Olczyk helping grow the game across Illinois

Wednesday, 11.14.2012 / 11:00 AM
Brad Boron  - chicagoblackhawks.com

NILES, Ill. -- Most of Eddie Olczyk’s youth hockey clinics begin the same way.

The kids take a knee around center ice and Eddie introduces himself. He gives them his all-important rules: “Keep your stick on the ice,” “always keep your head up,” and most importantly, “when the coach is speaking, no one else is,”; finally, the camp’s participants – Edzo included – line up for drills.

But on this particular night, on the rink at Iceland Skate Complex, Eddie can’t help but feel a little bit of nostalgia.

“I used to play hockey here a loooong time ago,” he tells the assembled group of kids, all roughly the same age Olczyk himself was when he first learned to skate. “This is where I first learned to play hockey, just like you. I skated on this same ice rink. It’s changed a lot, but it’s nice to be back.”

Sometimes, you can go home again.

Every journey has to start somewhere: before there was a 15-year NHL vet, a U.S. Olympian and one of the faces of hockey in the United States, there was a six-year-old from Palos Heights, Ill., who tried hockey on a whim. Young Eddie Olczyk came to Iceland – it was Valley Sports Complex back then – and learned to skate only because they passed out fliers for skating lessons at his school. He soon fell in love with the game of hockey.

“This is where it all started for me, back in 1972, when I put on the hockey skates for the first time,” he recalls. “I grew up only about a mile-and-a-half from here. There are certainly a lot of memories here. Coming out right through that door over there, getting out onto the ice, it gave me a chance to fall in love with the greatest game in the world.

“If I didn’t bring that flier home that day,” he adds, “it probably never would have happened.”

It’s that same passion for the game that drives Olczyk to help out the Blackhawks Youth Hockey department whenever he can, introducing the sport to a new generation of players. Olczyk spends his summer months a lead instructor for the Blackhawks Youth Hockey summer camps, and helps instruct the organization’s hour-long youth clinics as well, with an eye on developing a lifelong love of hockey throughout the Chicagoland area.

“This is something that’s very important to me, [Blackhawks Youth Hockey Director] Annie Camins and the Blackhawks organization: We want to give back to the community and young hockey players, both boys and girls, of today,” says Olczyk. “It’s our job to help them learn the game, through our day camps and the summer camps. I enjoy doing it. It’s certainly very gratifying.”

“Eddie is an ambassador to the sport, an essential teacher to everyone - we couldn’t ask for a better role model than Edzo,” says Camins. “Not only did he grow up playing youth hockey in Illinois before going on, but he loves to teach the game. He’s great with kids, he commands respect and he wants things done right. If you don’t do the drill right, you go back and do it again – that’s his belief. He’s so good with them on and off the ice.”

Eddie’s commitment to the youth hockey community has led to the creation of the Eddie Olczyk Award, which the Blackhawks started last season in order to help youth hockey players who would not normally be able to afford the costs of playing the game.

“The award came about after doing a few years of youth hockey camps,” Camins says. “Eddie, who is our head instructor at our camps, had the idea to take anything we made from camps and give it back to the community. When he was growing up, there was one year his family was in a tight spot, and another family stepped up and paid his dues for a season. If it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t have been able to continue to play. This is what he wants to offer to others who might be in the same situation.”

The Blackhawks awarded $25,000 in Olczyk’s name during the 2011-12 season, and Olczyk, who called each of the grant recipients personally, hopes to do more for 2012-13.

“There are so many great stories. I know there were some parents who lost their jobs and couldn’t pay for their kids’ hockey fees, and that’s why we’re here,” says Olczyk. “To be able make the calls to those families and hear their reactions on the other end was something I’m very proud of. That’s why we do the award. We want to hear from organizations, from teams and from families who want to participate in the greatest game in the world. It’s humbling to have the award in my name, and to be associated with the leadership of Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough, Jay Blunk and the entire Blackhawks organization.”

On the wall of Iceland rink is Eddie’s No. 16 jersey, which the Niles Rangers hockey program has retired in honor of its most famous alum. With all Eddie Olczyk has done to develop youth hockey around Illinois, it would be a safe bet for rinks across the state to clear wall space – there will be more banners to be raised.

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