tampabay.com

No longer just a hockey fan from afar

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published May 2, 2007


Daniel Vranek wasn't born in New Hampshire. Had never been to New Hampshire. Didn't know anybody in New Hampshire.

But the minute he set eyes on the University of New Hampshire hockey team, he fell in love.

"I knew right away that's where I wanted to go, " he said. "I just didn't know exactly why."

He knew they played the kind of hockey he liked - fast and up-tempo. He knew he liked their jerseys - navy and white.

As his 10-year-old eyes stared at the television screen as his new favorite team tried to win a NCAA national championship in 1999, Vranek decided one day, he would be a Wildcat player.

Even if it was 85 degrees outside his New Port Richey home.

* * *

Vranek just completed his final season playing hockey for Eden Prairie High, one of the top programs in Minneapolis. In 27 games, he scored 29 goals and had 24 assists to lead his team to the sectional playoffs. It was just as he imagined - playing in front of 5, 000-10, 000 fans on a nightly basis, playing in college arenas for the state playoffs.

It doesn't seem so crazy now, this Florida kid walking around River Ridge's middle and high schools, wondering if leaving his family to pursue his dream was the right thing to do, visiting boarding schools with his parents, preparing for life on his own.

"Ever since the fifth and sixth grade, I've been telling my friends I really want to go to Michigan or the Boston area, maybe to a prep school, to play, " Vranek said. "It ended up being in Minnesota."

While he had discussed the possibility for years, his dream moved a sizable step toward reality when Les and Julie MacLeod, who had twin sons that played hockey and looked up to Vranek, moved to Minnesota. They invited his family up to watch the high school tournament at the Xcel Energy Center, and Vranek sat in awe as 20, 000 fans packed the place.

In the summer of 2004, with his parents' blessing, he moved from New Port Richey and in with the MacLeods.

"Hockey up here, you can't compare it to anything; it's in the blood, " Vranek said. "You can't even compare it to Florida football; it's even steps above that. ...Kids that are 3 years old come to games asking for autographs. Their dream is to play for the local high school team."

That was Vranek's dream, years ago. Now, he had another - to play in college. But even with an all-state season behind him, he was unsure that would happen. He called back home to New Port Richey, and his dad, Dan, told him to keep the faith.

* * *

Vranek still has that New Hampshire hockey jersey he bought years ago. He remembers picking it up at a shop somewhere in Florida on his travels with his club team and how he brought it home and asked his mom to take it to a seamstress.

He wanted his number on it: 77. And his name: VRANEK.

He wore it proudly, as if his own father had played there or something. During Homecoming week at River Ridge in 2003, he wore it to school on College Day. No one asked about it or inquired what school it was from.

"They just assumed it was the jersey from the team I was playing for at the time, " Vranek said.

One day about two weeks ago, a coach called and asked if he wanted to play in college.

His team had been No. 1 in the country for a while last season. In recent years, it had made it to the Frozen Four, college hockey's version of basketball's Final Four.

And he would get a new jersey. Navy with a Wildcat on the right sleeve, the school letters across the chest, his name - VRANEK - on the back and a new number: 26.

Daniel Vranek, born in New Port Richey but willing to chase his dream across the country, signed with the University of New Hampshire.

John C. Cotey can be reached at 727-869-6261 or johncotey@gmail.com.