There it was in all of its shining silver glory: The Stanley Cup.
No matter how many times Jake Guentzel has stared, touched and lifted hockey’s Holy Grail since winning it with the Pittsburgh Penguins this past June, the reality of the feat still hasn’t sunk in. If you had told him one year ago that his name would be there among the game’s greats, he admits he would have laughed at you.
“If you had said that to me that, there’s no way I would have believed you. I still can’t believe it,” Jake, 22, said. “It’s been a crazy year. It's exciting. You've worked so hard for this your whole life, and to have my family and friends [along for the ride] and to see how excited they are, it makes it fun for all of us."
Jake, a Woodbury, Minn., native has had plenty to celebrate after his rookie debut on Nov. 21, 2016, where he tallied two goals in his NHL debut (more on that below). He had 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 games last season, and led the League with 13 goals during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 21 points in the playoffs tied forward Dino Ciccarelli of the 1981 Minnesota North Stars and Ville Leino of the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers for the rookie playoff record.
Jake didn’t just rise to the top of stardom, he skyrocketed.
“You never expect it to go like that, not right away,” he said. “From the first game on everything went so well. It’s just so crazy, there’s really no other way to describe it.
“It’s been a crazy year and I am happy I have gotten to make the most out of it.”
Jake’s first goal, on his first shift, with his first shot—scored in 1:02, the fastest of any Pittsburgh Penguin making his NHL debut—was a shock not only to him, but to his entire family, who were in the crowd at PPG Paints Arena for the game against the New York Rangers. The viral video of Jake’s older brother, Ryan, has made its social media rounds (if you haven’t seen it, check it out on YouTube).
“How can you not react with that shock when you see anyone accomplish that, let alone your baby brother,” Ryan said with a laugh. “That was just so surreal for all of us, and I’m so happy we could be there for it. We’re just so proud of him.”
Hockey runs thick in the Guentzel family bloodlines. Ryan, 31, and Gabe, 29, both played Division I hockey and have since dabbled in minor pro leagues around the world. Like any good older brother both naturally take some credit for Jake’s talent and abilities. But ask all three of the boys where the real credit is due and they will be quick to tell you their dad, University of Minnesota assistant coach, Mike.
“He’s the one that really got us into hockey,” Jake said. “We grew up at the rink with him. I was a stick boy for the Gopher hockey team and was around those guys and in the locker room just soaking all of it in all the time.”
Jake soaked in every ounce of hockey he could, learning from some of the Gopher greats including current teammate, Phil Kessel. Mike remembers Jake watching every game wide-eyed, studying players and movements to emulate on his own youth team.
“He loved learning the game as much as he does playing it,” said Mike, who had a brief professional hockey career himself. “I think that’s what really struck me. He had a natural ability, there’s no doubt, but I think what really made him a special player was his willingness to educate himself on the game. To learn from other players and to bring that to his own game. You don’t see that too often.”
Like father like son, Mike was equally as taken aback to see the quick success for his youngest.
"We were just hoping he'd get to play maybe five or 10 games in the pros to start," said Mike. "It's been a dream come true for all of us. I’m just so proud."
“It’s been a crazy year. It's exciting. You've worked so hard for this your whole life, and to have my family and friends [along for the ride] and to see how excited they are, it makes it fun for all of us." - Jake Guentzel
Favorite reality TV show? It’s not really a reality TV show, but I’d say Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel. He did an NHL thing in the Finals and I was on it, so it was pretty funny.
Favorite animal? Dog—any breed.
If you weren’t a hockey player what would you want to be? A golfer.
Best singer in the locker room? Nick Bonino. We’ll have to find a new singer this year [Bonino is now with the X]. He has a good voice and he likes being the funny guy in the locker room so he was a big-time singer.
Favorite food? Steak, medium, on the grill.
Favorite ice cream? Vanilla with chocolate syrup in a dish.
Jake said the successes at the youth level weren’t exactly fruitful, but his team put in the effort every year. They were rewarded in 2010 when his Bantam squad won the Minnesota Hockey State Tournament. A replica jersey was presented to Jake and HealthEast Sports Complex on his day with the Stanley Cup in June.
"I wouldn't be here without this rink and growing up here," He said, holding up the royal blue sweater. "I spent so many hours from Mites to Bantams here. It’s a special place.”
Jake’s prowess took him down the road to Hill-Murray High School where helped the Pioneers to a Minnesota High School State Hockey Tournament. He spent one season in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers where he was named the 2012-13 rookie of the year before embarking on a three-year collegiate career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, earning a berth into the Frozen Four in 2015.
Through ups and downs—and certainly for Jake more ups than downs—he reminds players that the path to the pros is different for everyone, but each level important in its own right.
“You work your entire career for a chance in the pros,” he said. “I don’t think there was a time that it ever felt easy. In the AHL you learn what a grind professional hockey really can be. I never took any of it for granted. Every step of the way is an important one.”
Jake knows heading into the 2017-18 season there is a target on the Pens back. Back-to-back Cup victories will do that to a team. He admits he feels some pressure to uphold the standard he set in his unprecedented breakout season, too.
"I definitely had a good year, our entire team did, but you've got to move past it," said Jake. "For me in particular, I know I've really got to work hard because I know it's going to be even tougher next year. So I've been working hard, skating a lot, and I'm looking forward to getting into the season and seeing where we can go.”
Wherever he ends up going, he’ll have the Cup to his name to take with him. A feeling that might not ever sink in, but something that will never leave him either.
“I don’t think the awe-factor ever goes away,” he said with a grin. “It truly is remarkable. I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.”