Photo by Tom Sorensen.
Once upon a time, Luke Opilka decided he hated skating.
It just wasn’t for him.
And for a hockey defenseman, that pretty much meant the sport wasn’t for him, either.
“I was about to give hockey up,” he said. “I really did not like to skate.”
Then he tried playing goalie.
“I tried goalie at one of my friend’s birthday parties because he had an open skate,” he said. “I just loved it and decided to be a goalie for good.”
It turned out to be a lucky break. These days Opilka is tending net for the U.S. National Under-17 Team, and he’s got no regrets.
“I love being a goalie,” said Opilka, now a 6-foot, 181-pound young man. “I love the pressure on how a game can be made or broken with you.”
Opilka began his hockey career as a defenseman in Champaign, Ill., where his uncle was a coach.
“He grew up playing it so that is how I got into it,” Opilka said. “At the time, my uncle talked us into trying it and we just loved it. My older brother and I started together and then my younger brother took it up too.”
After playing for the St. Louis Blues midget minor program in 2012-13, Opilka jumped at the opportunity to join the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Opilka said he realized how tough the transition can be for netminders; however, it has been made easier as two of his former midget teammates, Luke Kunin and Matthew Tkachuk, arrived with him in Ann Arbor.
“The hardest part is getting used to the quicker tempo and the harder shots, and having less time to react to certain situations [on the ice],” he explained. “It definitely helped a lot having Kunin and Tkachuk here. Our families are so close back home. It wasn’t like I was moving by myself. I had two brothers who I grew up playing with. It made it easier.”
One major point of emphasis that Opilka has been working on with goalie coach Kevin Reiter has been staying farther from the goal to cover more of the net as opposed to sitting back and relying on reactions.
“My favorite drill is when you have forwards in the corner and you have a couple of pass out options, and it makes you anticipate and figure out where he is going with it,” Opilka said.
“Usually, we work with [Reiter] about 30 minutes before practice. As ironic as it is, it helps with the skating. For the most part, we work on honing how we move around the crease and get to certain areas quicker. It’s ironic because I didn’t like skating [at one time] but now I do.”
Opilka and his teammates finished with a perfect 15-0 mark in international play this season, taking home top honors at the 2013 Four Nations Tournament in Slovakia, the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia and the 2014 Five Nations Tournament in Sweden.
“It means the world to wear the jersey. It’s the greatest feeling,” he said. “Putting it on internationally, that is when it becomes real. It’s an immense feeling of national pride.
“In the USHL, you are playing against other Americans for the most part. When you step out on the ice in international play, you can’t even talk to them sometimes. There is a language barrier. It makes it more real.”
One of Opikla’s favorite moments from this past season was playing against Sweden on Feb. 9 at the Five Nations Tournament. Opilka stopped 25 of 26 shots in a 4-1 win in Sundsvall, Sweden.
“I like playing them the most because I think they are the grittiest among the countries but they still had skill. It was good competition,” he said.
Heading into the bye this week, Opilka carries a 14-7-1 mark along with a 3.57 goals-against average and an .869 save percentage, and he is coming off a 5-2 win over second-place Dubuque on Sunday. With a few months left in his U17 season, Opilka has one small goal he hopes to accomplish.
“I want to end on a strong note to go into the U18 season,” he said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
#33 Luke Opilka (Photo by Dave Reginek)
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