangers as well was a coach and a huge fan of Van Orsdel from the moment he put on the burgandy, yellow and white jersey.
"Elliot was incredible here for us," said the coach. "When entering the rink, he has the 'switch' that I always talk about. Every time he enters the rink, he's ready to prove that he and his team are the best on the ice that night.
He competes each game and leads the way. I've enjoyed every moment being his coach and love how much he loves this team. I am grateful for his role as a leader and the positive impact he brought to the program. As a captain, he motivated us as a group and led the charge. He is one of the toughest competitors I've coached and a talented hockey player.
"Elliot is extremely bright and I enjoyed that during each of our discussions, texts, phone calls and meetings. I am proud of the man he has become, forever grateful for the opportunity to be a part of his journey and I can't wait to watch his hockey career continue at a fantastic school."
This past season, Van Orsdel drew plenty of attention from college scouts and his decision will take him to the east coast.
“There were a lot of schools that reached out, but Southern Maine seemed like the best fit for me. I’m ready for the next step in my education and hockey career and USM gave me the best opportunity for that to happen,” said Van Orsdel who took Community College courses while still in high school. achieved my AA degree, so I plan to jump right into a Business Analytics Degree.”
Of course, there will be another jump in the level of play at the rink, but Van Orsdel has clearly been able to adapt to anything thrown at him so far.
“Of course, I don’t expect it to be easy at all,” said Van Orsdel. “There is a plethora of new experiences to face, not only on the hockey side of things, but educationally as well. As far as the hockey, it’s bigger and faster. I’m confident in my ability to adapt but not going into it like it’s a cakewalk.”
Looking back on the road he has taken so far, several coaches and teammates have played a role, but Van Orsdel said there has been a constant in terms of support, ever since he went to them for that first pair of skates.
“Nothing I’ve accomplished is possible without the support and love from my parents,” said the points producing forward. “I can’t come up with the right words to thank them properly. From day one, they have been my number one supporters through thick and thin. I’m the luckiest person in the world to have the best parents anyone could ask for. They made me into the man I am today and gifted me with a beautiful, loving life. I am blessed for all they have done and continue to do.”