Woodbury native Jake Guentzel will remember the summer of 2017 for the rest of his life. On the night of June 11, he helped his NHL Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Nashville Predators in a six-game series.
Then, on Thursday, July 13, Guentzel brought the Stanley Cup to Woodbury.
Guentzel hoisted the cup overhead and spoke to a full house in the arena where he first learned to play the game: the HealthEast Sports Center, formerly known as the Bielenberg Sports Center. He was taking part in a longstanding National Hockey League tradition that allows each member of the championship team to have the fabled trophy for one day.
It was a full day, capping off a long season that had begun the previous September. Woodbury mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens read a proclamation in Guentzel’s honor; he was presented with a replica jersey from the 2010 Woodbury bantam team which he helped win a state championship. Then he spent two hours posing for photos with fans and the cup. His next stop was a favorite local restaurant, Ray J’s American Grill. After that appearance, Guentzel played a round of golf at StoneRidge Golf Club, where his family has been longtime members, and then attended a private gathering with his family and closest friends.
Guentzel grew up in Woodbury, playing two years of varsity hockey at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood before joining the Sioux City Musketeers junior team. He then committed to the University of Nebraska Omaha after his junior season. After his junior year with the Nebraska team in the 2015-16 season, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round, 77th overall, in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Guentzel concluded his collegiate career by signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Penguins on May 23, 2016.
Guentzel comes from a hockey family: His father, Mike, was a star athlete for Greenway High School in Coleraine, Minn., going on to play hockey for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Mike later became the associate head coach at the U of M; Jake Guentzel was a stick boy for the team when future Penguins teammate Phil Kessel was a Gopher. Jake’s oldest brother, Ryan, played at the University of Notre Dame and then professionally in Germany. Another older brother, Gabe, played at Colorado College, then minor pro and later in Europe.
Growing up watching his older brothers play youth, high school, then college hockey, gave Jake an idea of his future. Guentzel started playing hockey at age “3 or 4,” the youngest of three brothers. Being the youngest wasn’t a hindrance, he says. His brothers, who are six and eight years older, “pushed me, motivated me; I always wanted to be like them.”
Guentzel, who turned 23 in October, played his first NHL game last November and worked his way into the Penguins’ lineup. He played 40 regular-season games, scoring 16 goals and 17 assists, and then surprising everyone with his playoff performance. He was the leading scorer in the postseason with 13 goals, including the winners in games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. He finished with three goals more than teammate Evgeni Malkin and five more than Sidney Crosby, also a teammate, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
As a half minor leaguer, half major leaguer in his first professional year, Guentzel said he had very modest expectations going into last season. “I’d thought I’d try to get in a couple games” with the Penguins, he says. He didn’t know what to expect from the NHL, but soon found out.
“Everyone is always in the right spot, the pass is always right on the tape, just how you want it. You don’t have much area on the ice” due to being checked closely. “But you get used to it pretty quickly. It’s fun; it’s where you want to be as a player,” says Guentzel, who is grateful to various family members, coaches and friends who helped him along the way.
While his family now lives in Lake Elmo, he enjoyed growing up in Woodbury, with an abundance of parks and recreational opportunities. “All my friends lived close by, and there was always something to do,” he says.
Like most pro hockey players, Guentzel is an avid golfer and has been since childhood. He was able to play five days a week since returning from Pittsburgh, mostly at StoneRidge. “They’ve been good to us over the years,” he says.
To prepare for training camp in September, Guentzel spent about 15 hours a week working out at the University of Minnesota hockey training facility—where his dad is associate head coach—and playing in a summer league for professionals at Braemar Arena in Edina.
In spite of his playoff success, he still went into camp this fall with the attitude of having to earn a spot on the roster. “You have to be on your ‘A’ game every day; there are always people behind you, trying to take your spot,” he says.
Guentzel doesn’t miss the six-hour bus rides he endured as a member of the Penguins’ Wilkes Barre-Scranton farm team. While NHL players enjoy the luxury of four-star hotels and charter flights, the long, October-to-April season is still a grind, he notes. “Playing almost every other night, you have to make sure your body is always ready.”
To Guentzel, it doesn’t seem that long ago when he and his teammates were celebrating a state bantam championship; in fact it was only seven years. Bo Nickoloff, the head coach of that team, remembers Guentzel well, specifically his competitive nature.
“Sometimes, Jake would give me the eye, in a good way, if I didn’t send him on the ice when he felt he should be out there; for example, on a penalty kill,” Nickoloff says. “He loved the game and really liked to help his team come out on top. Off the ice, he was just like everyone else, a great kid hanging with his buddies, having a good time.”