Guentzel staying grounded while coming to terms with successby Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter
WOODBURY, Minn. - As Jake Guentzel skated with the Stanley Cup hoisted over his head on June 11, 2017 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Mike Sullivan was standing off to the side, watching, with a joyful smile stretched across his face.
"This kid's the real deal," Sullivan said to Ron Burkle and Mark Recchi as Guentzel did his lap. "He's only going to get better. No stage is too big for him, either. He's the real deal."
Guentzel was coming off an incredible postseason, where he led the NHL with 13 goals and tied the league rookie record with 21 points in 25 games as he helped the Penguins capture their second straight championship. And the following spring, Guentzel went on to have another monster performance.
Guentzel again recorded 21 points this past postseason, but this time in a mere 12 games as the Penguins were eliminated in the Second Round by the Washington Capitals. He remained at the top of the points leaderboard for the majority of the playoffs despite playing far fewer games.
Guentzel's preposterous runs have listed his name alongside numerous Hall of Famers for a myriad of different stats, most notably Mario Lemieux. For example, Guentzel finished the 2018 playoffs with 10 goals, with Lemieux being the only other player in league history to score 10-plus goals in each of his first two postseason appearances.
It's at the point where Guentzel's father, Mike, a long-time collegiate coach, will load up the DVR and re-watch some of Jake's games just to remind himself that yes, his son really is - as Sullivan put it - the real deal.
"It's like, did it really happen? Yes, it did," Mike said. "It's pretty unique. When the graphics come up on TV and you see some of the stuff, you're just blown away at some of the success."
Especially when that success comes from a kid from Minnesota who didn't get drafted until the third round, and was constantly overlooked at every level because of his size despite his obvious talent. And not only is Guentzel smaller; he looks younger than his 23 years and comes off as quiet and soft-spoken in interviews.
He's not exactly the kind of person you would peg as a standout on a roster that features some of the NHL's best players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. But Guentzel has played himself into the spotlight and made quite a name for himself in a short period of time, which was evidenced this summer.
At the NHL Draft, prospects are typically asked who they model their games after. And prospects will typically answer with the name of a veteran player in the league. However, in this year's draft, the Philadelphia Flyers' two first-round picks - Joel Farabee, who is from New York, and Jay O'Brien, who is from Massachusetts - both said they model their games after Guentzel.
"He's definitely someone I look up to," Farabee told NHL Network. "He's a really good player."
When told of Farabee and O'Brien's remarks while standing in the kitchen of his parents' new house in Woodbury, the Twin Cities suburb that Jake grew up in, he just shook his head. "That's so weird," he said with a laugh.
"That was pretty cool," said Jake's mother, Sally. "Because not even two years ago, nobody even really would have known (who Jake was. Because they're not from around here."
"Yeah, that's even crazier," Jake agreed.
They're both right. As recently as last February, the league was just starting to take notice of Guentzel. During the 2017 Stadium Series against Philadelphia at Heinz Field - where Guentzel recorded two assists and was named the First Star in a 4-2 Penguins win - as the Flyers headed to the locker room following the first period, one of them said, "Who is this 59 kid?"
Now, everybody knows who Guentzel is. But it's hard for him to wrap his head around the impact that he's had on the hockey world, especially because he describes his time in the NHL thus far as simply "a blur."
He never expected his first season to end with a Stanley Cup championship. He never expected to have the Midas touch at the end of his second season, as seemingly every puck he touched found the back of the net - exemplified in his four-goal, five-point performance against Philadelphia in the First Round.
And it's still a little strange for him to see little kids wearing his No. 59 jersey. Matt Cullen's youngest son, Joey, even wore No. 59 for a while because Jake is his favorite player. "I'm not really used to it, to see that," Guentzel said.
However, that doesn't mean Guentzel isn't coming into his own in this league. He has always possessed a quiet confidence, which in turn gave Sullivan confidence that he could handle the pressure of playing with Pittsburgh's elite talent.
And Guentzel is getting more and more comfortable showing his personality in a locker room where he's surrounded by that elite talent. It's an intimidating room to walk in, that's for sure - before Guentzel's first game, his hands were sweating so much he was holding water bottles to try and cool them down. But Guentzel has worked hard to get to where he is, and now, he feels like he belongs.
