Roman Augustoviz

Hockey star Chase Polacek plays big despite his early critics

by Roman Augustoviz February 14, 2011 in Hockey


Throughout his youth hockey career and into high school, Chase Polacek kept hearing that he was too small, that he would never succeed at the next level of hockey.

He never made an A team in any age group his first year of eligibility. He always had to wait a year. Even in his one season immediately before high school, Polacek was placed on a B team.

Polacek’s last rebuff came before his senior season at the Academy of Holy Angels, a Catholic prep power in Richfield, Minn.  After tryouts for Minnesota’s Select 17 team, he received a rejection notice.

“He crumpled it up, threw it away and didn’t pay any attention,” said Peggy Polacek, his mother. “He has silenced the voices that were telling him no.”

Indeed, he has.

Polacek is one of the nation’s top scorers as a senior center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Heading into mid-February, Polacek had 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points for the Engineers in 28 games. Only two Division I players had more points and his eight game-winning goals were two more than anybody else.

Polacek is still short at 5-foot-8, but now is a muscular 190 pounds. Greg Trebil, his high school coach, said bumping into Polacek is like running into a piano.

Being underestimated upset Polacek and motivated him at the same time to work harder.

“I wanted to prove people wrong,” Polacek said. “But the older I’ve gotten, I have realized there are opportunities. The game of hockey is changing. It’s more about skill and fast pace, which plays to my strengths.”

Seth Appert, then the first-year coach at RPI, noticed Polacek as a high school senior while recruiting a Holy Angels teammate of his, defenseman Bryan Brutlag.

“As we were watching Bryan, we were drawn to Chase,” Appert said. “We wanted a fast, attacking, offensive-minded team.”

Polacek had offers from Yale and Princeton and later from Notre Dame. All those colleges wanted him to play at least one season in the U.S. Hockey League.

He visited RPI the day after Holy Angels was eliminated from the postseason playoffs.

“I fell in love with [the college] right away,” Polacek said. “I was so comfortable with the coaches. I knew a lot about the tradition and wanted to be part of bringing it back.”

The Engineers were national champions in 1954 and 1985; their last NCAA appearance, though, was in 1994.

In Polacek’s and Brutlag’s first three seasons there, RPI won 11, 10 and 18 games. This season held the most promise until the Engineers’ second- and third-leading scorers behind Polacek a year ago signed pro contracts and left. Both would have been sophomores.

Fortunately for RPI, Polacek stayed. With six regular-season games left, the Engineers were 18-6-4 after one February weekened and ranked No. 8 in both major national polls.

“[Chase] could always put points up,” Appert said, “but most of his points as a freshman and sophomore were on the power play or the perimeter. Now he is a harder player to play against. He gets in the dirty, tougher areas. That’s where you usually get the big goals. He worked hard to build his body. He is in great shape.”

Last season was Polacek’s breakout year. He scored 26 goals and had 52 points. He was named the East Coast Athletic Conference’s player of the year and one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

Off the ice, Polacek is extraordinary, too. He has a 3.45 grade point average in business management and volunteers for several worthy causes. He looks forward most to coaching kids in the Troy-Albany Youth Hockey Association on Wednesdays.

“When I was growing up, older players helped me,” Polacek said. “I appreciated it. I love working with younger kids, coaching and being on the ice with them.”

His other passion, of course, remains RPI. He also had offseason offers to turn pro that he turned down.

“I came to RPI to help do something special,” Polacek said.

Appert said the Engineers are capable of a deep playoff run with their strong group of seniors, a quality goalie and an elite, game-changing forward in Polacek.

“The best thing about Chase,” Appert said, “is he has evolved from being a skilled performer into being a winner. That’s a big transformation.”

Especially for a player considered too small most of his life.