Peter Hand, his mother Demitra and his younger brother Zach can now relate to people placed in the witness protection program.
The three family members have relocated to a strange city and are beginning a new life. But they’re not hiding out from anyone. It’s just the next step in Peter Hand’s hockey development.
The three members of the Hand family moved to Elmhurst, Ill., earlier this week so Peter, a 6-foot, 180-pound defenseman, can play for the Chicago Steel in the United States Hockey League.
The fourth member of the family, the father. Peter J. Hand, will remain in Rotterdam to operate his general contracting business.
“I feel like this is the best way for me to get better,” said Hand, who will turn 16 on Thursday. “There will be better coaches, and I’ll be playing against better kids.”
And he’ll also be playing against older kids. At 16, Hand will be the youngest player on the Steel roster, and many of the players he’ll be going up against will be 19 and 20 years old.
“This is just what he needs,” said Hand’s father. “He’ll be playing for a coach [former Colgate defenseman Steve Poapst] who played in the NHL for 10 years. He couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
“I don’t look at it as a sacrifice,” said Demitra of the move to Elmhurst. “I want to help him fulfill his dream. I don’t want him to turn around someday and say, ‘Mom, why didn’t you let me go?’ ”
Hand’s dream is to play pro hockey, a path that he has followed since he first started taking skating lessons as a 3-year-old.
“I used to take him to the rink when he was little,” said Demitra. “The winters are so long. I always went to the rink with my mother and had fun. I was just looking for something to do with the kids. We would pack a lunch, and go to the rink.”
And from the day his mother asked him if he wanted “to go with the [figure] skaters or the boys with the sticks,” his life has revolved around hockey.
“When he was in kindergarten, he would take his hockey bag to show-and-tell, and explain what the equipment was to the other kids,” said his mother.
Like a lot of other kids, Hand made a steady progression through the Troy/Albany Hockey Association house leagues, and then played for the Albany Storm. There were an assortment of traveling teams and all-star teams, two years with the East Coast Selects and even a stint — complete with 21⁄2-hour rides with his father — to play for the Westchester Express as a bantam.
And if his parents were busy, his paternal grandparents, Peter James and Katherine, helped out.
“My in-laws have been so supportive,” said Demitra. “When Peter had to go to Quebec when he was playing for the Junior Rangers, his grandfather took him because I couldn’t get away. They’ve always been there for us.”
PLAYED IN DETROIT
Hand made the biggest move of his career last year, going to Detroit to play for the Compuware U16 team, which won the US Hockey U16 national championship. Following the path of many junior players, he made the trip alone, billeting with a family and attending high school in Michigan.
“It was hard in the beginning, but I met a lot of great people,” said Hand, who attended Christian Brothers Academy during his freshman year in high school.
Compuware, founded in the mid-1970s by Pete Karmanos, who later became owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, is one of the most successful junior programs in the country. Since its inception, Compuware has placed over 170 graduates in Major Junior or NCAA Division I hockey programs.
Playing for Compuware turned out to be a huge step in Hand’s odyssey. During a tournament at Ohio State, he fell in love with the Value Center Arena. where Ohio State plays its home games, and after taking to members of the Ohio State staff, made a verbal commitment to play for the Buckeyes, even though he has two years of high school left.
No matter what happens in the next two years, he plans to honor that commitment.
“I like everything about it,” said Hand of Ohio State.
His poise on the ice, combined with an innate toughness, also got him noticed by teams in the USHL, and he was a first-round draft choice of the Nebraska-based Tri-City Storm in the Futures Draft, for players 17 and under last spring.
After discussions with Hand’s advisor, Chris Lepkowski, concerning Hand’s future in Tri-City, the Storm traded him to Chicago.
His former coach doesn’t think jumping to the USHL will be a problem.
“When he’s on the ice, he can be very intimidating,” said Compuware U16 coach Derek Szajner. “He’s not afraid of anything.”
Although Hand only scored one goal and seven assists during league competition for Compuware, he led the league in penalty minutes (97 in 30 games) and was suspended twice for fighting.
“He got into a couple of bad situations, and got suspended, but he was sticking up for his teammates,” said Szajner.
But there’s a lot more to Hand than his toughness.
“He’s got great hands, and his footwork has gotten better since he played here,” said Szajner. “He sees the ice very well, and has a hard shot. He’s a very steady defenseman, but he can also rush with the puck.”
Hand had always been serious about weight training, working with Dyke Naughton at Cutting Edge Sport Sciences in Albany for many years, and while he was in Michigan, he came under the tutelage of power skating instructor Carrie Keil, who is a coach for the U.S. National Developmental Team.
“Peter is a very coachable person,” said Keil. “That’s his best asset. He doesn’t have a big ego for a kid his age. He really wants to excel and succeed, and he’s willing to take advice from other sources to achieve his goals.
“His other strength is his skating. He’s got a very powerful stride and a good hockey physique. He’s got what I call the box, very symmetrical. His anatomy works for him.”
One of the things Hand has to work on is channeling his emotions.
“He has a meanness you can’t coach,” said Szajner.
“He can’t stand losing,” said Keil. “When he meets adversity, he tends to explode. He has to learn to handle his emotions, and make positive things happen.”
Hand’s plan is to play in Chicago for two years, and then move on to Ohio State. Born in 1993, he’ll be eligible for the NHL draft in 2011.
“I don’t like to look that far in the future,” Hand said. “All I know is I think I’m ready for the next step.”
“I feel Peter had a great opportunity to play beyond college,” said Szajner. “Playing in the USHL is going to be a big challenge because he’s so tough. He’ll tangle with some boys who can handle themselves, and I’m sure there are going to be times he’s going to bite off more than he can chew. But after a month or so, he’s going to be fine. He’s only 16, but he plays the game like he’s 20.”