But that also doesn't mean any of his success going to his head - though it's not like his family and friends would let it. He comes from a super tight-knit family, with his parents and two older brothers, Ryan and Gabe, providing an incredible support system that keeps him grounded.
At the end of the day, Guentzel really is a pretty down-to-earth kid who embodies his Midwestern upbringing. He's happiest at home in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He went to Los Angeles for a few days earlier this summer, but his only other vacation was a week in Omaha, Nebraska, where he played three years of college hockey. Beaches and tropical vacations aren't for him; he would much rather be on the lake.
At home, Jake hangs out with kids he grew up with who he calls lifelong friends, his high school buddies from Hill-Murray and guys he plays summer hockey with. He doesn't get recognized much around town, and he's been trying to keep a pretty low profile as he continues to adjust to his dream job as a professional hockey player while figuring out how to grow and mature not only as a player, but a person.
He wasn't completely satisfied with how last season went, both individually and as a team. Though he finished with 22 goals during the regular season, he endured stretches of inconsistency that he wants to improve on. It was hard for him to watch the rest of the postseason after the Penguins got eliminated, and he didn't pay any attention to the points leaderboard as the playoffs went on.
Guentzel wants to come back better and stronger, with his sights set on lifting the Stanley Cup again. It's funny, when Guentzel first hoisted the Cup, all he could talk about was how it was a dream come true because that's what he'd been working for his whole life. Which maybe sounds a little strange coming from a then 22-year-old rookie. But with Guentzel, it really is true.
Mike and Sally moved into their current home around Christmas. The main living area of the house, which features an open floorplan, is decorated mostly with hockey memorabilia from their three boys.
Ryan played at Notre Dame, Gabe played at Colorado College and Jake played at Nebraska-Omaha, and jerseys from each of their college careers are framed on one wall. On the opposite wall, next to the TV, Jake's Penguins jersey from the Stanley Cup Final hangs from a mounted hockey stick.
Under the TV is a stand filled with different trophies, plaques, framed articles and various hockey-related knick-knacks. The puck from the first of Jake's two goals in his memorable NHL debut sits inside the chalice of a mini Stanley Cup, and on the shelf underneath rests a placard that reads, "There is no off-season." It's pretty evident that a hockey family lives in the house.
Ryan is eight years older than Jake, while Gabe is six years older, and Jake has been tagging along after them since, well, almost the day he was born. Jake was born on Oct. 6, 1994, which was a Thursday, and by Sunday, he was with Sally at the arena, watching his brothers take part in a hockey camp. "He's literally been growing up in an arena," Sally said.
Jake couldn't follow his brothers onto the ice fast enough, starting to skate around the age of 2. "He wanted to do it right away," Sally said. "He was the one that was always rollerblading, and he could ride a bike without a training wheels when he was 2. He just picked up on everything because he had the older brothers and he wanted to do exactly what they did."
The boys played all kinds of sports, including baseball, soccer and golf, but hockey was always No. 1 in the Guentzel household. Jake's buddy Cole Volkers, who has known Jake since they were little and grew up down the street from him, said "rink rat" is the best way to describe what Jake was like as a kid. The arena was just a few minutes from their neighborhood, so Jake spent a lot of time there.
"I remember coming home from school and living so close, Sally would always bring Jake to the rink right after school," Volkers said. "He'd be there all night. I'd come right after school and come back like four hours later and he'd still be there. It's just one of those things where he was always there."
And when he wasn't at that rink, Jake was at Mariucci Arena, home of the University of Minnesota men's hockey team, where Mike coached from the year Jake was born until he was 13.
On the rare weekends when Jake didn't have any sports scheduled, he got to accompany his father on some road trips, famously serving as Kessel's stick boy when the Gophers visited Wisconsin one weekend.
Talking with Volkers and Jake's other childhood friend Ian Beck, who had joined Jake and Mike for a round of golf, I began asking a question.
"At what point did you realize he might be something - "
Before I could say the word 'special,' Beck cut in.
"Immediately," he said. "Playing knee hockey as like, 8-year-olds."
"We'd be squirts, and he's two years younger than me, but he played up with our team," Volkers said. "Always the smallest guy on the ice, but he was always better than everyone. So at that point, we kind of knew that he was destined for the show."
