How Jake Guentzel's hockey family taught him to pick himself back upAugust 2, 2020 9:31am

Aug. 01-- PITTSBURGH-From the family section at PPG Paints Arena, Ryan Guentzel watched the tic-tac-toe goal unfold from the perfect vantage point. There was Bryan Rust flying into the zone, Evgeni Malkin leaving a no-look pass on the doorstep and, finally, his brother, Jake Guentzel, driving to the net for his 20th goal of the season.

The whole place went bonkers, with the goal horn blaring and towels twirling. And then it went silent.

Skates crossed. Bodies flew. Jake crashed, shoulder-first, into the boards.

With the wall obstructing Ryan's view, he couldn't see his little brother writhing in pain on the ice. But for every second he stayed down, the knot in Ryan's stomach grew.

"That's when I knew right away that something wasn't right," Ryan said.

In the Guentzels' hockey household, there's a rule: Never lay on the ice. No matter how bad the hit or how much it hurts, pop up and skate off. That message has been ingrained in the boys so much that even in March 2017, with blood streaming down Jake's face, the stunned and stumbling winger staggered to his feet after a concussion.

Inside the arena on Dec. 30, Ryan's phone blew up with text messages from family back home in Minnesota. Just hours earlier, Jake called his dad, Mike, on the way home from the Penguins' morning skate to tell him he'd made his first All-Star Game. Mike, a scout for the Arizona Coyotes, almost couldn't believe it at first but soon put it on his calendar to make sure he could be in St. Louis instead of on the road. Jake's mom, Sally, scoured the internet for flights and hotels.

"At that point, you're saying, boy, this would be something that might be once in a lifetime," Mike said.

But travel plans were the least of their worries now. Unfortunately, the Guentzel boys know first-hand how a fast and physical sport can change a life in a split second. One of their assistants at Hill-Murray High School, Pat Schafhauser, coached from a wheelchair after he was paralyzed from the waist down in Switzerland. It was easy to fear the worst.

"It's just something you never want your kid being involved in," Mike said. "A very scary moment for our family for sure."

Eventually, Jake pulled himself onto his feet. With his right arm sagging, he skated off the ice, walked down the dark tunnel and vanished. That painful moment became the last image of Jake Guentzel in uniform during the regular 2019-20 season.

Now, seven months later, Guentzel is back on the ice in a best-of-five qualifying round series against the Montreal Canadiens. He notched an assist in the Penguins' 3-2 overtime loss on Saturday.

His return is one of this unique postseason's biggest X-factors, adding unexpected health to a Penguins team with enviable forward depth. This is the time of year when Guentzel has historically done his best work, raising a Stanley Cup and tying an NHL postseason points record as a rookie. But what might get overlooked from a 5-11, 180-pound skater is the way he racks up those points, by going into the tough areas and sacrificing his body like he did that night on Dec. 30.

"What I've always admired about Jake's game is not only is he a great player, but he's courageous," coach Mike Sullivan said earlier this year.

At first glance, he sure doesn't look tough, with curly blond hair and a babyface that would make an honest bouncer wonder if he's using one of his older brothers' IDs. Before he was drafted by the Penguins, at least one NHL organization made him take off his shirt so they could examine the what was, at the time, a scrawny 147-pound kid's bone structure. Yes, really.

But looks can be deceiving. Desire is hard to quantify. And sometimes the toughest competitors never let you know they're hurting.

This is the story of how an undersized kid with underrated toughness learned to pick himself back up.

___

Jake Guentzel may have been born in Omaha, Neb. But the puck dropped on his hockey life soon after in 1994. Mike took an assistant coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, moving a hockey-obsessed family back to the so-called "State of Hockey."

His three sons-Ryan, Gabe and Jake-didn't just play hockey. They lived it.

After school, they'd take their sticks, skates and some pucks and head to an outdoor rink a few miles from their house in Woodbury, Minn., that was surrounded by soccer and baseball fields. They stayed there for hours until the lights turned off and their mom came to pick them up for dinner.

