The making of a NCAA Division I hockey player takes years, often times even a decade or more, as spirited young skaters climb the ranks of youth hockey, then compete in high school or even explore opportunities outside of that level, such as the junior ranks.
Then, if you’re on an elite level, Division I programs come calling.
On Wednesday, West Salem standout Jack Gorniak got a call — and answered — from the Wisconsin Badgers. He verbally agreed to a full scholarship offer, knowing full well it will be two, maybe even three years before he will don a Badgers’ jersey.
Then when it comes time to sign a National Letter of Intent to bind him to the University of Wisconsin program, he will happily break out a pen during the early signing period in November or the regular signing period in April.
“I made a verbal commitment, and before you go (to Wisconsin), you are going to play a year or two of juniors,” said the 18-year-old Gorniak, who will be a senior forward for the powerful West Salem/Bangor co-op hockey team this winter.
“(The Badgers) said they would like me to play one year (of juniors) for sure, maybe two, in the USHL (United States Hockey League). They don’t tell you where to go, but they do recommend the USHL or BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League).”
That’s in the future, after his final prep season, and until then Gorniak’s ready to concentrate on playing with his friends and longtime teammates one more season.
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks as Gorniak made his official visit to Wisconsin two weeks ago, then visited Cornell University in Cornell, N.Y., this week where he received another full-scholarship offer.
Another Big Ten school, Ohio State, along with Minnesota State University, Mankato — where another Coulee Region standout, Eriah Hayes of La Crescent, played — and national power University of Minnesota-Duluth, also showed interest.
UMD, by the way, is where another West Salem native, Nick Deery, is a redshirt sophomore battling for the starting goaltending job.
“It just came back to being close to home, the home-state pride kind of thing,” Gorniak said of choosing Wisconsin. “I grew up watching them.
“I always grew up watching (the Badgers) and in fact played in their Mighty Mites when I was really little, probably 6 or 7. That was a dream of mine, to play for the Badgers.”
Gorniak, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound fast-skating forward, has turned some heads with his skills at the high school level as he enters his senior season with 77 goals and 115 assists for a West Salem/Bangor program that has gone 60-15-1 with Gorniak skating for them. West Salem/Bangor went 22-4-1 last season when it advanced to the WIAA state tournament.
It comes as no surprise to West Salem/Bangor coach Eric Borre that Gorniak has received multiple offers to play college hockey.
“When Jack came into the program as a freshman, you could see he was a special player,” Borre said. “So much of what Jack does isn’t even on the ice. He puts in his time, he is committed to be as physically fit as he can be, to his (individual) workouts, to his team workouts, to his decisions when it comes to food.
“He is a gifted athlete in a lot of different things, but hockey is where his passion is. He has put all of his eggs in the hockey basket and he got a little payoff (Wednesday).”
Equally as important to his career has been Gorniak’s involvement with Team Wisconsin. He started skating with Team Wisconsin with the U-15 team, then the U-16 and U-18 teams. He has basically been skating year-round for the past four years, perhaps even longer.
Gorniak has played in games and tournaments across the country, and similar to AAU Basketball, it is where Division I coaches started to find out who he was and what he was all about.
“I would say after my U-16 year, at nationals in San Jose, Calif., where I started to (attract attention). That was a big tournament and that really helped coaches notice me and talk to me,” Gorniak said. “It has been hard missing some school events and even football games on Fridays, but I knew what it would take to get to this point. I had to make some sacrifices.”
To Gorniak, it’s all been worth it.
He grew up in a hockey family, as his dad, Mike, and his mom, Sara, would take Jack’s brother, Tyler, to hockey practices and games. Tyler, five years older than Jack, also shares a passion for hockey.
In fact, Tyler played junior hockey with the Minnesota Wilderness when they nearly won the Robertson Cup, then played with the Coulee Region Freeze and (Wisconsin) Dells Ducks. Tyler, it seems, had a big impact on Jack.
“I just think growing up around the game, watching my brother play and always being around the rink – having the West Salem hockey rink open almost 24 hours a day – just drove my passion for (hockey),” Gorniak said.
“I think what I like most about it, I would say, is more from a team sport perspective. Every kid on the team, there is a different bond with each kid on the team. We have such a hard-working group and everyone wants to get back to state. Not just get back to state, but do something when we get there.”
The start of the high school hockey season is a few weeks away (Nov. 6). Until then, Jack will continue to play — and excel — for Team Wisconsin, and perhaps entertain a thought or two about playing for another Wisconsin team, as in the Badgers.
“It takes hard work every day, keep trying to get better,” Gorniak said.
“It just came back to being close to home, the home-state pride kind of thing. I grew up watching them.” Jack Gorniak, on committing to Wisconsin