Rockwell might be small, but he plays a big game

Star Tribune/Katherine Matthews, File File - Tyler Rockwell (7) of Shattuck-St. Mary's. Rockwell had one assist during the game.

HOUGHTON — When looking at the Michigan Tech Huskies incoming hockey freshman Tyler Rockwell, a defenseman, one statistic stands out above all the rest: his height. Tyler stands just 5-foot-8, which is traditionally on the smaller side for a player of his position.

If you ask him about it, he looks at it as an advantage, rather than a detriment.

“I try to see the bright side of it,” said Tyler. “You are smaller, but you get to be a lot more agile and quick when you are small and you can squeak through bigger players and use your leverage. I just try to use the advantages that come with being small.”

Tyler is the second San Jose, California, native to join the Huskies in recent years. Max Vallis was the previous Huskies skater from the greater Bay Area.

Huskies fans should recognize Tyler’s last name, after all, his father’s (John) and mother’s (Venus) names adorn the Wall of Fame in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. A goaltender from 1975-79, the elder Rockwell appeared in 69 games for the Huskies, amassing a record of 38-27-0 with a 4.02 goals against average and a .892 save percentage.

John and Venus made a sizable pledge to the program during the enrichment campaign in the late 2000s, but when it time for Tyler to make his decision on where he wanted to go to school, John offered his advice, but still gave his son the opportunity to find the right fit, which just so happened to be Michigan Tech.

“He actually never pushed anything,” said Tyler. “He wanted me to make my own decision. When the options were laid on the table, he didn’t want to be too big of an influence just because he went there. He wanted me to go to the best place for me.”

While Tyler was grew up in northern California, he had the opportunity to attend a small preparatory school in southern Minnesota when he was bantam-aged: Shattuck St. Mary’s. NHL fans should recognize Shattuck as the school that produced star players such as Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, Nathan MacKinnon, and Derek Stepan.

Going so far from home might seem strange to many, but not to Tyler. His father grew up in Bloomington, just 40 miles north of Faribault, where Shattuck is located.

“My experience there was just awesome,” said Tyler. “Everyone there was very motivated. There weren’t any bad apples who were there just trying to squeak by. Everyone had their own drive.”

While at Shattuck, Tyler played his first season for the Bantam Tier 1 team, where he racked up six goals and 37 points in 61 games. The next season, he joined the U16 team, where he put up five goals and 24 points in 54 games.

In his first season with the Midget Prep team, Tyler was the youngest defenseman on the team. While adjusting to the speed of the game at that level, he scored just one goal and 11 points in 52 games. The following season, he exploded for eight goals and 39 points in 53 games.

“I was able to get all my chances on the powerplay and penalty kill and play a lot more,” said Tyler. “[My] ice time definitely contributed to a rise in stats.”

In time for the 2014-15 season, Tyler joined the Wenatchee Wild in the North American Hockey League (NAHL). He had a strong showing in his first season, scoring five goals and 25 points in 55 games.

In his second season, the Wild moved from the NAHL to the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), finishing second in the Mainland Division, going 34-16-4-4. Tyler scored a career-high nine goals and picked up 20 points in 45 games.

Last season, he served as team captain and racked up four goals and 28 points in 57 games. While he spent much of the first month or two learning how to lead, his teammates supported him in the best way possible, finishing first in the BCHL with a record of 45-9-4-0. The team finished with a goal differential of +159, which was 84 more than the next best team.

Tyler struggled with the transition to being counted on as the leader, but once he settled in, things started to roll for him. He picked up five points (one goal, four assists) in a four-game span from Nov. 20-Nov. 26, and finished the regular season with five points (1 goal, four assists) in the final five games.

While the point runs were nice, Tyler was more focused on the how the team was faring than he was about his own stats.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know I had that,” said Tyler of the first streak. “I really just cared that the team was winning. That might sound cliche, but I didn’t even know that.”

Tyler and his teammates made into the second round of the BCHL playoffs in each season, but could not advance beyond that. The experience should prove dividends for him as he prepares to join the Huskies, who play in the WCHA where the first two rounds of the playoffs are now best-of-threes.

“It’s a completely different feel than in the regular season,” said Tyler. “When you are playing the same team all in a row, everything matters. My coach said that each game you play is equivalent, in experience, to 10 games in the regular season.”

Being a smaller defender, Tyler grew up idolizing another small defender who made a name for himself at both the NCAA and the NHL levels: Brian Rafalski. Rafalski may stand two inches taller, but was extremely effective at a time when the NHL was looking for defenders who stood 6-foot-5.

Tyler has also spent a lot of time studying the play of Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon. The 27-year-old former sixth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders is described by as “A small two-way defenseman. Excels with the man advantage where he can make plays from the blueline. Skates very well and has great agility.”

If Tyler can prove to have a similar playing style, that could prove very beneficial to the Huskies moving forward, who could some offense from the backend after to the graduation of Shane Hanna last season.