With men’s hockey headed to the Frozen Four for the first time since 1952, one freshman has been at the center of the team’s action for the entire season. Known to his teammates as “Obi,” 6-foot-1-inch defenseman Ryan Obuchowski ’16  — a Michigan native and member of the ECAC all-rookie squad — has played in every game for the Bulldogs in his first year and leads the team in +/- with +12 on the season.

“To be honest, I’m really not surprised that he has worked his way up the depth chart and is playing the minutes he’s playing now,” said Brad Lutsch, former director of player personnel for the United States Hockey League Indiana Ice, who coached Obuchowski during the two years before he came to Yale. “When you get him on the ice, he has a warrior mentality and will do whatever it takes to win.”

Obuchowski has become a vital part of the Bulldogs’ (20-12-3, 12-9-1 ECAC) playoff run and trip to the Frozen Four. In addition to leading the team in +/-, he is ranked ninth in the nation in this statistic and leads Yale freshmen with nine assists. Obuchowski is second in points for Yale defensemen with 12, behind only Tommy Fallen ’15 with 23.

“It’s simple — he’s skilled offensively and difficult to play against defensively,” Yale assistant coach Red Gendron said. “He possesses a nice combination of skating ability, stick skills and grit. With skating and grit, you keep pucks out of your net. With skating and stick skills, you can put pucks in their net.”

Obuchowski’s efforts have not gone unnoticed as he became the first Bulldog to receive the ECAC all-rookie honor since former Hobey Baker finalist Brian O’Neill ’12 claimed the award during the 2008–’09 season.

Obuchowski started playing hockey in his hometown of West Bloomfield, just outside of Detroit, at 19 months old when his parents couldn’t stop him running onto the ice where his older brothers were practicing. He immediately took to the sport and continued advancing his career with youth hockey and then high school hockey. But Obuchowski did not seriously think about hockey as something he would do past high school.

This changed sophomore year when he visited the locker room of the University of Miami’s hockey team. Despite thinking about a college career comparatively late for a hockey player, he performed especially well during his senior year, when he had a prolific season posting four goals and 23 assists in 30 games. He intended to go to one of the schools near his hometown until Lutsch reached out to Obuchowski with the prospect of playing junior hockey. Backed by his high school coach, the 17-year-old decided to pack his bags and relocate to Indianapolis, Ind., to further his career.

Lutsch said that Ryan was kind of a diamond in the rough who had very good potential and a commitment to improving his game both on and off the ice.

“I was fortunately able to secure him in the USHL draft that May [2011]. I think it was an eye-opener for Ryan that first month in the USHL coming from high school hockey, and he learned quickly how much commitment off the ice was involved,” Lutsch said. “He surrounded himself with some other players with great work ethics, and for the two seasons we had together there weren’t many mornings he wasn’t doing extra workouts or working on his on-ice individual skills.”

His success in Indiana led to his recruitment to Yale, despite his hesitation to leave the Midwest and travel all the way to New Haven.

Entering the season as one of three freshman defensemen in a corps that included four returners, there was always going to be a battle for playing time. However, Obi started playing immediately and posted three assists and a +7 rating before the New Year rolled around. It was in January and onward when Yale’s No. 14 began truly to gain confidence and become comfortable with the ECAC’s faster style of play.

“I have to give credit to my linemates this season,” he said. “I started with Colin Dueck ’13 who was really helpful on showing me how to improve defensively. Then in the second half of the season, Fallen was great in showing me how to play with speed and be able to join the rush. Confidence was a huge thing for me as I gained more opportunities; I gained confidence in myself.”

Obuchowski scored his first goal in Yale’s first game of the New Year versus perennial powerhouse Boston College and posted a +2 rating. In the second half of the season, he recorded seven assists and two goals, one of which was a game-tying goal versus Princeton. Obuchowski has been stable in the power-play unit and has been a top four defenseman most of the season. In the Bulldogs’ last game against heavily favored North Dakota, he posted a +3 rating and tallied two shots in the team’s 4–1 victory that propelled it to the Frozen Four.

“Our will to win was huge. Going against Minnesota and North Dakota, everyone wrote us off, and the will of the team was to really overcome that,” he said. “We never gave up, and we knew if we followed the process our coaches set up, the goals would come. But, the Frozen Four definitely comes as a surprise, I never thought I would be here, at Yale, my freshman year of college, when three years ago I was only concerned with winning high school state championships and I didn’t really know where I was going with hockey.”

Yale has had an improbable run to the Frozen Four, becoming only the second fourth-ranked team to make it this far in the tournament since the NCAA went to a 16-team format in 2003. While Obuchowski is currently focused on the team’s tournament run, he hopes to sign a contract with an NHL or AHL team and become a professional hockey player after graduation.

The Bulldogs will take on UMass-Lowell in the semifinals of the NCAA Division 1 championship on April 11 in Pittsburg, Penn.