Ryan Ufko had never been named a captain in any capacity before.
University of Massachusetts Amherst head coach Greg Carvel says he doesn’t believe he’s ever had co-captains before, but after a group vote to get a sense of who the team’s clear leader was, Carvel doesn’t mind having two captains.
“We learned a lot of lessons last year and our leaders were not strong enough,” said Carvel, whose squad went 13-17-5 last season. “It really led to a tough season for us. We needed to get back to having strong leaders and play to their identity and us keep them accountable.”
Ufko, a business management major, was named one of UMass’ co-captains as he enters his junior year. The 20-year-old blue-liner joins senior defenseman Aaron Bohlinger as the dual-leaders of the Minutemen.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Ufko told Nashville Hockey Now. “It was always one of my dreams to be a captain one day. I just can’t wait to get this year started.”
The Nashville Predators selected Ufko in the fourth round of the 2021 draft (115th overall). The defender is coming off a strong sophomore year at UMass and a standout performance for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in January.
Ufko scored one goal and 10 points in seven games during the tournament, including a two-point performance in USA’s 8-7 win over Sweden in the bronze-medal game.
“I was at the world junior summer showcase that year (2021) in Plymouth, Michigan,” Ufko said as he reflected on when he found out that he was drafted. “The next day we had practices and games, so we watched some of the picks in the second round and then after practice, we were all checking phones and they were blowing up… A couple of guys yelled my name that Nashville took me, so I was pretty ecstatic.”
Ufko, who had no idea which team wanted him, disclosed that he had pre-draft interviews with approximately half of the league. He talked to the Predators a few months before the draft and was shocked when they took him in the middle of Round 4.
In his second year with the Minutemen, Ufko finished third on the team in scoring with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists), and he tied for the second-most points on the team in conference play, tallying six goals and 17 points against Hockey East competition.
This season, Ufko aims to pick up where he left off last year while also sharing the leadership responsibility with Bohlinger.
“He was here when they won the national championship (in 2021),” Ufko said of Bohlinger. “He still has that experience from that year, which is good, especially for (mentoring) the younger guys. He’s probably in the best condition he’s been in going into his senior year.”
Ufko, a Smithtown, New York native, stated that he’s confident in the defensive side of the puck for UMass, which boasts four graduate students and four seniors this season.
Carvel stated that after two seasons of watching Ufko play, he knew he had the skillset to be a pro-level defenseman. In the meantime, he also fits the mold to being a cornerstone player for the program.
“He’s an extremely intelligent player, reads the game extremely well,” Carvel noted. “What he does better than expected is that he physically engages in the game very efficiently and effectively. For his size, it’s important; I think that was a concern for a lot of people getting to this level. He has an offensive upside that is really impressive.
“But what was he going to do without the puck? He’s become an extremely good defensive player at this level. His speed is something that’s continually gotten better. At his size in the next level, he’s going to have to be able to move that way. Where he’s elite is with the puck on his stick — great anticipation, vision, instincts, and ability to shoot from the blue-line. He’s a fun player to watch and there aren’t many.”
Carvel says Ufko’s style of play reminds him of Zac Jones, who played with the program from 2019 to 2021 and scored 47 points in 61 games.
Jones was a decorated college player whose resume boasted several accolades including an East Region All-American selection by the American Hockey Coaches Association (2020), an All-Hockey East second team selection (2020), All-Tournament nods for the NCAA and Hockey East tourneys (2020), and a Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection (2019).
“Im not the biggest guy in the world, so I’ve always tried to use my brain,” Ufko said. “A lot of coaches have said that I’m really smart on and off the ice. I think that’s the biggest thing I take pride in — trying to always know the next play before I even get the puck. I think that’s always been my mindset and I think it’s really helped me. I try to slow the game down when I have the puck and manipulate defenders in the offensive zone. I try and use my edges and just use deception.”
Ukfo has thrived under Carvel’s coaching. The junior blue-liner says he’s enjoyed watching the 180 the program has made since Carvel’s arrival in 2016. During that span, he’s led UMass to a 129-105-17 record (.548 win percentage) with two Hockey East tournament titles, one national championship and one national title runner-up.
Carvel set the school’s single-season record for wins (31) in his third year, and he’s also won both the NCAA and Hockey East Coach of the Year awards as well.
“The way he runs everything, he holds very high standards,” Ufko said. “The culture here is everything. He focused more on standards and culture than hockey. Just the way his philosophy is I think turned this program and whole school around. It’s a ton of fun for me. He’s very passionate and gets the most out of his players.”
Away from the rink, Carvel noted how impassioned Ufko is and how he carries himself with his peers. The lone physical trait that he believes needs more development is his size. At 5-foot-10, 181 pounds, Ufko likely needs to add some more bulk to his frame to hold up to the rigors of the NHL.
“He is a quality human being,” Carvel said. “He’s the kind of kid you want your daughter to marry. I don’t think he’s gotten anything less than an A in his courses and he’s a joy to be around. He has NHL talent. I coached in that league long enough (to know). He led the U.S. World Junior team in points by a defenseman last year and that doesn’t happen by chance. He’s a hell of a hockey player.”
Ufko originally got his start as a center when he played youth hockey. That changed around the time he was 7 years old when a spur-of-the-moment coaching decision changed the trajectory of his career.
“We were losing like 6-0 or something like that after the second period,” Ufko recalled as he walked down memory lane. “My coach picked the four best guys who could skate backward and put them on defense. Ever since then it just stuck.”
Looking back after he toured other schools, Ufko knew after making the trip to tour the campus at Amherst there was no question he wanted to enroll there. Now, as he heads into his third year with the Minutemen, he knows he made the right call.
“I came here and fell in love with the campus and coaching staff,” Ufko said. “I think it was a good mix of both. It wasn’t all city but kind of felt like its own town out here in western Massachusetts. The coaching staff seemed really invested in me, so I stayed in touch with them for a bit. You see guys like Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro who played here. They breed defensemen at this program.”
As far as when he could possibly sign his entry-level contract with the Predators, Ufko’s agent, John Osei-Tutu, stated it’s been briefly discussed, but his focus right now is on his junior season with UMass.
“All sides felt another year would be best for his development,” Osei-Tutu told Nashville Hockey Now. “Hopefully, he’s ready to step right in and play at this season’s end.”