In the youth hockey world, we often hear about the squiggly line of development, a concept that there is no one-size-fits-all path for improvement as players age. There are often ups and downs, speed bumps and setbacks along the way, and every boy or girl who puts on the skates must practice patience, work hard and enjoy their (hopefully) long journey on the ice.
Few players better encapsulate the “practice patience in development” mindset than Cornell University defenseman Sam Malinski. Malinski, a Lakeville native who led Lakeville South to the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament in 2017, had flown mostly under the national radar, perhaps until this year, when he was named Big Red captain and helped lead his team to the 2023 NCAA Division I Tournament. Malinski and the Big Red upset the defending NCAA champions, Denver, 2-0, in the opening round before falling to Boston University in the Regional Final.
Malisnki is expected to generate interest from National Hockey League clubs as a possible free agent signing.
“This season’s been very surreal,” said Malinski, who finished third on the team with 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) as a defenseman and was named First Team All-ECAC. “I’ve really just tried to embrace my last year here at Cornell as my time here has gone by so fast. We have a really special group of guys, which makes it fun to be at the rink every day. I’m just trying to live in the moment and enjoy this time with my brothers.”
Malinski is not what you’d call an overnight success story. He’s had to work hard to get to this point since learning how to skate at age 2 or 3 back in Lakeville. Malinski’s hockey path has been filled with twists and turns and a whole lot of patience.
“I’d definitely be considered a late bloomer, as I didn’t plan to play after high school until after my junior year,” he said. “Then I had a summer coach tell me he thought I could make Division I, and that inspired me to go for it. I had a good senior year, went off to juniors, and still didn’t get much college interest until halfway through my second year of juniors. I didn’t expect to play much once getting to Cornell, but I think I surprised a lot of people, including myself, and things really took off from there.”
Something that often takes many players aback is what’s required to make the jump from level to level. Malinski’s experience was no different, and he’s happy to offer guidance to young skaters going through it.
“There’s definitely an adjusting period when you move up a level,” he said. “It’s tough when you get thrown into a new environment with bigger and faster players, so it takes time to adjust. I think my preparation and practice habits have become way more important to me in the past few years. Every time I step on the ice, I make sure that I have a specific focus in mind and am not just going through the motions. As far as preparation goes, I’ve really learned the importance of nutrition and hydration before and after practices. It’s really important that I’m taking care of my body so I’m able to perform at my best for each practice and game.”
While things seem to be clicking for Malinski now, the ice wasn’t always as smooth. He faced his fair share of adversity, including getting cut by the USHL’s Cedar Rapids halfway through his first year of juniors. According to Malinski, confidence was low at that point, but he used that motivation to work harder and become a better player, joining the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League and getting his confidence back.
While with Bismarck, he was named the NAHL Central Division Defenseman of the Year and was placed on the NAHL’s Second All-Star Team for the 2018-19 season. Then he found a home in Ithaca, N.Y., with Cornell, flourishing as a freshman and earning All-Ivy League honorable mention. Then came Covid and the disappointment of the cancellation of his sophomore year.
“It was very difficult, as we were supposed to have a really good team, and I had trained hard all offseason to make sure I had an even better season than my freshman year,” Malinski said. “I overcame this by finding a positive perspective on our situation. As I wasn’t playing games every weekend, I was able to focus on building muscle all year. I was also able to work on more specific skills each week. It was really tough watching other teams play while we couldn’t, but I just tried to stay positive and continue improving every day. Although battling through this adversity was difficult at the time, I know it has only made me stronger as a person and player.”
Advice for Youth Hockey Players
As the world we live in becomes more and more about instant gratification, parents and their young kids often struggle with not achieving success right away, both on and off the ice. Malinski advises all to stay positive and keep at it.
“I heard this one time and haven’t forgotten it,” he said. “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. Don’t get discouraged if you didn’t make the team you wanted or if you’re not on the first line or the power play. Just stick with the process, use it as motivation, and work harder. It will take time, but eventually you will get your break and find the success that you’ve been working toward. I believe everything happens for a reason, so I try to keep that in mind when I’m struggling.”
For the 8-, 10-, or 12-year-olds out there who dream of playing Division I hockey or beyond, Malinski says: “Work harder than you think you need to and have fun with it. Youth hockey is truly some of the best times of your life. The out-of-town tournaments were always so fun. Plus, for most people, they play their best when they’re having fun; I know that is the case for me.”
“In youth hockey, I never really looked ahead. I was just trying to be the best player I could be for my team that year,” he added. “Growing up, I never thought about whether I would eventually play varsity, college, or pro; I just wanted to enjoy my experience as a hockey player as I know one day I won’t be one anymore.”