"We had nothing else going on," Gabe said. "That's kind of where you lived."

They picked out a small corner of the rink and played their favorite game, "one-on-one-on-one." The rules are simple. Get the puck. Hang onto it as long as you can. Every man for himself. It was there that a future 40-goal scorer began his path to the NHL playing a game with no nets and no one ever shooting the puck.

Jake is by far the youngest, with Gabe six years older and Ryan eight. So imagine him at 10 years old with two older brothers screaming after him. One was an 18-year-old Ryan, a future Notre Dame forward who would play professionally in Europe. The other, Gabe, a 16-year-old who played at Colorado College before a six-year pro career.

If Jake was 147 pounds when he was drafted, what was he as an undersized 10-year-old playing against teenagers?

"He was just such a little runt to me," Gabe said. "He was so much younger where he shouldn't be able to compete with us. But he's always kind of had that 'prove-you-wrong' mentality for his size and his age. He's carried that mentality throughout his life."

If Ryan or Gabe took the puck away from the "runt" too many times, he'd chase them around the rink with a stick or slash them across the shin in retaliation.

"Back then we were like, this kid is kind of crazy," Ryan said. "He's always been that feisty little kid that likes to get into those corners or in the front of the net (and) doesn't shy away from any of the contact. We like to think it started back on the outdoor rink with the three of us."

The games didn't stop when they got home. They'd push everything aside in Ryan's and Gabe's bedroom and use a closet as one net and a desk as the other. Years later, when the family grew into a three-story house a few miles away, that evolved into floor hockey in the garage and ping-pong in the basement.

In a house full of teenage hormones and testosterone, everyone hated to lose. Countless times, one of the brothers would run his mouth after winning a floor hockey game in the garage. Soon, a puck would come flying through the door and into the house.

"My dad was happy we were out shooting pucks," Gabe said. "But I don't think he was too happy about fixing all the drywall."

Ping-pong paddles were thrown. Bats tossed. Somehow, a puck ended up in the siding of the house at one point.

"Gabe chased me around the house with an ice chisel one time," Ryan said.

"I don't remember an ice chisel," Gabe said. "But I do remember throwing a wooden mini-stick at him and hitting him in the back of the head."

But those fights were just the undercard. The main event was between Gabe and Jake, two brothers who knew how to push each other's buttons.

"Gabe and Jake would have serious brawls," Ryan said. "I'm not a big fighter, so I would kind of protect Jake when it got to the point that I needed to. And it definitely did sometimes."

___

All those battles with his brothers sharpened Jake's edges. But it's the story of the slash that has become like a piece of family folklore.

One summer when Jake was about 8 or 9 years old, he was playing for a Triple-A team in Edina, a town about 30 minutes away from Woodbury on the other side of the Twin Cities.

Someone's stick chopped Jake's forearm. Immediately his posture changed.

"Jake's always had a little jump, a little spark," Mike Guentzel said. "He's always up on his toes. He just didn't have that."

He played a couple shifts, but not very well. He was missing teammates and letting the puck roll off his stick. As Jake whimpered about his forearm, Mike went down to the bench to give his son a pep talk. Look it's a bruise, tough it out.

Two more rough shifts, and Mike went back down to the bench. This time, he pulled back the elbow pad. Even a hockey coach could make the diagnosis. Soon the Guentzel family was in the emergency room with two broken bones in Jake's wrist.

"I obviously didn't feel very good afterward that I was criticizing or critiquing his game based on the fact that he might have some significant injury," Mike said.

That's sometimes the way it was with a hockey dad. Mike set the bar high for his sons, as a hockey lifer who was drafted by the New York Rangers and coached for decades at various levels, including the USHL and for several colleges. The father of three held his sons to a high standard and gave them unmatched knowledge and resources. They'd wander around the locker room at the University of Minnesota or skate before games on Saturdays. Jake famously served as a stick boy for Phil Kessel at one point.

It was a blessing.

