Every fall, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program brings a new group of elite hockey players from across the country to Metro Detroit. Randy Hernandez, a Miami native, is one of many who come from non-traditional hockey markets to skate with the NTDP in Michigan.
By Matt Mackinder –
Randy Hernandez certainly puts the “National” in United States National Team Development Program.
A Miami native, Hernandez is just the latest player from outside non-traditional hockey hotbeds across the country to develop his talents with far fewer amenities than those in areas like Michigan, Minnesota or Boston.
But watch the 16-year-old forward on the ice at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth and one would never even think to assume Hernandez is from Florida, yet he’s now a key component of the NTDP’s Under-17 Team this season.
“Coming here to the program, it’s been great so far and the coaches we have really know what they’re doing,” Hernandez said. “You just have to come in here and take it all in like a sponge. Everything is right here for us and we literally have it all.”
During the 2014-15 season, Hernandez skated for the Florida Alliance U16 AAA program and was actually shocked and stunned to learn that the NTDP brass was tracking him all year long.
Again, the old adage about it not mattering where you play and the scouts finding you applies here.
“All I’ve ever known in hockey is to work hard and enjoy the game,” said Hernandez. “My brother (Robert) always tells me to think positive and that’s been a big influence on me. I really didn’t think I was that good of a hockey player until I was 13 or so. Then my coach last season, Paul Healey, told me that the national program was asking about me and it kind of made me realize that the hard work was paying off.”
Hernandez went to the program’s evaluation camp this past summer and made enough of an impression to be offered a spot for the Under-17 squad. He happily accepted.
“It feels really good to be here,” Hernandez said. “It’s more than that, though. You have to keep pushing, keep upping the effort and keep wanting to get better and better every day. You just can’t think too much about things. You just have to go out and do it. That’s really what it boils down to.”
Hernandez, whose parents were born in Cuba, said he grew up playing baseball, “but the game was slow and it wasn’t too much fun for me.”
Trying something different was in the cards and that’s where hockey emerged.
“I remember I was six and we went to a birthday party for my cousin at an arena where we could all skate as part of the party,” Hernandez said. “I immediately loved being on the ice and I never wanted to stop. I remember someone at the rink told me that I was a pretty good skater and that I should look into playing hockey.”
Years later, that recreation skate at a birthday party has yielded one of the top 1999 birthdates in all of the U.S.
Knowing that the NTDP routinely churns out high-end NCAA Division I talents is one aspect of being in Plymouth that Hernandez has realized could work out for him as well.
“I’m really not in any rush and to be honest, I just want to take these two years here to develop and see where it takes me,” Hernandez said. “Just knowing where players have gone from here in the past is a lot of motivation and I hope I can find myself on that list when the time is right. You’re not going to get any better NCAA preparation than with what they offer here.”
This year, Don Granato coaches the Under-17s and having an ex-NCAA player serve as his coach is another “fantastic opportunity” Hernandez has been provided this year. Granato played at Wisconsin from 1987-1991 and has coached at the USHL, AHL and ECHL levels since 1993, in addition to a stint as an assistant coach with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues in 2005-06.
“Don is a great coach and really, a mentor to all of us,” said Hernandez. “I’m just so grateful to have someone like him as my coach this year. We do a lot of video work, and that’s huge. Little by little, Don teaches us, makes us see things we never noticed before on the ice. He runs a good practice and really makes it enjoyable to be at the rink each day.”
Another unique aspect of Hernandez’s tale is that when he was younger, he had problems skating and stopping – yes, just like the Luis Mendoza character in the second “Mighty Ducks” movie, who was also a Miami native.
“My brother used to call me ‘Rodriguez’ (the Mendoza actor Mike Vitar’s name from “The Sandlot”) when we were kids and it’s pretty funny with the similarities in the movie and with me,” said Hernandez. “I just laughed it off. All I have ever wanted to do is play hockey, but yes, I did eventually learn how to stop.”
And with Hernandez being one of four Florida natives on both the Under-17 and Under-18 Teams (Quinn Hughes and Michael Pastujov on the Under-17 Team, Nick Pastujov on the Under-18 Team), plus players from places like California, Texas, Idaho, Missouri and Indiana, it truly makes the NTDP a nationwide phenomenon.
“It’s just awesome and these days, it really doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Hernandez said. “If you have the work ethic and the mindset to get better, you’ll have a great chance at making it. There are no easy days here, but that’s what you want if your goal is to keep getting better and play college hockey and give yourself a shot at the NHL down the road.”