On a pre-dawn flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Jeff Olshesky was glued to his computer screen. Headed on a business trip, Olshesky watched the JP Graziano hockey team on LiveBarn skating in its championship game at Johnny’s Icehouse.
For the man who has managed the team since 2016, and waited many years to finally play in a Beer League title game, it was a bittersweet moment. But when his boys finally lit the lamp to take a 1-0 lead, Olshesky exploded with a fist pump.
“F— yeah!” he yelled on a flight filled with passengers fast asleep at three in the morning. JP Graziano would win the B League title game 5-2, capping off its first championship in team history. This wasn’t just any game though for the team. This story is one where a collection of men, from guys out of college to those who now have families of their own after a decade of playing, came together as a community with a local business owner.
Olshesky has run the team since 2016 after playing for the previous seven seasons.
It never resulted in a championship. But that changed this season.
The story starts when Olshesky approached Jim Graziano about sponsoring the team.
JP Graziano and 86 Years In the City
Graziano, owner of JP Graziano, is a hockey lifer and fan who welcomed the opportunity to support a local team.
The sandwich and shipping shop located off Randolph in the Loop has been there for 86 years and Olshesky is a regular–and has been for years. With a big time following and also the ability to sponsor NASCAR drivers making a brief appearance in Chicago, Graziano hasn’t forgotten how the shop started and what drives its successes.
JPG celebrates 86 years on Randolph Street today! To show our appreciation for your love and support we are offering 86 Taste Real Chicago gift boxes at $20. Nationwide shipping and in store pickup available.
Use code 86 at checkout only at https://t.co/4s1esmXchy
— Jim Graziano (@JPGraziano) June 7, 2023
Beginning as a wholesaler with top quality products and great service, JP Graziano was built by first generation immigrants in 1937. 70 years later, Graziano embarked on a new challenge.
“After starting the sub shop there in 2006, and eventually phasing out the wholesale business altogether, the principles remain the same,” Graziano said. “Carry the best stuff and go out of your way to take care of your customers. Develop real relationships with them, as my Dad pounded into my head since I was a old enough to listen: ‘If people don’t walk through that door, we don’t put shoes on our feet.'”
So it’s no surprise that Graziano can rattle off Olshesky’s order.
“Artichoke sandwich-add porchetta,” he said, doubling down on what makes Graizano a staple in the Loop. He knows his customers, no matter the volume.
“He supports us, he chooses to come to us for a sandwich over thousands of options in the City,” Graziano said.
He didn’t hesitate to sponsor the team when Olshesky, along with his order, asked about sponsorship. A one-time hockey player himself, Graziano started skating when he was three years old. He described hockey as hands down his favorite sport, and when it came to helping out someone else who wanted to promote his team, he was all for it.
Olshesky couldn’t believe how quickly Graziano agreed to it.
“I’d been turned down by a couple other neighborhood places,” Olshesky said, who is a West Loop resident. “What was really fun was he took an active part in designing the jersey and then the result of that, is that after posting it on his Instragram, people wanted to buy it retail.”
“I understand the camaraderie of the sport and how players take care of each other,” Graziano explained. “How you realize you need everyone in the locker room on the same page fighting for the same goals. Those principles apply to the sport as they do to business–and as they do in life.”
Along with helping to design the jersey and knowing that they would be playing out of Johnny’s Ice House, which Graziano called “iconic,” he said the decision was one of simplest he’s had to make.
“These guys love the shop and appreciate what we do, ” Graziano said. “They tell their family and friends, they order catering for their businesses. They take care of us, and we take care of them.”
After sponsorship, jerseys being made and sewn, and the schedule set, so began the season.
Path to the Cup
The team in its current form still has four or five guys who have played together for over ten years. But half of the team has been together for over six years, which coincides with when Olshesky took over.
“Beer league hockey is like ‘Any Given Sunday,'” Olshesky said. “Everybody’s got lives. So this one week you may have this great roster but on a bad weekend, where on a Saturday half your team is at a wedding, then you might lose to a team where you should beat them. But we were constantly in the top third of the league. So when it came to the playoffs, we all said ‘hey, let’s make a go of this.”
JP Graziano finished third out of ten teams, setting them up nicely in the bracket. In a stroke of fortune, the top seed was bounced in the first game of the playoffs. Suddenly, there was a clearer path to the title game. Their 3-2 win in the playoff opener set the stage for a tougher contest.
“Our goalie stood on his head,” forward Tyler May said. “We won by the skin of our teeth. It should have been 100 to 3 but he stood on his head.”
Forward Matt Crook was cited by many of the JP Graziano players as one of the main reasons they experienced playoff success. Crook laughed it off, but did have a big goal in the semi-final game against a tough opponent composed of DePaul University hockey players.