"There's also a curse to that," Gabe said. "He was the coach half the time. He let you know if you weren't doing something right. He was always harder on you than he was on the other players. The car rides home after a tough game wasn't always the best to sit through."

As a kid, Ryan said he didn't always understand why his dad was being so hard on him. He'd score two goals, and his dad would ask about the turnover in the neutral zone. His team would win by four, and his dad would ask about the tap-in that could have given him the hat trick.

"It was very challenging growing up with that," Ryan said. "He was super hard on us. It took me until probably when I was playing college to realize he's trying to help me out.

"We're all very appreciative of what he's done for us because he knows what he's talking about. He was always trying to help us out."

The high standards to which Mike held his sons ultimately led to success. All three played in college. All three enjoyed their own professional careers.

But it was obvious to the family, even from a young age, that Jake was special. If he wasn't trying to keep up with brothers six and eight years older, he was playing up in youth hockey games.

When Jake finally started playing against kids his own age, he dominated. He led Hill-Murray to a runner-up finish in one of the most-competitive state tournaments in the country during his junior year of high school. After the season, he decided to skip his senior year and play for Sioux City of the USHL. Gabe and Ryan questioned how the kid would do. They had both played in the USHL, a league with fighting and more physicality.

"He's this little 5-9, 145-pound kid," Gabe said. "He can kind of have an arrogance to him."

But once he lit up the USHL, they knew "he's got it." The Penguins thought so, too.

Scott Bell, a Guentzel family friend who played under Mike at Minnesota, was responsible for scouting the USHL and high school region where Guentzel played. He helped persuade the Penguins to ignore the height and weight chart and measure the hockey IQ.

After a college career, during which Jake led the University of Nebraska Omaha to its first Frozen Four, he made the jump to the NHL and proved that pick to be one of the great steals of his draft class. To this day, Mike Guentzel runs into scouts who wish they hadn't overlooked the undersized kid.

"Every time I see (that scout)," Mike said. "He'll shake his head and say, 'I still can't believe our frickin' guys laughed him out of the room with that body.' "

___

The phone rang in the dark, cold hours just before the sun came up on New Year's Eve. The doctors performed major surgery overnight to repair Jake Guentzel's shoulder, but it was successful.

His girlfriend, Natalie, drove to the hospital around 4 a.m. to sit with the winger with the wounded wing. A few hours later, for the second time in 24 hours, Jake phoned his parents-this time not to tell them he'd made the All-Star Game, but just to let them know he was OK.

"His spirits were better than I would have ever imagined," Mike said. "From the first moment I ever spoke to him after the injury to today, it's never been 'poor me,' discouragement, anything like that."

Ryan, who had been through a shoulder surgery of his own while playing in Europe, knew what was ahead. They bought a recliner that Jake slept in initially to help him deal with the pain. With his dominant arm in a sling, Jake had to feed himself with his left hand, brush his teeth with his left hand, tie his shoes one-handed.

To lift Jake's spirits, Natalie surprised him by flying in two of his best friends for a weekend. But all around his family, what stuck out was the way it didn't seem like Jake needed anyone to cheer him up.

His father set up Zoom calls during the NHL's pause to talk to youth sports teams. Jake agreed, but with one stipulation.

"He didn't want to talk about the injury," Mike said. "It happened. It's over I'm on the road to rehab and recovery. It just was kind of Jake's way to say, 'You know what, I'm just put my nose down to work.' "

And he did.

As the Penguins began to get healthier, Sidney Crosby returned to the lineup, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino, too. Just as Guentzel was getting ready to return to the rink and ramp up his rehab, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He transformed his apartment into a rehab facility with bands and weights scattered around.

No one can say for sure if or when Guentzel would have played in this postseason during normal circumstances. Maybe he'd have been there for Game 1. Maybe the Penguins would have been playing golf by the time he felt comfortable returning.

But from the moment Jake lay in the hospital bed after surgery, his family was certain of one thing: He was going to get back up.

___

(c)2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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