Laurinaitis draws from hockey background

By Jim Ralabate
PA SportsTicker College Football Editor

NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) - You won’t find too many ice hockey rinks in New Orleans. In fact, there is only a handful of rinks in the entire state of Louisiana.

After all, hockey isn’t even played in the Southeastern Conference, where football reigns supreme.

But sticks and skates are common tools of the trade in the Big Ten Conference, where schools like Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Ohio State have big-time hockey programs.

The Big Ten doesn’t actually participate in college hockey, as the aforementioned hockey programs are dispersed out in conferences such as the CCHA and the WCHA.

Still, hockey is a major staple up north - something Ohio State All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis knows all too well.

“It’s kind of like football in Ohio or football in Texas,” said Laurinaitis, who grew up less than 20 miles from Minneapolis in Hamel, Minnesota.

The Butkus Award winner and the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year in 2007, Laurinaitis comes from a diverse background which included a very successful stint in hockey.

During his years at Hamel’s Wayzata High School, Laurinaitis was a star defenseman and senior captain for the Trojans’ hockey team.

“We used to get thousands of people at every game,” he said. “It was something that was fun to play in high school.”

Laurinaitis claimed he was a hard-nosed, physical blue-liner at Wayzata - something that isn’t too difficult to imagine judging from his exploits on the gridiron.

Several scouts predicted that had he decided to stay with hockey, Laurinaitis could have been a second- or third-round NHL draft selection. But the 244-pounder admits he definitely had his limitations on the ice.

“I definitely wasn’t a stick-handler,” he said. “I mainly was a physical presence.”

It isn’t difficult to envision Laurinaitis drilling someone in the neutral zone or pinning someone up against the boards, since the junior is a member of an extremely physical family.

His older brother, Joey, currently is in the United States Army and his younger sister, Jessica, is also an outstanding hockey player.

Laurinaitis’ most famous family member is his father, Joe, a former professional wrestler known as “The Animal” from the legendary WWE tag team “The Road Warriors.”

“It was fun,” said Laurinaitis, reminiscing to his days backstage during his father’s wrestling matches. “I have a lot of fond memories - getting to meet guys like Hulk Hogan, the Rock, Stone Cold. I got to see those guys on a regular basis.”

Rubbing shoulders with pro wrestlers or racing down the ice to help kill off a penalty are not exactly common childhood experiences for most college football players.

But for James Laurinaitis, arguably the best linebacker in the NCAA today, it was all part of growing up.