Chase Polacek embarks on his last collegiate campaign at Rensselaer off a decorated season where he earned a host of personal accolades, one of them being named a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
The only thing he plans on pursuing this year, though, is a title.
“It was a good season, and it was an honor to receive those awards,” he said before the season. “I’d give them all up to keep playing and continue in pursuit of a national championship.”
Polacek (pronounced po-LAH-chick) recorded new career highs last year with 26 goals and 26 assists for a league-leading 52 points in ECAC Hockey, after posting a total of 60 points over his first two seasons. He also earned both All-ECAC and All-America honors, and was tabbed as RPI’s male athlete of the year as the Engineers finished 18-17-4 overall for their first winning season since 2003-04.
Half of Polacek’s goals last season came on the power play, where he liked to lurk in the left circle and then let go with a one-timer before goaltenders could get across to stop him. He scored in such fashion in a 4-1 win at Princeton last January in a nationally-televised contest.
“I definitely feel comfortable in that spot,” said Polacek, who added that also likes to sneak in on the back side and find an opening. “It’s something I’ve worked on over the years, and I’m comfortable in that position and taking those shots.”
“I think he started to evolve on the power play last year,” Rensselaer coach Seth Appert said. “His first two years, the work he did five-on-five and on the penalty kill separated him from so many others who put up points.”
The ECAC Hockey player of the year in 2009-10, Polacek will attempt to at least duplicate his accomplishments of last season without talented sophomores Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri. Both decided to forgo their final three years at RPI by signing NHL contracts in the offseason — D’Amigo with Toronto and Pirri with Chicago.
“I’m happy for them that they’ve moved on in their professional careers,” Polacek said, “but I’m excited with what we have in the locker room, and we’ll continue to get better with the guys we have.”
A 5-foot-8, 175-pound native of Edina, Minn., Polacek put up 17 goals and 35 points in 22 ECAC contests last year. He was then held to just two points in three games as the Engineers were upset by Brown in their opening ECAC playoff series.
“We didn’t expect to lose in the first round,” Polacek said. “It still stings, but we’ll use it as motivation to get better.”
Despite growing up in hockey-mad Minnesota, where he starred at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield and earned all-conference and team MVP honors, Polacek decided to pursue his college degree out east.
“I came out on a visit, saw the campus, and loved the passion the coaches had for RPI and hockey,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of that, and help get RPI get back to where it was.”
He still scored his first career collegiate goal back home, in a 4-3 loss to Minnesota in the first round of the 2007 IceBreaker at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The arena is less than 20 miles from where he was raised.
“It was awesome, going into that building where I used to watch the Gophers and the Wild play,” Polacek said. “There was no better place to score my first goal, and it was unbelievable to do it in front of my family and friends against the team I grew up watching.”
Polacek started slowly last fall, with four points in his first six outings. He got going just before Halloween hit, and fashioned a 14-game scoring streak that lasted two months and produced 12 goals and 24 points.
He finished that string in fine fashion, as he tallied two goals in RPI’s 4-3 triumph over Michigan in the first round of the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit on Dec. 29. It was one of 15 multiple-point outings Polacek posted last season, including a hat trick at Dartmouth on Feb. 13 where he notched all three of RPI’s goals.
“His willingness to get to the dirty areas to produce offense is the biggest difference,” Appert said. “His competition level and willingness to pay the price has risen every year.”
Polacek also gave credit to his coach for his improvement.
“By my third year, the team had bought into Coach Appert’s system,” Polacek said. “The team was on the same page last year, and it helped a lot.”
A business management major who will serve as an alternate team captain this year, Polacek is also a two-time ECAC Hockey All-Academic selection.
“My parents have been a great influence,” he said. “They’ve stressed the importance of academics, and RPI is a great academic environment. It’s part of why I went there.”
“He comes from a great family, has a great work ethic, and is an honor roll student,” Appert said. “He’s everything you want in a college hockey player and a person.”
When the 2010-11 campaign concludes, the undrafted Polacek will be looking to parlay his college accomplishments into a shot at the pros.
“I want to continue to play as long as I can, and continue my aspirations of playing in the NHL,” he said. “After that, I would definitely like to get back into business, and hopefully some financial career.”
With all the early pro signings that took place in the college ranks this summer, Appert is pleased that one of his top players will be back for a fourth and final season in Troy, N.Y.
“He had a lot of interest from the pros, but he loves college,” he said of Polacek. “He can’t wait to compete for a championship, and we’re thrilled to have him back and are excited for his senior year.”