For almost as long as he can remember, the hockey rink has served as a second home for Matt Grzelcyk. Growing up less than two miles from TD Garden, the Charlestown native frequently visited the arena with his father, John, to watch Boston Bruins practices.
From the moment that he first skated on the ice at two years old, up through his sophomore season in front of the Agganis Arena crowds, Grzelcyk has found solace and relief within the confines of the rink.
But this same feeling of familiarity and contentment is hard to come by during the final months of the 2013-14 season for the junior defenseman. Dressed in street clothes and donning a sling over his left arm, the 20-year-old can only sit back and watch his teammates practice out on the Agganis ice.
Grzelcyk’s season is over, and for the first time in his life, the hockey rink only conveys feelings of dissatisfaction and pain.
However, not the type of pain that most would expect as the result of major shoulder surgery.
“I think the toughest part was not the shoulder pain. It was just coming to the rink everyday and not being able to contribute, and obviously we had a tough few games toward the end of the season,” Grzelcyk said. “Just not being able to help my teammates is definitely the biggest downer for me.”
The loss of Grzelcyk — who dislocated his left shoulder during a team practice on Jan. 9 — had an immediate effect on the Terriers, especially on the power play. With Grzelcyk quarterbacking the man advantage over the first 19 games of the 2013-14 campaign, the Terriers posted the best power-play percentage in Hockey East at 23.1 percent.
“Anytime that he’s on the ice, he’s probably the smartest guy on the ice. “His hockey IQ is probably one of the best in college hockey, and that translates to him being an unbelievable power play guy as well.”
In the 16 games following Grzelcyk’s injury, BU was only able to muster a power-play percentage of 10.9 percent. While the correlation between the Terriers’ success on special teams and the absence of Grzelcyk on the ice might have served as a shock to some, it came as little surprise to Harvard University forward and Grzelcyk’s childhood friend, Jimmy Vesey.
After all, orchestrating the power play has always been something that Grzelcyk has taken pride in, even dating back to his days on youth hockey squads.
“Anytime that he’s on the ice, he’s probably the smartest guy on the ice,” Vesey said. “His hockey IQ is probably one of the best in college hockey, and that translates to him being an unbelievable power play guy as well. He’s been running the power play since he was 7 years old on our youth hockey team.”
Hockey has always been a part of Grzelcyk’s life. His love of the sport was spurred on by his father, who has served as a member of the TD Garden “bull gang” — the group tasked with configuring the arena after games.
“I think I started skating when I was 2 years old,” Grzelcyk said. “It definitely came from my father, working at the Garden, seeing the Bruins play all the time, and he tried to get me over to the Garden as much as he could when the Bruins were practicing.”
Grzelcyk’s father, growing up in the era of Bruins great Bobby Orr, gave his son tapes of the legendary defenseman, sparking the young hockey player’s interest in offensive-minded blueliners.
Grzelcyk soon made his mark with the Middlesex Islanders youth hockey team, where he played alongside Vesey and former BU forward Brendan Collier all the way up until high school.
After playing high school hockey with Vesey at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Grzelcyk, just 16 years old at the time, made the move out to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which was established in 1996 as a way to cultivate and train some of the country’s most skilled youth hockey players.
While making the trek out to Michigan was in the best interest of Grzelcyk’s budding hockey career, he acknowledged that leaving behind his friends and family back home was a tough transition.
“For the first two months, I was really homesick,” Grzelcyk said. “I wasn’t one of the first guys who really made the team, so I kind of had to fight my way to get some playing time and things like that, so it was definitely nerve wracking for the first few months. I think it definitely matured me, living away from home for two years, so I’m grateful for that for sure.”
Grzelcyk may not have arrived in Ann Arbor with much fanfare, but the talented defenseman immediately made his mark with the USNTDP, accumulating 41 points in 115 games with both the U-17 and U-18 teams during his team seasons with the program.
Entering the 2012 NHL Draft, Grzelcyk was ranked 177th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting — a statement that served as more of a reflection on his size (5-foot-10-inches) than his skill on the ice.
