by Jashvina Shah
The puck found its way to Joe Grabowski, patrolling the blue line on May 13, 2013 as his Amarillo Bulls were playing for the NAHL’s Robertson Cup.
And when the puck hit his stick, the 6-foot-3 defenseman took a shot.
But Grabowski almost never had that chance.
In 2012, the Dubuque Fighting Saints drafted Grabowski in the 5th round of the USHL draft. But they dropped his rights, so Grabowski headed to Muskegon’s camp.
The defenseman fell sick at Muskegon’s camp and was cut at the team’s all-star game. He then joined Fargo’s camp, where he was cut, again.
“That was really devastating for me because I was expecting to play in that league,” Grabowski says. “I wanted to do well and it was the first time I’d ever really been cut from teams.”
Discarded from the USHL, the Princeton recruit joined the Amarillo Bulls. Early in the season, Bulls coach Dennis Williams sat Grabowski as a healthy scratch.
“[After that] he made it a point to prove to us coaches that we made a mistake. He came out, he wasn’t salty, he didn’t blame anybody but himself, which is a characteristic of a leader,” Williams says.
“He took full responsibility. And it’s funny how that works. He’d [be] the best player that whole week on the ice.”
And when Grabowski took the shot from the blue line on May 13, less than 10 minutes into the game against Wenatchee, the puck went past Wenatchee goalkeeper Robert Nichols.
Grabowski’s teammates ran to the defenseman to celebrate the goal, which stood as the game — and championship — winning tally.
“That little bit of adversity is all it took for him to play a consistent game and I think he responded exactly how we wanted him to,” Williams says.
Grabowski, who will attend Princeton in the fall of 2014, takes a few seconds to remember how scoring the game-winning goal felt.
“Uh, wow. I don’t know, I was really happy, really excited, it was just a great feeling,” Grabowski says.
“It’s a really long season and to have it all lead up to that was just amazing. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The Mean Streak
Through 20 games this season Grabowski has scored 20 points — a number that leads NAHL defenseman.
But scoring goals isn’t what defines the 210-pound defenseman, who owns the nickname “The Bear.”
“A big 6-foot-3 dude like that, I can mess with him because he won’t hit me, but if I were you I wouldn’t mess with him,” Amarillo goalkeeper Paul Berrafato says laughing.
“We don’t call him the bear for no reason. He’s a big, tough kid and he’ll stand up for his teammates. He’ll play tough in front of the net and is someone that you really don’t mess with.”
Williams describes Grabowski as an emotional player and a physical defenseman, adding not many opposing players enjoy sending the puck to Grabowski’s corner of the ice.
It’s mostly because of Grabowski’s mean streak, Williams says.
“I think it’s kind of a sign of respect towards myself,” Grabowski says. “You like it when you see them dump the puck in the other defenseman’s corner, because they know if they dump it in [your] corner they may come out, they might not.
“But if they do, they’re going to have to battle for it and they’re going to have to take a cross-check or take a slash or take a hit.”
Berrafato has seen Grabowski clear opposing players out of the crease, and he knows the stay-at-home defenseman is the player who will always come out of the corner with pucks.
Berrafato recalls Grabowski’s involvement in a line brawl earlier in the season, saying his teammate has been involved in almost 10 fights over the past two seasons with Amarillo.
“Your team is your family so you have to protect them.” Grabowski says. “You’re not going to be able to do anything by yourself so you always have to be supportive of each other.”
No Fly Zone
Bulls goalkeeper Paul Berrafato laughs when he thinks about the first time he met Grabowski.
“Unfortunately yes [I remember it]. Do I have to talk about it?” Berrafato asks. ”Oh man.
“First time I met Joe, I wondered why he could never hear me.
“First I thought he was just being rude. I was like, ‘Joe, uh, hello, you just never answer me.’ I’m like, ‘Hey.’
“Joe’s like, ‘Oh what? … I’m deaf in my left ear,’”
Berrafato laughs as he retells the story.
“I was like, ‘What? Oh alright that’s awesome,’” Berrafato says, still laughing.
“He has like a no-fly zone. If you’re on one side of him and you’re talking to him it’s just like, no, like you don’t even exist.”
After that, the pair became friends.
“That was the icebreaker, but Joe’s a really good guy,” Berrafato says.
“I’m a goalie and he’s a defenseman so we had to get a long at first. But then we became really good friends and we hang out all the time. He’s a good person, he’s a talker, he’s a funny guy.”
Grabowski was born deaf in his left ear, but he doesn’t let it hinder his hockey life.
“Sometimes I struggle to hear my teammate in the beginning of the year, but once everyone knows I’m deaf they just scream really loudly at me on the ice,” Grabowski says.
“This year it hasn’t been too much trouble though because I play left D so I can generally hear my partner because he’s on my good side.”
Becoming a Leader
Most teams award captaincies before the season to the best players. It’s the easy way, Williams says.
But it’s not what the Bulls, who named their captains a few weeks into the season, do.
“We give it to the most deserving,” Williams say.
“I needed consistency and we needed to see some adversity. We went to the showcase and [finished] 1-2-1, our worst record ever playing showcase, and I needed to see which guys stepped up to the plate and took onus of the team.”
