In 2006, Rick Torkelson thought he perfected the hockey dad routine.
Set an alarm, wake up his son at 5 a.m., get dressed, gobble breakfast, pack the duffel bag, crawl into his car by 5:40 and arrive for 6 o’clock practice.
Easy enough, right?
Not so much.
One morning, Torkelson didn’t wake up as scheduled. It was already 5:15. He must’ve forgotten to set his alarm. Or maybe he accidentally slept through it.
“I just felt this presence, you know, and I opened my eyes,” Torkelson said. “His nose is about two inches from my nose.”
An inquisitive 7-year-old Spencer Torkelson gazed into his father’s open yet sleepy eyes.
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“Dad, it’s almost 5:30.”
For about six years, Torkelson made the trip with his father from Petaluma, California, to Snoopy’s Home Ice in Santa Rosa, where he played for the Flyers in the Santa Rosa Junior Hockey Club. The competitor in him became stronger. He grew as a teammate.
He fell in love with yet another sport.
So, it’s only fitting he was picked No. 1 overall in the 2020 MLB draft by the Detroit Tigers, where his childhood passion for hockey has no choice but to be reborn in Hockeytown.
“Oh, I love hockey,” Torkelson said. “It’s such a great sport. It’s so much fun to watch. I love live games, so hopefully (I’ll) catch a couple of Red Wings games, maybe get on the ice. That’d be awesome.
“I know Detroit’s got a lot of diehard Tigers fans and Red Wings and some Lions fans. It’s an exciting time in Detroit, and it’s an honor to join the ride.”
Torkelson comes from Arizona State, where the school’s hockey team joined the NCAA just four years ago. He smashed 25 home runs as a freshman, 23 as a sophomore and six in 17 games as a junior before the novel coronavirus pandemic ended the season.
These home runs are called “Tork Bombs.”
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In his youth hockey days, these were well known amongst his teammates –– not with a baseball but a puck. They called him, “Spencer The Cannon.” His slapshot was feared; his wrist shot full of finesse. In practice once, he shattered the goalie’s plastic throat protector.
“It shattered in half as soon as it hit the helmet,” said Lucas Happy, Torkelson’s youth hockey teammate and longtime friend. “He would have definitely been a goal scorer, for sure. He had a crazy good shot, it was unbelievable.”
He made it look so easy. While his teammates struggled to shoot the puck in the right director, Torkelson sent it into the top of the net –– left corner, middle, right corner. Pick your poison, he rarely missed.
Torkelson immediately impressed Rob Happy, Lucas’ father who coached the No. 1 baseball draft pick in 2007-08, his second year on the ice.
“I couldn’t believe that the kid had only been skating for a year and was that good,” Rob said.
Spencer Torkelson celebrated becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2020 MLB draft with friends, family and a food truck on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in northern California.
Detroit Free Press
Practices for the 8-and-under mites hockey team began at 6 a.m., sometimes even earlier.
But that didn’t seem to bother Torkelson.
“He always wanted to be there,” Rob Happy said. “We had a very short amount of ice time, so to optimize that ice time is really important while teaching kids how to play the game and have fun.”
He enjoyed hockey, but what he really fell in love with was the competition –– beating his opponent to the puck, skating faster than the players next to him, outworking teammates in practice and putting in extra time to become the best athlete possible.
Torkelson put his work ethic on display as a 10-year-old when Rob and Lucas took him to the Petaluma Valley Little League family fun day, featuring a dunk tank, home run derby and other activities. (Lucas thinks Torkelson probably won the slug-off).
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They had been running around for at least four hours in 95-degree weather before packing up the car to drive home. Pulling into the driveway, Torkelson asked to play roller hockey in the street.
Rob and Lucas were exhausted.
“He convinced us both to play roller hockey, and then we ended up playing in my neighborhood for two hours with me and him versus my dad,” Lucas said. “Probably one of the most fun memories I have of Spenny from that young.
“It really proves to me how big his work ethic was even like, at that young of an age. And just like the fact that he wanted to do that after sitting in the sun for four hours. Pretty crazy at that young of an age.”
When Lucas became friends with Torkelson in the 2007-08 season, he was awestruck at his pal’s maturity.
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Lucas was playing his first hockey tournament as a 6-year-old in Lake Tahoe. He was frightened and didn’t know what to expect, but Torkelson trotted toward him in the locker room, sat down beside him and offered words of advice.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lucas remembers Torkelson telling him. “It’s just a game, and you’re out here to have fun with your friends.”
That’s when Lucas began looking up to Torkelson, calling him the athletic “role model” in his life. Back then, nobody knew where Torkelson would end up, but his calm, reliable presence was enough to build a following.
After the 12-and-under pee-wee years, Torkelson stopped playing organized hockey. He was one of the best players on the team, but his schedule was already jam-packed with other sports and something had to give.
Rob Happy wonders what would’ve happened if Torkelson had stayed on the ice. He had the needed athleticism, competitive nature and, most importantly, the will to win.
“I believe that (hockey) was definitely a path,” Rob said. “You got to learn how to skate, then you got to learn the skills around puck handling, passing, shooting, and then you got to learn how to play the game. You’ve got to have hockey IQ and learn your intelligence. And all those things were wrapped up into Spencer.
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“If you’ve got the compete in you, and you like playing on a team sport, then you’re just a really good fit for hockey. And if you’re a gifted athlete, it kind of gives you all the things you need to be successful.”
As Rob says, even if a competitor leaves the game of hockey, hockey will never leave him.
That could be why the first thing Torkelson said when asked an out of the blue hockey question in his first press conference as a Tiger resulted in four words: “Oh, I love hockey.”
In January 2019, Lucas invited Torkelson to watch the Santa Rosa Flyers in a tournament in Tempe, home of Arizona State. The Flyers still had most of the same players from his younger years.
“He almost instantly responded,” Lucas said vigorously, “and was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to come see you guys.’ He just hung out with my mom and watched the game.”
Lucas scored two goals in that game, and he could hear Torkelson cheering the loudest.
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“He’s not too big for Petaluma,” Lucas added. “He’s still super grounded and definitely got a good head on his shoulders.”
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Three minutes after the No. 1 overall pick was revealed, Lucas checked Snapchat. He noticed at least 150 posts of Torkelson on MLB Network and ESPN. Even Food Network star Guy Fieri congratulated him. Though Torkelson grew up on the east side of town, word of his “Tork Bombs” went citywide, then statewide, then nationwide, but it all started in Petaluma.
“It’s unbelievable to think like a kid from Petaluma who started out at Petaluma Little League is going to the MLB No. 1 overall,” Lucas said.
Sure, Torkelson ended up a baseball player, a very good one at that. But hockey was lucky to have him for as long as it did.
“Just lucky to have him because, you know, he’s athletic, he’s gifted, naturally gifted that way,” Rob said. “And then he’s got all the tangibles and intangibles that you want in an athlete.
“It’s been a pleasure because he’s such a respectful, courteous, humble person, just pleasant to be around. Nothing has ever gotten to his head.”
Free Press writer Jeff Seidel contributed to this report.