During fall tryouts, when Gloucester Catholic’s deep and talented ice hockey program was still sorting things out, seeing who would make up the varsity roster and who would play on which lines, Guy Gaudreau polled every player on an important item on the preseason agenda.
Who should wear the “C” as the team’s captain?
Gaudreau had the final say. But the coach clearly respected the opinions of his players.
When all 28 votes came in, Gaudreau no longer had much of a decision to make. The name was the same on all 28 ballots: junior defenseman Jake Grace.
“I think that’s the only time that’s ever happened, an unanimous selection,” said Gaudreau, who returned to coach the Rams this season when Tom Bunting had a conflict as many of the players’ club hockey coach.
“He’s who I would have picked anyway,” Gaudreau continued. “You can coach for 30 years, and you might get three players like Jake … He’s really a phenomenal young man: respectful, wants to win. It’s all about the team. He’s a really good role model for the young kids that we have. With him, everybody looks up to him and they respect him and he respects them back.”
Grace, the team’s steady presence at the rink, their veteran leader in a locker room dominated by freshmen and sophomores (they outnumber the seniors, 15-5), the consistent presence along the back line with a keen vision of the ice and a versatile skater who contributes on both ends, guided a youthful Gloucester Catholic team to a memorable 2019-20 season, earning South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Ice Hockey Player of the Year honors.
“It means a lot,” said Grace, a Gloucester Township native. “I’ve been working at this for a while, so it feels good.”
While some kids begin playing hockey as soon as they can walk, Grace said he started around age 9. He joined the Hollydell Hurricanes.
“I was the only first-year kid on the team; everyone else had already been playing,” he said. “So I was the worst kid on the team. But then by the end of the year, I was one of the top guys.”
Grace became such a quick study at the sport that he already stood out to Gaudreau when he entered the program as a freshman. In the two-plus years since, Grace has developed into one of the top defenders in the state.
Growing physically helped. Grace, who now stands 6-1, figured he’s gained about 4 or 5 inches since arriving at Gloucester Catholic.
“When I was a freshman I was small and I was also smaller than everyone, too,” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t good for me to be out there. I’m not going to lie. I found my way around the ice.”
What Grace lacked in height he made up in hockey acumen. He was clearly a smart player with advanced skills and — as he completes his third varsity season — Grace has grown into a leader, too.
Although Gloucester Catholic began the season tabbed as one of the state’s top five teams and is ending the year living up to those preseason rankings, there was a rough patch about midway through the season when the team’s will was tested. Beginning with a 3-3 tie to Holy Ghost Prep in mid-January, a game when the Rams blew a three-goal lead, Gloucester Catholic went through a six-game stretch that saw the team lose three games and tie two others.
There were team meetings. Grace, according to Gaudreau, was the reassuring voice in the room.
“He’s hard on himself and he takes on a lot of responsibilities,” Gaudreau said. “But he was the one who said, ‘We’ll be fine. Just take care of what we can take care of and the offense will come.’”
With a Rams team teeming with young defensemen, Grace is the same way on the bench.
“Jake is able to settle them down after they have a bad shift,” Gaudreau said. “Without Jake, there’s no way we’d be where we are. As young players they need a role model, someone they can count on to be there all the time, to settle them down. There’s a bad play, the other team scores and you come back (to the bench) and he’s like, ‘There’s a lot of hockey left. Relax. Don’t worry about it.’
“As a coach, you really enjoy coaching those types of kids. It makes it fun because you know how much they love the game and how much they love their teammates.”
During his three high school seasons, Grace found smaller ways to improve his overall game. He continues to strive to get better each time he hits the ice. No one is ever a finished product, not even those bound for Division-I scholarships or future pro hockey careers.
It’s a mentality that’s helped Grace develop into one of the state’s top players and one who’s rubbing off on all the talented 14- to 15-year-olds on Gloucester Catholic’s young team, too. With nearly the entire roster returning next season, Grace has high expectations for his senior year.
“It’s going to be great; we’re all going to be more developed, bigger, faster, stronger and just dominant on the ice,” he said. “(I’m) really looking forward to it.”