United States Hockey League (USHL)

Former Football Standout Jake Ratzlaff Is Making Hockey Comeback In USHL

Former Football Standout Jake Ratzlaff Is Making Hockey Comeback In USHL

A former highly-recruited linebacker at the University of Wisconsin, Jake Ratzlaff has turned in his cleats for skates as he attempts a hockey comeback.

Dec 23, 2022 by Jordan McAlpine
Former Football Standout Jake Ratzlaff Is Making Hockey Comeback In USHL

Jake Ratzlaff never imagined his athletic career would take such a winding path. When asked if his younger self would’ve seen this coming, the answer started with two words.

“No chance. I would’ve said there’s no chance at all it would’ve gone this way,” Ratzlaff said during an interview with FloHockey earlier this week. “Because in my mind, it was I’m going to go to college, I’m going to be a stud and I’m going to play in the NFL. Or I’m going to play hockey and be a stud, and then try to play pro.

“I always had such high expectations and I felt like I was good enough to play at a high level in either sport, as a kid usually thinks. Then you realize how things really are. I loved football and I had to make a difficult decision, and I would’ve never thought this would be my path. But the thing about it is everything I’ve learned along the way and gone through is a blessing. Yes, it’s been a little bit of a different path. But I wouldn’t change it and I’m so blessed that it is my path.”

That path has Ratzlaff back on the ice - a month removed from playing football at the University of Wisconsin and over two years removed from his last competitive hockey game. A three-sport prep star in Minnesota, Ratzlaff is back in the USHL as he looks to rejuvenate a hockey career that at one point saw him ranked for the NHL Draft and committed to play for the vaunted University of Minnesota men’s hockey program before choosing football as his primary sport.

To resume his hockey career, Ratzlaff did not have to go far. While still enrolled at Wisconsin, Ratzlaff began skating with the USHL's Madison Capitols and ended up making his season debut Dec. 10.

“It’s been great and I’ve had such a good time with it so far,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s so awesome to be playing hockey again at this level and as I go along the rest of the season, I think I’m only going to go up from here in terms of my body and my game.”

A standout defenseman for Rosemount High School in Minnesota, Ratzlaff also played three games with the Green Bay Gamblers during the 2019-20 season. Additionally, he represented the United States twice on the international hockey stage, first with the U.S. Under-17 Select Team and later with the U.S. Under-18 Select Team that competed at the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, which is one of the most highly-scouted events on the season calendar.

However, when it came time to make a decision about his sporting future, the highly-recruited four-star linebacker, who had offers from multiple Division I football programs, chose the gridiron over the ice. 

Ratzlaff played just two career games for the Badgers football team over the past two years. Wisconsin went through a coaching change in October and Ratzlaff was also hampered by a hip injury - which is a big part of why he has returned to hockey.

Even when his focus was on the gridiron, Ratzlaff continued skating at Wisconsin. He knew how much he enjoyed his time on the ice and when the opportunity to join the Caps came up, it was an easy decision.

“I got injured in the summer and it was pretty tough at times,” he said. “At first we thought it was a hamstring injury because my leg was bothering me and as I went along and rehabbed, it wasn’t really getting better. Then we thought it was my sciatic nerve in my back and we went on and rehabbed that. And we finally found out it was my hip and that I had hockey hips as they called it.

“It was really bugging me when I ran but I realized it wasn’t (bothering) me when I skated. So it was one of those things where I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to rehab it and how long I’d be out, so I decided to go the hockey route and give it another chance. I’m just extremely happy and blessed to be here.”

Ratzlaff added he feels he can still play at the USHL level and his biggest focus the past few weeks has been his conditioning. His deep background as a multi-sport athlete surely will help in those efforts.

The Mr. Minnesota Football finalist was also a standout on the baseball diamond and won the 2021 Star Tribune All-Metro Boys’ Athlete of the Year award. Just two of the many accolades that earned him a football scholarship from Wisconsin.

Although the fundamental and technical aspects of being a Big Ten linebacker won’t help him on the ice, there’s a lot from the past two years that can.

“My experience there was great and obviously things didn’t work out with the injury and stuff, but I’m so thankful for my time with Wisconsin football,” Ratzlaff said. “And I do think it’s something that can help me now in hockey. From both a physical standpoint and I learned so much on how to be a better leader.

“I’m bigger than I was - I weighed around 200 to 205 (pounds) in high school hockey and I’m 225 right now. So I’m bigger, faster, stronger and I feel great on the ice right now. And I think I’ll continue to get better and get my skills back and get in game shape as the season goes along. 

“Then with the leadership I was around, especially with (current Chicago Bears linebacker) Jack Sanborn, I think that translates really well to any team. And I think it’ll all be beneficial for my hockey career.”

As for how he’s looked since returning to competitive hockey, his current head coach had nothing but praise, even if it's been a small sample to evaluate.

“He’s just really shown a lot over the past few weeks and at the end of the day he’s a dynamite kid and he brings some size on the backend,” said Madison head coach Corey Leivermann. “I think leading up to him initially even joining us, the conversations were pretty honest and we told him we didn’t even know when he could truly play and be in game shape. 

“It was a little bit of a gamble but he’s exceeded expectations and made it an easy decision for us to put him in the lineup. He’s a worker, he wants it and he’s really committed to hockey right now."

Leivermann joked Ratzlaff brings up the average age of Madison’s lineup but he’s happy to have his presence in the locker room. Ratzlaff’s addition has been well-received and Leivermann has noticed that leadership right away.

“Being a kid who’s 20 years old, he’s a tremendous athlete and he’s a tremendous worker. He really sets a good example and he doesn’t say much, but when he does, guys are all listening,” Leivermann said. “He’s only played two games but he’s done a lot and he’s been a great addition for us.”

The right-shot defenseman has already found the back of the net, scoring a goal in just his second game with the club, making an almost immediate impact. Madison’s lineup has been depleted with injuries and illness, so Ratzlaff was thrown straight into the fire - playing elevated minutes against one of the USHL’s most talented rosters in the Chicago Steel.

As for his end goal, Ratzlaff is leaving all doors open. He’s still taking classes at Wisconsin and in a perfect world he’d love to return to Wisconsin - except this time playing at the Kohl Center instead of Camp Randall.

As a 2002-born player, this is Ratzlaff's last year of junior hockey eligibility, which doesn't leave a ton of time to impress college recruiters that would have been falling over themselves to get him to sign with their program just a few short years ago. However, he’s taking it one day at a time and enjoying the ride.

“Obviously I want to play at the (Division I) level but I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m just going to try and play the best I can for this team right now,” Ratzlaff said. “I want to keep improving and getting better, but I also want to enjoy this. I have goals and aspirations but there’s a lot of season left and more than anything I’m just glad to be back.

“I’m going to take it one step at a time and just make the most of this opportunity.”