An unexpected journey: Tommies’ Ratzlaff moves from the gridiron to the rink

St. Thomas defenseman Jake Getzlaff looks for an opening to shoot at during a October game against Lindenwood in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

Every college athlete goes on a journey through their careers and most of them are fairly typical. They play one sport for four or five years and then move on to the next phase of their lives.  

However, some athletes have more of a winding road that’s full of changes and that’s the case for Jake Ratzlaff, who started off his college career playing football at Wisconsin and is now a defenseman for the St. Thomas men’s hockey team. Someone switching sports midway through their college careers is a rarity and for Ratzlaff, the main reason was because of a hip injury and potentially having to go through surgery.  

“I was a little hesitant about doing that, to go the surgery route because I wanted to not get surgery on anything,” Ratzlaff said Tuesday. “Then I ended up deciding to switch back to hockey, which was great. I’m not going to lie, I did miss hockey a little bit, but at the same time, I loved playing football. So, to give that up was really difficult. To say I’m going the hockey route was tough, but also, I was excited about a new journey about a hockey route and not getting a surgery. Ultimately, I ended up getting hurt in the USHL and had to get surgery on my shoulder. So regardless, I had surgery on something, which was not too fun, but it obviously worked out and stuff.” 

Ratzlaff said that the reason for his hip injury wasn’t due to a rough hit during a game, but possibly just strain that had built up over a short period of time.  

“We kind of thought since I gained so much weight, I went from about 200 or 205 (pounds) to 235, which is pretty heavy within a year or roughly a year. Maybe a little bit more,” he said. “I think it was all that weight kept putting more and more strain on my hips and there might’ve already been some issues before that, underlying issues that might’ve not appeared because of whatever reason. I think it was just the extensive running, and hitting, and lifting and then the gaining of the weight. I think it just put a lot of pressure on my hips and I think over time, it kind of got worse and worse.” 

Wisconsin’s Jake Ratzlaff arrives with his teammates before a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nov. 27, 2021, in Minneapolis, Min (Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications)

Ratzlaff only ended up playing in one game at Wisconsin where he notched an assisted tackle during a game against Northwestern at Camp Randall. When he decided to make the switch from football to hockey, he quickly learned that there’s a big difference between being in football shape and hockey shape.  

“I know the first day that I went into the USHL rink (in Madison), I was skating, and I couldn’t even make it through half the practice,” he said with a laugh. “I was so tired and so out of shape, it wasn’t even funny. I was about 235 (pounds) at the time or 230 and from that moment on, my diet completely changed. I cut out all the fat I was eating. I cut that all out. Not a lot of meals either, I didn’t eat as much. I hydrate really well. It was tough, It was about three weeks, or three and a half weeks of just feeling like crap on the ice. Then I started to slowly feel better, but even then, it’s hard to transition to playing hockey. I hadn’t played in two and a half years. I hadn’t played since the end of my junior year (of high school), and I was at 200 pounds then. Now I’m 235 trying to step on the ice. It was like playing in a new body.” 

Ratzlaff said when he decided to switch sports, he thought about staying on campus and maybe playing for the Badgers, but things didn’t work out that way.  

“I did consider playing with the Badgers and (then-head) coach (Tony) Granato helped me out a lot with getting me back into hockey,” Ratzlaff said. “He and one of my advisors really helped me get in with the Madison Capitols (of the USHL). I know Tony wanted me to play some games and get my feet wet a little bit since I hadn’t played in so long. So, there was some consideration. At the end of the day, Tony got released and they went in another direction with (new head) coach (Mike) Hastings and stuff like that.  

“Now I don’t know if that’s an option and it was okay. After I got hurt, I was a little nervous because I didn’t really know what was going to happen and I didn’t know who I was going to play for. So I was like ‘Shoot!’ I was going to play in the USHL for 40 more games and by that point, hopefully, I play well enough where some colleges want me and I was fortunate enough that (Tommies assistant coach) Cory (Laylin) came to a couple of my games and he saw me play and he was like ‘I like what I see.’ And he told (Tommies head coach) Rico (Blasi) and it just worked out where they were like ‘Hey, we want you to come here.’ I was like ‘Oh great.’ Everything kind of had to work really perfectly for it to happen, which is incredible. That’s kind of how it happened. It’s kind of crazy. If Cory wouldn’t have come to those games, I only played in seven games, I don’t know if he would’ve ever seen me or if it would’ve ever happened.” 

Wisconsin’s Jake Ratzlaff (25) huddles with his teammates during a game against the Purdue Boilermakers, Oct. 23, 2021, in West Lafayette, Ind. (Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications)

In a short period of time, Ratzlaff went from hitting guys wearing cleats carrying footballs to hitting guys on skates holding sticks. Not only are the sports vastly different, but his daily routine changed dramatically when he switched sports.  

“It was a lot different,” he said. “Playing football, practice was around 7:30 (a.m.)-ish. You’ve got practice till about 10:30. So 7:30 to 10:30 during the week and then you go to class throughout the day and then you come back at about 4 or 4:30 and you’re there till about 7:30 or 8 o’clock watching film and you eat dinner. You kind of have a double. You go back to the facility twice throughout the day versus hockey where we wake up and maybe get a (weight) lift Monday. Monday and Wednesday, we lift and then we get to practice and then after that, maybe rehab and then you’re out of there by 11:30. So it’s a little different. Football is really busy, but it has to be too because there is a lot that goes into it and a lot that goes into playing that game on Saturday. So, I definitely understand it, but the schedule is a lot less hectic for sure with hockey.” 

