Randy Hernandez isn't the son of a famous NHLer. He didn't grow up playing on backyard ponds and his first words weren't the name of his favorite hockey team.
"Actually, I didn't watch hockey at all when I was little," he said. "I didn't watch until I was 12."
Hernandez just completed his first full season of AAA hockey, in fact. But this year, he'll be a member of one of the most exclusive teams on the continent, the U.S. National Team Development Program's under-17 squad. How he got there is remarkable.
Hernandez's parents left Cuba 40 years ago. His mother, 18 at the time, wanted to unite with her father, a chiropractor in Miami, so she and her 21-year-old husband flew to the U.S. to meet the patriarch. They settled in Miami, where Randy and his older brother were born, and to this day don't speak English. Randy's father got a job as a long-haul trucker, doing runs from Florida to California, in order to plant firm roots (these days, the routes are much shorter, but it meant a lot of phone calls when Randy was younger).
Randy's grandfather would also play a big role in his life. When Randy was six, he was invited to a cousin's birthday party at a skating rink. He was such a natural that he caught the eye of a local mite coach, who told the grandfather the kid might do well in hockey.
"After that," Hernandez said, "I fell in love."
He played for the Miami Toros AA program for much of his youth, but as mentioned before, didn't watch hockey on TV until he was almost a teen; Alex Ovechkin and then-Florida Panthers center Stephen Weiss were the first players to catch his eye. As a bantam, he helped the Toros take second place in the national championship.
Hernandez did play on AAA travel teams in the past, but the 2014-15 Florida Alliance squad was his first AAA team that he played on full-time. This season, he'll hook up with a pair of other Florida natives at the NTDP in Michael Pastujov and Quinn Hughes (though they played their most recent hockey in Detroit and Toronto, respectively).
So how will Hernandez fit in with the elite squad? One scout I spoke to described him as having tons of speed and good offensive skills. He's still raw, so hockey sense and discipline are areas to work on. Thankfully, he's going to a program that challenges players continually. Hernandez will play against older, stronger competition and get excellent coaching. And it's hard not to root for the kid, who grew up in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood and has entered a totally different culture through hockey.
Peter Ward was the NTDP's director, player personnel, for the past five years and had the honor of telling Hernandez and his family that the youngster made the cut (needless to say, it got emotional). When Ward decided to leave the NTDP this summer to become a family advisor, Hernandez was the first kid he wanted to help out.
And how do the kid's parents feel about him moving from the friendly confines of Miami to a whole new world in Michigan?
"They're excited for me and also a little nervous," Hernandez said. "They've always supported me. I'm super-excited, I can't wait."
One of only six players on the under-17 roster yet to commit to a college, Hernandez will undoubtedly start to think about schools now that he's at the NTDP, which keeps its players well advised on the recruiting process. As an alternative, his OHL rights were taken late in the draft by Sault Ste. Marie this summer.
Wherever he ends up, it's already been an incredible journey for the kid. A story that began in Cuba and hinged on a childhood birthday party still has some pretty exciting chapters to be written.