When Michael Lackey was a four-year-old at a Capitals game, he witnessed Mites on Ice for the first time.
“I asked my dad if I could play [hockey]” Lackey said. “I didn’t realize that everybody played hockey, I thought just professionals [did].”
The inquiry prompted Lackey’s dad to find skating lessons for his son, and eventually the Washington, D.C. native started playing hockey.
Now Lackey, who’s verbally committed to attend Princeton in the fall of 2015, plays for the United States National Team Development Program’s (USNTDP) U-17 team.
This season, Lackey has appeared in seven games and posted a 2-2-0 record with a 3.54 goals-against average.
But it’s not the numbers that stand out to coach Don Granato, who has been at the U-17 helm for the past there years.
“It’s just how intense he is about competing,” Granato said. “[That’s] been the thing that’s resonated the most.
“He doesn’t like to lose. He’s quiet, he’s not a guy that draws attention to him, he seems to be very internally motivated, which I think is even better.”
“Intense” is the word fellow USNTDP goalkeeper Luke Opilka used to describe Lackey, a player who seldom speaks to his teammates during games.
At 6-foot-2, Lackey is tied as the team’s second tallest skater. The 16-year-old is also listed at 207 pounds.
“You don’t see players his size with his athleticism. That’s part of his really strong pace that tells us he’s going to improve a ton through the course of a couple years here,” Granato said.
“The other one is his competitiveness. He’s very competitive, so what we see as his attributes are things that show us he has potential for growth and development and obviously potential to become a very effective player in his position.”
Adjusting to the USNTDP
Granato said those two traits are why Lackey has already developed over the month he’s been in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Like everyone else here it’s a challenge for these guys every day,” Granato said. “But because of those two attributes, his confidence remains high. If he was short on one of those two I think we’d see some fluctuations in confidence.
“He’s got every right to be confident.”
Lackey and his team play against USHL competition and skaters who are up to four years older.
“The beauty of this program is we put them in an environment where it’s extremely challenging and failure is more present than maybe success, so you need [competitiveness and athleticism] to persevere while you’re [here],” Granato said.
Lackey struggled early in games at points in the season, Granato said. But the Washington, D.C. native figured out how to handle difficult situations better than most skaters his age.
“If he gives up a bad goal and there’s a bad situation in game, he elevates his competitiveness,” Granato said.
“Typically when a young player faces some adversity in a game, they don’t overcome it within that game. It takes them you know maybe a few days to overcome it. … What we’ve seen out of Michael is the opposite.
“He goes into a game, he doesn’t have the experience of what’s going to happen, how hard are shots coming at [him], how intense is this game [and] at some point he figures out that game itself and elevates.”
The USNTDP, founded in 1996 by USA Hockey, provides full-time strength, skating and goalie coaches who push the players to excel — something Granato says in another one of the challenges.
“Our team’s pretty great. We all get along really well, there’s no cliques, we’re all just one big group and we get along great off and on the ice,” Lackey said.
“On the ice, people are saying we’re one of the best U-17 teams to come through the program right now. That’s too much to be saying, this early in the season, but we have the potential.”
Opilka said Lackey is one of the team’s supportive players. He’s out there tapping gloves with his teammates and encouraging them.
“He’s kind of like a pick up guy,” Opilka said. “If you let in a weak goal, he’ll say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and say ‘Worry about the next one.’ ”
But Lackey’s focused, on-ice presence is much different than his off-ice self.
“He quotes weird things like South Park and stuff like that,” Opilka said. “He dances like a goofball.”
Becoming a Goalkeeper
Lackey wasn’t always a goalkeeper. But when he was six-years-old and playing on a struggling Montgomery Blue Devils team, the Washington, D.C. native tested out the position for a game.
“I told my dad that I thought I could do better than our goalie on our team, so he told me to try for one game,” Lackey said. “His idea was that I wasn’t going to enjoy it and it would go back but I actually had a shutout my first game and I just kept playing.”
Lackey said he wasn’t nervous playing between the pipes back then, and the intensity is his favorite part of playing hockey.
“Being a goalie, having all the pressure on you, I know a lot of people don’t like the pressure, but I really enjoy [it],” Lackey said.
Less than a decade after playing his first game between the pipes, Lackey played in the World Selects Invitational All-Star Game.
“I was so happy,” Lackey said. “I didn’t really think I could go anywhere with hockey, but after that moment I realized.
“It kept me motivated to keep playing and like keep working hard.”
Hockey in Washington, D.C.
Lackey, who lived around Washington, D.C., grew up in a region where lacrosse prevails. But the goalkeeper’s high school didn’t have a hockey team, so he found himself traveling an hour to practices every other day while he was in school.
But it never discouraged him.
“I just loved it. The kids from my team were great kids, I loved spending time with them,” Lackey said.
“We’d go up all the way up to Long Island all the way down to North Carolina. But yeah my teammates definitely kept me motivated.”
He ended up at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he registered a 15-7-2 record in 25 games in 2012-13.
Lackey started looking at Princeton as an option for lacrosse, but his love for hockey won.
“It’s so much fun. It’s so fast. There’s really nothing like it,” Lackey said.
Path to Princeton
Lackey visited Princeton when he was younger, touring different Ivy League schools with his dad.
Members of Lackey’s family attended Princeton as well, and the goalkeeper decided he wanted to attend Princeton when he met the Tigers’ coaching staff.
“I made a great bond with [coach Greg Gardner] on my visit, coach [Bob] Prier,” Lackey said. “All the coaching staff there was very supportive. … I liked the rink, Hobey Baker, the classic [rink]. And the campus is beautiful.
“There’s really nothing not to like about Princeton.”
Lackey said he’s looking forward to participating in a great athletic and academic program, but the goalkeeper still has time — and a few international competitions this season — before he wears orange-and-black.
Lackey has made 171 saves and played 339:06 minutes for the USNTDP. He scored his first point for the program on Sept. 21, when he also played 40 minutes and stopped 17 of 23 shots. And when Lackey isn’t performing well, he tells his coach he needs to play better.
“The competitiveness sticks out to the point where to me as a coach, that’s an intangible that you hope is in any player or all your players,” Granato said.
“Certainly when you look at the pinnacle of our sport being the NHL or the Olympics, you’re looking at those players [who] are not only talented, [but] they have a level of competitiveness that other players of equal talent just didn’t have.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed to correct an error that stated Lackey will attend Princeton in the fall of 2015.