There were no frozen ponds in Randy Hernandez’s neighborhood. No pickup hockey games. He didn’t own skates. His family never watched NHL games on TV. And he was more familiar with Super Mario Brothers than Mario Lemieux.
Hernandez, the 16-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, grew up in West Kendall among kids who played baseball, soccer, basketball and football. He didn’t begin following the NHL until four years ago.
So, how does a kid like that wind up on the USA Hockey under-17 national team, the first Floridian ever invited to live and train in Plymouth, Michigan, with the top 22 young prospects in the United States? How does a kid like that end up scoring three goals in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in British Columbia two weeks ago?
It all began with a cousin’s birthday party at the Kendall Ice Arena. Hernandez was 6 years old. He put on his rental skates, grabbed ahold of the side boards and wobbled his way around the rink.
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After a short while, he ventured out to the center of the ice and began skating faster and faster. The only problem was he couldn’t figure out how to stop, so he would fall or slam into the boards.
The rink’s youth hockey director at the time noticed Hernandez’s speed and approached his grandfather, psychiatrist Dr. Fernando Gonzalez, who had taken him to the party. The coach suggested Hernandez take skating lessons.
His parents, Robert, a long-haul truck driver, and mother, Marlen, were shocked when little Randy came home with the news. They fled to the United States from Cuba 20 years ago and had no interest in hockey. But Hernandez seemed excited, so they signed him up for lessons with a figure-skating coach.
Before long, he joined a Mighty Mites team and wound up becoming one of the top players at the rink. He advanced to the Bantam AA Miami Toros team, which two years ago traveled to Hackensack, New Jersey, where it finished second at the national championship with an 8-0 win over the Erie (Pennsylvania) Lions, 6-1 win over the North Jersey Avalanche and 2-0 win over the Chicago Bruins.
Last season, he played for the AAA Florida Alliance, a state team that competed in tournaments nationwide. It was during a tournament in Dallas that Hernandez was spotted by USA Hockey scouts.
Hernandez scored 53 goals in 54 games at center with the Alliance and had 40 assists. He was drafted in the 13th round by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, but decided to keep his options open.
“We don’t travel to Florida, so we probably wouldn’t have seen Randy if he hadn’t been playing in that tournament,” said Don Granato, coach of the U17 national team and brother of former NHL player Tony and women’s star Cammy. “The scouts alerted us and said, ‘You got to see this kid.’ Randy is the first kid from Florida in the 19-year history of our program. Most kids come from Minnesota, Michigan and the Northeast.”
Hernandez was invited along with 50 other players to a tryout camp last January and made the 22-man roster for the national team development program, a two-year program in Plymouth where players go to school and train together.
Three months ago, after much deliberation with his family, he left Miami Sunset High and moved to Michigan. He is boarding with a family that houses players in the program. He and his teammates attend Pioneer High in Ann Arbor from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and then take a bus to the rink, where they train until 7 p.m.
The U.S. Under-17 team plays a 60-game schedule, including 20 against teams from Russia, Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.
Hernandez said it has been a culture shock, but he is slowly adjusting on and off the ice. One of his coaches challenged him to teach his teammates Spanish.
“Obviously, I’m a little nervous living so far away without my parents,” Hernandez said. “I miss my café con leche and pan con queso crema [bread with cream cheese]. The weather has been an adjustment, going to a new school, living with a family I don’t know. But these are the sacrifices you make when you have a dream.”
His parents can relate. They came to the United States for a better life, and hard as it was to watch their son leave home, they don’t want to stand in the way of his goals.
“As a parent, I can’t say no to an opportunity like this for my son,” Robert Herndandez said. “It’s what he wants to do, and I am so happy he has the freedom to choose what he wants to do. I had to do obligatory three years in the army in Cuba, and I didn’t want to be there.”
So far, coaches say Hernandez is keeping up with his teammates from traditional hockey towns.
“Randy is very quick, and his skill level is very high,” Granato said. “He has what we call ‘hockey sense,’ a knack for the game, an intangible that can’t be taught. For a kid coming from Miami to play like that is very impressive. Most kids here were fascinated with the sport since age 5.”
His youth coach at Kendall Ice Arena isn’t surprised.
“I first saw Randy play when he was around 11 or 12 years old, and the kid just had a rare ability to handle the puck at a high rate of speed,” said Paul Healey, a former NHL player and the director of hockey at Kendall Ice Arena.
“He’s a very dedicated athlete. If there was ice time available, he’d be there, working on his game. Given the area of town he’s from, a very Hispanic area with no hockey tradition, to have him reach the national team speaks volumes and will attract other Hispanic kids to the sport.”
Hernandez’s parents have come to love the sport. They are grateful to Randy’s maternal grandfather, who funded most of his rink fees and travel costs throughout his youth hockey career.
“Like most Cuban fathers, I expected my son would play baseball,” said Robert Hernandez, who drives an 18-wheel truck up and down the East Coast. “But Randy never liked baseball. He thought it was boring. He said he had to wait too long to bat, and there was too much standing around. He wanted to run and push people, and he fell in love with hockey.”
Hernandez misses his parents, and his older brother, Robert Jr., 27, a musician and former captain of the Sunset High basketball team. But he is determined to earn a college scholarship and/or play in the NHL. The fact that he is of Cuban descent is an added incentive.
The only Cuban-American player in the league is Panthers goaltender Al Montoya, who was born and raised in Chicago but has family in Miami.
“Being Cuban makes me want to work harder to show that Hispanic kids from places like Miami can compete at the highest level,” he said. “The other guys on my team think it’s pretty cool that I grew up near beaches and speak Spanish. They’ve never seen a hockey player like me before.”