Jake played all of his youth hockey in Woodbury, and Sally still has the team picture from his first team, the Woodbury Wings, which featured future pro players Nick Seeler and Justin Kloos of the Minnesota Wild, Travis Boyd of the Washington Capitals and Mike Reilly of the Montreal Canadiens. Jake also played with Brady Skjei of the New York Rangers at one time.
Mike coached Jake all the way up until bantams, which is when he left Minnesota to coach in Des Moines. That year was a big one for a couple of reasons. One, Jake's team won the Bantam A state championship. Two, Jake hit 100 pounds, which Sally said had her and Mike very excited as it was a big milestone.
Jake might have been small, but as former Penguins amateur scout Scott Bell put it, at every level he overcame his size. That led to the Penguins drafting him in the third round, 77th overall, in 2013. Five years later, he returned to Woodbury with the Stanley Cup.
When Jake brought the chalice to his hometown last summer, the mayor proclaimed July 13 "Woodbury Hockey Celebration Day." The proclamation itself is framed and displayed in his bedroom.
Jake had plenty of hockey role models to look up to, namely his father and brothers. But his favorite player was Sidney Crosby. "By far," Volkers said.
Because of that, watching Jake win the Stanley Cup as Crosby's linemate in 2017 was surreal on a lot of levels for his family and friends, though he tended to downplay it whenever reporters asked about the experience.
Sally remembers that when Jake was in school, he had to do a book report, and he chose a book about Crosby. "I said, you should take this and get Sid to autograph it," Sally said. Another book on the Penguins captain, Gare Joyce's Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm, currently rests on Jake's bedside table, with yellow Post-It notes marking different pages.
"It's kind of funny how it all works out now, that for me I get to play alongside him and to read a book about him and to learn all about his life, what kind of special player and person he is - kind of cool to look back on now how it all worked out," Jake said.
Volkers said that when Jake returned to Minnesota following the Stanley Cup win, he didn't say much about what it was like playing with his idol. "What you saw in his interviews was what he gave us," Volkers said. "He was trying to be professional about it." But Jake admitted that he was incredibly nervous and star-struck the first time he met Crosby.
"I think our first conversation, he sat there and talked to me for 10 minutes," Jake said. "The nicest guy ever. Willing to learn and to ask questions about you. He said something before the game like, 'just enjoy it and have fun. You'll always remember your first game.' That definitely helped out a lot."
After Guentzel's second goal of the night, Crosby turned to him in disbelief. "He was just kind of shocked," Jake laughed. "He was like, 'we all know who else did that. You and Mario.' Definitely cool to look back on now."
Video: NYR@PIT: Guentzel family erupts for Jake's big debut
The two of them have kept in touch over the summer, "just checking up how things are going, workouts, getting ready for the season. I think we're all excited to get back," Jake said. He added that if he ever needs anything, he feels comfortable going to Crosby. "He's established that, so it's good. He's a good guy to look up to."
Overall, Jake's life right now is an interesting dichotomy as he enters his third NHL season.
While he's still looking up to and learning from Crosby, younger players are doing the same for him. While during the season Jake spends road trips in hotel rooms down the hall from Crosby, Malkin and Kessel, during the offseason he sleeps one floor below his parents as he currently lives at home.
"I get a couple meals a summer," joked Jake, after finishing a breakfast that Sally had made for him following his workout. "He has gotten some groceries. Usually for himself," Sally teased. "And you get your laundry done," she told him.
"It's good to be at home," Jake grinned.
Sally was diplomatic about having Jake home, but said we'd get a totally different story with Mike, who can't stand clutter. "How many times has Dad cleaned your room?" she asked Jake. And after meeting up with Mike that morning at the golf course, it sounds like a daily occurrence.
"I have to get up early in the morning and make my bed right away and then make sure his stuff is all in order," Mike said with a wry laugh. "I've never seen a guy have a dresser with seven or eight drawers and have six of them open when he leaves the house.
"The only thing he's done all summer is he brought the two garbage cans in one morning when he showed up at 7:30 after the guy had come and dumped them. And he brought the newspaper in. Other than that, there's been nothing (laughs). That's been his contribution this summer. I think he brought his laundry basket up twice this summer, too, so we're making progress. Slowly, but surely."
Jake may not have inherited his father's tidiness, but he did inherit his looks, and Sally said they have the exact same mannerisms. "It's a love-hate relationship because they're so much alike," she said with a laugh.
