By Joel Badzinski | LaCrosse Tribune | Friday, January 7, 2011
ONALASKA – Coulee Region Chill players Eric Drapluk, Tommy Miller and David Ripple are used to being treated as curiosities.
From their schoolmates in Florida, who couldn't understand their passion for an unfamiliar sport, to their new teammates up north, who wonder where they found ice time in the tropics, they've had to constantly prove themselves.
But the bottom line is that Drapluk, Miller and Ripple have just as much passion and talent for hockey as any kid who grew up in East Grand Forks or Edina. They just took a unique path to discover it.
The Chill have 19 Minnesota natives on their roster, most of any team in the NAHL. So the three Floridians are constantly bombarded with stories about pond hockey or playing in the state tournament in front of 18,000 people.
"It sounds cool to hear what they went through," Miller said. "But at the same time it's nice to hear how we got here too."
Drapluk, Miller and Ripple all started out playing roller hockey instead of ice hockey. It was by necessity, not choice, since roller hockey leagues are much easier to find than ice hockey leagues in Florida.
"I started playing roller hockey when I was 6," Ripple said. "Then I met a friend on another team who played ice hockey and he got me into it."
For all three, the transition from roller to ice hockey was the turning point. What was a fun sport on inline skates became something more serious on steel blades.
"It just grows on you," Drapluk said. "Once you get on the ice you keep playing and you feel you can get somewhere and the passion comes with it."
The challenge was just beginning. Drapluk (Pembroke Pines), Miller (Miami) and Ripple (Winter Springs) and their parents all had to work hard just to find ice arenas and developmental leagues.
"I know me and Drapluk had to travel two to three hours to practice for a few years," Miller said. "If you don't have a passion for it, you're wasting your time and your parents' money. You really have to have the drive because it's a lot of self-motivation."
For all three, being ice hockey players meant getting almost no recognition from their peers. Kind of like being a surfer in La Crosse.
"You try to explain to people at your school and they have no idea," Miller said. "You're so disconnected. They don't even consider you an athlete. They think it's a joke and you're doing it for a hobby. They don't realize how serious we are or the passion we have."
Drapluk, Miller and Ripple all went through the Jacksonville Ice Dogs midget program, led by coach Brett Strot, older brother of Chill coach Garrett Strot. That meant all three had to leave home and attend boarding schools.
"The sacrifices are unreal," Ripple said. "You don't get to be a part of your high school; you're kind of always at hockey. You couldn't really hang out after school or on the weekends because we had practices or games."
During their time in Jacksonville, the Chill's Florida players traveled across the country for tournaments and got to see what hockey outside Florida was like.
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"We started being exposed to what hockey's really about," Miller said. "Playing against powerhouses from Detroit and the Midwest. Naturally we saw what it took and a lot of us came back determined to do what we had to to get there."
Chill coach Garrett Strot keeps in close touch with his brother for a line on Florida talent and had been aware of Drapluk, Miller and Ripple for a long time before bringing them to Onalaska.
"I knew how they were coached, I've seen them play and I know what they can do," Garrett Strot said. "A lot of those guys played roller hockey and you can see there's more of a regrouping style, more passing. All three have good vision and see the ice really well. Part of it is just the way my brother coaches."
With their roster spots on the Chill secured this past summer, Drapluk, Miller and Ripple went about preparing for their first Wisconsin winter.
For Miller and Ripple, it was the first time away from home. They didn't have winter jackets or boots and had to ask their host parents and teammates for help finding the right items.
Ripple has discovered his love of cold and snow and winter fun like sledding and snowboarding.
Drapluk said seeing fans wearing winter jackets and drinking hot chocolate feels like a true hockey environment.
For Miller, the welcome-to-winter moment was a minor car accident.
"I was going slow; I guess they didn't salt the roads that day," Miller said. "It wasn't my fault. I'm a great driver. I slid out and instead of going into oncoming traffic I found a snowbank and rammed into that."
All three agree they love the friendly people and small-town atmosphere.
"It's a much better environment and it makes me even more determined than before," Ripple said. "You see people care about hockey, not just you."
While all the travel as a youth player and moving halfway across the country as an 18- or 19-year-old has been difficult, Drapluk, Miller and Ripple agree they're happy where they are now.
"I wouldn't change any of it," Drapluk said. "I don't regret all the travel, missing school. It's hard not having all the friends you want growing up. But you're here with your buddies on the team and that helps, being around 20, 25 guys you can bond with."