Keaton Thompson was just like any other North Dakota hockey player growing up, aspiring to one day play for UND Hockey among the best college players in the country.
Now he's living the dream.
"If you're from anywhere close to Grand Forks and you don't dream of this as a hockey player," Thompson said, "something's gotta be wrong."
Thankfully for him, there doesn't seem to be too much wrong with the 18-year-old Thompson, whose game has attracted national attention since his varsity hockey days at Devils Lake High School.
After debuting as a eighth grader, Thompson's talent was apparent from the very beginning and alerted a number of scouts nationwide.
Thompson registered 18 points in his first season with the Devils Lake varsity team, making him the second leading scorer on the team as a defenseman. The next year, he more than doubled that output with 38 points as a freshman, a total that placed him among the highest scoring defenders in the state.
After his second year with Devils Lake, head coach Dave Zimmerman understood that 20-24 games per year at the high school level was less than what Thompson needed in order to progress to the next level.
So, Zimmerman suggested to Keaton and his family that he pursue an opportunity with the USA development program, a chance that Keaton seized with both hands.
"Keaton has the total package, as he has sweet hands, smooth skating and intelligence" Zimmerman said. "I was very honored to have him as a player."
After speaking with team-USA representatives, Thompson was invited to attend a 40-man try-out in Ann Arbor, Mich., and he did not disappoint. In fact, his performances merited his acceptance onto the team mid-camp, giving Keaton and his family a difficult decision to make.
In addition to his offer from team USA, Thompson also had an offer to play for the Fargo Force, a tier-one USHL junior hockey program. This option would have positioned him much closer to home while also granting him the opportunity to further his skills at a high level.
But in the end, Thompson elected to pursue his hockey dreams in Michigan.
"It was a challenge for us as parents, but I think for him, it was an easy decision," said Todd Thompson, Keaton's father and assistant coach with the Devils Lake hockey team. "It would have been much nicer for us to see him play in Fargo and all that, but he made the right decision for him, and he made the best of it.
"He got to do things that a lot of players his age will never get the opportunity to do."
Page 2 of 3 - Though his choice made sense from a hockey standpoint, it certainly wasn't an immediate decision for Keaton to make.
To play for the USA development program meant giving up what many would call an ordinary high school experience.
But Keaton understood that the support that he had from his family and friends would be enough to help him push on and pursue his hockey aspirations to the fullest.
"It was a big concern, but I knew my friends supported me after talking with them about it," Keaton said. "And my family was there for me, too. I knew it was going to be fine."
One of the most notable ventures Keaton was afforded with team USA was the opportunity to travel.
During his two years with the team, he traveled to several different countries to compete, including Canada, Russia and Slovakia. In addition to that, he was also presented with the best training facilities available to a young hockey player in this country, the best of the best.
While he entered the team USA squad with a fair bit of talent already, his experience in Michigan helped make him an even better player, preparing him for life as a member of the UND hockey team.
"I was a pretty skinny kid going into Ann Arbor," Keaton said, "but there, you work out and skate every day. That helped me hold my own against some of the older guys I played against."
Now, he's a top recruit, entering one of the premier Division I hockey programs in the country, which can be a massive undertaking for a kid who just turned 18.
But Keaton's work ethic has never come into question. In fact, it's been one of his most admirable traits throughout the course of his development.
"He's one of those kids that you wouldn't have to ask to go out and shoot 100 pucks or get in the weight room," his dad said. "Sometimes, he'd give up an opportunity to hang out with his friends to get through a weight lifting program he needed to do that day. He didn't get to where he's at today by not working hard."
And others have taken notice of that, including current UND head coach Dave Hakstol, who appreciates Keaton's work rate in practice and knows that he has the potential to become a top player.
"Keaton's work ethic and mentality are excellent," Hakstol said. "He's a hard worker, and he's a real good teammate. That's why we've been impressed with him."
Hakstol and the rest of the UND recruitment staff took notice of Keaton during his time with team USA, and his talent was evident from the moment they started watching him play.
Page 3 of 3 - In fact, seeing his talent matched up against so many other talented skaters made him that much more attractive as a recuit.
"It makes it more apparent when you can compare a young player to the best in his age group," Hakstol said, "and it was pretty obvious to us early on that Keaton was one of the guys that was at the top of his age group in the country."
Keaton has already competed in a few games this season for North Dakota, including a contest last weekend that saw his new team square off against his old team: the US U-18s, a match up that UND won 4-1.
While he understands that he'll need to fight for his ice time once again, he is focused on getting better more than anything else.
"Personally, I haven't thought too much about how much I want to be playing," he said. "I definitely want to improve my game so that I can be better when I'm on the ice so that I can make the best of my opportunities and contribute to the team."
In July, Thompson was selected 87th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2013 NHL draft, making him the highest-drafted player in the history of North Dakota hockey.