Sep. 23—ROCHESTER — Luke Sawicky swung and missed on a high-quality scoring opportunity during one of his first games with the Rochester Grizzlies.
He and fellow North American 3 Hockey League rookie forward Erik Hernborn work daily on batting pucks out of the air while close to the goal. So when Sawicky missed one of those chances during a game at St. Louis two weeks ago, Hernborn let him hear about it.
"Erik and I work on that drill all the time," Sawicky said, "so when I missed that one in St. Louis he was like 'c'mon man, we practice that!'"
Sawicky made sure he didn't miss his next opportunity. And it couldn't have come at a better time for his new team.
With the Grizzlies on a power play with less than four minutes to go in the third period of a 2-2 game, Sawicky stationed himself near the goalpost to the right of Wausau goalie Ryan Burke. Grizzlies defenseman Grant Dardis walked the puck through the bottom of the left circle, then threaded a pass to Sawicky. He knocked it down with his body and in one motion batted the puck into an open side of the goal. It turned out to be the game-winning goal and Sawicky's team-leading fifth of the season.
"I didn't even realize what had happened until it was done," said Sawicky, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Wednesday. "It happened so fast. ... It was more of a reaction thing. Just doing that drill (with Hernborn) really helps. It was pretty fun to get that one."
Sawicky has been a fantastic addition to a Grizzlies team that has just four forward back from last year's national championship team. He leads the unbeaten Grizzlies (4-0-0) in goals (five), power-play goals (two) and points (eight) through four games.
But Sawicky's clock is ticking down with every practice and game that passes.
Still a senior at Osseo High School, the skilled 5-feet-11, 180-pound right-shot forward is expected to only be with Rochester until mid-November. When high school hockey practice start — boys teams across the state can hit the ice Nov. 14 — Sawicky will be back in Osseo, serving as the Orioles' captain after leading the team with 18 goals and 30 points last season.
"He's getting the development he needs to play junior hockey while he's here," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "The question is what he does with it when he goes back to high school. If he uses the experience here and what he's learned to push the pace his practices, he has the potential to help elevate his teammates and his team.
"The challenge for him will be continuing to use what he's learned in a different environment."
Sawicky — who was named the Central Division's Second Star of the Week after a three-goal, six-point weekend in two wins against Wausau — is soaking in everything in Rochester, both on and off the ice. And he's keeping a close eye on how the Grizzlies captains run the team on the ice and in the locker room.
"I'm getting better every practice, trying as hard as I can, getting my conditioning up," he said. "And my (high school) coaches wanted me to work on the leadership part of things. It's a big plus having a captain like Per Waage here. He's an amazing captain and leader, one of the best I've been around. I'm definitely learning from him and will take some of those things back to (Osseo)."
Sawicky's biggest adjustment so far hasn't been to the pace of the game — he and fellow rookie forward Spencer Klotz have been perhaps the Grizzlies' two best newcomers who play at the necessary speed. Sawicky's biggest adjustment is learning new systems and playing with the physicality that is required in the NA3HL.
"We really like his energy," Ratzloff said. "He's just going all the time. He plays hard all the time, the way you have to in order to be able to play in the North American league.
"His pace has always been there. His biggest thing is learning the (junior hockey) game, playing that style, where you're finishing checks all over the ice. Then it's just refining his skills. Here you have to make plays and decisions a lot quicker than in high school.
"He has adjusted really well, though."
Sawicky stood out at the Austin Bruins' main tryout camp over the summer, then he was even more noticeable — for the right reasons — at the Grizzlies' camp in mid-August. Ratzloff and assistant coach Tyler Veen made a strong push for Sawicky to join the Grizzlies for the entire 2022-23 season, but the lure of one last high school season was ultimately too much for Sawicky to resist.
He'll return to Osseo in mid-November, with the possibility of re-joining the Grizzlies, if a roster spot is available, after the Orioles' season ends.
"It's crazy, a one-of-a-kind thing," Sawicky said of playing high school hockey in Minnesota. "It's a very special opportunity."