Jake might be driving his dad crazy right now, but he shouldn't be underfoot for much longer as he's looking for a lakefront property nearby, which would be one of his first real splurges since turning pro.
While Volkers and Beck were able to join Jake and Mike at the StoneRidge Golf Club that morning (the Guentzels have been members there for about five or six years), Jake spends a lot of time alone. Last summer, his buddies weren't working yet, so Jake would have plenty of people to hang out with. This summer, most of his friends have full-time jobs, so they're not able to do a whole lot.
It can get lonely for Jake, but even if his friends did have more time to hang, it wouldn't make much of a difference as he's completely focused on his training during the week. He trains at 8 a.m. most days and plays games in Da Beauty League on Wednesdays. Then when his friends are free on the weekends, he heads to the lake to water ski, wakeboard and fish.
Jake admitted that it used to get lonely in Pittsburgh, too. During the first Cup run, the young guys - Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Scott Wilson - all came up together, but during the second Cup run, Jake was mostly on his own. He would just hang out and then eat dinner somewhere downtown, usually Chipotle, where his go-to order is either a burrito or a bowl with brown rice, fajita veggies, chicken, mild salsa, guacamole and lettuce.
It helped that NHL players on entry-level contracts still have roommates on the road, but until December, Guentzel was the only one in Pittsburgh on such a contract, so he had his own room.
But this year, Guentzel's brother Ryan will be living with him in Pittsburgh. Jake has been trying to learn how to cook, with Sally teaching him how to make some of his favorite dishes, and he's going to get a grill for the new place to put his skills to the test. It'll help having Ryan around, as all three brothers are best friends.
"That's the one thing I really appreciate with my two older boys," Mike said. "There sometimes could be jealousy or animosity or whatever. But they're just so proud of Jake. They're just his biggest fans and supporters."
They also help calm down Mike, whose communication with Jake goes in cycles during the season. Sometimes Jake will call when it's going well or when he needs a pick-me-up, but other times there's radio silence when Mike is chomping at the bit to give his two cents.
"I never know what to expect, and there's times I would like to receive a call because I know I'm going to say some things and I don't get the chance," Mike laughed. "I get a little upset at times, but my other kids keep me grounded. They always remind me, he's in the NHL, Dad, just let him be. It's not squirts and pee-wees and bantams anymore."
Jake has come a long way since his days with the Woodbury Area Hockey Club, and while Mike may get exasperated at times, he's incredibly proud of how much Jake has already accomplished in his young career.
"You know what, it's never something you expect," Mike said. "Everybody dreams of being an NHL player, I mean, I dreamt about being a player. When you're a parent, you dream about your kids maybe having the opportunity. But for Jake to get called up right away and then have some success right away and win the Cup his first year, there's times you pinch yourself."
But as Mike knows perhaps better than any hockey dad, being a coach as well, he knows Jake still has a lot of work to do if he wants to sustain a long NHL career. Jake knows it too, and has been working to grow and mature not only as a player, but as a person and a professional.
Jake knows when to do the right things and when to make the right decisions, so his parents trust him from that standpoint. He also said that Jake has become less volatile with his emotions, which is a big step for him.
Jake was extremely competitive as a kid, to the point where Mike said he would toss his club on the golf course or stomp and kick on the baseball field if something didn't go right. Games of ping-pong at the Beck household would get especially out of control. "In the dining room we have a ping-pong table set up, and the walls are just destroyed," Beck said. "A LOT of broken paddles," Volkers added.
"He always wanted to be really good, and sometimes you just have to learn to channel the emotion the right way and I think he's starting to realize I have to put my emotions in the right spot," Mike said. "The last year or two I could see on the golf course, he's less competitive, whether it's a club toss or spiking the ground or whacking the ball after he misses a putt. It's a lot less than it used to be."
We asked Jake what he thought Sullivan said as he watched him lift the Stanley Cup, Jake quipped, "probably something like, 'surprised he could get it over his head.'"
When told what Sullivan actually said, Jake was pretty touched.
"Whenever you can hear a coach say that, it's pretty special," he said.
Reflecting back on that moment puts a smile on Jake's face, and all he wants to do is have another go at it. Especially now that he knows what to expect, and it won't be so much of a blur anymore.
"I can't wait to get back to Pittsburgh," Guentzel said. "It's been a long summer, but I think (the thought of winning again) drives you to get better and be ready."