With that in mind, Grzelcyk attended the draft with very low expectations for a high selection.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t really nerve-wracking at all for me, just because I went in with no expectations,” Grzelcyk said. “I actually didn’t really want to go to the draft to be honest, because I didn’t want to be disappointed. But my parents insisted. They didn’t want to be sitting at home just in case it happened.”
Ultimately, the decision to attend the draft paid off for the Boston native, as he was taken in the third round, 85th overall, by his hometown team — the Bruins.
“I honestly don’t even remember it to this day, really,” Grzelcyk said when asked to recall what it was like to be selected by the Bruins. “I was actually not really paying attention, just because I didn’t think it was really possible. As soon as I heard my name called, I didn’t really hear anything. I kind of blacked out for the moment. Even in the interviews after, I don’t even remember what I was saying, but I was just so happy.”
While getting a chance to suit up in the black and gold was a dream come true for the young defenseman, Grzelcyk had little time to reflect on the news. His freshman season at BU was quickly approaching.
Grzelcyk, just as he did during his tenure with the USNTDP program, immediately turned heads from the moment he started skating with the Terriers. In 38 games with BU during the 2012-13 season, Grzelcyk recorded 23 points, pacing the team’s blueliners in scoring en route to a spot on the 2013 Hockey East All-Rookie Team.
Even greater things were expected from him during his sophomore campaign, and after an impressive performance at the 2014 World Juniors that saw him score six points in five games, Grzelcyk was looking forward to helping the Terriers navigate through an up-and-down season.
“We were thin anyway, and then when we lose arguably our best player, it was more of a mental blow than anything, and we just lost our mojo and our confidence on the power play.”
Unfortunately, Grzelcyk’s season would be cut short due to his injury, leaving the Terriers with little hope to claw back up the Hockey East standings for the remainder of the season.
“It was tough timing,” Grzelcyk said. “Coming off of World Juniors, it went pretty well for me personally, so I was hoping to bounce back after a tough first half. I was able to do that over the first two games. Even though we didn’t win, it seemed like the team had a little bit of bounce in its step.”
While taking the ice without a player with the skill of Grzelcyk was a big blow for the Terriers in terms of talent, BU coach David Quinn acknowledged that losing their top defenseman had an even greater impact on his team mentally.
“Once we lost Matt, it was more of a psychological blow for so many reasons,” he said. “We were thin anyway, and then when we lose arguably our best player, it was more of a mental blow than anything, and we just lost our mojo and our confidence on the power play.”
The Terriers ultimately folded without Grzelcyk, compiling just three wins over their final 21 games to finish the 2013-14 season with a disheartening 10-21-4 record.
It was a year that both Grzelcyk and the Terriers immediately made a point to forget.
The melancholy vibe that plagued Grzelcyk during the end of the 2013-14 season has since been lifted, with the junior now back to full strength and contributing back on the ice during the practice.
The sling that limited him during the first few months of the year has long been removed, but the veteran now has another new addition to his wardrobe: a “C” on his hockey sweater.
Grzelcyk, who was named the newest captain of the Terriers over the offseason, is not the most vocal player on the ice, instead opting to let his play and poise do the talking.
“He’s always been a quiet kid,” Vesey said. “But there’s no denying that he works really hard off the ice to have gotten where he is today, and I think he is someone that sets a good example in terms of what he does on the ice. I think he’s going to be a great captain at BU.”
For the first time in months, Agganis Arena feels like home again for Grzelcyk.
As the Terriers wrap up afternoon practice Tuesday, just three days before their season opener against the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Grzelcyk, in usual fashion, is one of the last players off the ice — a testament to his dedication to the game he’s loved his entire life.
While the Terriers’ recent 12-1 exhibition victory over St. Thomas University on Saturday has been downplayed to some due to the level of competition that BU played, don’t tell that Grzelcyk.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, anytime you put up 12 points, it’s kind of an eye-opener for anyone,” he said. “Everyone is definitely excited, and you hear people say that it wasn’t too much of a completion and stuff, so I think that gives us even more motivation going into Friday. We want to prove that we are a much better team this year.”