Jonathan Gruden recently went to Napa Valley with his girlfriend and her family to celebrate her birthday – and raise a glass to the 24-year-old forward signing a two-year contract extension with the Penguins.

“I was excited,” he said. “I let them know before this all kind of started that I wanted to be here. The last four years, this organization, they've been really good to me and I’ve built a lot of good relationships. So, I think they knew that I wanted to stay. We made it work.”

Gruden was originally drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the fourth round (95th overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft, but never dressed in a game for the organization. He played one year of NCAA hockey for Miami of Ohio and one year of major junior hockey for the London Knights before getting acquired by Pittsburgh on Oct. 7, 2020, and turning pro.

Gruden spent his first two pro seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League before making his NHL debut on Jan. 17, 2023, versus Anaheim. He’s since appeared in 16 total games with Pittsburgh, including 13 last year, scoring his first NHL goal on March 2 against Calgary.

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan calls Gruden a “gritty” player, “one of those north-south guys that just plays the game hard and plays the right way. He does a lot of the little things. He blocks shots, he's good in the battle areas, he's a competitive guy, he brings a physical dimension to our team, he can kill penalties.”

When Gruden reflects on his overall development thus far, maturity off the ice and learning the ins and outs of pro hockey first come to mind, since “it’s not easy. The first year was a little like just dipping your toes in the water. Wasn’t much of a year, really. It was like 30 games, and it was all-day trips. So, my second year was kind of like my first real year learning pro hockey and the travel and that.

“Getting a little bit of a taste two years ago in the NHL and then getting more games last year really helped me out. I think year by year, I've gotten more comfortable in the organization. Hopefully, next year is the best year, so I'm really excited.”

Gruden is coming in with the goal of making the team out of training camp after having a big summer of training in his native Michigan. The Rochester Hills native is changing up his routine, switching gyms and skating at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, saying, “I got a good skate there and a good group of guys that work out with us. So, it’s a good setup there.”

Jonathan was born in the Great Lakes State while his dad John, now head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, played for the Grand Rapids Griffins. John appeared in 92 NHL games across six seasons with Boston, Ottawa, and Washington before transitioning behind the bench. He was an assistant coach with the New York Islanders from 2018-22 and the Bruins in 2022-23 before heading to Toronto.

“He’s pretty much the reason why I'm here,” Jonathan said. “Obviously, my mom (Polly) and my sisters (Kaitlin and Elizabeth), too. But since day one, he's been my first coach and somebody I talk to after every game. Whenever he can watch, he's watching when he’s not coaching his team and stuff. A lot of the games kind of match up, especially in the AHL. He's always been there when I needed him, just to give me good advice. He's never been too hard on me, I don’t think. I’ve heard some stories about some other players and their dads, and I think I got it pretty easy [laughs], so I'm pretty fortunate with him.”

John, who was able to join part of last season’s Highmark Dads Trip, feels the same way about his kid. When asked what makes him the proudest, John replied, “I would say more so everything that he brings to the table… what he does as a hockey player is awesome. What he does as a brother and a son, it's probably the most awesome thing. But it's good to see him living out his dream, and him doing something he loves to do.”

Read on for more about Jonathan’s background and interests.

Your dad played for a number of teams – do you have an affinity for one in particular, like one that you grew up cheering for, or was it the Red Wings? It was the Red Wings, and I hate to say it, but the Capitals are the team that I was like, alive for. And he scored his first NHL goal with the Caps. So, that was kind of a special team for him and the family. So, I was a Caps fan and a Wings fan growing up.

Is it fair to say Ferris State is your favorite college, with your family connection there? You can say that for sure, yeah… My dad played there and my mom went to school there for hotel management, so that's how they met. Growing up, my dad would always take me to games at Ferris State. Chris Kunitz was always the big name there, probably the biggest name at Ferris State. So, when he was with the Pens, I’d obviously kind of follow him and stuff. So, it was kind of cool to see him win the Cups there and knowing he went to Ferris State.

What's the best piece of advice you've gotten from your dad, if you had to pick one? He always said two things, which was work hard and be a good teammate. Those were kind of the only things that he said to me. The rest of it will kind of take care of itself, he'd say. Especially as a young kid, you can only control so many things. You can always control your work ethic and how you treat other teammates, staff, coaches. So, that's kind of what he always preached to me.

You once put ‘approachable’ as the word teammates would best use to describe you. Do you feel like that kind of goes along with that? Yeah, 100%. I think that's kind of the biggest thing for creating a good team culture. We built that a lot in Wilkes-Barre, and then you come up to Pitt, and that's what you obviously see with the players that have been here for a while. So, that's one thing I’ve always wanted to do, whether I was 10 years old or 24 now.

Your dad said your family calls you George, can you tell us the story behind that? [Laughs] So, it kind of started with my grandma. She would always call my uncles George growing up, and then my mom called me George as a nickname when I was a baby, so it stuck around. Even growing up, like when I was on Honeybaked, my teammates called me George. They still call me George. It's just kind of a funny nickname that I’ve had.

Do the Penguins call you George, too? That kind of died probably after USA [Gruden played for the U.S. National Team Development Program from 2016-18, where, fun fact – he billeted in the same house with Jack DeBoer, son of Peter DeBoer, coach of the Dallas Stars]. A couple of my teammates called me George there too as a joke, but that kind of died there. Now, people call me Gruds, JG, Johnny.

What do you like to do when you're not at the rink or at the gym, especially in the summertime? Obviously, golf is a big one. I get to do that whenever there's time in the schedule and it allows it. Then obviously when you go up north [his grandparents have a place in Bay Harbor, Michigan], I like to go in the water, go on the boat, and just enjoy the outdoors. Go on some walks, to try to be outdoors as much as you can, because during the season, sometimes you are kind of locked in whether you're on the road or at home, in a locker room or whatever it is. So, you kind of want to get outside as much as you can.

Tell me more about your golf fandom. I love it. Whenever I can, I go. My dad loves it too. So, we have some pretty good competitive matches on the course. He's a little bit better than I am. So, he wins probably 75% of the time, maybe 80. He'll probably say 90 [laughs]. But we have fun on the course whenever he takes me out, and we have a good time. So, it's also nice to spend time with him considering that during the year, I can't really see him that much. So, that's kind of the main reason why I like to golf, just kind of hang out with him and have some fun.

What's the best course you guys have ever played? There's some nice ones up north. Arthur Hills is nice. Arcadia Bluffs I've never played, I've heard it's really nice, really hard to get onto. But hopefully next summer, that'll happen.

How do you stay busy on a car ride from Wilkes to Pittsburgh, or vice versa? Spittin’ Chiclets probably is the only (podcast) I'd throw on. Other than that, just kind of listen to music, maybe make a few calls. It's what I did when I would make the drive, call people and check in. That really makes the car ride seem a little shorter.

Are there any books on your list? I bought that Matthew McConaughey one a couple months ago, Green Light, but I only read a couple pages. I just got distracted and then I stopped, but I gotta get on that. I probably should read more books. I say it every year and I never do.

What about shows? Not right now. In the summer I don't really watch that much TV, honestly. Maybe golf on Sunday. During the year I was watching Entourage, that’s a good one.

I feel like you always have a coffee in your hand. What's your go-to when it comes to coffee? Usually cold brew with a little bit of oat milk. Just like, a splash. … I'm trying to slowly go into just black coffee. But I'm a child and I need a little bit of milk.