By Warren Kozireski —
Some players have that magic touch of winning seemingly wherever they go, and University of Massachusetts junior defenseman Ryan Ufko is quickly living up to that billing.
A Clak Cup championship and was First Team All-USHL while with the Chicago Steel in 2020-21, tied for the national lead among rookie defensemen in assists and third among rookie defensemen in points as a freshman and a Hockey East Second Team All-Star finishing third in scoring and leading the team in blocked shots despite missing three games to join Team USA for the World Junior Championships where he tallied ten points over seven games as a sophomore.
This season the Nashville Predators 2021 fourth round draft selection is almost a point per game player with 18 in 19 games while wearing the “C” while sitting second on the squad in shots and blocked shots.
“I just try to play to our identity; I enjoy playing offense and try to make as many plays as I can especially \in the “O” zone, but I take pride in my defense; that’s most important, especially with the way we play,” Ufko said while at the Adirondack Invitational in Lake Placid.
“I play all situations—PK, power play five-one-five—whatever I can do to help my guys and help the team out. I’m an undersized defenseman (5’10”, 181 lb.) so I’ve always had to use my brain a little bit more rather than my size especially growing up. I was a late bloomer.
“Most d-men are pretty big and I’m pretty small so always thinking ahead and thinking where guys are going to be and try to use my body positioning, which helps with blocking shots but also around net fronts. I may not be the biggest guy to battle with around the net, but I try to close on guys early in the corner to slow them down and use my body as a way to help me.”
Ufko played for the Mid-Fairfield Rangers as a 14-year-old and jumped to the North Jersey Avalanche at 15 years old where he netted a combined 47 points in 47 games. Then Chicago for two campaigns before starting as a traditional 18-year-old freshman at UMass.
“I started out with P.A.L. and we were all right, but then Ryan Haggerty, the coach at Mid-Fairfield played at BC (Boston College) for four years, reached out to my dad and asked if I would be willing to join the team and they were top-five every year. So, I made that commitment when I was ten (years old) and played there until I was 15.
“Then lucky enough Martin St. Louis got traded from Tampa to the Rangers and he has a son who also was my age who was on the team, so he coached us for two to three years and I learned a lot from him, so it was a cool experience learning from a guy like that.
“Then Vinnie Smith with the New Jersey Avalanche recruited me; great experience there. The whole organization there from Larry Robbins the owner, credit to him he helped out all the guys and gave us whatever we needed.”
Ufko has another season of eligibility if he chooses to continue to be among the 13th ranked Minutemen leadership team and he has already attended three summer camps with the Predators.
“It’s definitely an honor to be one of the captains here with Aaron Bohlinger. This program has been through so much. This place breeds NHL defensemen so it was kind of a no-brainer for me, and the staff cares for individual development which has helped me a lot.
“The staff down there (Nashville) has been really great. The most important thing they do is they get connected with everybody; they go out of their way to have meetings and talk to the guys and get to know you and make sure you feel comfortable, so I think they do that really well.”
With so much success over a relatively short period of time, it’s also tough to pin Ufko down as to a favorite memory.
“Clark Cup is definitely a big memory of mine especially since the year before we had a really good team my first year and the season got shut down.
“Another one would be going to World Juniors and being able to represent my country for the first time. And then Hockey East we won the championship my freshman year; we played at TD Garden.”
Do not bet against his list of memories adding a few more bullet points over both the near and short term.
(Photos provided by UMass Athletic/Hockey Dept.)