MINNEAPOLIS — Tarek Baker is a Verona native who’s having a good freshman season for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team going into a series against archrival Minnesota.
From a distance, there’s a neatness to all of that to make for a good yarn.
Study the complexities, however, and you discover that there’s really nothing tidy about the twists and turns in Baker’s career, even to the point that there once was a time he was planning on occupying the other bench at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
UW is Baker’s sixth team in the past seven seasons, an indication of the journey that gave the 20-year-old some of the grit that he has put on display for the Badgers.
Like many in hockey, he left home to give himself a better chance at a high-level future. He has been traded twice. He has been motivated by rejection.
“The rounds of junior hockey and midget hockey, some players thrive through it and other ones pack it in and have a hard time,” said Dennis Williams, who coached Baker for the last three years with the Bloomington Thunder of the United States Hockey League. “A player like Tarek just kept getting thicker skin. He wanted to keep proving people right and wrong out there.”
When the 14th-ranked Badgers play at No. 7 Minnesota tonight and Saturday, it brings together Baker’s current team and the school to which he once made an oral commitment.
Baker was 16 when, on the heels of a productive performance at a showcase event, he was heavily recruited by the Golden Gophers. Two years after deciding he wanted to play for Minnesota, however, that scenario “just wasn’t working out,” Baker said this week.
He later changed his commitment to UW, setting him up to be in the visitor’s locker room this weekend.
“Everyone knows the Wisconsin-Minnesota bad blood,” Baker said. “For me, more than anything, I just want to go in there and get the six points, play whatever way gets our team the six points. If I have to play gritty, do whatever I have to do to make sure our team gets the win.”
That has been the early scouting report on Baker, who also has added the scoring punch he wasn’t sure would immediately carry over to college. He’s tied for second on the team with six goals and ranks third among freshmen nationally.
Badgers coach Tony Granato called Baker the team’s “Energizer Bunny.”
“We put him on the ice and he creates some sort of excitement to get your team going,” Granato said.
The early success that Baker has enjoyed could be seen as confirmation that he made the right turns on his long route to college.
One turn that was denied, however, made a lasting impact.
Baker played for Verona High School and the Team Wisconsin program during his freshman year, but he saw a better future for himself in a move to the Omaha AAA midget program.
The goal at that point was to make it to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program after his sophomore year. He was one of 52 players invited to the evaluation camp but, for the first time in his career, was left off a final roster.
“I think it just lit a fire underneath me and helped me focus on getting in shape and eating the right things and trying to take care of myself like a professional,” Baker said.
Baker returned to Omaha for the 2013-14 season and also played three games with Des Moines in the USHL that year.
Before the 2014-15 season, Williams was building the Bloomington expansion team and traded for Baker on word that he’d help build the team’s culture.
“I think a lot of our team’s short success in our youthful program in Bloomington was because of that move to get Tarek in there,” said Williams, who left the team that’s now known as the Central Illinois Flying Aces after last season to become head coach of the Everett Silvertips in the major junior Western Hockey League.
Baker was Bloomington’s captain last season until he was sidelined for eight weeks because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee.
With Bloomington out of the playoff picture, Williams got calls about a trade for Baker on the hopes that he’d be ready to return for the playoffs. Baker said Williams left the trade decision up to him.
“I’m really grateful for that, that they wanted the best for me,” Baker said.
He was dealt for the second time in his USHL career, this time to Sioux City, which made a run to the playoff final before losing to Chicago in a decisive fifth game.
Baker scored three goals and had 10 points in 13 playoff games after it wasn’t clear that he would return at all last season. It made an impression on his future coach.
“That, to me, says a lot about his character,” Granato said. “Since the day he got here, he’s made an impact in lots of ways.”
After all of the travel in the past five years, Baker is back living in the Madison area and playing where his family can more easily attend.
“The first games here was almost like a homecoming,” Baker said. “You get people when I was away texting me, calling me, asking me how I’m doing. And now they can come watch the game.
“It’s great to be able to play back in front of my family and friends, and especially have my grandparents and mom and dad be able to watch me after they’ve been spending the money and letting me go play wherever.”