Florida-born Danny Vranek took up roller hockey at the tender age of 5 and proceeded to ascend through the ice hockey ranks from an 8-year-old novice to a two-time Team Florida skater.
As a high school freshman in New Port Richey, a Tampa Bay suburb, Vranek realized where he had to go to raise his game to the next level -- the Great White North. And not just to make a token appearance with a travel team.
Vranek, a center, left home before his sophomore year. His journey took him to Eden Prairie High School in a suburban Minneapolis and one of Minnesota’s top prep hockey programs.
Vranek’s initial goal was modest: Skip the junior varsity experience and earn a spot on the varsity. As a swift-skating, adroit stickhandler, the 5-foot-5, 140-pound forward became the lone sophomore to make the varsity that season.
At 5-6 and 15 pounds heavier, Vranek will co-captain the Eagles this season as a senior.
Vranek’s diminutive stature and young age drove him in his Eden Prairie tryouts two years ago.
“Some of the (varsity players) were 18 when I was 15, so I had to work even harder,” Vranek said. “I realized I needed to get bigger and faster, too.”
From the outset, Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith knew he had a special player in Vranek.
“Danny Vranek came to Eden Prairie with tremendous skills, having left Florida,” Smith said. “His maturity as a player is unbelievable; his poise with the puck, his ability to find his teammates.”
Vranek, now 17, adjusted immediately to the cold climate, living with a host family and lining up alongside different teammates. In his first season with the Eagles, Vranek tallied 15 goals and 26 assists in 31 games. As a junior, he scored 16 goals and had 16 assists in 27 games.
His production helped the Eagles come within one win of the prestigious Minnesota state tournament when Vranek was a sophomore and to a school-record 19 wins last season.
“He’s got a bright future in the game,” Smith said. “We look for big things from him going into his senior year. We hope that he can lead us to a state tournament.”
Deciding to allow Danny to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey by living with family of strangers in Minnesota was gut wrenching for his parents, Dan and Carol.
After all, Vranek was doing just fine in the Sunshine State, having earned the first of four spots on the U.S. National Selects team at age 14.
“It’s a little tough when it’s your only child,” said Dan, who owns a carpentry business and flies to Minnesota to attend about half of Eden Prairie’s games. His mother makes it to about a third of the games.
Although his parents miss their son, and he misses them, Vranek is grateful for the opportunity to hone his skills up north.
“It’s definitely worth it,” Vranek said. “It was tough in the beginning, but just like anything else, you adapt to it. Every year it gets a little easier to leave home. You meet more friends and do more things. It almost feels like (Minnesota) is my home, but it’s not.”
As for his captaincy, that is a role Vranek does not take lightly. He spent less than a month at home in Florida this summer, preferring to lead his teammates in off-season conditioning and weightlifting sessions.
“I have to show leadership year-round,” Vranek said. “I have to help make our team the best we can be.”
“He’s the kind of person that you’ll see working with kids on the ice,” Smith said. “To be captain, coming into a community that’s a pretty prestigious hockey community, says a lot for his character and what he’s all about.
“We’ve seen great things in him this summer since he stayed up here. We expect a lot from him. We think he’s going to be a very good captain.”
No one is prouder of Vranek’s climb up the hockey ladder than his father.
“I didn’t know how good he was when he went up there, but he’s got a future,” Dan Vranek said, adding his son will “play juniors next year.”
Or college. An honorable mention all-conference player last season and a two-time academic achievement student-athlete, Vranek hopes to have a choice between collegiate hockey and juniors.
So far, he said, scouts from the University of Minnesota and Bemidji State have taken a look. “I’ll probably have a busy year,” Vranek said.
TEAM: Eden Prairie Eagles.
YEAR/POSITION: Senior co-captain, center.
AGE/HEIGHT/WEIGHT: 17, 5-6, 155 lbs.
STATS: 31 goals and 42 assists for 73 points in 58 games (two varsity seasons).
DANNY VRANEK BIO
OUTLOOK: Vranek has no individual goals, but the team-oriented co-captain aims to lead the Eagles to the state tournament. After college, Vranek hopes to play juniors or college in pursuit of a lifelong dream to play in the pros.