When hockey fans think about where the game’s brightest stars originate, Nebraska isn’t the state that comes to mind.
But for Michigan, it is.
Lincoln, Nebraska, native and incoming-freshman center Rutger McGroarty is projected to be one of the top picks in this year’s NHL draft — and a crucial piece for the Michigan men’s hockey team.
McGroarty takes after his father and his strong affection for the sport.
“I was just born into the sport,” McGroarty said. “I went to a hockey game when I was three days old. My dad, he just … loves hockey.”
Without the efforts of his father, Jimmy, a hockey aficionado and Ontario native, McGroarty likely wouldn’t be positioned as one of college hockey’s most intriguing prospects.
Jimmy McGroarty played in various mid-level and minor leagues in and out of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, including the East Coast Hockey League. Over the course of his career, Jimmy has worked in hockey in a variety of positions both on and off the ice.
Jimmy’s role extended beyond playing, serving as the head coach for the United States Hockey League’s Lincoln Stars on two separate occasions, from 2007 to 2010 and from 2013 to 2014. Currently, he serves as the general manager for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, another USHL junior team.
“My dad grew up in Toronto, and obviously that’s a hockey hotbed,” Rutger said. “He grew up playing hockey, he decided to go pro and he played pro all over the place.”
Born into a family where playing hockey was a given, Rutger took the ice at an early age. Jimmy helped shape him into an impressive hockey player with his vast hockey experience. All of that experience seemed to rub off on his son, who lives and breathes hockey.
“(My dad) had the key to the rink,” McGroarty said in an interview with The Prospect Talk Podcast. “So I felt like I had an advantage that other 8- to 10-year-olds didn’t have, skating every day with a USHL team … I felt like that had a big impact on my hockey career.”
And all of these experiences are paying off.
As Rutger developed his game, he and his father relocated to Michigan in order to enhance his development and further his hockey career. The move did just that as he captured the full attention of the United States National Team Development Program.
In his 2019-2020 15U AAA season with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies, Rutger exceeded his competition’s skill level and eclipsed expectations on the ice — making it clear that he was ready for the next level.
And after scoring 160 points (82 goals, 78 assists) in only 63 games, it was a matter of when — not if — McGroarty would make the move to Plymouth, the next rung up the ladder.
It only took a year for him to take that step and, once in Plymouth, Rutger made sure Nebraska was well represented.
In the 2020-2021 season, McGroarty tallied 35 points in 34 games (17 goals, 18 assists) for the USNTDP U17 team and even spent time with the U18 team — despite being 16 years old — putting up six points (three goals, three assists) in 19 games.
McGroarty also played in the USHL for the USNTDP Juniors where he scored 19 points (12 goals, seven assists) in 30 games, making history as the first Nebraska-born player to represent Team USA at the U18 Men’s World Championship.
And during USHL play, Rutger came face-to-face with his father’s club in Muskegon.
“I think he might have scored more goals against Muskegon than any other team,” Jimmy said. “So you kind of gotta say he won the rivalry … as a father you’re proud and happy for it.”
But during Rutger’s time on the U17 team, he didn’t always see the production he wanted.
“You don’t have as much success in your 17 year,” Rutger said. “And that’s why they built the program. You don’t have as much success as a 17-year-old and then your 18 year you go out there and dominate.”
Rutger was aware of the program’s trajectory even before he made the move to U18.
“I remember sitting in the locker room one time after getting dominated and everybody was like ‘we’re not losing,’ ” McGroarty said. “We’re not losing next year … (and) we’re gonna run the table.”
With his mature understanding of adversity, Rutger upped his production in his final season with the USNTDP.
He tallied 67 points (33 goals, 34 assists) in 52 games with the U18 team — displaying the effectiveness of the USNTDP’s trajectory — and showing off his well-rounded offensive skill set. He added an extra 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 25 games with the USNTDP Juniors in USHL competition.
Rutger also made his return to the U18 Men’s World Championship in 2022 with Team USA, this time sporting the “C” on his jersey for his club, reaching the next level — this time in terms of leadership.
“That was obviously a big honor,” Rutger said. “It was really nice for the guys to vote me (captain).”
And even in this new role, McGroarty’s manner in the locker room remained the same.
“I didn’t really change as much even though I had a letter on my jersey,” Rutger said. “I feel like I’m a good leader in the locker room and I come to the rink every single day ready to work. It didn’t change who I was in the locker room with the guys.”
He produced nine points in six games for the U18 Men’s World Championship team, scoring two goals in a win over Germany and three points in a win over Latvia to help propel his team to the Final against Sweden.
In the Final, the team was defeated 6-4, but despite the loss, Rutger illustrated his individual abilities, scoring on two separate occasions trimming the Swedish lead to one goal before the Swedes eventually pulled away.
Although the U18 Men’s World Championship team escaped with a silver medal in 2022, Rutger improved drastically from his zero-point, five-game showing in 2021 while leading the Americans to a higher-placed finish compared to the year prior.
“It was just a great group,” Rutger said. “We had a lot of success and a lot of fun doing it.”
As his impressive skill set became more noticeable, college programs took note.
In August 2018, Rutger verbally committed to the University of Notre Dame, but in October 2021, he changed course, deciding instead to enroll at Michigan.
“It’s a great organization, great coaching staff,” Rutger said. “We’re gonna have a great team, and you see how many NHL players that they’ve produced over the years. They just know how to develop their players and I just wanted to be a part of such a historic franchise.”
For the Wolverines, Rutger’s well-rounded style of scoring and playmaking will help to fill the void left by the departures of star sophomore forwards Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson and Thomas Bordeleau.
“What separates himself is his high IQ and the ability to make players around him better,” Jimmy said. “He can make plays but also play a 200-foot game.”
And in a year full of turnover for Michigan’s star-studded team, Rutger will be a welcome — and necessary — addition to a drastically different squad.
“We’re gonna have a little bit of a younger team, but … kind of like (USNTDP) last year we have a bunch of competitive guys going in,” Rutger said. “I feel like (our) competitiveness will lead us to success.”
And as he waits for his name to be called on draft night and to make his debut for the Wolverines, Rutger’s success carries greater significance.
“It just shows (that) for those not as big hockey markets, it’s just a good story,” Rutger said. “I just want to inspire a bunch of other kids from non-traditional hockey markets and show that if you work hard enough, they’ll find you.”
And as he approaches his debut with Michigan, he’ll have the opportunity to display that on a big stage.