— Part 1 in a 2-part series
Hunter Miska is on a path that most Minnesota hockey kids can only dream of reaching.
He was 5 years old when he first laced up, and he’s never stopped playing the game he loves.
Some of the top brass in the hockey world began to take notice of his stellar play when he was a freshman goaltender starting for the North Branch varsity team. Word of mouth travels fast, and so do scouts, when a young goalie who is new to the position accumulates 993 saves over 26 games as he did for the Vikings in 2010-11.
Hunter, the son of local residents Todd and Sabina Miska, continued to turn heads with his athleticism, raw skills and overall potential in the nets, which led to invitations to advanced hockey competition and tryouts. He and his brother Calvin, a year older, were always the first ones on the ice and the last ones off, recalled Randy Gendreau, of North Branch, who coached the Miska kids including oldest brother Dalton and sister Dakota in their youth summer league days.
At 17-year-old, Hunter is now playing with and against the country’s best young talent as a member of USA Hockey’s Under-18 Team, under the prestigious National Team Development Program, in Ann Arbor, Mich. He transferred there a year ago and will graduate from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor in May 2013.
Aside from his team’s daunting 2012-13 schedule, which includes games against Division I programs like Wisconsin, North Dakota, Bemidji, Duluth and even Minnesota at Mariucci Arena later this month, Miska has played against NHL stars in celebrity games. He even knows a few, thanks in part to his father Todd and his connections from designing and painting goalie masks for NHL and college players, as well as for Hunter.
Hunter will tell you his role models are Manny Fernandez, Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Eddie Balfour. He likes their style and tries to match their top-notch play.
With this year’s hockey season stalled by the NHL lockout, the hockey world was tuned in on Saturday night, Sept. 29, when fans and scouts could watch Miska, at 6-feet and 171 lbs., tend goal for Team Housley in the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center, home of the Sabres, in Buffalo, N.Y. Participating were 40 of the top American prospects eligible for the 2013 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
In the end, Team McClanahan beat Team Housley 5-2.
Still, Miska had seven saves in his limited time in the second period, while the goaltenders faced a good deal of shots in the third and final session when Team Housley outshot Team McClanahan 14-8. Hunter finished with 15 saves on 16 shots.
Fitting in with NTDP
In the 14 years that National Team Development Program players have been eligible for the National Hockey League Entry Draft, 211 players have been selected. In 2011-12, more than 60 players suited up for an NHL club.
USA Hockey launched the full-time development program in 1996 to prepare student athletes under age 18 for participation on U.S. national teams and success in their future hockey careers. Its efforts focus not only on high-caliber participation on the ice, but creating well-rounded individuals off the ice.
The program is composed of two squads: the U.S. National Under-18 and Under-17 teams. The latter competes in the Unites States Hockey League and participates in three international events annually. The National Under-18 Team’s schedule includes games against NCAA Division I and III opponents, contests against USHL teams, as well as competition in three international tournaments.
Home ice is the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, a first-class facility consisting of three ice sheets. Unlike other competitive athletic teams, the success of the NTDP is not gauged on wins and losses, but the development of skills and acquiring experience against older competitors.
The 2012-13 schedule for the U.S. National Under-18 Team started Sept. 15 and concludes with the IIHF Men’s World U18 Championship April 7-22 in Sochi, Russia.
Earlier this year, Miska was a member of the U.S. National Under-17 Team that claimed first place at the Vlad Dzurilla Under-18 Tournament where he appeared in two games; made 16 saves in a 6-1 victory over Switzerland; and kicked out 24 shots in the title game in the team’s win over Slovakia.
Also this year, he was a member of the same team that placed second at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Windsor, Ontario, where he made five appearances and compiled a 3-2-0 record, 3.02 goals-against average and .870 save percentage.
In 2011, he won the Four Nations Tournament title in Russia with his U.S. National Under-17 Team. For the tourney, he appeared in four games, had a 20-save shutout against Slovakia in a 4-0 win and made 17 saves to blank Russia 5-0 Nov. 13.
For the 2011-12 season, Miska appeared in 41 games for the U.S. National Under-17 Team, under which he compiled a 19-17-1 record, 741 saves, a 3.22 goals-against average, a .869 save percentage and two shutouts. He recorded 22 saves in his first regular-season United States Hockey League start as Team USA defeated the Youngstown Phantoms 10-3. He also had a three-game win streak from Dec. 15 to Jan. 14 and made starts in the USHL Clark Cup playoffs versus the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
And people from across the country are noticing.
“It’s really hard to believe Miska is relatively new to goaltending,” wrote freelance hockey writer, broadcaster and former NTDP public relations man Chris Peters last month. “He has some stunning athleticism, but the rawness in his game was evident much of last season. He’s still learning the position a bit. That said, Miska managed a winning record and 3.22 goals-against average. Another year of development should go a long way in helping Miska excel in the position because there’s certainly something there.”
Miska is experiencing a lot for a young man, no doubt. But he’s earned the path so far that will take him only as far as the work he puts into it.
— Next week, read part 2 of this two-part series on local hockey star Hunter Miska, with perspectives from Hunter, father Todd Miska and former North Branch coach Randy Gendreau.