Most kids who grow up in Miami, Florida, and dream of becoming professional athletes usually think football – the unofficial religion of the U.S. South – basketball, baseball, or even soccer.
Randy Hernandez thinks ice hockey. And his dream has taken him from a novice skater who first laced up a pair of skates at a cousin’s birthday party at age six to a member of the prestigious U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad.
Hernandez was named to the team after finishing one full season of AAA hockey with the Florida Alliance in which he tallied 53 goals, 40 assists in 54 games at center. In addition to USA Hockey, Hernandez’s play caught the attention of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, an Ontario Hockey League major junior team. The Greyhounds drafted him in the 13th-round in April with the 261st overall pick.
“I don’t think I’m ready to play for major juniors right now,” Hernandez told me recently. “NTDP will help me grow as a player, and then I’ll make a decision between the OHL and college when I’m done.”
In the meantime, he is slated to play 35 games in the 2015-16 season for the U.S. National Under 17 team that competes in the United States Hockey League, a feeder league for several NCAA Division I hockey programs. The team is located in Plymouth. Mich., a long way from sunny Miami.
“My mom’s definitely a little bit nervous that I’m staying here with a new family, of course,” said Hernandez, 16. “But my family is happy for me because they know that this is what I want to do. I’m going to leave my parents and it’s going to be a little tough on me, but this is obviously the sport that I want to play and I want to get as far as I can in it. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
In many ways, Hernandez’s ascension in hockey is the typical All-American story of a kid who falls in love with the game and chases the dream of playing in the National Hockey League.
But Randy Hernandez’s story is far from typical. He is the son of Cuban immigrants who arrived in Florida 20 years ago. His father, Roberto, is a trucker and his mother, Marlen, a stay-at-home parent.
His grandfather, Dr. Fernando Gonzalez, is a psychiatrist who came to Miami from Cuba via Spain in 1972. He was the one who took Hernandez to the birthday party at Miami’s Kendall Ice Arena, where he immediately fell in love with skating.
“My grandfather, he actually pushed me to play hockey – he wanted me to try a new sport,” Hernandez recalled. “He’s the one who helps me out with hockey. He’s gone to all my games, he’s really supportive of me. He’s also paid for my hockey, and I’m really grateful for that.”
After the birthday party, Gonzalez enrolled his grandson in skating lessons. Hernandez’s progress on the ice was noticed by coaches of the AA Miami Toros and they approached Gonzalez about his grandson give hockey a try.
“I didn’t even know hockey existed,” Gonzalez recalled. “I was a fan of baseball.”
Hernandez said he quickly took to hockey and started to notice that by age 8 he was a little faster than the other players.
“When I was 12 or 13 and when I started going up North with my Florida team to play against AAA teams, that’s when I thought I might have a shot” at a pro career, he said.
In March, Hernandez was invited to the NTDP’s evaluation camp, where he skated with players from hockey powerhouses like Massachusetts’ Cushing Academy, Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, Michigan’s Compuware minor midget program, and Philadelphia’s Team Comcast minor midget team.
John Arceo, a Miami Toros coach, said he wasn’t surprised that Hernandez was able to compete with players from New England and Minnesota, despite coming from the land of palm trees, South Beach and KC & the Sunshine Band.
“He has a professional hockey player’s work ethic,” Arceo told me. “He’s the first kid on the ice, the first kid in drills, the first kid in off-ice training. Even as a 10-year-old, he had that ethic.”
And these days, his rise has parts of Miami talking. Octavio Sequera, a reporter for ESPN Deportes Miami who does color analysis in Spanish for Florida Panthers broadcasts, calls Hernandez’s move to the national development team “huge.”
“For Florida, especially the city of Miami, it means a lot because he’s the first one, the first one from the Kendall Ice Arena, the South Florida area, to be selected for USA Hockey,” Sequera told me. “He will be like a pioneer, in that sense. Randy will be the first Cuban – I say Cuban because of his parents – to be selected from Miami.”
Sequera said that Hernandez’s selection to the NTDP shows that hockey is gaining traction in South Florida’s Hispanic community, fueled by the Panthers. Last season, the broadcast seven games in Spanish. It will carry all 41 home games in Spanish for the 2015-16 season. The Panthers have one Hispanic player, Cuban-American goaltender Al Montoya.
“Here at ESPN Deportes we’re working on a campaign where we can actually bring more kids to the games, more Randy Hernandezes,” Sequera said. “There are a lot of other kids that see Randy as an example. Not only that, a lot of Hispanic parents are taking Randy’s story as an example.”
Sequera included. He enrolled his five-year-old son in a learn to play hockey program at the Kendall arena and he marvels at what he sees and hears on the ice and in the stands.
“The kids know the game, love the game, so now their parents are getting involved,” he told me. “You go to the bleachers, you go to the stands, you see a lot of people speaking in Spanish trying to learn about the game, and the kids are the ones teaching the parents what the game is all about. It’s very nice to see.”