Nicholas Grabko was still a preschooler learning to skate when he was first exposed to hockey.
Hockey was anything but love at first sight. Grabko in fact made an early ultimatum that changed his hockey career forever.
“I didn’t like it and I wanted to quit,” Grabko said. “I told my dad the only way I would do it again was if I got to wear the goalie pads.”
Grabko went back to the rink, strapped on the pads, and never looked back.
“Ever since that day, I’ve been wearing goalie pads,” said the 19-year-old from Channahon, Ill.
Grabko has put that time to good use. He spent seven years in the Chicago Mission program, starting in net for the team that was runner-up at the 2015 USA Hockey Youth Tier I National Championships, making an appearance at a Select-16s Festival and ultimately working his way up to the top level of junior hockey.
Currently in his first United States Hockey League season, Grabko ranks second in league save percentage at .931 while playing for the Green Bay Gamblers.
That effort, to succeed in the only USA Hockey Tier I junior league, was years in the making.
“I was fortunate to start training pretty young,” Grabko said. “When I was a mite, I started training with my first goalie coach.”
Grabko has kept up the training since. As an undersized goalie — Grabko is listed at 5-foot-10, 172 pounds — skill development was essential.
“Redefining the technical aspect of my game,” Grabko said of his continuing area of concentration. “I’ve always been blessed with pretty good athleticism, so most of my improvement has been technical. Better technique has helped me.”
Grabko continues to look for small improvements during a season in which he is 6-5-0-2 with a 2.15 goals against average and two shutouts.
“Being a smaller goalie, I’m just working on seeing through screens a lot and my rebound control,” Grabko said.
Thus far, Grabko and Gavin Enright have mostly split starts, with Grabko holding a slight edge. In his last five outings, Grabko and his Gamblers teammates have shut opponents down, including a shutout and one-goal performance from the uncommitted goaltender.
That little surge has helped Green Bay into the middle of the USHL playoff race. The Gamblers are 11-10-0-3, good enough for fifth in the eight-team Eastern Conference.
The goalie and his new team, however, took an odd path toward working together.
After Grabko finished up the 2017-18 season with the North American Hockey League’s Minot Minotauros, the Gamblers selected him in the 13th round of the USHL Draft. The Gamblers added Grabko to their affiliate list following training camp, allowing him to play an additional season with the Minotauros while retaining his rights.
Green Bay would eventually drop Grabko from their affiliate list. However, the Gamblers would select Grabko in the USHL Draft, again, this time in the fourth round.
“Right after the season, coach [Pat Mikesch] called and said they were watching me during the playoffs,” Grabko said. “They had to free up room on their affiliate list. I understand why it happened.
“I’m happy I ended up back with them.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Dan Hickling / Hickling Images.