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Color of Hockey

Hernandez pursuing NHL dreams at Robert Morris

Pittsburgh-area Division I school is latest stop on Miami native's quest

by William Douglas / Staff Writer

Randy Hernandez recently savored an unexpected taste of home.

"I actually had a Cuban sandwich in the cafeteria," said Hernandez, a freshman forward at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh. "That was my first taste of a Cuban meal since I've been here. It was delicious, and I enjoyed the heck out of it."

Hernandez has missed regularly enjoying Cuban sandwiches, cafe con leche, pan con queso crema and other delicacies since he embarked on a hockey journey that's taken him from his hometown of Miami to Plymouth, Michigan; Sioux City, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Brooks, Alberta, and now the Pittsburgh area.

He joined Robert Morris, an NCAA Division I school, after a breakout season with Brooks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he was third in the league in scoring with 95 points (42 goals, 53 assists) in 57 games.

Hernandez hopes college hockey will lead him to the NHL, a goal he could barely imagine when he first laced on a pair of skates at a cousin's birthday party at age 6.

In many ways, Hernandez's ascension in hockey is the typical All-American story of a kid who falls in love with the sport and chases his dream. But his story is far from typical.

Hernandez is the son of immigrants who fled Cuba more than 20 years ago. His father, Robert, is a truck driver and his mother, Marlen, is a stay-at-home parent. His grandfather, Dr. Fernando Gonzalez, is a psychiatrist who arrived in Miami from Cuba via Spain in 1972. He's the one who took Hernandez to the skating party at Miami's Kendall Ice Arena, encouraged him to take up hockey and help pay his team and travel fees to play.

"I've got a lot of family back in Cuba, a lot of family at home that support me," Hernandez said. "My family, they're all Spanish and it's a little different for them to understand the sport. But it's awesome. They love the sport and I'm always going to support my family, support where I came from and make the people I love proud."

Hernandez developed into a local hockey sensation, scoring 93 points (53 goals, 40 assists) in 54 games with the Florida Alliance Under 16-AAA team 2014-15 and being featured in an ESPN Deportes Miami story.

That prompted USA Hockey and the Ontario Hockey League to take a look. Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL drafted Hernandez in the 13th round (No. 261) in 2015. But he opted to join USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Plymouth in 2015-16, becoming the first player from Florida in the USNTDP.

"Playing in Florida, I never figured I'd play in the national team program," Hernandez said. "When that happened, I felt I had the chance to at least play [Division I] and see if I can take my hockey career even higher."

Hernandez quickly learned that being a big fish in South Florida was different from being part of a deep NTDP talent pool that included three current NHL players, defenseman Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks) and forwards Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa Senators) and Joel Farabee (Philadelphia Flyers).

Hernandez scored 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 115 games from 2015-17 and eight points (two goals, six assists) for the USNTDP's USHL Under-17 team. He scored two goals in four games at the 2015 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament in Puchov, Slovakia.

"Coming in as a 16-, 17-year-old, it was the speed, the hockey sense, everybody had great shots, the goalies were a lot harder to play against," he said. "The USHL, everybody's committed [to colleges], they're all top dogs."

Hernandez moved on in the USHL to play 45 games with Sioux City in 2017-18 and 16 with Lincoln in 2018-19. He scored 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 61 games between the two teams.

Brooks of the AJHL acquired Hernandez in November 2018, and coach Ryan Papaioannou set out to return him to the scorer that he was in Florida. Papaioannou was impressed by Hernandez's speed, which he said rivals that of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, who played 111 games for Brooks from 2015-17. Forward Taylor Makar, Cale's younger brother, played for Brooks last season.

"We knew the skills and attributes that Randy had, so we tried to set him up in all those situations where he would be a first-line player, where he would play on our power play and try to give him all the opportunities to score points and use the tools that were natural to him and continue to work with him on the defensive side of the puck," Papaioannou said.

Hernandez responded by scoring 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in 29 regular-season games with Brooks. His seven points (three goals, four assists) in eight playoff games helped propel the team to the AJHL championship in 2018-19.

While Papaioannou tweaked Hernandez's game on the ice, the 21-year-old made adjustments off it during the summer by becoming more serious about offseason training.

"When I was younger, I just kind of slacked [off]," he said. "I didn't really have a personal trainer; I didn't skate as much as I should have. It was a time I was immature, and I needed to change my habits."

He did extra shooting, ran hills and rigorously worked out in Miami with his older brother, Robert, a demanding former high school basketball team captain.

"He's my motivator, pushing me a lot," Hernandez said. "He wanted it just as bad as I did. He's my big bro, he's tough on me but he loves me. He just wanted the best for me. He'd be there by my side. We'd look at drills together we could do and things that will take me to the next level."

Hernandez said the work helped him become a top scorer in the AJHL. Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said Hernandez's game is taking shape at the perfect time.

"Everybody matures at a different pace," Schooley said. "He's maturing at the right time heading into college. It took him a few years in juniors to get there. His speed is outstanding, his goal-scoring prowess at the junior level has been outstanding and I think those are things that really will help Robert Morris University in the future."

USA action image courtesy of Rena Laverty

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