Rosemount football and hockey standout Jake Ratzlaff makes an impression with his handshake.
“He’s got hands like suitcases,” said Chris McAlpine, a family adviser to the Ratzlaffs through Octagon Hockey. “My hand disappeared the first time we shook hands.”
Ratzlaff, a senior this fall, and McAlpine expected to be celebrating when Ratzlaff, a big and mobile defenseman, got selected in the NHL draft originally scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal. The coronavirus pandemic indefinitely postponed the event.
And now, Ratzlaff’s elevated college football recruiting profile adds another wrinkle to his future athletic endeavors.
A Star Tribune All-Metro first-team football selection last fall, Ratzlaff narrowed his prospective colleges to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Blue line or linebacker? Ratzlaff can’t lose. But which sport will win?
“If I’m drafted in a certain place, I might play football,” said Ratzlaff, who verbally committed to play hockey at Minnesota before his freshman year of high school. “At the end of the day, it will come down to the love of the sport.”
This much is certain, sort of: Ratzlaff will play football for Rosemount this fall (provided there is a season). Then he will leave for Green Bay of the U.S. Hockey League after the season, he said, “unless I decide to play football” in college.
McAlpine said he told Ratzlaff, a 6-2, 213-pound athlete, “ ‘I wouldn’t quit football even though hockey people think you should.’ He enjoys both and he’s pretty good at both.”
Therein lies the conundrum.
“If you’re an NHL team, you have to have reservations not knowing where his commitment stands,” said Fred Bandel, a Florida Panthers scout with more than 20 years of experience evaluating NHL-caliber players. “They want to draft someone who is 100 percent committed to hockey.”
Ratzlaff ranked No. 90 out of 241 North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings of draft-eligible prospects. Bandel lauded him as “a big, strong defenseman who moves well. He is physical and competitive. He’s the type of guy who every team needs.”
Those same attributes made Ratzlaff a renowned defensive back last fall. He posted 126 tackles, including 12 for losses, as the Irish reached the Class 6A state quarterfinals for the first time in three years. He’s expected to play linebacker when his senior season resumes.
“He’s a Power Five-caliber prospect,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com and Yahoo Sports. “He’s prototypical sizewise for a linebacker. And college coaches like players who excel as multisport athletes. They are adaptable rather than robotic.”
Originally, Ratzlaff was considering Wisconsin or Iowa. But he developed strong interest in the Gophers last fall.
“It just felt like home so I threw them in there,” Ratzlaff said.
A decision looms, one bigger than a two-state border battle. Ratzlaff hoped to add draft results to the equation. But the missing intel might not matter.
Trepidation among NHL teams’ front offices when it comes to evaluating a prospect with options is “fair,” said McAlpine, who called getting drafted a “pretty powerful” moment. But he isn’t advising Ratzlaff to decide between hockey and football solely because of draft status. Bandel also put draft results in perspective.
“Once you’re in an NHL team’s training camp,” Bandel said, “they don’t put your draft number on you.”
Football analysts have questions of their own.
“He’s a physical football player though I’d say he’s at the lower end in terms of strength compared to other guys I’ve seen,” said Helmholdt, who said he’s only seen Ratzlaff on film. “You notice it when he hits people. There’s not the same sort of impact you see with other top linebackers.”
This offseason, Ratzlaff’s strong hands have been anything but idle. His workouts, which can number as many as three per day, include weightlifting and on-ice training, as well as sprints and jumps on the beach at Lake Marion in Lakeville.
In the next few months, Ratzlaff’s workouts will benefit football and hockey. And then a decision must come.
“I’ve told him to do it on his terms,” McAlpine said. “I’ve told him, ‘If you play hockey, we’d be tickled pink. If you play football, we’ll be big fans.’ ”