Buffalo Grove native Bozek smiling all the way to Sochi
Nathan Newmark, a senior goalie on the Stevenson hockey team, recalls the time about 10 years ago when he was playing street hockey in the driveway of his Buffalo Grove home. His baby sitter was shooting pucks at him, and she snapped a stick with one of her powerful shots.
Brad Sorkin, meanwhile, was a two-year Stevenson baseball player who went on to pitch four seasons at Illinois State University, graduating last month. He played youth league baseball for the Buffalo Grove Recreation Association and always struggled retiring one of the girls he faced.
"She'd give me the hardest time," Sorkin said.
The girl who starred for years in and around Buffalo Grove is now taking her game -- hockey -- to the highest level. Megan Bozek, the former baby sitter for Newmark and a baseball foe and friend for Sorkin, was named to the U.S. Olympic Women's Hockey Team on Jan. 1.
"It's crazy to think that the girl who was playing hockey in my driveway, shooting on me, is now going to the Olympics," said Newmark, 17, in his second season on the Stevenson varsity. "When the women's team was announced during the Winter Classic, and she came out, I was speechless. I didn't know it was coming. It was crazy when I heard her name. She even taught me how to play shinny (hockey)."
Sorkin, 23, who lives in Buffalo Grove, said it is "such a cool thing to watch someone live out their dream," and added that Bozek "is such a great person, so down to earth."
Bozek, 22, graduated from Stevenson High School in 2009, then skated four seasons for the University of Minnesota, where the right-handed shooting defenseman scored 47 goals, including 10 game-winners, and chipped in 99 assists in 157 games.
She has skated in a red, white and blue jersey 35 times, dating back to an under-18 game in 2008. She had 1 goal, 1 assist in three games in 2013 for the U.S. Women's National Team. And on New Year's Day in front of 106,000 fans at Michigan Stadium for the Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, Bozek and her U.S. teammates were officially introduced as the club that will compete for gold next month at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
"I think it hit me (on New Year's Day), putting on that Olympic jersey for the first time, standing there with my teammates and getting announced to the public," Bozek said. "What an honor and such an awesome feeling, putting on a jersey to represent your country for an Olympic Games and potentially win a gold medal. It was incredible."
Frank Schmitt was Bozek's sixth-grade math teacher at St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove. He said Bozek "always had a smile on her face."
"I don't think I didn't have a smile on my face for even one second (on New Year's Day)," Bozek said.
Schmitt, now retired and living in Lake Zurich, added that Bozek was "well-liked by (fellow) students and teachers."
And certainly by her former teammates and coaches, too.
"It wasn't overly unexpected (that she'd make the Olympic team), but still a thrill to hear it officially," said Tony Cachey, of Orland Park, the director of women's hockey and coach of a U19 team for the Chicago Mission. He coached Bozek for five seasons, from eighth-grade through high school for the top-tiered Team Illinois.
"She jumped off the ice (as an exceptional player) at a very early age. You could tell early on that she was a special player."
Cachey said Bozek's competitiveness stands out. "She hates to lose and works really hard. She really is committed to winning." Plus, Cachey added: "She is a great kid off the ice, someone who never forgot where she started, where she came from. She's a better kid than a hockey player -- and obviously she's a really good hockey player."
In fact, Bozek said, "all of the nights that I wasn't able to hang out (with my friends), or do things with them because I had hockey, now I hope they understand why."
Bozek said her email inbox has been flooded since the official announcement, not to mention an outpouring of social media messages, plus text messages and phone calls -- from friends near and far. And she's had celebrity support, too.
Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs wished her well when the two spoke after the Winter Classic. Bozek said many often question whether they are brother-sister, despite the spelling difference. Stacey King, the former Chicago Bulls center who now is a basketball broadcaster, has offered his support publicly. So too, has Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings' sensation.
"This is really a lifetime achievement for her as she's been skating since (she was) 19 months old and really focused on hockey (since) around age 12," said Megan's dad, Tom Bozek. "I think about the highs along the way, and the couple (of) lows, and how blessed she is to be at this point in her career."
Megan's mom, Patti Bozek, added: "I am so proud of her. The end of the second period of the Winter Classic could not come soon enough (for the official announcement). There are no words to describe the excitement and pride I felt after hearing her name and seeing her wave her 'Go USA' gloves during the live announcement of the team. Her dedication and her determination has gotten her to this point."
The Bozek clan will join Megan in Sochi, as well as her older brothers: Stephen, 24, who lives in Buffalo Grove; and Dan, 27, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"All of us are thrilled and honored to represent our country and excited for the overall experience," said Tom, 53, a local amateur hockey referee. "We're glad to have the opportunity to bring the whole family, including her brothers."
The trip, though, is quite a costly adventure. For the four family members, it has already cost $16,000, which includes airfare, lodging, some meals, visas and insurance.
But certainly money well spent for lifetime memories. More memories, that is.
Tom said one of his favorite Megan moments on the ice came when she was 10 and chosen the MVP of the Toronto Marlies AAA Christmas Tournament. She was the only girl in the prestigious tourney.
Bozek's skating resume also includes winning a national championship at the U19 level, winning back-to-back national championships with the University of Minnesota and being the captain of the Gophers' undefeated team her senior season. Bozek also is a two-time first-team all-American.
All the more impressive since she started on ice, years ago, as a goalie.
She laughs at that fact today.
"I'm glad I didn't stick with goalie. I can't imagine how painful that is when you get hit with a shot where there's no padding/protection," said Bozek, a goalie for one season, as a mite in 1998 at age 6.
Bozek was a three-time Cammi Granato player of the year in Illinois girls high school hockey, but her co-op Glenbrook team didn't win a state championship during her junior year, losing to New Trier in the finals at the United Center.
Tom Wood, a former Stevenson hockey player who is now the Patriots' assistant coach, said he talked with his dad, Jim Wood, the team's head coach, about having Bozek play for the boys' team during her junior and/or senior seasons -- "because she would have been one of our best defensemen on the team," Wood said. "We would have taken her on the team in a heartbeat, and she would have been better than 70 percent of the other players, maybe more."
Tom Bozek said the family annually hung up the kids' skates from May until July, "to let the kids be kids," he said. "Megan was an outstanding athlete at everything. She was a left-handed pitcher, playing boys' baseball and had a 75 mph fastball, a nasty curveball, and she could hit with power."
And she often listened to the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync to get pumped while running from event to event, he said.
Bozek graduated last May and will coach in Minneapolis for a few months this spring, and then work at hockey camps over the summer in several states.
But her journey truly starts Feb. 1, when the Buffalo Grove native is bound for Russia.