Jon Grzbek earns a spot in hockey history
By Maureen Callahan
If you’re looking for a local hockey team to follow, the Benet Red Wings are your ticket to an exciting game! And it’s no mystery why. Coach Jon Grzbek, recently inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame, has a lot to do with this team’s success.
Grzbek is a member of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois- the sport’s governing body. He is also a long-time volunteer for inclusion-promoting groups like Hockey is for Everyone (formerly Diversity Hockey).
Andrew Schlie and Drew Tierney are the other two legs of the well-balanced trio that lead the Red Wing squad. Each brings something valuable to the ice. Tierney met Grzbek and Schile when the duo joined in 2008. Tierney’s father, Jack, founded Benet’s hockey program in 1999.
Grzbek and Schlie met while playing at the pee-wee level for the Downers Grove Huskies. They went on to play as opponents for Marist and St Rita in the Chicago Catholic Hockey League (CCHL), into which they later brought Benet. When Grzbek’s path to the US junior hockey league after high school wasn’t what he had expected, he and Schlie met up again at DePaul. As college roommates, they played with DePaul’s inaugural hockey club in 1992. The team placed third in the nation in the American Collegiate Hockey Association their first year!
With a friendship that has spanned most of their lives, “We’re like an old married couple at this point,” Grzbek relayed, as he laughed. “We can predict the other’s next move. Sometimes we say stupid things and have to go back and apologize!”
Now, at 685 games co-coached, (and every play of every practice documented), the collective and varied experiences of Grzbek, Schlie, and Tierney are a large part of the success that fuels Benet’s well-oiled machine.
They’re grateful for the unique opportunities that have come their way, from participating in events with the Blackhawks, to playing between college games, to winning the first Kennedy Cup in 2013- the holy grail of Illinois hockey.
Their biggest moment in coaching thus far, however, came a few years ago in the form of an invitation from the US Women’s National Team. Team USA was in Chicago training for the Four Nations Cup and needed to play a practice game. Unsure how to react to the invitation, Grzbek and Schlie reached back to their Husky roots and sought the advice of Downers Grove native and former Team USA Olympic Gold Medalist, Cammi Granato. The hometown first lady of hockey advised them to “Go for it!”
And they did!
The game was epic! “Team USA owned the puck,” Grzbek admitted. “They outshot us 4-1, but we still managed to get goals,” he said. “Ultimately, although we were shorthanded, we scored in overtime and won 4-3!” he smiled, the memory still fresh. Schlie credits the win to the shots on goal being harder than Team USA players were likely used to.
Oddly, the historical, landmark event in the world of high school hockey, played in front of 4,000 spectators on Benet’s home ice- Seven Bridges- went completely unacknowledged by the press. It was never covered by USA Hockey or any other news outlets. Although disappointed that the press went silent at their historic win, Grzbek, Schlie and Tierney manage to see the silver lining in the situation.
“Team USA went undefeated for a while after playing us,” said Grzbek. “We’re grateful for the experience.” Team USA not only won their tournament the day after losing to the Red Wings, but also went undefeated over the next two years. Obviously, the loss to Benet left a lasting impression.
While these exciting events make the job interesting, it’s the day-to-day coaching that keeps these guys going. All three hockey dads themselves, they incorporate their own experiences with the students. The trio have evolved over the past two decades. They recognize the importance of reinventing and evolving with the game, as well as the students they coach. “As time goes on, we’ve adapted and grown with the players,” said Schlie. “Today, it’s more puck control and finesse. When Jon, Drew and I were playing, hockey was a lot more bump and grind.”
Part of building such a successful team starts with recognizing players as people. Each season kicks off with Ignition-a process of going over goals for the season and resolving to frequently revisit them. The coaches meet with team members one-on-one to learn what motivates them and help them set personal goals.
The trio of coaches see- and appreciate- the team, as a group of individuals. They realize players might have other interests besides hockey. Grzbek, Schlie, and Tierney see the value of varied high school activities. “If players want to participate in another sport, band or something else, they should,” Schlie opines. “It’s their high school experience. We’ll adjust.”
Condolences on the recent passing of John “Jack” Tierney, Benet’s founding hockey coach. ■