Miska Leads UMD Into NCHC Stretch Run
As if immune to the rules and regulations that usually apply to sports uniforms, the hockey goalie mask has long represented a unique opportunity for individual expression for the player wearing it.
Minnesota-Duluth freshman netminder Hunter Miska — who has burst on to the national scene with an 19-4-4 record for the No. 1 team in the Pairwise — may understand the meaning behind the mask better than most.
After all, Miska's father, Todd, owns 'Miska Designs,' a company in Minnesota that designs masks for goaltenders. That's how the younger Miska, from Stacy, Minn., was exposed to the position he would soon grow up to play.
"NHL goalies and college goalies were always coming over to our house to design their mask, and I thought that was the coolest thing," said Miska, who recalls NHL goaltenders Manny Fernandez and Eddie Belfour visiting his father for his expertise.
"But my biggest role model was [Minnesota Wild goaltender] Josh Harding," Miska continued. "He would come over to our house, and we would go out to lunch and then design his mask, and give it to him when it was all ready. One time in particular that stuck with me was when he was telling us about his career. And one thing that was similar to me was that he started playing goalie when he was 14, too. But the situation was vice-versa. His mom wanted him to play goalie, but his dad didn't."
Indeed, Miska had to convince his mother to allow him to play the position he had dreamed of playing for years. Before the age of 14, Miska played as a forward.
Then came the switch to goalie during his freshman year of high school — a switch that has clearly paid off.
Prior to arriving in Duluth, Miska — playing for the Penticton Vees — led the BCHL in goals-against average and save percentage in the 2014-15 season. The following year, he earned the Dave Peterson Goalie of the Year Award while playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL, where he set the team record for wins. Prior winners of the Dave Peterson Award include NHL goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Cory Schneider, both of whom were stars in college hockey as well.
"I knew I was going to do well, I just didn't know I was going to have this great of a year," admitted Miska of his transition to the college game. "It was a pretty good transition coming up from junior hockey up to here. I just didn't know how big of a jump it was going to be. Coming in, I felt pretty confident I was going to be the starting goalie. Once I earned that spot, I got the confidence to keep playing well and keep playing consistently."
Still, despite Miska's robust credentials prior to this season, things didn't go as smoothly as he might have hoped. On Oct. 7, in his third NCAA appearance, Miska was pulled after allowing four goals on 15 shots in an eventual loss to Mass.-Lowell. He sat out the next three games while fellow rookies Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard took turns starting.
Miska returned on Oct. 28 against the reigning national champions, North Dakota. And he hasn't looked back.
"We got the sweep and jumped up to the No. 1 spot," Miska said. "I think the North Dakota series was the big part of the year and a big turning point for me. That gave me confidence, and I took it from there."
With Miska in net, Minnesota-Duluth is unbeaten in its last 10 games. Miska has also earned five shutouts this season, has beaten North Dakota four times, and is second in the NCHC in both goals-against average and save percentage this season — trailing only Denver's Tanner Jaillet in each category.
"Coming in every day at the rink, trying to get better and improve my game and my personality on and off the ice," Miska said of the keys to his success. "A huge part for the team is our character and our drive for success. I think every guy on our team this year has the same mentality, just coming to the rink and trying to get better every day so that we can be national champions at the end of the year."
Clearly, Miska has given the Bulldogs a realistic opportunity to attempt to achieve lofty goals this season. First, though, comes the stretch run in the NCHC, with the regular-season title in the balance. UMD — with just this weekend's series vs. Miami and next weekend's series at Western Michigan remaining — moved ahead of Denver by one point after Thursday's win.
Just don't expect Miska to change his approach on these upcoming pivotal game days.
"I act like it's any other day of the week," Miska said. "I don't change my mentality at all. Any day, I just have fun and don't do anything differently. I don't eat any differently.
"I just act like it's a normal day."
'Normal' may be relative, and for Minnesota-Duluth, this has becomes its 'new normal' in 2016-17 — to challenge for an NCHC title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and national title aspirations, too.
With much thanks, of course, to the man defending the Bulldogs' net, their rookie sensation — and yes, their man behind the mask.