In a long line of great hockey players to don the blue and white sweater of the Minnetonka Skippers, Justin McHugh ranks right up with the best of them.
A mainstay on a pair of powerful Skippers teams in the early 90s, McHugh was the team's leading goal-scorer his senior year. It was his performance on the big stage at the state tournament during his junior year, however, that was career-changing.
In helping the Skippers to a third place finish – the school's best until the 2009-10 team finished second – McHugh was the tournament's leading scorer.
"That's when I started hearing from some colleges," he recalls. Choosing to play close to home, McHugh became a four-year regular at the University of Minnesota, where he played in two NCAA Frozen Four tournaments and scored 24 goals his senior season – despite missing about 10 games with an injury.
As a throw-back to an era when top athletes played multiple sports, McHugh earned seven athletic letters at MHS, quarterbacking the football team, playing catcher and outfield in baseball, and, of course, was scoring plenty of goals as an all-conference forward in hockey.
"I always looked forward to one sport ending and the next one starting up – I think it made us better athletes." Lest anyone consider McHugh just a jock, he was a consistent Honor Roll student who heard time and time again from his parents, Mike and Dani (a Minnetonka teacher), that academics mattered just as much as sports.
Their message paid off, as McHugh was named the Western Collegiate Athletic Association (WCHA) Student-Athlete of the Year and was accepted into the University of Minnesota's School of Dentistry.
Yet, just as almost every boy who laces up a pair of hockey skates dreams of playing the National Hockey League, McHugh took his shot in the minor leagues, deferring dental school a couple of times.
At the age 24, which was older than most other minor leaguers, McHugh was preparing for a season in the International League – a step from the NHL – when he hung up his skates. "The dental school needed to know what I was going to do, and I knew that nothing in professional hockey is ever guaranteed," he says. "So I decided to move on and pursue my career as a dentist."
Today, McHugh is a partner in a large, two-location dental practice. He, his wife and their two daughters live in the Minnetonka School District, where Justin coaches girls' youth hockey. "It wasn't easy to give up hockey, and some people might not understand it, but I'm still glad I chose the path I did."