April 8, 2012

Gacek making his mark with USHL's Youngstown Phantoms

By Shawn Hutcheon

In the competitive world of college sports, coaches are constantly on the lookout for bigger, stronger and faster players. They leave no stone unturned in their search for the one player who will lead their team to a national championship. Young athletes around the country wake up every day dreaming of being that player, however, college hockey rosters are seeing more players from European nations join their ranks. 

After honing his game in the USHL, Alex Gacek (Dracut, Mass.) hopes to thrive at the University of Miami (Ohio). (Photo courtesy of Youngstown Phantoms)

For American hockey players who aspire to play for their favorite collegiate teams, it is a long road. They are competing with thousands from around the globe for approximately 100 scholarships that are available each year. These athletes, like their counterparts in other sports, have worked since they were youngsters to achieve their dream. Unlike those counterparts, they usually do not step out of high school athletics directly into college competition. Coaches at that level want their players to be more physically, psychologically and intellectually mature. In order for this to occur, the developing hockey player will need one or two years of post high school experience at the junior level.

There are many junior leagues throughout the country but the top rated one for player development is the United States Hockey League. The USHL is comprised of 16 franchises. Each one has players from all over America, Canada and Europe, and is famous for sending more players to Division 1 college hockey programs than any other junior league in North America.  

One player who has been chasing his dream of performing for a Division 1 college is Dracut, Mass., native Alex Gacek. Gacek is in his second season with the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. The 18-year-old forward began playing youth hockey with the local Nashua (N.H.) Panthers and Dual State Huskies (Tyngsboro, Mass.) programs before moving on to Top Gun (Salem, N.H.), Minuteman Flames (Marlboro, Mass.), and the Valley Junior Warriors (Haverhill, Mass.).

Gacek, just 5-foot-9, acknowledged that he was not the biggest player on the ice as a youngster and chose a local college legend to idolize.

“I really liked Brion Gionta when he was at Boston College,” Gacek said. “He isn’t a big guy but he gives 100 percent and battles for his teammates every time he steps on the ice.”

Playing in the mold of his hero, Gacek moved on from youth hockey to Governor’s Academy where he was an impact player in the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association -- which is known as one of the top prep school leagues in the country. In 2009, while at Governor’s, Gacek was named to USA Hockey’s Under-17 team and competed in the prestigious Five Nations Tournament in Fussen, Germany, where he recorded a hat trick in the team’s final game of the tournament.

After his sophomore year at Governor’s, the winger, who was known for his scoring exploits, was ready to compete at the junior level. He became a member of the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The Monarchs would win the league championship with Gacek leading the way as the club’s leading scorer with 65 points in 44 games. Gacek was rewarded for his outstanding play with his second selection to the Under-17 Team USA squad and traveled to Piestany, Slovakia to represent his country in the heavily scouted Vlad Dzurilla Tournament.

While being recruited by the Indiana Ice of the USHL, Gacek decided he needed to leave New England to continue his development. He began the 2010-2011 season with the Ice and played in seven games, scoring one assist before being sent to Youngstown. In 34 games with the Phantoms, he accumulated seven assists.

“I found out quickly that there is a huge difference between the USHL and the EJHL,” Gacek explained when asked to compare the top two junior leagues in the nation. “The USHL is almost like a business. If you don’t play well, you don’t play. It’s also a two-year league or more. Your first year, you get used to the systems and work out programs. It can be frustrating because it’s so different from what you’re used to.”

Jon Hutcheon, Youngstown’s New England scout, said, “He was a top scorer in the Eastern Junior Hockey League but it was a tough adjustment for Alex in the USHL.”

This season, Gacek is enjoying a strong year with the Phantoms. In 54 games, the By State native has scored 13 goals and 20 assists. His 33 points place him fifth in team scoring. The Phantoms are in fourth place in the league’s Eastern Conference and will be participating in the USHL playoffs.

Asked to discuss what helped him make the adjustment to a new league, Gacek explained, “You can talk to the older kids and leaders. They know what you’re going through and that helps. That first year was a lot different. I moved in with a billet family and I started to grow up. It’s been a great learning experience. I feel like I’m ready for college now.”

Gacek holds the ultimate dream of playing professional hockey, but before that can happen, he will take his talents to the University of Miami-Ohio where he accepted a hockey scholarship.

“I was recruited by Hockey East and ECAC schools but there was a certain comfort level I had with the coaching staff at Miami,” Gacek said. “The academics are excellent and the campus had a New England feel to it. All of it was very impressive.

“I’d like to go as far as I can but I’m just going to do everything I can to get ready for next season once this season comes to an end. I’ll go to power skating classes and continue to work out so I can be bigger and stronger. I want to be ready for the speed and strength of the college game.”

Hutcheon is confident Gacek will have success there.

“Alex will do well at Miami-Ohio,” Hutcheon said. “He’s a cerebral, fast player and a very good playmaker.”

Youngstown coach Anthony Noreen agrees.

“He’s a two-way winger, who’s an extremely strong skater who has developed as much or more than any player in our program in the last two seasons. Alex has gone from being a player who struggled if he was not scoring to being one of the best all around players in the league,” Noreen said.  “He is responsible in all three zones, a great penalty killer, a threat to score every time he touches the puck, and possesses an elite compete level. Alex has also matured as a person as much as a hockey player since he has been here.

“When he first arrived here he was very shy and soft-spoken. This year he has really come out of his shell, and while he is still pretty soft-spoken he also provides some comic relief at appropriate times. He's really developed into a leader on this team because of the way he carries himself at and away from the rink.”

What advice does Gacek give to young players who want to be in his skates some day?

“Shoot for the stars,” said Gacek, “battle through adversity, keep going and never give up.”  

There just may be no better advice for all aspiring college hockey players.

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.