ST. LOUIS — Before Matt Grzelcyk twisted his body into a vulnerable position and had his head slammed into the corner glass by Oskar Sundqvist Wednesday — a forceful check that sent the young Boston Bruins defenceman to the ice, then to the hospital, and now into concussion protocol — you could argue he was the easiest guy to root for in this Stanley Cup Final.
A local Massachusetts kid, “Grizz” stands all of five feet, nine inches — a measurement that may or may not have been taken in skates — and is praised by his teammates as much for his courage as his slick ability to get that puck moving north.
Grzelcyk invested a full four years at Boston University and another in AHL Providence before finally getting his chance to retrieve dump-ins on the NHL sheet his father cares for. (John Grzelcyk started working at Boston Garden in 1967, the year the St. Louis Blues were born, and still serves on TD Garden’s changeover crew.)
Excelling on the left of another young, late-drafted, undersized defenceman, Connor Clifton, this was Grizz’s coming-out party. Now, it might have ended with a crash.
Playing the biggest games of his life inside an arena that means so much to his family, his childhood, Grzelcyk is in battle with his own feelings, to normalize a unique and precious situation.
This is a kid who, in the spring of 2011, flocked downtown Boston with a crew of his best friends to catch a glimpse of Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci on the float and wonder what if.
“Probably a little more emotional being on this stage. I’m trying not to think about it too much,” Grzelcyk said, prior to the hit, for which Sundqvist will serve a one-game suspension.
“The game’s changed a little bit; it’s more directed toward speed and skill. So, maybe 20 years ago I wouldn’t be on this stage. But I’m glad to be here. Hopefully I can add to the team and use my legs to my advantage.”
He kept smiling in the Bruins dressing room, in no rush to stop talking about what these two weeks mean.
“I’m just happy to be in the NHL, really. It’s a dream come true just to be playing in this league, and to happen to be playing for the Bruins adds even more to that. I still kinda pinch myself that I get to be on this stage, come into this locker room and see some of these guys. It’s really cool,” the 25-year-old late-bloomer went on.
“One of the parades that sticks out for me is when the Red Sox won [in 2004] after breaking the curse. Ever since then, there’s been quite a lot. Boston sports fans are quite spoiled right now, but hopefully we can add to that.
“That’s always your dream growing up as a kid, to be playing in this position.”
Hockey can grow hardened after reading reams of injury reports and by retweeting the number of games attached to the latest suspension. It’s a risky game that will always cash its cheques.
“Next man up,” they all say.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be a sincere human reaction to a relatively routine injury.
When I asked defenceman Brandon Carlo about the ripple effect of losing Grzelcyk in that 3-2 overtime loss, how that affected ice times and fatigue for the remaining five D-men, it stood out that Carlo instead chose to speak about how Grzelcyk’s contagious positivity was missed on the bench.
That was no category for that on the Game 2 box score. I double-checked.
Charlie McAvoy is one of several Bruins who have spoken with Grzelcyk at least a couple times since the head injury.
“He was in our prayers,” McAvoy said. “We weren’t sure how he was feeling. In talking to him a little bit, he’s in good spirits, and we’re looking for him to rejoin us as soon as possible.”
Grzelcyk’s replacement for Saturday’s Game 3, fellow lefty John Moore, sounded determined, if reluctant, to be entering the Final.
“I really hoped that Grizz was still here and that I wasn’t even talking to you guys. It’s terrible to see a teammate go down like that. We can certainly draw inspiration from that. He’s such a tough guy. He’s been getting the job done all year. For sure, it lights a fire under us,” Moore said, following Friday practice at Enterprise Center.
“Hockey aside, those are scary injuries, and I’m hoping for Grizz and praying for him he gets healthy and he’s back sooner rather than later.”
One man’s absence is another’s opportunity — a hockey theme since they started whacking hard pucks with hard sticks on a hard surface — is quickly becoming a thread in a young series.
St. Louis defenceman Vince Dunn and forward Robert Thomas are striving to be ready for the first Blues-hosted Cup Final game in 49 years. Banished fourth-line centre Sundqvist will likely be replaced by Zach Sanford, with Ivan Barbashev sliding to the middle.
All-stars Vladimir Tarasenko and Bergeron each missed their respective practices Friday due to maintenance but will dress Saturday and push through whatever ails them.
To the credit of both teams, neither wasted breath Friday complaining about Sundqvist’s hit nor the length of the suspension doled out by the department of player safety.
Flip the page. Press on. Live in the now.
And, if you’re the next man up under the command of Craig Berube, continue to smash and grind.
“Just go about business as usual,” the Blues coach said. “We’ve got to play physical. We’re going to play physical.”
Moore, 28, is in no mood to reminisce over his first trip the Cup Final, when he was closer to Grzelcyk’s age. He says he’s matured since that 2014 run with the Rangers. He understands selfishness has no place here.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the team. It’s about me doing my job to help the team collectively achieve their goal, so that’s my focus. When this is all said and done, hopefully you can reflect on it on an individual level. But right now, it’s about the group,” Moore said.
“We’re playing for the ultimate prize. Nothing to hold back for.”