Rutger McGroarty is standing in the tunnel that runs between the ice at USA Hockey Arena and the dressing room of its national team development program, and he’s laughing about how he got here.
He’s a 12-hour drive from his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, and somehow he feels even further away than that.
A couple of weeks ago, he was named captain of USA Hockey’s national under-18 team in advance of their triumph at Five Nations, an annual international tournament that was this year hosted in Switzerland. With the ‘C’ came another in a growing — and yet just beginning — list of history-making moments for the 17-year-old.
His teammates almost all hail from hockey states like Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey and New York.
He is the first kid from Nebraska to play for the national development program. In July, when he’s selected near the top of the 2022 NHL Draft, he’ll become the state’s second-ever drafted player. He’ll also, almost surely, be its highest. If — or when — he plays in the NHL someday, he’ll be just the fourth player born in the state to reach hockey’s highest level in the modern era. Jake Guentzel, who currently holds the mantel as the state’s highest-drafted player, was selected in the third round by the Penguins in 2013. The other two, current Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk and former journeyman forward Jed Ortmeyer, were never drafted.
And all three of Guentzel, Pionk and Ortmeyer are from Omaha, home to the state’s only AAA team.
McGroarty’s the only player who has ever made it this far from Lincoln. When he was born there in March of 2004, the city of 280,000 people had just one hockey rink — a small 3,500-seat arena called the Ice Box, which had become the home of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars eight years earlier.
So how’d he get from there to here?
“My dad had the key to the rink,” he says, flashing a sly smile.