After injuries shorten football career, former D-I defenseman commit heads back to the hockey rink
Talented in three sports, Jake Ratzlaff chose Badgers football over Gophers hockey a few years ago. With injuries hampering his gridiron future, he is back on the ice looking for a place to play.
MADISON, Wis. – In this era of the transfer portal, in which college athletes switch schools like de facto free agents, Rosemount, Minn., native Jake Ratzlaff is putting his own kind of twist on things. Ratzlaff, who has found previous success as a defenseman on the rink and as a linebacker on the gridiron, may or may not be switching schools, but as of last week, he is definitely switching sports.
When we first met Ratzlaff a few years ago, he was a three-sport standout in the Twin Cities suburbs, who committed to the Minnesota Gophers as a hockey player, but talked as much about his love for baseball and football as his work on the ice. There was just one problem with his original plan to make 3M Arena at Mariucci his college sports venue of choice: he was too adept at football for his abilities there to be ignored.
As a senior at Rosemount, Ratzlaff switched directions, and switched sides of the Border Battle, de-committing from Gophers hockey and heading to Wisconsin to play football for the Badgers instead. Last week, his athletic journey came full circle, and after a few years and a few games with the Badger football program, Ratzlaff made his return to the ice, skating a regular shift on defense for the USHL’s Madison Capitols.
“It felt great, and I had a blast. It was my first USHL game in over two years,” Ratzlaff said this week, in a phone interview with The Rink Live. He had most recently logged three games for the Green Bay Gamblers in the 2019-20 season, which was cut short due to the pandemic. He was a prep star for Rosemount, and skated in the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup for USA Hockey as a teen.
While he enjoyed his time with the Badgers on the turf, the injury bug made an impactful decision about Ratzlaff’s athletic future. He suffered an injury to his hips while playing football which manifests itself in back problems when he runs at high speeds for extended periods — typical of playing defense in football, where bursts of high-speed running are common. When it came to making a choice about his future, he picked the one with fewer doctor visits involved.
“Basically it was either get my hips fixed to be able to run and play football, or go back to hockey and not do any of that,” he said. “I’m going to go back to hockey. I don’t want to get (surgery) on my hips or anything when hockey’s completely fine and there are no issues there.”
He had been skating casually off and on during in his time away from football, even getting on the ice with Badger hockey players from time to time, but officially left the Badgers football team in November — finishing his Wisconsin gridiron career having played in two games — and started training for hockey in earnest. That included losing about 10 pounds as he prepared to defend against streaking wingers rather than slanting tight ends.
“I’ve really, really tried to get back into shape and back into that hockey mode,” he said. “I haven’t had any issues with my hips, and everything has felt great.”
He remains enrolled in school at Wisconsin and is living and playing in Madison, and Ratzlaff admitted that if they were interested in him, he would love to play hockey for the Badgers. Wisconsin hockey coach Tony Granato, in a text with The Rink Live, had good things to say about Ratzlaff’s character, and said the Badgers coaches look forward to watching him play, but made no promises about Ratzlaff’s potential future in cardinal and white. Likewise, the player is keeping all options in front of him.
“I’d love to play for the Badgers, but everything is open right now. I’m on the table for anything because I’m not committed to doing one thing or another,” Ratzlaff said. “I have to get in the games, and start playing more, and my options are open.”