Getting in the game early is often the first stride toward NHL success. Of course, something always sparks your desire to play the greatest game on earth. For Boston Bruins’ Matt Bartkowski, a Pennsylvania native, the spark wore number 66.
“I’m part of the Lemieux era in Pittsburgh, so a lot of kids growing up like to say that Lemieux came to the Penguins and hockey saw sort of a boom in the area,” said Bartkowski. “I saw him playing on TV and I went down and started skating, a year later I started playing on a team.”
With a growing love for the sport and a continued love for Lemieux it’s no surprise that similar to many hockey fans still to this day, the Hall of Fame inductee was always a favorite.
“Mario Lemieux, watching him play and the things he would do, he was a one of a kind incredible player,” said Bartkowski. “When I was growing up, I would have wanted to be Mario Lemieux.”
While many of the greats have found success on the ice in a forward position, Bartkowski has excelled his way into the NHL as a defenseman.
“I played forward until I was about 12-years-old. One game, Coach needed a few defensemen so I went back and started playing defense,” said Bartkowski. “I never played forward again.”
Although many kids get into hockey as it’s often pegged a family affair, that notion doesn’t ring true for the 25-year-old.
“I’m the only one in my family that plays,” said Bartkowski. “No one really played sports, nothing in college and nothing serious.”
Despite a family lacking in on ice experience, the Bartkowski’s have been instrumental in the support of their son’s dreams and continued success.
“My parents, they always emphasized, work hard and have fun, I wouldn’t have been able to play hockey without them,” said Bartkowski. “They’d take me every weekend, everyday to practice and games, they instilled hard work and ethics. They’d be my biggest inspiration.”
The road to success is a long one and an athlete can never have enough support from those around them. It wasn’t just a parental support system, but that of an entire family that helped Bartkowski to the point he’s at today.
“When you’re a kid growing up, every hockey kid probably says that they want to play in the NHL someday. It’s probably a long-shot and I never really thought I would, but they always stuck with me,” said Bartkowski. “Everyone in my family always stuck with it, eventually it ended up working out. They never said you cant do this or that, they were just with me every step of the way.”
As is the case with many professional players, the United States Hockey League played a large part in development. Playing two seasons for the Lincoln Stars cleared the ice for Bartkowski’s future, a future that had him drafted by the Florida Panthers during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Dreams of college hockey were never necessarily on the table, but opportunities presented themselves and quickly.
“The Stars and Ohio State were integral in my development, I wouldn’t be here without playing two years in Junior. I never knew if I was going to play college or anything similar to that,” said Bartkowski. “Once I played my first year of Junior, and then got a scholarship to Ohio State, it just snowballed from there. But without playing in Lincoln and Ohio State I wouldn’t be here today.”
Playing two years at Ohio State University netted the collegiate experience for Bartkowski. In 2010, the Florida Panthers traded him to his current team the Boston Bruins. Following the trade, Bartkowski signed a two-year entry level contract, placing him with their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island. Ceasing the opportunity to advance his game, Bartkowski reaped the benefits of growing within the AHL system.
“It’s been huge, the last two years with Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean, they’re really good coaches. They played the game and they know the game, just as good as anyone,” said Bartkowski. “Personally it’s being able to feel your way out in how to play the pro game, and the mental toughness it takes throughout the year. Being able to be focused everyday, every game, every week etc. Just being able to figure out the mental side of the game and how to stay focused.”
That focus and mental toughness earned him the greatest memory to date. Of course, all players remember their first game in the big show, for Bartkowski that game was played on home ice. No, not home ice for the Bruins, but the ice that he had grown up watching his childhood heroes dominate.
“I played my first NHL game in Pittsburgh,” said Bartkowski. “Being able to skate out on the Pittsburgh ice, and then we won the game. It was just a special experience.”
While the memory of your first NHL game will always remain close to your heart, witnessing a Stanley Cup Playoff Final and ultimate win ranks high as well. The Boston Bruins won the greatest trophy in sports that season and Bartkowski was along for the ride as a member of the ‘Black Aces’. Although he saw no ice time, he did witness and participate in the celebrations. During the 2013 season, Boston was again part of the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, but the experience was well recieved by Bartkowski, no longer a ‘black ace’, but a contributing member of the roster.
“In 2011, I was strictly black acing, we were a part of it, but we weren’t playing, we were just extra players,” said Bartkowski. “Then this year, being able to play, I just remember in 2011 thinking, I want to be out there, it looks like a blast and a lot of fun. Then this year being able to play, help out and put in a lot of minutes, actually being a part of it this time was a completely different world. It was a lot better.”
With the organization since 2010, Bartkowski has been a part of a tight knit group of players. But all good things come to an end, this years’ training camp will see a variety of new faces and the 2013-14 roster will be changed, hopefully for the better.
“It’s still the off season so its still tough to tell, you get a better idea going into camp,” said Bartkowski. “But Peter Chiarelli does a great job putting together a good team every year, ever since he’s been GM in Boston. I’m sure whatever they do its good for the team.”
Bouncing between the AHL and NHL for the past few seasons, a regular spot in the line-up is certainly a strong possibility come the fall.
“I’m looking forward to having a good camp and going from there,” said Bartkowski. “Being in the lineup on the first day and playing a full season.”
It isn’t just the opportunity to play a full regular season with the club, but the chance to experience some of the best fans in the league night in and night out.
“They’re just nuts, if anyone has ever been to a game at TD Garden they can see, they’re screaming the whole game, loud, it’s pretty awesome,” said Bartkowski. “It’s great to be able to play there.”
Before the puck drops September 11th for training camp, players have a training regime all their own in the off season. While it’s a lot of work, mixing in some fun is always in the cards as well.
“Weekdays I’ll usually skate in the morning 3 days a week and then workout after that. Golf here and there, it’s pretty boring,” laughed Bartkowski. “Workout, golf and skate.”
A defensive powerhouse on the ice, Bartkowski’s off ice personality proves to be a little different.
“I’m a pretty laid back off the ice, I like to joke around a lot and have fun. On the ice, I take it seriously, but off the ice, I take a step back and keep everything in perspective.”
Whether defending the blue-line or around the community, fans should look forward to having Bartkowski as a full-time member of the roster this upcoming season. While fans should be excited to have him, he’s certainly excited to continue his growing role within the Boston organization, fully embracing what it means to be a Bruin.