For many people, when presented with two similar choices and one seems more challenging than the other, the decision is obvious – take the easy way. But T.J. Hensick has been picking the tough ones from an early age.
Hensick will arrive in Ann Arbor this fall as the top player in the Michigan hockey team’s recruiting class and one of the top prospects nationally. But if his dad had his choice, T.J. would have been playing for Lloyd Carr rather than Red Berenson.
Tim Hensick played two seasons at wide receiver for Western Michigan, and hoped his son would follow in his path to earning a collegiate football scholarship.
“He told me that he wanted me to play (football) once, and I played it when I was in seventh grade,” the younger Hensick said.
By that point, T.J. had already discovered that hockey would motivate him the way football had for his father. But coming from a household that wasn’t actively involved in the sport, he had to find his inspiration from the outside.
“No one in my family is real big into hockey,” Hensick said. “When I was about four, I was watching the Red Wings on T.V., and I said, ‘Hey Dad, I want to play.’
“It was a playoff game, so the intensity made it stand out more to me.”
As soon as the father took his son to the rink, he was hooked. But Hensick’s father wanted one last chance to try and win him over with football. T.J hadn’t dabbled with the pigskin long before he realized he had already found his calling. So, he had a decision to make: either follow his father’s advice and take a shot at gridiron glory, or venture off to his newfound love, hockey.
“(Football) was fun, but I didn’t have a passion for it like I do for hockey,” Hensick said. “He said that was fine.”
Like all good fathers, Tim has supported T.J. in his decision to play hockey, despite his own personal feelings.
“He told me to do what makes you happy,” Hensick said.
Ever since that fateful day, Hensick’s love of the sport has made a profound impact on his life, and he has balanced everything else around it. From his club team through high school and into the United States National Team Development Program, the sport has impacted all aspects of his life.
And as is usually the case, the balancing act forces young athletes to make choices that will determine their future – even if they don’t know it at the time. For those people who have been given the gift of exceptional talent, the pressure to play at increasingly tougher levels is high.
It didn’t take long for scouts from the U.S. Development team to take notice of Hensick, as he continued to steadily improve for the seven years he was on his club team.
When the U.S. Development team offered an invitation to a try-out, it was tough to turn down.
“When you get invited to go play for your country, it’s an automatic ‘yes,'” Hensick said.
The team scouts players from across the country, and offers about 40 of the top ones a chance to come to Ann Arbor for a try-out. From those select 40, the team is formed.
“I went to the try-out and didn’t expect much,” Hensick said. “I didn’t know where I stood against kids around the nation.”
It turns out he had little to worry about, and was offered a spot on the Under-17 team. Little did the coaches know the kid with low expectations would become the team’s biggest offensive force.
Hensick led the squad with 25 goals and 55 points. The coaches were so impressed they offered him a spot on the Under-18 team without a try-out. Again, they were not disappointed.
“I did pretty well in the program, so I’m happy for that,” Hensick said.
That’s an understatement. This past season, Hensick played in all 58 games for the program, scoring 30 goals and 61 points – nearly double the next highest point scorer on his team. The team plays against some of the top collegiate programs in the nation, making the feat even more impressive.
Michigan was one of the teams that Hensick faced last year, and his squad got a dose of reality as it was handled easily, losing 8-2.
“I only played about five minutes in that game,” a dejected Hensick said. “I hurt my wrist in one of my first shifts.”
Despite barely seeing Hensick play in the game, the Michigan coaching staff was still confident he was right for the program. The Wolverines are quite familiar with the Under-18 team as they face the talented youth team annually.
“We’ve had a lot of successful players from that program,” associate head coach Mel Pearson said.
For example, former Wolverine Andy Hilbert, also from Hensick’s hometown of Howell, Mich., was a member of the Under-18 program and now plays in the NHL for the Boston Bruins.
