Photo by Rena Laverty
At first glance, the Sunshine State and hockey might not seem like an ordinary pair to piece together. But the state has seen success at producing NHL talent, including the likes of Quinn and Jack Hughes, and USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program has been hitting the recruiting trails hard in the state.
Defenseman Ethan Straky, of Ormond Beach, is one of two members of this year’s U.S. National Under-18 Team that claims Florida as his home state, along with forward Sasha Pastujov. Straky says the growing popularity of the sport is in large part due to the Florida Alliance program and getting kids started on the ice at a younger age. And yes, being home to the 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t hurt, either.
“I had some northern roots that introduced me to hockey, but I found the love of the game in Florida. I don’t think it matters as much where you live, it’s just how much you love the game.”
After progressing through the youth levels down south, Straky and his parents made the decision to continue his career in the Detroit area, where he had more extended family. The blueliner played a year at Little Caesars before moving on to the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies for his age-15 season. Straky produced 27 points in 51 games en route to being offered a spot at the NTDP.
“It was an absolute no-brainer, being able to represent your country,” Straky said. “I even knew about it [the NTDP] when I was in Florida, so it was definitely a goal of mine. I was in Michigan for a while, so I came to the games and I saw the players you now see in the NHL. I saw them and I always wanted to play at the NTDP and for my country. As soon as I found out I had the opportunity, I jumped at it right away.”
Straky came to Plymouth, Michigan and USA Hockey Arena as one of the top-8 American-born defenseman in his birth year. Being able to play with elite talent all around him, both in practice and game situations, only helped develop his game.
“It's definitely a competitive environment. We battle hard and we're brothers off the ice, but when we're on it, we’re battling and with all that competitive energy, it only raises everyone's game. When you have the best forwards in the country coming down on you in rush drills, you're ready when it comes to game time when you have to play other opponents. It’s just great to have that competitive environment. That’s part of what the NTDP is all about.”
Straky got off to a fast start during his U17 season, registering five points in his first seven games. He scored a goal in Team USA’s win over Slovakia at the Four Nations in Kazan, Russia in December, on the way to taking home the first-place trophy. But the hockey season, alongside most other activities, came to a screeching halt in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of staying upset at not being able to finish the season, the 5-foot-11 blueliner took it upon himself to get better for the following year.
Favorite NHL Team
Detroit Red Wings
Favorite NHL Player
Favorite Musical Artist
Favorite Netflix Binge
Favorite Hockey Memory
Winning 4 Nations in Kazan
Photo by Rena Laverty
“There were definitely some crazy times with COVID, but I think you can look at it one of two ways, I don't think anybody is going to come out the same. I think you can either positively grow or negatively grow.”
One of the areas of growth for Straky was finding a routine that fit him the best. He got stronger off the ice putting extra in extra time in the weight room, he got faster on the ice with skills training sessions and was physically and mentally ready to attack his U18 season as soon as it started up. On the ice, one point of focus for Straky was developing further on the offensive end.
“I feel like I'm a two-way defenseman, I definitely like to take care of my own end in the D-zone on the rush, defending is my first priority. But I also like to join the offense a lot. I've been looking to do that more, especially this year, I've been looking to grow my offensive game and I feel like I've been doing that. I just say I’m a two-way defenseman that makes plays all over the ice.”
An unexpected adjustment for Straky and the Under-18 Team came in the way of a new coaching staff right before the start of the season. Head coach Dan Muse and assistant coach Greg Mauldin joined returning assistant Mike Leone just days before the start of the 2020-21 campaign in August. Straky said while the situation was unexpected, the new coaches have been nothing but incredible to work with thus far.
“I had a great time playing for both Coach Wrobo and Coach Hinote, it was a really valuable experience to learn from them. But Coach Muse, Mauldin and Leo have been absolutely invaluable sets of eyes and ears, they just have so much knowledge for the game that they shine on us players. I’m learning so much and can’t say enough good things about those new coaches.”
One of the biggest roles of the NTDP is preparing its players for elite college teams and future national teams, and Straky, along with a conglomerate of U18s, will take his talents to the University of Notre Dame after the season. The defenseman was fascinated with the school the first time he laid eyes on it.
“Right from the first time I touched the campus, I think it was my first year in bantams for a tournament, it was just, ‘Wow like this place is amazing.’ The facilities are great. The campus is unbelievable. And then as I started talking to coaching staff and I got a little bit older, it's ‘Wow, these people are great too.’ You put that with the hockey history and program that they’ve had, and the facilities and you toss the gold buckets in there, too. It's a no brainer.”
While excited for his time in South Bend to begin, Straky and his Under-18 teammates have goals to accomplish in Michigan first. USA Hockey Arena will play host to the IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship in April, the pinnacle tournament of two years at the NTDP. Every practice, game and workout session is all a part of making a run in that competition.
Photo by Rena Laverty
“I'm going to echo Coach Muse a little bit here when he says we’ve just got to focus on getting better every day. We all know what the end goal is and wearing gold is that. But to achieve that we just have to get better every day and focus on the day-to-day process, one day at a time and just keep getting better. And when all those days add up we put ourselves in a good spot come April.
A gold medal at home would put Team USA back on top for the first time since 2017. Straky says not only would it complete the biggest team goal, but also help give closure to last year’s group that had their chance of winning gold taken away.
“It would mean everything. Obviously a really tough situation, what happened with the 02’s losing that opportunity and I think we're going to be playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder for them as well, being robbed of it on home ice. But it's the US, we’ve got to defend our territory and you know keep getting better every day. And we're going to be in a good spot to do that.”