While being big and athletic is truly a gift bestowed upon a select few, even the fastest and most coordinated of big men need a little time to reach maximum speed.
Such is the case for Clarkson University defenseman Michael Grenzy.
In a wickedly fast sport like ice hockey, most teams are willing to take the good with the bad when it comes to the development of a physical specimen like the 6-foot-4, 198-pound Grenzy, who is adept at playing the body, makes smart decisions with the puck and can clear the front of the net with ease. But Grenzy wasn't playing like his normal self during the first month of the season, and that slow start resulted in a major penalty for the Lockport native: a seat in the stands with the rest of the fans.
Grenzy, a ninth-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft (275th overall), was a healthy scratch in two of the team's first five starts -- a 1-4 stretch in which the Golden Knights gave up 23 goals, or 4.6 per game. The 20-year-old sophomore was making poor decisions with the puck, unnecessarily joining the rush and getting caught out of position. He simply was not playing like the reliable stay-at-home defenseman who helped an underdog Clarkson troop come within a win of earning a NCAA Tournament bid last season.
"I wasn't seeing the ice the way I should," said Grenzy, who played youth hockey with the Wheatfield Blades before honing his game in Canada and then with the United States National Developmental Program. "I was panicking with the puck and playing too uptight. I don't know (why). Maybe nerves. Maybe I hadn't found my groove I got into at the end of last year. I had a talk with the coaching staff and found out what I had to fix, and have done that and sort of earned my spot back as a top six defenseman."
Grenzy, who recorded four of his five points last season during the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference playoffs, didn't take up permanent residency in coach George Roll's doghouse.
Still, there's nothing like a good benching to cure a player of bad habits -- and a harsh wake-up call was necessary.
"I just think sometimes it takes the bigger guys a little longer to get their feet under them" to start the season, Roll said. "I think it's more with his skating and quickness. It takes longer with pivoting and foot speed. We think he's certainly turned the corner."
Grenzy started finding his game two weekends ago during the team's two-game series against Niagara University. After watching the Purple Eagles skate to victory during the team's Cheel Arena opener, he returned to the lineup the next night and helped the Golden Knights escape with a 4-3 win. In that game, he played mostly in even strength situations and helped kill off some penalties. Grenzy finished the game at plus-1 and was on the ice for the game-winning goal.
Grenzy, who has an even plus/minus rating, followed with two solid performances against ECAC foes Union and Rensselaer, even though the Golden Knights lost both games.
"I think with Mike, when he plays a simple game and plays physical that's his strengths," Roll said. "He's getting back to that mode where he was pretty consistent and reliable in all situations.
"As a group, not just Mike, our defensemen were trying to do too much, jumping into the rush and carrying the puck up the ice," the coach said. "Sometimes when you do that, you make bad plays and lose confidence."
The defense corps was key in helping Clarkson became the first No. 9 seed in ECAC Tournament history to reach the championship game.
Grenzy notched three assists and scored the game-winning goal in the semifinals against Colgate when he wisely joined a second-period rush. After Jeff Genovy fetched the rebound off a Lyon Porter shot, Grenzy received a pass from Genovy behind the net and quickly moved in front and deposited the puck into the net, beating the Raiders' goalie on the short side.
After the game, Grenzy admitted he was "just as surprised as anyone else" that he scored that goal.
"We had a press conference right after the game and they asked that same question," he recalled. "I said, 'I had no idea. I think I was lost. I had no idea what I was doing down there.' "
Perhaps all those years of watching his favorite NHL defenseman, Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, finally paid off for the lifelong Buffalo Sabres fan, who now has his own Bourque-like moment to remember once his playing days are finished.
Unfortunately, it took some time for Grenzy to find his comfort zone as a freshman. The business major missed two months with ankle and knee injuries.
"With his size, that's something that's certainly not to his advantage," Roll said. "He needed to be on the ice all the time."
Grenzy, who was plus-9 last season, learned how to skate at age 3, joining his first team a year later in a beginner's league at Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga. After his time with the Wheatfield Blades, Grenzy played Bantam-age hockey (14-to-15 year olds) in Toronto, where he caught the eye of U.S. National Developmental Team brass. "He has gotten better since he's been here, and if he continues to progress, he certainly has the potential to play at the next level," Roll said.
Though Grenzy has already been drafted, he understands he needs to play with more consistency in order to live up to the honor.
"It's good to know I probably have a better chance of going somewhere, but there's no guarantee I'll play with Chicago's minor league team," Grenzy said. "It's up to me over the next three years to prove I deserve a spot on the team."