Auburn's Joey Dudek will be playing for the Team USA Select under-18 squad in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Hockey Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia over the next week.
It's a far cry from the first time the 17-year-old Dudek stepped onto the ice back when he was 8 years old. "I didn't like it at all. I'd come off the ice crying. My parents wouldn't let me quit after the first year," Dudek said. "But I stuck with it and when I got to play on the travel team I scored a lot of goals and that made me happy."
Dudek began in the Manchester Flames youth hockey organization, but getting a late start at age 8 meant he had some catching up to do.
"I don't think any of us envisioned the success that he's had to this point," said Joey's father, Joe Dudek. "After he got through the initial concerns about the game, we saw right away that he loved it and he was fortunate early on that had coaches that took him under their wing and helped him catch up to the others on the team."
Joe Dudek knows about playing sports at a high level. The elder Dudek was a star football player at Plymouth State and even made the cover of the Dec. 2, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, garnering the magazine's vote for the Heisman Trophy. He played in two NFL games in the strike-shortened 1987 season with Denver and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
While their sports are different, Joe Dudek sees similarities in the gifts Joey displays on the ice.
"Like any other sport, hockey is about finding the open area, the open space. No different from a running back finding a hole, it's the same thing with a hockey player finding the open ice and making things happen," Joe Dudek said. "I think my son's vision, I had it when I played football and my wife (Jodi) had it (as a field hockey player). I used to say there were a lot of running backs that ran as fast as me and were as big or bigger than me, but I think the difference is when you can see the game and slow the game down like I was able to. I see a lot of that in Joey."
Dudek made the Hlinka Tournament roster after a strong junior season at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden. Dudek previously played high school hockey with Derry's Pinkerton Academy as a freshman and sophomore.
Team USA opens play Monday at 8 a.m. Eastern time against Finland. Play continues through the medal games on Saturday. The tournament began as the Phoenix Cup in Japan in 1991 and Team USA has won just once (in 2003). This is the second trip to the tournament for Dudek.
"It's almost a completely different team this year. Coming out of last year, only a small percentage of players make it on the team the next year," Dudek said. "I think it is just me and four other guys returning. It's real tough to make it again because it's so competitive. I was really fortunate. It's a good group. We should do really well out there."
The team is coached by Bob Corkum, a former University of Maine star who went on to play in 720 NHL games with eight different teams and is now a player development coach with the New York Islanders.
Corkum is a Massachusetts native and with most of the U-18 team hailing from Minnesota and the Midwest, he and Dudek have a special New England tie. Dudek was also recruited by Corkum when he was an assistant at Maine.
"The familiarity we have with each other has helped. He knows my approach to the game and how I coach. It's in no way why he made this team. He made it on his own accord. He had a great select camp out in Buffalo and earned the right to be here," Corkum said. "What he's done the last few years, he's certainly matured into a fine player and put on some size and weight. He's very gifted with the stick skills. He's learning how to compete every shift. He has a bright future ahead of him."
Dudek will return to Kimball Union in the fall and has committed to Boston College for the 2014-15 season. He will be eligible for the NHL Entry Draft next year. For now, the focus is on the Hlinka Tournament, where Joe Dudek will be on hand to cheer his son on.
"He went from being passed up for the top 40 players to being looked at for the National Development Camp to now being invited to it. A lot has to do with the competition level that he's played at, from playing at Pinkerton to getting to a level where Kimball Union made sense and now this," Joe Dudek said. "We're so proud of his success with USA Hockey. I don't care if it's at U-16, U-17 or a U-18 team, to see your son wear the USA uniform has been a tremendous experience for us."