On Oct. 15 the Bulls named four alternate captains — including Grabowski. And since the showcase, the Bulls have won 15 games and stand first in the NAHL.
“We challenged him this year on it. It’s to come back to Amarillo and be a leader. Being a leader’s not easy and it’s tough sometimes,” Williams says.
“His first year he [was] one of those guys that liked to joke around and he’s a prankster. He likes to have fun. And it’s tough but now I’m asking him to go on the other side of it and be an extension of the coaching staff and follow through with us.”
Williams has seen Grabowski get on a bike for 45 minutes after practice, watch video repeatedly, ask questions and encourage his teammates.
“[When] Joe speaks, all guys listen to him and that’s one of things that has really separated him,” Williams says. “This year he’s very confident in himself, he knows what it takes to win after winning the national championship last year and he expects nothing less than to win it again.”
Grabowski is vocal in the locker room, but the defenseman’s actions on the ice resonate more for his teammate Berrafato.
“He’s a guy that can lead with his voice but his biggest asset is he leads by example.” Berrafato says. “[He] not only says what to do but does it himself so I think that’s important in a leader.”
The goalkeeper remembers a Nov. 5 game when the team wasn’t playing well. Grabowski responded with an intermission speech, telling his teammates the Bulls needed to play better.
“He takes defeat very [hard],” Williams says. “He’s one of those guys that he wants to do everything, sometimes almost to a fault. He wants to do too much out there. He wants to make sure that his linemates are taken care of and [he] protects them and maybe covers for them on a bad read.
On his first shift after the intermission speech, Grabowski blocked a shot and then scored a goal, the game-winning tally over Lone Star, Berrafato says.
“If you ever get a chance to look at his eyes in the locker room just before a game, he’s focused,” Williams says. “He’s ready to go, he’s giving 110 percent for the next 60 minutes and [is] going to do whatever it takes to win.”
For the alternate captain Grabowski, that also entails helping his teammates and showing newer players how to act.
“When we’re on and off the ice as far as the way you act, the way you behave, the way you dress, the way you talk and your character,” Grabowski says.
“People won’t respect you unless you have a good character, so [I’m] trying to be a good person, a good leader and be a good teammate.”
Developing Into a goal scorer
When Grabowski was around three years old, his parents introduced him to hockey.
Grabowski, a Devils fan, skated for the Mercer Chiefs before joining the New Jersey Rockets — where he played from 2008-12. Over those four years, the defenseman totaled 40 points over 113 games.
In his first year with the Bulls, Grabowski appeared in 48 regular-season games, scored 18 points (2g, 16a) and finished with a plus-34 rating. His plus-34 rating was tied for eighth in the league.
In the playoffs, en route to the Robertson Cup Championship, Grabowski finished with three points (1g, 2a) and a plus-5 rating over 11 games.
Williams has seen Grabowski improve from the first time he laced up skates in Amarillo, but Williams is still trying to challenge the defender to trust his feet to close the gap.
“He hasn’t even come close yet, I truly believe, of capping his potential,” Williams says. “It’s always challenging Joe to get outside his comfort zone, to reach outside of his own boundaries so that he continues to expand his game.”
Berrafato, who has played with Grabowski since 2012-13, says Grabowski transformed into the teams’ go-to defenseman.
“Last year he was an everyday player as well, but we had more good players around. This year he’s definitely the man on the back end and he’s our assistant captain and our leader especially. He is a high-end player in this league,” Berrafato says.
“Last year he was always a really good defender and this year he’s also a really good defender. But he has some offensive upside, which is nice to see.”
Now in his second year with the Bulls, Grabowski struggles to elaborate on what he loves most about playing for the Bulls.
“It’s been great. Starting out as healthy scratch in the beginning of the year was tough, but working through it translated to the later part of the year when it was really important [to] win games and I was in the lineup pretty much every night. So it’s just been a great experience,” Grabowski says.
“I love playing here and I love coach Williams. It’s a great organization, it’s a great town and everything.”
Committing To The Local School
A native of Lawrenceville, N.J., Grabowski grew up around 15 minutes away from Princeton, hanging around the campus and town when he was younger.
He’s even watched Princeton hockey before.
“It must’ve been when I was seven or eight, so about 10 years ago, I remember going to a game,” Grabowski says.
The 19-year-old doesn’t remember much about the game, and Princeton wasn’t on his mind.
Until two summers ago.
Grabowski played in a prospects tournament in Toronto with his former team, the New Jersey Rockets. After the tournament, Grabowski spoke to coach Bob Prier. Not too long after, Grabowski went back to see Princeton and left after giving a verbal commitment.
“It’ll be really great to be close to home. I’m really excited for my parents to be able to come and see every home game,” Grabowski says. “And I’m excited to start a new chapter in my life and play Division I college hockey.”
And when he returns home, Grabowski will have the chance to improve even more.
“There [aren’t] too many 6-foot-3, 19-year-old kids with his type of play-making ability and his mean streak,” Williams says.
“Being able to see him develop here is going to be huge and he has [a lot] of pro-like potential. He’s going to hopefully one day after college [be able] to play pro.”