Not only is the daily schedule different, but the bonding level with teammates is too as Ratzlaff said he’s closer with his hockey teammates than most of his football ones. 

“When you have about 28 guys in a locker room versus 100 guys in a locker room, it’s a lot different,” he said. “And with 100 guys, there’s so many different personalities and there’s so many position groups, that it’s hard to all gel. You’re not going to know all your teammates really well. You know everybody and you’re friendly with everybody, but in terms of being close, it gets tough for sure. There’s all your position groups and you’re usually pretty close with them. That’s what I found out at least from a personal standpoint with my inside linebacker group. I thought we were all really close to the other groups, but everyone’s a team at the end of the day. You see each other right there and the (hockey) locker room is tiny. With a football locker room, if I wanted to talk with one of my buddies, I’d have to walk all the way across a huge locker room full of 100 guys to say something to them. I think it’s really tough with a football team to really get everyone to gel. It’s not easy.” 

St. Thomas’ Jake Ratzlaff (left) checks out the action after a stoppage in play during a game against Northern Michigan Nov. 4 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

If that wasn’t enough of a change, Ratzlaff also has a whole different workout routine where he focuses on toning and building muscle in different areas.  

“I focus on my glute muscles a lot just because my hips aren’t very good and I think if I can strengthen my glutes as much as I can, that definitely, kind of takes the pain away a little bit,” he said. “But then on the other side, the glutes get tight, and you have to rehab and loosen them up. I would say upper body not so much, and that’s the main thing with football too. I had such a big upper body and I’m big up top, but in hockey, you don’t need that. You really don’t. You need your big legs and your strong lower body and strong glutes. In hockey, with the upper body, you need it, but it’s not as important as in football. I had to cut down a lot of upper body strength and get a little bit leaner.” 

There’s already been a lot of differences between playing football at Wisconsin and hockey at UST, but the last big one has to do with atmosphere. When Ratzlaff played at Wisconsin, he was in a football stadium that could hold 80,000 fans on a game day. At a Tommies hockey game, 1,000 fans is considered a sellout, so suiting up against St. Cloud State for the home opener this year was to put it mildly, a bit of a change.

“Yeah, that’s a lot different,” he said with a laugh. “The atmosphere at Camp Randall on Saturdays is incredible and super special. And then obviously coming to St. Thomas, I played high school games here and there’s just as many fans as the college team gets. It’s interesting for sure, but at the end of the day, I’m just so grateful to be playing hockey and stuff. It is what it is, but once they get that new rink, it’ll be nice.  

“The game at the Xcel Energy Center, that one game we played (against Minnesota) and even (3M Arena at) Mariucci was packed that one night we played the Gophers. So, we’ve had some fun games that were packed, and we’ve had some fans. It is a different environment when you don’t have as many people. Sometimes the adrenaline can kind of alter a little bit, it’s either really high or really low, and at the X, it’s like ‘Holy crap, there’s so many people here,’ which was great. And then Camp Randall, there’s almost 80,000 and you’re like ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It is a little different for sure, but I’m happy to be here and I’m blessed to be here. So, it’s okay.” 

St. Thomas defenseman Jake Ratzlaff passes the puck during a game against Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Oct. 13. (Photo courtesy St. Thomas Athletics)

So far, Ratzlaff has only tallied one point this year and that was an assist against the Gophers at the X, which meant a lot to him as he got that point in front of his extended family.  

“I didn’t expect it to happen in that game,” he said. “I told myself, especially since we were playing the Gophers, just play really solid defensively and try to stop those guys from doing anything special. Jimmy (Snuggerud) is really good, and they’ve got some other really good players. So just shut them down and try to do my best out here just to move pucks up the ice. Fortunately, I was kind of creeping into the offensive zone and one of my guys hit me and I kind of made a little slap pass to one of our other guys and he put it in the net. It was special. Then the next night, we were playing the Gophers, and I actually came down in the third period and hit the pipe. So, I was like ‘Oh gosh, I could’ve got my first goal there’ and that would’ve been fun. But I was so blessed because my whole family was there. My grandparents, my cousins. I had a bunch of people there and they were all excited about the game. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up winning the game, which was terrible and just brutal, but we did a lot of great things and obviously, we can build off everything that we did at that point and now, we’re building even more. It’s great.” 

It hasn’t been a typical college journey and definitely not the easiest, but as he prepares for this weekend’s road series, Ratzlaff says he has no regrets about how things have gone for him so far as an athlete.  

“For me, I’m a pretty religious person, so I think God has a plan for everybody,” he said. “So, I don’t regret anything that’s happened to me or anything. If anything, I’m blessed. I can’t be more thankful for everything that I’ve been blessed with. I got to play Division I football and now, I’m playing Division I hockey. Kids dream about just playing just one Division I sport and even playing sports in general, there’s a lot of kids that don’t get that opportunity. So, I’m truly blessed to do be doing everything that I’m doing and getting the opportunities that I’m getting. There’s definitely no regrets.” 

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