Hensick’s continued stellar play throughout the season led him to sign a letter of intent to play for Michigan this upcoming season. There was one small catch – he was a junior in high school. Dawning the Maize and Blue is a big jump for someone who has just received his driver’s license.
“When you’re 15 and sitting in Red Berenson’s office with your mom and dad as he offers you a full scholarship to one of the premier college hockey programs in the nation, it’s a little intimidating and a weird experience,” Hensick said. “I told them I wanted to look around, but I was only 15.”
At that point, Hensick was faced with another tough decision: enjoy his senior year in high school or play collegiate hockey. Following the trail blazed by his Under-17 teammate and current Wolverine Al Montoya, he decided to leave early.
“Sometimes I look back and ask, ‘Why am I graduating early from high school to play hockey at U-M? I’m missing my senior year of high school, which is supposed to be the best time of your life,'” Hensick said. “But to me, my passion is hockey, and I love to play. If I have to give up my social life to play, then I’ll do it.”
Sacrificing his social life was nothing new; the extensive and lengthy road trips forced Hensick to miss out on some of the staples of high school.
“Most of the guys on my team didn’t get to go to prom and football games on Friday nights; we’re on the road, traveling on a bus to who-knows-where to play the next game,” Hensick said with a chuckle. “You have to give something up to get something in return.”
After seeing the success of Montoya last season, Pearson is confident Hensick can handle the challenge of balancing school with hockey.
“A lot of times what you find are kids that are ready athletically, but not ready to handle it academically,” Pearson said. “Most of them can handle the athletic, so usually there are problems academically. But Hensick has a level of maturity to handle the extra academic load.”
For Hensick, the grind of road trips was easy to trade in for college hockey – the question was where he wanted to play. As a Howell native, Hensick knows all too well about the intense college rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State. Perhaps to the shock of some Wolverine faithful, East Lansing was his original choice.
“I was a Michigan State fan growing up,” Hensick said. “I wanted to go there when I was a kid.”
But to the delight of Michigan fans, he chose the Maize and Blue instead. He offers several reasons for his choice, mostly focusing on State’s emphasis on defense.
“Their style of hockey isn’t for me,” Hensick said. “I’m pretty much an offensive threat, and Michigan State likes to play defensive hockey. To me, that would corrupt my style of play and wouldn’t enhance my game. I wouldn’t develop as well if I went to Michigan State.”
In addition to helping his development as a player, Michigan also provides a great academic environment for him. He hopes to enter Michigan’s prestigious business school some day. He knows it will be tough to balance hockey and B-school classes, but as he demonstrated in high school, he’s up to the challenge.
“I had a 3.7 cumulative in high school,” Hensick says proudly. “In the last two years, I’ve been on the road probably more than I’ll be on the road this year.”
And when he’s not on the road, he’ll have the fortune of playing on the friendly side of the Yost Ice Arena crowd rather than opposing it. He knows how much of an edge it can be, having already played against the hostile crowd for the U.S. team.
“It’s hell to play against,” Hensick said. “It’s different than any other arena you’re going to go to in the nation. I played 24 college teams last year and six rated in the top 10. I’ve been in some binds that have been pretty loud and noisy, but nothing compared to Yost.”
Now that he doesn’t need to worry about upsetting the Yost faithful, Hensick looks to find his niche in the program. Although the team hasn’t had any real practices yet, the coaches are excited about the possibilities of adding a dynamic offensive threat.
“T.J. is the kind of player who makes those around him better,” Pearson said. “We’d like to put him in a role where he can do that. We see him as a powerplay guy and a points guy – scoring goals and assists.”
Head coach Red Berenson also feels that Hensick is a star in the making.
“We think we’ve got a great young prospect in T.J. Hensick, who’s one of those players who could be special,” Berenson said earlier this season. “He’s very skilled and very creative.”
A vigorous work ethic has been the benchmark of Hensick’s hockey career, and has produced strong results so far. And while it may not work out for most people, taking the harder path has been his road to success.