Some hockey players spend years trying to get their physical abilities and the way they think about the game to connect at the highest level. Sometimes, one outweighs the other and an element of the game is seemingly missing from a player's style. When both come together, a well-rounded player can show exponential growth in a short period of time.
Tarek Baker, a rising sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, has already linked the mental game to his physical abilities and has been focused on fine tuning his game for a professional hockey career after college.
In one season with the Badgers, he showed his complete game is coming together as he skated in all 37 games in 2017-18 and tallied 21 points on 10 goals and 11 assists. The Madison, Wisconsin, native is living out a childhood dream playing for the Badgers and, now that he's burst onto the scene, he wants to show the team that he grew up knowing what he's capable of.
For every freshman in the NCAA, adjusting to the pace takes time. Players are bigger and stronger than they are in junior hockey, but also play a more cerebral game. While it did take some getting used to, Baker said that his four years in the USHL prepared him for the college game and made the transition a lot easier.
"There's not as many mistakes being made," Baker said. "For the most part, I think the game the same way, but it comes out at a faster pace. You have to be ready to anticipate rather than react."
Baker had the benefit of skating at the Golden Knights development camp with Badgers senior Ryan Wagner, who recently signed with Vegas after graduating from Wisconsin. Having someone that he looked up to as a freshman join him in Vegas made the camp a bit easier.
"He and I have a really good relationship through playing together at school," Baker said. "We like to play the game the same way, so we've bonded over that."
While looking up to seniors at Wisconsin helped Baker grow as a player in his freshman year, the greatest impact on his game came from head coach Tony Granato. A former standout at Wisconsin, Granato played in the NHL for 13 years before stepping behind the bench to serve as a head coach for the Colorado Avalanche and an assistant coach with Colorado, Pittsburgh and Detroit. The experience that he brings to his Wisconsin team is something that Baker credits for his growth as a player.
"He's taught me to understand the kind of player I am," Baker said. "Everyone wants to go to the next level, be a skill guy, and put away goals, but he's taught me to realize the type of player I need to be to succeed at the next level."
Before he reaches his dream of playing professional hockey, Baker wants to help the Badgers reach the goals that they've set as a program. He wants to win a Big 10 championship with the Badgers and ultimately help his team to a national championship. To do that, Baker said it will take "a lot of grit."