Cincinnati Mighty Ducks rookie Brian Gornick is splitting his time between the American Hockey League and the U.S. Air Force.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Most hockey players who are chosen in the last round of the annual NHL Entry Draft are considered long shots to play in the National Hockey League.
A few, however, are worth a second look.
Brian Gornick knows the odds are stacked against him. But anyone who knows Gornick, the ninth-round pick (258th overall) of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1999, would never count him out.
A classic overachiever, Gornick is balancing a 40-hour-a-week job as an acquisitions officer for the U.S. Air Force with playing in the second-best hockey league in the world.
If anyone can do it, Brian Gornick can.
“It obviously means some really long days right now, but I think it’s worth it,” Gornick says. “It’s been a dream of mine to play in the NHL ever since I was a little kid, and I’m not ready to give up that dream yet.” Gornick, who graduated first in his class from the Air Force Academy last May with a 3.92 grade point average and a degree in operations research, is serving his active duty at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
He makes the one-hour commute from Dayton to Cincinnati for practices and games with the Mighty Ducks’ top minor league affiliate. He uses his leave time in order to accompany the team on road trips.
“I end up working a lot of weekends and holidays,” Gornick says. “It’s not always easy, but I learned to juggle more than one thing while I was attending the Air Force Academy.” Gornick played both hockey and baseball at the academy, where he was also one of four group commanders in charge of some 1,000 cadets. In his position, he was one of the highest ranking cadets at the academy.
It’s precisely those leadership qualities, along with better-than-average hockey skills and size (6-foot-5, 212 pounds), that have tabbed him as a prospect to watch.
Anaheim general manager Bryan Murray agrees.
“He looks like a worthwhile project,” Murray says. “He’s obviously a character person, and very disciplined. He looks like he can get up and down the ice fine. He’s got pretty good hands. He’s a big guy with vision. You have to like people like that.” The St. Paul, Minnesota native is the oldest son of Charles and Nancy Gornick, a cardiologist and a registered nurse, who impressed upon him the importance of a solid education.
“They knew sports were important to me, but they wanted to make sure that my education came first,” he says. “I guess I got pretty good grades. My mom says she never had to bother me about getting my homework done.” Gornick was a three-sport star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, where he played football, hockey and baseball.
“I’ve always worked really hard at everything I’ve ever done,” says Gornick, who is, not surprisingly, a bit of a perfectionist. “You may not be the smartest guy or most talented person in the world, but if you work the hardest, I think you can achieve in whatever you do.” Gornick’s athletic prowess in high school was not confined to hockey. A power-hitting outfielder on the baseball team, Gornick demonstrated the extent of his power during his junior year at Cretin-Derham.
He hit a ball over the left field fence at Cretin-Derham that sailed across the street and over a house and garage on the far side. In 25 years, only three other players accomplished the feat , one of whom was Paul Molitor, who starred with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays.
Gornick also was a starting cornerback on the Cretin-Derham football team during his junior and senior seasons. “My mom didn’t want me to play because she was afraid I might get hurt, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “It was a great experience.” When it came to decide on whether to play junior hockey or attend college, Gornick didn’t have to think too long.
“I don’t want to say that I would have felt like I was wasting a year of my life if I played juniors, but I wanted to get on with things and get my education taken care of,” he says.
He considered attending school out east, but he was heavily recruited by the Air Force Academy, which allowed him to continue to play both hockey and baseball.
His hockey coach at the Air Force Academy was Frank Serratore, who had coached the Minnesota Moose during the team’s first two seasons in the IHL.
“He taught me a lot about hockey and a lot about myself,” Gornick says.
Gornick knew there was a price to pay for attending the academy. Cadets face five years of active duty following graduation.
“You don’t incur the commitment until you walk into class the first day of your junior year, so I figured that if I didn’t like it, I could always leave,” he says. “I knew I’d have to serve my time, but it’s the risk I took when I decided to stay.” Gornick was just the second service academy player ever drafted.
Colorado took winger Dan Hinote, from West Point, in the ninth round in 1996. But Hinote left the academy after his freshman year to pursue a hockey career.
Go rnick stuck around and finished with 45 goals and 103 points in four seasons.
He earned his degree in operations research, a major that is offered at the service academies and a few elite schools. “It’s computer science, mathematics, management and economics all boiled into one degree,” he says.
His hockey development was slowed slightly when he broke his hand twice during his senior season. “I missed most of the year,” says Gornick, who was
limited to 11 points (6-5-11) in 21 games for the Air Force last season.
Gornick was expecting to play for the Dayton Bombers in the East Coast Hockey League this season, but he fared well enough in camp that the Mighty Ducks assigned him to Cincinnati so he could play at the AHL level.
“It’s been a little tougher for me because I had to leave training camp early,” he says. “I could only stay for a week because I didn’t have enough leave, whereas the other guys had another month to get ready while I was working.” Continuing his hockey career requires military-like precision. “I’m usually at work from 6 to 8 in the morning, go to practice, then come back to work at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon and stay until 8 or 9 at night,” he says.
“But I probably get more sleep now than when I was at the academy, when I stayed up late to do a project or get through some assignment. Now I come home, make dinner, watch TV for about an hour, and then hit the sack.” There are sacrifices. “I’m a guy who likes to stay after practice, working on breakouts, my shot and stuff like that, and I haven’t been able to do that as much as I’d like, just because I’ve got to get back to work,” he says.
As a result, the Mighty Ducks understand that his development may take a little bit longer.
“Coming into this season, they weren’t expecting much because it wasn’t like I was a huge investment. I think they’re excited that I’ve played this much at this level,” says Gornick, who had already appeared in 33 games before the AHL all-star break.
“They know it’s going to take a couple of years for me to develop into a better player. Hopefully I’ll develop and be able to move on and play in the NHL someday.” The Ducks, who have been impressed with Gornick’s dedication and discipline, are keeping a close eye on his development.
“From Anaheim’s perspective, they think my learning curve is going to be real steep because I haven’t played a lot of games the last couple of years and I’ve still got a lot of growing to do.” His agent had him spend two weeks this past summer in Vancouver, British
Columbia, where he worked with a personal trainer alongside the Canucks’ Brendan Morrison and Darren Haydar of the Milwaukee Admirals.
“He put me on diet, weight and running programs to help me build muscle and speed,” Gornick says. “At my size, I’d like to put on at least 10 more pounds of muscle.” Gornick is taking inspiration from Haydar, a smaller player who was taken 10 places ahead of him in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Also a rookie, Haydar has already seen action in the NHL this season with the Nashville Predators.
If nothing else, Gornick is learning to excel at time management.
Currently, he’s working as a program manager in the home office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where as an acquisitions officer he helps track all of the various contracts. “As a second lieutenant, you also get to do the other jobs that nobody else wants to do, like stocking the snack bar and lots of paperwork.” After two years in the service, Gornick is hoping to take advantage of the Air Force’s Palace Chase program, which allows athletes to serve the remaining portion of their commitment in the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard.
He says he isn’t thinking about making a career out of the Air Force, but he won’t rule it out either.
“I don’t plan on being a career Air Force officer, but I’m sure if you ask a lot of guys who have been here a long time they probably said the same thing. If hockey doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,” he says.
“But I’m going to give it my best shot.”