In MiHockey’s new MiStory feature, we let hockey people tell their own stories with their own words. Andrew Dzierwa shares his story of a balancing act between being a full-time student and a full-time junior hockey player in the USPHL with his hometown Traverse City Hounds.
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By Andrew Dzierwa –
I took an unconventional route through junior hockey.
I went to school and played junior hockey. Full-time.
“Why would you want to go to school full-time?”
“Take a few years off, enjoy yourself. That’s what juniors is all about.”
These were just a few of the recommendations that were thrown my way after consulting with players and coaches that I knew were familiar with the process. Sharpen your hockey skills first, worry about school later. This was the motto that became all too clear.
Maybe they were right – I needed to enjoy the journey, not stress out about it.
So after graduating high school and finishing a four-year stint with my high school team, I had set out to find a junior hockey program that would give me the best opportunity with hockey. In my quest, there were teams that had offered me a spot on the final roster, and there were teams that wanted nothing to do with me as a player at all.
All of my options at the time would have required me to pack up and move at least seven hours away from home – except for one option – my hometown team, the Traverse City Hounds.
Junior hockey in my hometown didn’t sound too bad at all.
My final decision was made when I decided that I wanted to pursue school as badly as I wanted to pursue hockey. The two were a package, hand-in-hand.
I wasn’t worried about foregoing eligibility for my college career. I wasn’t even worried about the massive amount of time that I needed to set aside each week to attend class, hockey practice, and still have time to complete hours’ worth of homework. Simply put, I wanted my education to carry me through an extended hockey career.
The next week, I had enrolled myself in four college courses at my local community college and had committed to the Hounds within a few days’ time.
This game has provided me with my most precious memories. I’ve had the opportunity to meet life-long friends, and learn lessons that no classroom could teach me. I think that, within those very words, was the driving force behind my decision to choose school and hockey. On any given day, I had the opportunity to go from one classroom to another classroom – from the college to the rink.
There wasn’t a week that went by where I hadn’t been swamped with school work. I can’t say how many times I had to turn down hanging out with teammates because I had a big assignment due the next morning. The hardest part was the weekends on the road. Our road weekends were often three-game trips, and I forced myself to complete the majority of my school work before we left. This was the easiest way for me to separate my thoughts and just focus on hockey when the game required my attention.
The feeling of winning a hockey game only to head home to study chemistry was second-to-none. I can’t imagine a more extreme paradox.
I had started to realize that, in just a few short months, I was learning so much. I wasn’t just learning through my textbooks or professors; I was learning about myself. Each day, I was learning about what really mattered to me. I was doing what made me happiest.
After my first full year of junior hockey was complete, and I wrapped up the spring semester of my freshman year, I reflected on the previous eight months and said to myself:
“Wow, that was incredible.”
“Look at how much I accomplished. I might want to do that again”.
I was so happy with my first year, so happy with how far I had come, that I decided to go back for my second. I spent a second year playing junior hockey, and I spent a second year at my local college.
There was a weekend from this past season, where we had made a trip from Michigan to Boston, Mass. for a three-day showcase. Coincidentally, my second semester was starting the following Monday. We played our last game on Sunday in the early afternoon. Immediately after the game, we hopped on the bus and made our 18-hour trip home. We had hit a snow storm sometime during the middle of the night, and our trip was slowed dramatically. Twenty-one hours later, we had arrived home. Exhausted from sleeping in awkward bus positions, I was looking forward to getting some rest in my own bed. As we pulled into the rink, I checked my phone – it was 11 a.m. and I was an hour late for my first class of the semester. So much for starting off on the right foot, huh?
I rebounded well enough from that trip, however. Everything about these two years was about education – an education about school, hockey, and myself.
I had a number of teammates along the way that had given me the utmost support with both school and hockey. They admired my determination, and it often rubbed off on them. They saw what it took to be a student-athlete at a level that generally isn’t normal. I thrived off this support more than anything.
Adversity has a way of exploiting the greatest amount of emotion out of people, whether good or bad. There were nights where I was dog-tired, struggling to finished an English paper at 3 a.m. only to wake up the next morning and head out on a three-day road trip. The combination of school and junior hockey had gotten the most out of me, good and bad. I learned more about myself than I ever thought I could have.
If I have any advice for my younger self, I’d offer the recommendation of embracing the adverse situations. Academics and junior hockey were a tough balance. I found myself enjoying the game of hockey even more, specifically because of the opportunities the game provided me off the ice.
Looking forward, I don’t think there will be a shortage of adversity in my academic or hockey-related futures. With the opportunity to transfer to the majority of universities in Michigan, I’ve had trouble deciding on a particular school for next fall. I look forward to pursuing a degree in business administration. Similar to my academic pursuits, I’m anxiously anticipating the next adventure in my hockey career. After all, I have a history of quality hockey experiences, especially when the sport wasn’t my main priority in the decision process.
I’m sure that I will experience other endeavors throughout my life that might feel similar to being a full-time student and junior hockey player, but this experience was special. I was able to play a game I loved, at a highly competitive level, and attend college.
When I see someone familiar that doesn’t know my story, whether they’re a former teacher, classmate, or friend, they usually ask:
“What’ve you been up to for the past few years?”
I’m always happy to say the same thing:
“I’ve just been going to school and playing junior hockey.”