From North Branch to Ann Arbor (Part 2)
Scouts are paying attention to Hunter Miska of North Branch who is getting an experience of a lifetime as goalie for USA Hockey’s National Under-18 Team in Michigan
Part 2 in a 2-part series
Dreams of playing one day in the National Hockey League are not so far fetched for a 17-year-old from North Branch who simply loves the game.
Even at a young age, it was clear that Hunter Miska had something special. Like so many Minnesota kids, he started skating around age 3 and began seeing game action in Mites and Squirts. He started out at forward, but his true love was always goaltending.
“I had to stick to my guns because my mom thought I was a better forward than a goalie,” recalled Hunter after practicing with the National Under-18 Team in Ann Arbor, Mich., this month.
Former North Branch hockey coach Randy Gendreau had a big influence on Hunter, along with his two older brothers and younger sister, as a Centennial kid through his North Branch years in Gendreau’s summer youth hockey leagues. He taught him how to skate and remembers well what struck him about Hunter’s play over time.
“When he put the pads on, I thought, “This kid’s got talent,’” noted Gendreau, later insisting Hunter could have made the Vikings team as a forward in ninth grade. “He played lights out. He was like a catcher in baseball with a good glove. As a 10-year-old, he won shoot-outs against 11-and 12-year-olds at the end of every session.”
In fact, in his 25 years of coaching youth hockey, Gendreau added, “I never saw a player enjoy the sport more than Hunter. He loves it, and he has a great work ethic. When Hunter plays goalie, he has a huge smile under that mask. When he gets between those pipes, he’s having a ball.”
Chimed in Hunter this month, “I love stopping the puck and keeping the team in the game. I know I can’t get too cocky or big headed, but I have to stay confident. I just love to play. I like the intensity about it.”
In the summer following his first year between the pipes, Hunter as a high school freshman worked with a goalie coach and took shot after shot at practice and even at home where older brother Calvin served up bullets hours on end on their backyard rink.
He enjoyed early success, contributing to tournament wins and shut outs. The Vikings ended the 2010-11 season with a 17-8-2 record, while players including the netminder earned all conference honors. This after North Branch won just nine games in 15 years, Gendreau explained.
Still, there were tough games for Hunter and teammates at the high school level. The coach sought tough opponents, even if they had to travel long distances, in order to improve despite the final score. In one game, Hermantown had 12 goals on 82 shots against the Vikings.
“Most of the goals Hunter gave up were on rebounds,” remembered Gendreau. “When you make a mistake as a goalie (unlike a regular position player), it ends up in your net. You have to fight through screens. I always asked Hunter to make the first save.”
He added, “When he played for me, Hunter never warmed up well. But when the game started, he was on. We worked a lot on that, and playing the puck, in practice.”
Meantime, coach challenged student with constant shots on net with no down time in practice. “That’s the style I have for coaching goalies,” explained Gendreau. “Slap shots at 5 in the morning speak to work ethic and dedication.”
And then there’s the mental game.
“The best goalies are those who have the worst memories. You’re as good as the next shot on net,” he preached.
Today, with Hunter wearing the red, white and blue for the National Under-18 team, Gendreau confesses he gets a lump in his throat whenever he can watch his former goalie play. “When you have the chance to play in Ann Arbor, you take it,” he said. “You can’t buy experience like that. North Branch was a great experience for Hunter, and he was noticed.”
Gendreau watched his former student battle in losing efforts against No. 3 ranked University of North Dakota and Bemidji in back to back nights earlier this month. Hunter was able to limit the damage in one game and stop a break away the next.
“The shots are quicker and harder,” said Gendreau of Division I hockey. “There are corners that are not there.”
So how far can Hunter go on his journey in the nets?
“The sky is the limit,” Gendreau noted. “He has the ability to play the position, he moves around well, and he’s got a fantastic glove. The experience he’s getting right now will get him to college hockey. Knowing Hunter and his desire and mental make-up, he will get that opportunity.”
Scouts and future
Gendreau said Hunter always had a good supporting cast with his mother, Sabina, father, Todd, brothers Dalton and Calvin and sister Dakota. All of the Miska kids played hockey, and Calvin and Dakota still do in their respective levels.
Todd also credits goalie and assistant coach Steve Lee for having an impact on Hunter and the local hockey scene from younger league play on up to the varsity level in North Branch. Lee lost his battle to cancer this month. He was 49.
“He loved the sport of hockey,” said Todd of what drove Lee to help groom young hockey players. “He cracked a smile when I told him Hunter was featured in a photo in Sports Illustrated.”
Todd noted Hunter started to catch the attention of scouts from the U.S. national program when Hunter was a 15-year-old ninth grader on the North Branch varsity team. They followed up his sophomore year, too.
Hunter eventually made it as one of the top goalies in an advanced-15 program, which selects two goaltenders from each state and sends them to New York, with scouts watching, to compete against goalies from other states, Todd explained.
“They saw the potential in him,” said Hunter’s father. “They couldn’t believe how this kid could move around.”
Hunter was eventually asked to try out at Ann Arbor, and so he did. At 16, he transferred there as a high school junior.
Setting up his future
Hunter is a modest young man who appears to have a good head on his shoulders. He’s appreciative of the opportunities thus far and won’t waste a second of his playing time with the prestigious USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
The days in Ann Arbor are long for the players who skate for two hours every day following a full day of classes at Pioneer High School. They live with host families and lift weights, watch game tapes and meet with life skill teachers, fitness coaches and academic mentors.
Hunter also has committed to a family advisor who takes care of college and professional contracts. This way, he doesn’t have to deal with recruiting, so he can concentrate on school and his game, Todd said.
“He has to get an A in his grades, an A on the ice and an A in public,” he added. “It was a lot for him; it was a big change. For a kid 15 or 16 years old, he persevered through all that, and the easiest part for Hunter is on the ice.”
Hockey practice is intense, to say the least. Many on the team have already committed to Division I programs.
Thinking back on North Branch, Hunter misses what you’d think a normal teenager would miss after an extended time away. He misses being and playing with his teammates and friends. He misses the community, and of course, he misses his family who without question helped guide him on his path.
When asked about his most memorable game or moment in a Vikings uniform, Hunter said he’ll never forget his first year playing goalie. He remembers always wanting to play the position and never wanting to take his gear off.
A senior, he plans to graduate next spring, and he has some big decisions ahead of him.
One of those decisions is where he will play next. Hunter has yet to commit to the next level, which is common for young goaltenders, but he would like to play the next four years for a NCAA Division I college.
“I want to play in Minnesota, but I just don’t know where yet,” he said. “From there, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
And so will North Branch.
— Hunter Miska will be traveling with the U.S. National Under-18 Team on Friday night, Oct. 26, when they take on the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The puck drops at 7 p.m. at Mariucci Arena.