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West Salem/Bangor’s Jack Gorniak is pursued by Wausau West’s Christian Bardarson during a WIAA state quarterfinal game at the Alliant Energy Center in 2017. Gorniak will join the Wisconsin Badgers next season.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

WEST SALEM — Mike and Sara Gorniak saw it — actually, read it — at a very young age. Both of their sons, Tyler and Jack, have a full-blown passion for hockey, but Jack actually put his thoughts down on paper.

It seems he wrote a letter that his parents recalled on Wednesday, the day Jack signed National Letter of Intent to play for the Wisconsin Badgers next season.

“He wrote a letter in third grade that said he was going to play for the Badgers when he grew up,” Sara Gorniak said. “He is so focused on everything he does.”

That focus, which also includes a high level of academic success (3.85 GPA), has opened a number of doors for Jack Gorniak, a West Salem High School senior and standout for the West Salem/Bangor hockey team the past four years. A player, who on Wednesday, was named to the USA Today All-USA Hockey first team.

It opened the door to the Panthers home rink, affectionately called the “Meat Locker,” to Team Wisconsin, and now to the Kohl Center, home of the Badgers.

It was just over six months ago that Jack Gorniak, a lightning-fast skater on a 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame, verbally committed to playing for the Badgers. At that time, in October of 2017, he fully expected to play a year, or even two, of Junior hockey before testing his talent on the Division I level with Wisconsin.

That is the typical path that even the high-level high school hockey players take before entertaining thoughts — and offers — of playing NCAA Division I hockey.

That all changed in the last month.

“It was after the high school season, actually the first weekend back with Team Wisconsin, the (Badgers) coaching staff actually watched me play that weekend. (Head) coach (Tony) Granato watched me play that weekend, and he personally felt I was ready,” Jack Gorniak said.

“They approached me and wanted me to come in this year, but it was ultimately my decision. I felt I was ready and am just ready to get into it.”

Jack Gorniak, a three-time member of the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association All-State team, and its player of the year this past season, had been drafted by the USHL, a Tier I hockey league, but Wisconsin’s immediate interest changed those plans.

“He played in the Elite League for two years in Minnesota after the high school season,” Mike Gorniak said, “and he really grew (as a player) and got drafted by the USHL. We thought that was great, then the colleges started calling… now the NHL.”

Before Jack Gorniak dons a Badgers’ jersey and breezers, he will head to an invitation-only NHL combine in May in Buffalo, N.Y. Even if he is drafted, Mike Gorniak said Jack will play two years, or more, of college hockey.

While pro hockey could be in Jack’s future, the task at hand is all about the Badgers.

“There is a very good chance he will get drafted. It has been just a whirlwind. It is all based on how he develops,” Mike Gorniak said. “Basically, college is a development program for the NHL, the way I see it. You listen to people who say a certain percentage kids make it to D-I and a certain percentage of kids make it to the next level.

“He is in that percentage right now.”

What Jack Gorniak has been able to accomplish — including a senior high school season where he scored 31 goals and had 30 assists in leading West Salem/Bangor to a 20-8 record and state tournament appearance — doesn’t surprise his high school coach, Eric Borre.

Borre watched Gorniak, always one of the best — and fastest — skaters on the ice, scored score 108 goals and record 146 assists (254 points) in 104 games.

He knew he was something special, but even Borre — who played two years of Junior hockey at the Tier II level — was a bit surprised that Jack will be going directly from high school to Division I college hockey. Even one of the best high school players to come out of the area and play at Wisconsin, Logan’s A.J. Degenhardt, played in 99 games over two years with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers before a four-year career at Wisconsin in which he won a national championship in 2006.

“If you look at the typical hockey route, it usually doesn’t follow straight from high school to Division I,” said Borre, whose Panthers are 82-23-1 during the Jack Gorniak years. “It is rare in men’s hockey. Women’s hockey it is a little more frequent, but men’s hockey it is unique that he is in this spot.

“I think it is his work ethic more than anything. He played well during his Team Wisconsin stuff, during our season. Before and after (the high school season), he had a good showing for Team Wisconsin.”

Jack Gorniak’s passion for hockey has always been at a very high level, likely before that third-grade letter, his parents said. So has his work ethic, but he credited his parents, his brother, his sister, even his grandparents, for supporting him each step of the way.

During a short National Letter of Intent presentation at West Salem High School on Wednesday, Jack Gorniak thanked his family and his teammates, many of whom were in attendance.

“I want to thank everyone for coming out. I especially want to thank my family…. especially my family for coming to every game since I was little and playing hockey,” Jack Gorniak said. “I want to thank my teammates, the coaching staff, too. They have done a lot for me as a player — and a person, too.”

Jack Gorniak hasn’t forgotten where he has come from, nor does he underestimate the climb ahead of him. He knows his is making a big jump from high school to Big Ten hockey. But he also knows he’s not alone.

“I think I have the skill set for that level; it is just key to continue developing because each team, each player, is getting better each day,” Jack Gorniak said. “You have to keep getting better each day. It is definitely a rebuilding year for them (Badgers). They lost a bunch of guys to NHL contracts, to pro contracts, so I think the group of guys going in this year is going to be rebuilding.

“I am excited to be a part of that.”

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Sports Editor

Jeff Brown is the Sports Editor for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at (608) 791-8403.