Selfless mindset and rugged defense molds Marks’ hockey identity

A cornerstone player with small-town roots

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Sean Reed

Senior defenseman Luke Marks exits the ice for the Huskies locker room after the second period on Nov. 19. (Sean Reed | Northern Star)

By Alex Crowe, Senior Sports Reporter

Sophomore defenseman Luke Marks may not have come from much of a hockey family, but his hard-nosed playstyle, calming presence and selflessness make him stand out for NIU hockey.

Marks’ untraditional journey to the ice

Marks grew up in the small town of Becker, Minnesota, where his introduction to hockey surprisingly wasn’t rooted in the family like most in the state of hockey.

“I am actually the first person in my family to play hockey. The way I got introduced to it is one of my friends in elementary school … One of my best friends – he played hockey – and I really wanted to play,” Marks said. “I played the first year for free and kind of just fell in love with it. My parents had no idea what was going on. They’d never done it. My dad played football growing up, and my mom played softball. No experience in it.”

Despite not being part of a big hockey family, hockey culture in Minnesota and the state’s strategy for getting kids involved in the sport helped push Marks to the ice.

Sophomore defenseman Luke Marks handles the puck during the Huskies’ season-opener versus John Carroll University on Sept. 16. (Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey)

“The kind of deal with how Minnesota gets kids into it (hockey) is your first year’s free. They give you gear,” Marks said. “Growing up, obviously the hockey culture is super thick in Minnesota. Everybody loves hockey. It’s the state of hockey. It’s a really good experience because there’s a lot of people you can learn from, and there’s a lot of avenues to go down.”

Once Marks set foot in the hockey world, he never looked back.

“I do remember a lot of my first season just, like, being absolutely in love with the game. Just couldn’t stop talking about it,” Marks said. “Always sitting in my driveway shooting a little plastic ball at a net my parents got me. Just always wanting to have a stick in my hands and playing hockey.”

Marks’ hockey journey in Minnesota led him to play junior hockey for the Dells Ducks of the United States Premier Hockey League, where he spent two seasons.

While playing junior hockey, almost all of Marks’ focus was on the sport.

Marks said the atmosphere surrounding junior hockey helped him find his identity as a player.

“It really helped me develop my kind of playstyle,” Marks said. “Kind of helped me actually make the fully decision that I wanted to go play defense full-time.”

A different breed of player

Most hockey players want to be the ones to make highlight plays and be impactful in the offensive zone.

For Marks, his playstyle is the opposite of the common player. He fills the role of a defensive specialist and an abrasive defender.

“My main strength as a player is being a defensive defenseman,” Marks said. “I’ve never really been the skill guy. I’ve always been the grinder. I’m the one that’s going to go into the corner and get a puck, pass it to a playmaker. I’m the one who’s gonna throw bodies … Be kind of the role player.”

Defensive play falls heavily under Marks’ responsibilities as a defenseman. Junior goaltender Ben Vutci described how Marks’ defensive style forces him to put his body on the line to help keep pucks away from him.

“He’s a very good shutdown defenseman,” Vutci said. “He obviously blocks shots …  and for some reason, it’s never just one shot. It’s always like three stingers to the same area in like one shift. He just continues to do it – he’ll do it repeatedly. Even when he could’ve stayed down if the first one hurt, he’ll get back up and take another one that will sting … That really helps me out.”

He’s the life jacket that keeps you from going under.”

— Junior goalie Ben Vutci

Head hockey coach Brad Stoffers described Marks’ player qualities as essential to a winning team.

“Just a high-character guy,” Stoffers said. “High will, like blocking shots, playing the body, being physical – not afraid to get dirty and help a team win.”

As a defensive specialist for NIU, Marks is heavily relied upon to play at a high level defensively for over 20 minutes each game.

For Marks, that responsibility translates to confidence.

“I take it as a compliment,” Marks said. “Just seeing that I’m trusted to be out there for that much time. It’s almost a little bit of a confidence boost knowing that I’m able to be trusted out there.”

Marks may have a hard-nosed on-ice presence, but off the ice, his role goes from knocking guys down to bringing guys up.

“I’m more like a people pleaser,” Marks said. “I want to make sure everybody’s not at each other’s throats and make sure everybody’s kind of, like, even-keeled and not going at each other. Trying to keep the balance. I’m not going to try to tip it in any other way, but I’ll be there to try to keep it where it is perfect.”

The rock of NIU hockey

Vutci said that despite his toughness on the ice, Marks’ ability to keep a level head and be a calming influence is heavily respected and keeps the team together.

“He’s (Marks) the life jacket that keeps you from going under. There’s a funny saying like ‘cooler heads prevail.’ Luke is the cooler head. Luke knows how to say to everybody like ‘hey, stop yelling at the refs, stop being mad that the game isn’t going our way at this point – just play your game and do your job,’” Vutci said. “He’s got this calming aura about him that the guys really respect.”

Marks may not be the flashiest player on the ice, but Stoffers said he sees Marks’ selflessness and willingness to do what others don’t as what sets him apart.

“I think the things he does, a lot of guys don’t. It’s not natural to, like, want to emulate that because it’s hard work. He does the dirty stuff,” Stoffers said. “When you see a guy make a flashy play and dangle somebody and go score a goal you’re like ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ When someone blocks the shots, like ‘Wow, I’m glad he did that so I don’t have to.’”

In trying to get NIU’s hockey program off the ground, Stoffers said Marks is a crucial piece to help build a contending team.

“I’m trying to rebuild this team,” Stoffers said. “The fact that he’s only a sophomore – that’s awesome. That’s really exciting.”

Despite Marks’ rugged hockey identity, he acknowledges the true grinders of the hockey world: the parents.

“I would just like to say, like, a thank you to all the parents of hockey players because we couldn’t be where we are without them,” Marks said. “They sacrificed a lot to kind of put us in the position that we get to be in to succeed in hockey.”

Marks and the NIU hockey team are off for a month-long Winter Break. They will hit the ice again on Jan. 6 to take on Roosevelt University at Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee.