Gruenke playing for love of the game
BY LEE SCHEIDE
Growing up in Plymouth, Minn., about a half-hour drive from Minneapolis, Garrett Gruenke was involved in a lot of sports.
Hockey was his favorite, though, and every winter when the numerous ponds and lakes around his home would freeze, he and his friends would play until darkness fell.
That love continued through juniors, high school and college, where Gruenke played for the University of St. Thomas, a Division III school in Saint Paul, Minn.
“I loved playing juniors and high school and then to get a chance to play in college was great,” Gruenke said after Thursday’s practice as the Jackalopes prepare for game at 7:05 tonight against the Rapid City Rush at Ector County Coliseum.
“I learned a lot about the game from some really good coaches, and while I’ve always wanted to play pro hockey, I wasn’t sure coming out of college that I was going to be able to do that. So I wanted to make sure that I had a good education to fall back on.”
Gruenke did get his degree, but his education wasn’t finished.
Even as he pondered his next professional move, be it to the rink or the business world, wheels were spinning in the background that determined the next move for him.
One of the coaches familiar with Gruenke’s play and work ethic called Jackalopes coach Paul Gillis and told him about the lanky, 6-foot-5, 210-pounder who had just finished school.
Gillis called Gruenke and invited him to training camp prior to the 2008-09 Central Hockey League season, knowing the young defenseman had plenty of upside.
Gruenke, for his part, did everything needed to impress Gillis, assistant coach Matt Cressman and the ownership group to earn a spot on the opening night roster.
“Defense has never been the issue with Garrett,” Gillis said. “Someone that I trust called me and told me that Garrett was green and would need some work, but would work hard and give everything and he has.
“The biggest question was making a strong first pass and moving the puck up the ice and that’s something that he’s improved upon each year. We’re very happy with Garrett. He’s a solid hockey player that comes in and works hard every day and he’s a great person as well.”
Gruenke agrees that learning to make better decisions with the puck in his team’s own zone was one of the main priorities when he made the jump from the amateur ranks to the pros, adding that, “In high school, junior and college, if you make a mistake, you have a chance to recover. If you make a mistake at this level, the guy is by you or the puck is in the net, so that was a lot different.”
Different, too, was the fact that after four years of no contact because fighting is banned by the NCAA, Gruenke found himself, because of his size, being challenged night in and night out by opposing teams’ tough guys. And, being the competitor he is, Gruenke never backed down from an altercation, win or lose, which was another part of the learning process for him.
“During the first year, I realized that if I kept doing the things the way I was, I would be in about 50 fights that season,” he said, with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to fight and hadn’t fought since juniors, so it took awhile.
“That’s a part of the game that I like, being physical, so I had to make sure that I knew what I was doing because I’m still not going to back down, but there are times to fight and times not to fight.”
Gruenke also showed that he knows when it’s time to score a goal.
With just two goals in two-plus regular seasons in the Permian Basin, he matched that last season during the Jackalopes’ run to Game 7 of the Southern Conference Finals against the Allen Americans.
It was his overtime goal in Game 6, on a feed from Sebastien Thinel, that sent the series back to Ector County Coliseum.
“Sebby had to take a second look when he saw it was me, but he passed me the puck and I was able to score,” Gruenke said.
“Then to lose Game 7 was very disappointing, because our goal each year is to win the championship and we’ve been close twice. We’re playing better right now and we just need to keep moving in the right direction.”