PLYMOUTH, USA – There are 2,246 miles that separate Winnipeg, Manitoba from Miami, Florida. Well, 2,246.3 miles to be exact.
A lot more than just distance divides the two cities, of course. The metropolises couldn't be anymore different in terms of weather, culture, people and sports.
Lying at the bottom of the Red River Valley, Winnipeg averages temperatures around freezing in the winter and it’s most definitely a hockey city.
Miami is America's gateway to the Caribbean – warm and vibrant year round. It's predominantly a three-sport city, and although the Florida Panthers play in nearby Sunrise, the area is a hotbed for football, baseball and basketball.
If you jump in a car and drive halfway between the two cities – traveling 1,150 miles in either direction – you'll find Plymouth, Michigan, and that's where our story takes place.
Plymouth is the new home of the United States National Team Development Program and where Randy Hernandez is currently in residency, playing right wing on the U18 team.
Hernandez, born to Cuban immigrants Roberto and Marlen, grew up just outside Miami in a suburb known as Kendall. But unlike most kids in the Miami area, his house was located just five minutes from an ice rink, which proved to be a pivotal place during his childhood.
That's because when Hernandez was six he showed up to the Kendall Ice Arena for his cousin's birthday – the first time he ever skated.
He was a natural – blazing fast as he wore hockey blades for the first time – so much so he garnered the attention of the former Miami Toros director, who knew he had to act fast.
The director pulled aside Randy's grandfather who was accompanying his grandson that day and encouraged him to enroll Randy in hockey immediately.
“I knew it was the right sport for me right away,” said Hernandez.
Randy took to hockey immediately and by age 11 he was a budding star within the Toro system. That’s when he former NHLer Paul Healey began to coach and mentor young Randy.
"Right away I saw his ability to do things at a high speed,” said Healey. “You don't see a lot of kids able to do what he does. He’s a lot like his favorite player, Nathan MacKinnon.”
Hernandez was resolute not to simply rely on his God-given gift, but instead buoy that talent with an unrelenting work ethic.
According to Healey, Hernandez spent a couple hours on the ice every day and if ice weren’t available, he’d spin around public skating sessions for fear of missing a beat.
“I just fell in love with the game immediately,” Hernandez reflected. “I only wanted to be on the ice.”
Then came the endless hours in the gym where Randy worked on strength, speed and agility with his older brother Robert. And if that wasn’t enough, Hernandez honed his hockey talent through one-on-one sessions with Healey.
“Randy is just a very humble kid – that's what stands out to me,” added Healey. “As a teenager he’s very dedicated and already has a professional work ethic. He’s willing to put in the time and effort to be great.”
"I still text with Paul once in a while," said Hernandez. "I just say thank you for all the private lessons. He taught me a lot and I wouldn't be here without him."
“Randy is a game-changer,” Healey boasted.
The grueling effort paid off. Randy quickly became the brightest light within the program and put himself on a path to play hockey at a higher level.
His last year of hockey in South Florida came as a midget in 2014/15 with the Florida Alliance. Utilizing that blinding speed he demonstrated as a six-year-old, Hernandez amassed a staggering 53 goals and 40 assists in just 54 games.
That put him on the radar of local Team USA scouts who invited the offensive talent for a tryout with the U.S. NTDP.
"We tagged Randy early," said Scott Monaghan, Senior Director of the NTDP. "We loved his dynamic speed, offered him a chance to make the team and he took care of business from there."
Though it was a tough decision to leave his family in Miami, Randy took the opportunity at the NTDP to pursue his hockey future.
And, that's where the Winnipeg connection comes into play.
Hernandez was paired with his new billet family, Rana and Kuljeet Sidhu, and their two sons Angad and Shaan. Rana grew up in Winnipeg but eventually came to the United States for school and work and now serves as a Senior Scientist and Manager for a major biotech company.
Though Rana grew up in Canada, he comes from a non-traditional hockey background. His parents immigrated to Canada from India when he was just a couple years old. Hockey wasn't a mainstay in the house, but Rana sought it out on his own and fell in love with it just like any other Canadian kid.
Sidhu coaches his sons in hockey in the Ann Arbor-Plymouth area and had always entertained the idea of becoming a billet, but knew he'd have to convince the rest of his family in order for that to happen. After a number of conversations, the reticence wore off and the Sidhus officially became billets for the NTDP.
Their first player? You guessed it. Randy Hernandez.
It's not your typical hockey home - Canadian billets of Indian decent housing a Cuban right-winger from Miami - but it works.
"This is the American story," said Monaghan. “Randy Hernandez is the story of America.”
The arrangement is beneficial for both sides. Randy has the security and encouragement of a hockey-loving host family and the experience has opened him up to a new culture although he’s still working on developing a pallet for Kuljeet’s Indian cooking.
“It’s a lot of rice, meat and curry,” Randy said with a bit of hesitation about the cuisine.
For now, Randy mostly sticks to a more traditional pasta diet. That suits him best.
Food aside, Rana says there’s no way to quantify the benefits of being a billet family.
“Randy has tremendous work ethic and discipline,” said Sidhu. “He has a kind nature, he’s polite and so well behaved. The list can go on and on. He’s the perfect role model for my boys.”
And in the past two years, the family has witnessed Randy growing as a hockey player as well.
Sidhu says, “It's a sense of pride – as much pride as when I see my kids score a goal. We didn't train him, but we are allowing his opportunity to flourish.”
Playing against bigger and stronger competition, Randy notched 15 points in 56 games in his first full year with the program.
But, he admits it was a difficult transition.
“Playing against the older, bigger kids last year was much more challenging than I thought it would be,” Hernandez remarked.
Heading into the Five Nations Tournament, Hernandez already has three goals and an assist in 14 games with the U18 squad this year.
“I’ve worked on getting stronger and I’m much more comfortable on the ice,” he said confidently. “I’m playing a lot more aggressively with the stick on my puck and getting a lot more chances.”
Born in 1999, Randy is eligible for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft – and playing professional hockey is a lifelong dream.
“I’m striving to go as far as I can in the game of hockey,” said Hernandez. “The NHL is the ultimate goal.”
According to Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News, Hernandez projects as a late round pick.
“He's got excellent wheels and okay size, but he needs to put it all together,” Kennedy scouted. “He was always a raw talent and there's still a lot of refining necessary.”
But if we take a deeper look at the Randy Hernandez story, it’s about much more than just a young man potentially reaching his NHL dream. And if you ask each of the participants in this article, they each have a different slant on Randy’s journey.
According to Monaghan, Hernandez represents the tremendous growth that USA Hockey is seeing in non-traditional markets.
“Hockey in America is not just a regional sport anymore. It’s simple math. We’re producing players from all over and that makes us better. Randy is the perfect example of that.”
Talk to Rana Sidhu and he’ll tell you it’s about a person willing themselves in the direction of their dream.
“Randy is the story of dedication, hard work and the drive to do what it takes to succeed in hockey.”
Randy himself will tell you his story is simply one of a kid becoming obsessed with this game.
“I’m just someone who fell in love with the game and luckily I had a rink five minutes from my house where I could fulfill my dream.”
But, Healey might’ve put it best with his take.
“You’re asking me to tell you what Randy’s story means and I can’t do that,” he said.
“Because the story is yet to be written.”
And that is the American story: no matter where you come from and no matter who helps you along the way, there’s an opportunity to pursue your dream.