Kruzich Family Connections Run Deep Through Mattawan Hockey, Rivalry

By Pam Shebest
Special for

January 17, 2023

MATTAWAN — When this season’s South Central High School Hockey League schedule was announced, twins Kaleb and Zach Kruzich immediately circled Feb. 15.

Southwest CorridorThat’s the red-letter day their Mattawan Wildcats face off against the Kalamazoo Eagles, coached by their uncle, Matt Kruzich.

“When Matt told me he was coaching the Eagles (three years ago), he said, ‘I don’t even want you to look at me (during the game),’” Zach Kruzich laughed. 

“‘I don’t even want to talk to you at the rink,’ which is perfectly fine by me.”

Adding to the family dynamics, the twins’ father, Bart, is assistant coach with Wildcats’ head coach, Chris Dienes.

“We always really get up for that game, for sure,” Bart Kruzich said. “They beat us last year, so we definitely remember that. It’s always a big game.”

Off the ice, it is back to family.

“We all live on the farm, so we’re all very close and see each other every day,” Matt Kruzich said.

In addition, Dienes and Matt Kruzich are roommates.

“Out of hockey, most of the topics are about fantasy football than hockey,” Kaleb Kruzich said.

Hockey aside, the twins are, so far, the last of four generations of Wildcats.

Their great-grandmother, the late Emma Papierz Kruzich; their grandfather John Kruzich, and their dad all graduated from Mattawan High School.

Kaleb Kruzich winds up to shoot. As for hockey, “We were born into it,” laughed Zach Kruzich.

Their dad played for the Junior K-Wings from 1991-93.

Uncle Matt played professionally for the United Hockey League Kalamazoo Wings in 2002-03.

Oldest brother Jake also played for the Wildcats before continuing as a student only at Michigan State.

Dienes, in his second year as the Wildcats’ head coach, also brings a wealth of hockey experience to the team.

After playing at Western Michigan University from 2013-17, he played professionally for the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder and Jacksonville Icemen, and then with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose in 2017-18.

The twins figure this is their last year of organized hockey — they are not planning to play in college — so they are going all out.

Kaleb is a left-handed defenseman wearing No. 13, and Zach a right-handed forward sporting No. 19.

That is the easiest way the tell them apart.

“My grandparents can never tell who’s who on the ice,” Kaleb said. “They need our numbers. A lot of the fans are the same. They need a roster to differentiate.”

Dienes said he also has trouble telling the twins apart.

“Sometimes I get caught yelling at one and it’s not the right one, but I can tell them apart on the ice easy,” he said. 

The twins complement each other during games, but practices are quite a bit different.

“I’m always like, ‘Can I skip you so I can go against Kaleb?’” Zach said. “In games, we’re just teammates.”

Mattawan hockey head coach Chris Dienes.Kaleb also looks forward to practices, saying he and his brother grew up competing against each other.

“We definitely try our hardest against each other in practice,” he said. “Definitely some slashes, some punches thrown on the ice, just like quick stuff. It happens. Brothers being brothers, especially when we’re the same age.”

Dienes and Bart Kruzich have an understanding when it comes to coaching.

“He does a good job,” Dienes said. “He allows me to do the coaching of them for the most part. It’s a good mix of me being bad cop sometimes and him being good cop, which is good for him as a dad.”

Bart Kruzich said he talked at length with Mattawan athletic director Chad Yager and Dienes before agreeing to become assistant coach.

“For the most part, I don’t really coach a lot to my own kids. That was an agreement I made with Chris and Chad Yager,” Bart Kruzich said. 

“I’m probably harder on my own kids than I am on the others. They’re used to it. It’s been like that since they were 6 years old, and now they’re 18.”

So far, the Wildcats have a 7-4-2 record, 5-1 in the league, where they and Jackson Lumen Christi are the only teams who are not cooperative programs. The co-ops are the Portage Muskies, Kalamazoo United, Kalamazoo Eagles, Kalamazoo Blades, Capital City, and Eastside.

“Our numbers have actually grown over the years,” Dienes said of his team. “When I first started as an assistant (two years ago), we had 21 kids try out.

“Last year we had 39, and this year we had 40. I think that number is going to continue to grow over the years, so it’s exciting.”

The Wildcats won their first playoff game in 10 years last season and hope to build on that.

Zach Kruzich, left, stands with dad and assistant coach Bart Kruzich and brother Kaleb. “The twins and our senior leaders – Colin Swintz, Colin O’Reilly, Aidan Warn and Niko Lewis – have really led the charge,” Dienes said.

Juniors are Colin Porn, Matt Novak, Landis Mills, Jake Mandeville, Gavin Mckeeby, Brody Schripsema, Nathan Whitehead, Nicholas Amos and Edmond Lafleche. Sophomores are Dom Vezeau, Carson Mattern, Carson Smith, Caden Byers, Kibwe Weaver and Brayden Lewis.

Zach Kruzich said most of his teammates have played together since youth hockey which, along with being at the same school, is a big advantage.

Another strength is team depth, Bart Kruzich said.

“This year, we have 13 forwards and six defensemen, and we feel like we can put any of those 13 forwards out there and we’re competitive with all 13 of those kids,” he said.

“When we get into a good game, we can roll three and one-half lines and kind of tire teams out. Our talent pool is pretty deep.”

While the twins are enjoying their senior year on the ice, neither plans to continue hockey in college. Both hope to attend Miami of Ohio, joining their sister Katie and leaving their parents as empty nesters.

Meanwhile, hockey tends to be the topic of the day at home.

“After games, we go home and (Dad) loves watching (tapes of) the games, sometimes a little too much, but we talk about it,” Zach Kruzich said.

Bart Kruzich said his wife, Kristen, is a super fan.

“I give her a lot of credit,” he said. “She’s always been awesome at really encouraging the team, especially the twins.

“She doesn’t pay attention to only her kids; she really been supportive of the whole team.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Twins Zach (left) and Kaleb Kruzich take a moment for a photo during a Mattawan game night. (2) Kaleb Kruzich winds up to shoot. (3) Mattawan hockey head coach Chris Dienes. (4) Zach Kruzich, left, stands with dad and assistant coach Bart Kruzich and brother Kaleb. (Photos by Avian Townley.)