American Dream

Family Heritage Helps Fuel Randy Hernandez’s Rise Up The Hockey Ranks

You have to look long and hard to find a more unlikely and more improbable hockey prospect than Randy Hernandez. Or one who better exemplifies the American Dream.

The 17-year-old is a forward with the National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich. After a second NTDP season in 2016-17, he’s sure to advance to the next level, and then maybe even to the NHL.
What’s so remarkable is where the young man started—where his family started—and what it says about the state of hockey in the United States.

This is a kid who grew up in Florida and developed while mainly playing AA, not AAA, hockey. On top of that, there’s his very non-traditional hockey family. His parents and older brother left Cuba in 1996 to build a better life in Miami. And there, in the Sunshine State, a second son is born, and he turns into an elite hockey player.

“It’s pretty crazy, when you think about it,” laughs Peter Ward, the former NTDP recruiting director who ran across Hernandez while scouting in 2014.

Hernandez is not alone in showcasing Florida’s rise in the hockey world. Brothers Nick and Michael Pastujov, of Bradenton, are also skating for the NTDP and both will play at the University of Michigan. Shayne Gostisbehere, of the Philadelphia Flyers, hails from Margate, north of Ft. Lauderdale, while Boston College, Quinnipiac and Harvard all had native Floridians on their rosters last  year.

“With the way hockey is expanding into non-traditional areas, players can come from anywhere now,” says Don Granato, Hernandez’s former coach at the NTDP. “As long as there’s access to ice, you’ll get exceptional athletes coming into our game.”

Skating in the USHL last season, and playing against bigger, stronger players who are usually two, three or four years older, has been an adjustment for Hernandez. Through 49 games, he had eight goals and seven assists.

Randy Hernandez is just one more example that talented hockey players can come from anywhere. The Florida native caught the eye of former NTDP scout Peter Ward during a scouting trip in 2014.Randy Hernandez is just one more example that talented hockey players can come from anywhere. The Florida native caught the eye of former NTDP scout Peter Ward during a scouting trip in 2014.

“It’s kind of intimidating how hard they hit at first,” Hernandez says as he reflects on his first season. “But I’m just trying to work hard, trying to get better.”

Off ice, it took time getting used to billeting with a family in Michigan, and being away from his own close-knit family in Florida.

Granato is quick to point out that the kid’s got game. For proof, the coach pulls up a video clip  from a Jan. 15 game against the Muskegon Lumberjacks. Hernandez picks up the puck at his own blue line, and after two explosive strides, beats three opposing forwards through the neutral zone.

Here Granato paused the video and pointed at one defenseman caught leaning the wrong way.

“Randy knows he’s got him already,” the coach says. When the video resumes, Hernandez glides ahead, dekes the goalie and tucks the puck into the net.

 

“It’s kind of intimidating how hard they hit at first, but I’m just trying to work hard, trying to get better.”

-Randy Hernandez

 

“That’s natural hockey sense,” Granato explains. “But I think he’s got a lot more inside of him. He’s just starting to find his way.”

Hernandez got into hockey in part because of a little girl’s birthday party. In 2005, a cousin had a party at Kendall Ice Arena, near Miami. Little Randy scooted around and loved it. Skating lessons and Mite hockey soon followed. By age 13 Hernandez was playing AA travel hockey and often filling the net.

Once, after playing in a tournament against AAA competition, he came home disappointed at how he measured up. His brother Roberto bought cones and spent the summer putting Randy through agility drills to improve speed and quickness.

At 14, he was checked hard and suffered a broken arm. At home he refused to sit still, stickhandling constantly around the living room and hallway with one hand, driving his parents nuts.

In addition to a smooth skating style, Randy Hernandez has a natural hockey sense that amazes his coaches at the NTDP.In addition to a smooth skating style, Randy Hernandez has a natural hockey sense that amazes his coaches at the NTDP.

“Mucho,” Marlene Hernandez recalls with a laugh.

At the Bauer Invite tournament in Chicago in 2014, a prep school coach suggested that Peter Ward take a look at a kid from Florida. Although Hernandez had mostly played AA hockey, he showed unusual speed.
A few months later, Hernandez was invited to the NTDP evaluation camp where he skated against many players who already had commitments to big-name college programs.

He was in the car with his family last summer when Ward called to offer Randy a spot in the program. For a moment, Hernandez didn’t say anything. His eyes welled up.

“It was just so emotional,” he says. “It was hard to believe.”

Throughout the season, the Hernandez family follows Randy’s progress by watching games streamed online. For a home tournament against U17 teams from Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, they made the trip north to see Randy pull on the red, white and blue.

“I couldn’t have even imagined this when we came to Florida from Cuba,” Marlene Hernandez says, shaking her head in the stands.

And how does it feel to see their son represent their adopted country?

“Very proud,” she said. After a long pause, she repeated: “Very proud.”

Click Here to View Full USA Hockey National Team Development Program Infographic

 

Neal E. Boudette lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is an automotive reporter for the New York Times and writes about hockey any chance he gets.

 

Issue: 
2016-10

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