GRAND FORKS-The University of North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State are three of the four teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff this weekend in the Xcel Energy Center.
They are all ranked in the top 12 in this week's USCHO national poll.
Add in MSU-Mankato and Minnesota and five of the nation's top 15 teams in this week's national rankings are from this area.
And there's reason to think that the future will be bright for the area teams considering youth hockey participation numbers compiled by USA Hockey.
UND, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth, who will all play in the league semifinals Friday at the home of the Minnesota Wild, are heavily dependent upon local players to put together their teams.
Fifty-six percent of UND's roster is from North Dakota and Minnesota; 64 percent of St. Cloud State's team is from the two states and 69.2 percent of Minnesota Duluth's comes from there.
The lion's share of those players are Minnesotans, though all three teams have players from North Dakota-Johnny Simonson and Casey Johnson for UND, Jon Lizotte and Jacob Benson for St. Cloud State and Jade Miller for Minnesota Duluth.
USA Hockey's participation numbers show that the local and regional player pool is bound to increase in upcoming years, too.
USA Hockey tracks 8-and-under participation numbers for associations around the country.
At a time when participation has dropped in hockey hotbeds such as Michigan and Massachusetts, it's still booming in Minnesota and North Dakota.
In the past 15 years, Massachusetts' participation numbers for 8U boys has declined 25.3 percent from 13,715 in 2001-02 to 10,249 last season. In Michigan, it has declined 35.8 percent from 10,266 in 2001-02 to 6,599 last year.
The opposite has been true in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Boys 8U participation numbers are up 17.7 percent in Minnesota in the past 15 years from 11,526 to 13,570, and they are up a staggering 130 percent in North Dakota during that same timespan, going from 930 to 2,139.
In North Dakota, new rinks have been recently built in Grand Forks, Fargo, West Fargo, Minot and Watford City.
"I think there are a number of factors," said Glen Andreson, the executive director of Minnesota Hockey. "The Minnesota Wild coming in has been a major factor. In Minnesota, you have five college programs. You have a ton of high school programs. All of these things are inspiring kids to play hockey, welcoming kids and giving kids role models to look up to for both men and women.
"But really, I think the biggest reason of all those major factors is that Minnesota has such a low cost-entry to hockey and the method to playing hockey is the community-based structure."
The Grand Forks-East Grand Forks community has seen benefits.
The East Grand Forks Senior High boys team won its first two state championships in 2014 and 2015.
In 2016, Grand Forks Red River became North Dakota's first undefeated state champion team in nearly 50 years. Then, Grand Forks Central did the same the following year.
At the youth level, the Grand Forks Aviators bantam team has finished ranked No. 1 and No. 2 among all Minnesota teams the past two seasons. Several of their players have gone on to star in high school and commit to UND, including Braden Costello, Judd Caulfield and Jackson Kunz.
"I've always maintained that if Grand Forks had one high school team, it would be as good as the Moorheads and Edinas," Howard said. "I think our bantam Aviators are proving that. They can compete with all the best teams in Minnesota."
Although nearly all college programs come to this area to recruit players, the biggest beneficiaries are usually the local teams.
"Other states are working hard to improve numbers and USA Hockey is doing everything they can to help," Andreson said. "There are certain challenges other states face that we do not in Minnesota in terms of easy access in terms of cost. There's easy access in almost every town and a huge volunteer base that really cares."