When Michael Huntebrinker arrived at Minnesota State in the fall of 2013, it was clear to him from the start that there was a tough lineup to crack.
Talented hockey players such as Matt Leitner, Jean-Paul LaFontaine, Bryce Gervais and Teddy Blueger were in place among the Mavericks' top forwards, rarely coming out of the top six, and an early season wrist injury didn't help Huntebrinker's cause, either.
Huntebrinker played in 20 games, less than half of MSU's total, during his freshman year. Whether he was in or out of the lineup, he said, he just tried to soak in as much as he could about the college game.
"Our team was so talented that, if anything, I think it helped me to become a better player just being around a group that's that skilled and that deep," Huntebrinker said. "I mean, every day was definitely challenging, but it improved me as a player and hopefully helped me in the long run."
Bit by bit, Huntebrinker indeed progressed over the next two seasons.
After scoring two goals and assisting on another as a freshman, he scored two more and had nine points in 24 games as a sophomore.
In his third year, he finally started to show the reason why he was coach Mike Hastings' first recruit, playing all 41 games and finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 19 points, including seven goals.
"Perseverance," Hastings said. "I never felt like I was getting the stink eye from him, even though I know he was disappointed he wasn't playing at times. His buy-in to the we factor was never questioned by me."
Last weekend, in Minnesota State's season-opening sweep of Michigan Tech, Huntebrinker, now an alternate captain and the team's second-line center, assisted on two of linemate Zeb Knutson's three goals, making a highlight-reel pass to set up each one.
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"He has grown dramatically in so many areas," Hastings said. "He truly believes he can impact a game every night. He has prepared himself as well as he can to have in impact on this year's team."
A native of suburban St. Louis, Huntebrinker admitted that his approach hasn't really changed too much over his time at Minnesota State, even going into his final college season. Every year, the mantra is learn and get better.
"I felt like last year was a good year for me, just getting more settled in," he said. "I don't know if I have more weight on my shoulders [this year]. I've been around for three seasons, and I know what it's taken in the past for us to be successful."
Hastings and MSU players agree that the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Huntebrinker is strong on his skates and plays a consistent and "heavy game."
The passing skills he displayed a week ago weren't an anomaly, they said.
Great pass from Huntebrinker leads to goal by Knutson (3rd of yr). Minnesota State takes 1-0 lead at 10:32/1st.— MinnStateMHockey (@MavHockey) October 9, 2016
"He's a strong kid, skating down low, protecting pucks -- he's able to create space for himself and his linemates," fellow senior and defenseman Sean Flanagan said. "And he's smart. He's come a long way.
Huntebrinker has a good shot, too, something his coach said he would like to see him use even more.
"Adding that to my game is something I want to keep working on," Huntebrinker said. "I like to make plays, but sometimes I need to look to be a shooter first. Sometimes, that's the mentality I need to have."
Perhaps that's the next step in his progression.
This article was written by Shane Frederick from The Free Press, Mankato, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.