Describing their team as the older guys compared to the young college kids, it was a scoreless tie when Crook finally buried one.
“It was zero-zero, unheard of in a men’s league,” Crook recalled. “It was late in the third, three minutes left and off a draw. There was a tie up, puck got loose. I found it in the slot and was able to sneak it through. I think the funniest part about that was that as soon as we got to the locker room [after the win] one of my buddies let me know he was wide open back door.”
“A weight went off our shoulders when he scored that goal,” May said. “A guy who’s been on our team for a very long time Alejandro Montenegro then scores an empty netter. Getting past the semis we kinda knew we were going to win.”
Adding to the intrigue for May and Crook: the team they were set up to play in the championship game at Johnny’s was composed of players they’d lost the state title game to while at Fenwick.
“I respect the hell out of them,” May said. “But when we knew we were going to play them, we had some unfinished business. But we knew it wasn’t going to be a lay up, either.”
JP Graziano Wins It All
The title game tested their mettle, as Olshesky could attest watching thousands of miles away in the air. Forward Patrick Gardner said it was probably the only game he’s ever had butterflies with before he took the ice. He’d also score a big goal so the nerves were put to good use.
“I’ve played a thousand of these games and this was the only one I was nervous before and during,” Gardner said. “I felt pretty good about it after I scored and it gave us a two-goal lead. There was a lot of emotion on the bench.”
On goals by Crook, Montenegro, and Gardner, JP Graziano was up 3-0. Netminder Josh Lavigne felt he was in for smooth sailing with a three-goal lead.
“To be honest it’s pretty easy from there,” Lavigne said. “They do a good job doing what they should. We felt pretty confident going in and we’re a pretty skilled team as long as we’re responsible.”
The final was 5-2 and indeed, JP Graziano were champions. Their win meant a trip around the ice with the Labatt Blue Cup, a replica of the Stanley Cup.
The Cup is simply an old beer keg. Instead of trophies which they found would be tossed, Johnny’s Ice House manager Pete Johnson got the idea of creating a Cup for the victor of seven of their nine men’s leagues. In a collaborative effort, the Labatt distributor provided the kegs while Stephen Christena of Arc Academy/Midwest Metalworks turned each beer keg into a trophy. Finally, Allegra Marketing’s Tom Auge, a customer of Johnny’s, produced the Labatt decals to be placed on each Cup.
Johnson also has a $1000 release in case the winning team, who has rights to the Cup during the offseason, accidentally send it to the bottom of Lake Michigan due to some excessive partying. Call it the Mario Lemieux swimming pool clause.
For sure, it’s a transformed keg. But don’t tell Gardner that as he skated around the ice following the victory.
“I definitely felt something with it,” he admitted.
To some it may be ridiculous, but to a group who’s been together for so long, it’s everything. Perhaps forward Joe Schiavone, who dragged the Cup around with him all night at the team celebration, summed it up best as to why he wouldn’t let it go.
“Because it’s the fu-king Labatt Blue Cup,” he said with a laugh.
The JP Graziano Celebration
So there they all were to celebrate the local collaboration that led to a championship. The place was Haymarket’s Pub and Brewery on Randolph and the Labatt Cup was there, along with a lot of laughs, beer, and recalling of their path to the title.
Graziano reserved the spot and wanted a proper celebration for the team’s accomplishments. Nearly everyone showed, with wives, girlfriends, and family proud of a season that ended with the Labatt Blue Cup.
But camaraderie and pride poured out of every member of the team, like the beer they emptied into the Cup. The bond they have for one another, all the way to Graziano for all that he sponsored and supported was as genuine as it could be.
“The reason this team is so good is because he [Olshesky] constructed it,” May said. “He can say what he wants about not being there for the game, but to be honest, that was the toughest part of it all [him not being able to play]. He’s such a big part of this team but every single guy on this team is on here because of Jeff.”
“It is not easy to run a men’s league team,” Lavigne added. “Finding guys who can play, who want to show up, who pay. Guys who run the team put their money on the line. I think he’s done a really good job of finding a good mix of guys who get along.”
As for Graziano, Lavigne couldn’t say enough about what his support meant to the team.
“When you can get jerseys for your boys and take that burden off of them that’s great,” Lavigne added. “But this is the icing on the cake. I don’t think any of us expected this. For Jim to come out and set this up for us, it’s honestly just so great.”
Every month, Chicago Hockey Now will be featuring a local hockey story to showcase the game and how much it means to so many. Have a good story or one that you think should be told? DM @nbrownChihn or @chihockeynow on Twitter.