Matt Grzelcyk may be just a freshman, but the 18-year-old defenseman is well on his way to becoming a hometown success story for hockey-crazed Boston.
Grzelcyk (SMG’16) grew up a rink rat in Charlestown, Mass., the son of a longtime Boston Garden Zamboni driver. At 16, he committed to play Division I hockey at BU, and in summer 2012 he was chosen by the Boston Bruins in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Despite his success on the ice, Grzelcyk knows he faces a long road ahead.
“Playing hockey and getting the chance to play Division I, obviously your goal is to play one day in the NHL,” says Grzelcyk, one of nine freshmen in this season’s Terriers lineup. “But you have to stay realistic at the same time and realize how hard it is to get there. I have to work if I want it to happen.” Proof of his work ethic: this week he was named Hockey East Rookie of the Month and put on the preliminary roster for the US National Junior Team.
Grzelcyk’s father, John, taught him to skate at the age of two by getting him to lean on stacked milk crates at a local MDC rink. The elder Grzelcyk has worked for 45 years as a member of the Boston Garden’s “bull gang,” the team that switches the arena surfaces between hockey and basketball games. “I can remember waiting for my dad to call, telling me to come down and skate when the Bruins weren’t playing at home,” Matt recalls. “Anytime I got the opportunity I always took it.”
Growing up, Grzelcyk played several years of youth hockey with the Middlesex Islanders and then at Belmont Hill School, a local private high school. At 16, he joined the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., which prepares the top amateur hockey players in the country for pro hockey careers. The one drawback of the program was that he was forced to move away from home. Grzelcyk says one of the reasons he chose to play for the Terriers was so he could be close to his family and friends.
“Matt has worked so hard and has made so many sacrifices,” says his father. “These kids give up a lot when they play hockey, like training in the summer and holidays instead of hanging out. So with all that he’s sacrificed, it’s great to see his success. But I always told my son to just go out there and have fun, telling him that if it stops being fun, don’t play.”
In June 2012, Grzelcyk and his family traveled to Pittsburgh for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. They hadn’t planned to attend, Grzelcyk says, fearing they might sit around all day and never hear his name called. They were both shocked and elated, he says, when the Bruins—his home team—ended up choosing him in the third round, 85th overall.
“Putting the jersey on was something you dream about, and it was pretty unbelievable for me,” says Grzelcyk. “I grew up watching tapes of players like Joe Thornton, Bobby Orr, and Ray Bourque. It didn’t really set in for a while.”
Orr was a member of the “big bad Bruins” of the 1970s, a team then known for tough, physical play, something that John Grzelcyk vividly recalls. Standing 5’9” and weighing 175 pounds, the younger Grzelcyk is small compared to Orr or the current team’s larger defensemen, like Dennis Seidenberg, who at 6’1” and 210 pounds intimidates players with his bone-shattering body checks. Grzelcyk says he’s committed to bulking up, and is following a strict weight-lifting and strength-training regimen.
But what he doesn’t have in size he makes up for in knowledge of the game. Often described as an offensive-minded defenseman, the Terrier freshman likens his role to that of a quarterback, noting that he needs to anticipate where other players will go. He can often be seen joining the rush as BU forwards penetrate opponents’ defensive zone.
Terriers head coach Jack Parker doesn’t believe Grzelcyk’s size is a liability. “He anticipates and sees plays before they’re actually happening and is really good in all facets of the game,” says Parker (SMG’68, Hon.’97), who has produced a string of NHLers during his 40-year career at BU. “He is such a strong skater that he can bounce guys and they go down. He has such a great stick. I think he can be an All-American defenseman, a Hockey East defenseman, an NHL defenseman.”
Grzelcyk has proven an important asset to Parker’s team, which currently boasts an overall record of 8-5-0. At 13 games into the season, he ranks 3rd in points, with 11, on 2 goals and 9 assists, 11th in the country among freshmen in points per game, and 2nd in points among both rookies and defensemen in Hockey East. Grzelcyk is particularly proud of his performances in two matches against archrival Boston College, scoring goals in both. And he’s looking forward eagerly to competing in the Beanpot Tournament in February. Growing up, he says, he was never able to go to a Beanpot game at the Garden, because they conflicted with his own hockey games.
“It would be great if my dad could cut the ice that night,” Grzelcyk says. “Being away for the past two years meant my parents, relatives, or home friends couldn’t be at my games, but it will be great to have them in the stands that night, and just play off that energy.”
Teammates are quick to acknowledge Grzelcyk’s talent. “What makes Matt a really great player is the way he moves the puck,” says fellow defensemen Patrick MacGregor (CGS’12, COM’14). “And he’s just a really nice kid. He fit in right away.”
Despite his success on the ice, Grzelcyk, who plans to major in finance, remains humble and polite, unfazed by the recent attention.
“When I lace up my skates I still get butterflies,” he says. “Just to have the opportunity to get on the ice day in and day out—I try not to take that for granted.”
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