(Photo: Providence Bruins)
On April 20, 2014, during the second game of Round One of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Boston Bruins were down a game against the Detroit Red Wings, the entire Bruins fan base, and anyone else watching the game, was introduced to forward Justin Florek at 7:38 of the first period, when he caught a rebound off of Jimmy Howard, who was aggressively out of his crease and out of position, and put it in the net to get the Bruins on the board first. For Florek, this was his first NHL playoff goal.
As often happens with rookies who make a major contribution during the playoffs—for Bruins fans, the goals on New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist last season by Torey Krug are still memorable—that player appears to have come from out of the blue. Getting to the NHL level though does not happen “out of the blue.” Instead it takes years of dedication to the sport, many that come with sacrifices on the part of the athlete.
Florek is a native of Marquette, Michigan. The lanky left-winger stands an imposing six foot four and has played for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program for both the under-17 and under-18 teams. He then went on to play for the Northern University Michigan Wildcats for four years, during which time he was drafted by the Bruins in the fifth round (135th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft. Upon completing his years with the Wildcats, he signed an entry-level contract with the Bruins on March 25, 2012 and was sent to play with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Providence Bruins.
During his time with Providence, he’s seen time with a number of players and line mates. During the 2012-13 season, he spent a lot of time on the same line with Christian Hanson (now of the Chicago Wolves) and Bobby Robins. Their production was so consistent that they were nicknamed the “Factory” line. This season his most recent line mates have been Alexander Khokhlachev and Seth Griffith. The three of them combined have made for some memorable goals. Griffith has said in the past that he knows that Florek will be in front of the net when needed and is always smart with the puck. Griffith commented on his willingness to get into the dirty areas.
After that first playoff game, The Pink Puck had a chance to catch up with Florek and asked him about the series, especially since, up to that point; the other quarterfinal games around the league had resulted in high total goals being scored on both sides of each game. This first Bruins and Red Wing tilt was the first have just one goal scored. Florek admitted he’d been watching the other games—after all they are players, but they are fans of the sport as well.
“This series is going to be a grind it out sort of series,” he responded to The Pink Puck. “I’m looking forward to that, and playing some Bruins hockey out there.”
And Bruins hockey is something that he is good at. He’s not afraid to get into the corners and “muck it up,” as the say. He battles for the puck. It seems that the Bruins style of play is the Florek style of play.
“Yah, it’s great, especially playing with two skilled guys like Carl [Soderberg] and Loui [Eriksson],” he responded when asked about his grinding style of play by The Pink Puck. “Hopefully I can contribute to that line and get the puck down low, and we can make some plays down there and get some chances.”
The down-to-earth winger was pleased that Head Coach Claude Julien gave him some quality minutes in the game.
“It’s a great feeling, just knowing that he [Coach Julien] trusts me and everything.” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working on both ends of the ice, move forward, and build that trust along the way. So, I’ve just got to keep presenting myself, getting opportunities, and doing my best out there.”
That can-do attitude is not unique within the Bruins locker room, though it certainly helps when the new player brings that approach. However, like many others, Florek was happy to have had some time with the Boston club during the regular season. He reflected on how that experience assisted him during the playoff game.
“Like I said before, it’s a great group of guys and they’re welcoming from day one coming in here, which is awesome. But building confidence is great,” he said. “Every chance I get here just building confidence throughout those first couple of games of the regular season was important. They were giving me a chance on the penalty kill and things like that and that built confidence for me coming here today.”
And despite the loss of that first game, which sent the Bruins fans home unsatisfied, The Pink Puck was able to bring a little good news to Florek about the Providence Bruins team clinching their playoff berth in the Calder Cup race.
“They did? Oh that’s great to hear,” he said breaking into a big smile. “I’m very happy about that and glad for them.”
Game two against Detroit though would give Florek an extra high, as he scored his first NHL playoff goal—and it was the first game of the series for the Bruins. His ability to get the puck in early did help contribute not only to the score sheet but also to the momentum of the team as a whole.
After the Boston Bruins finished off the Red Wings in five games, the team had a chance to rest a bit while others teams in both the Eastern and Western conferences had to go seven games. During that time off, Florek took in the Providence Bruins on April 29, which was a make or break game for the P-Bruins. And, as happens within the Bruins teams more often than not when their backs are against the boards, they stepped up and ensured at least a fifth game against the Springfield Falcons.
Providence Bruins Pride
While attending the game, The Pink Puck had an opportunity to interview Bobby Robins, one of Florek’s past line mates, and still his teammate in Providence as well as the head coach of the Providence Bruins, Bruce Cassidy, about Florek and his play.
Coach Cassidy clearly likes Florek’s play. He spoke to his strengths, and the list was lengthy.
“He plays a 200-foot game and for young guys to be so conscious away from the puck is such a benefit to play for Claude [Julien] in the Bruins system. He’s got a good stick; he’s on the puck. He loves to forecheck so that’s an ideal role for him as a winger,” he told The Pink Puck. “He’ll go to the net and score some goals and chip in. He’s not a natural or a flashy type of a goal scorer, but he’s the type that will get goals around the front of the net. And you better mark them or he’s going to get them. He’s a good penalty killer. For a big guy I wouldn’t call him physical, but gets in the way. He angles people off and he protects the puck very well.”
Cassidy mentioned that some of these skills may still need a little development and may not be as good as they were in Providence, but he was wishing him the best and that his abilities would continue to grow.
“Up there it will be a bit more of a challenge. You’ll see it with him because he’s not as developed as he needs to be, but down here you couldn’t get [the puck] from him,” Cassidy concluded. “And up there, hopefully over time that’s what happens to his game up there.”
And just as Florek was happy to hear that the Providence Bruins had made it to the playoffs, so too are his P-Bruins teammates happy to see him up in Boston contributing.
Robins was asked about Florek and his play. And it was clear that Florek’s teammate and former line mate was just pleased to see him make the leap.
“He’s obviously a very important member of our team. He’s a great player and it’s no surprise that he got snatched up by Boston and he’s stuck up there for playoffs.” Robins told The Pink Puck. “We’re all very happy for him and he deserves it. He’s made a lot of strides in the last couple of years and every year he gets better and better. And it was just his time to break through into the national league and he’s there. He’s doing it. He’s living the dream and we’re all very proud of him and proud that we played with him. He was my line mate so I’m definitely very happy for him.”
Playing in the NHL is, of course, every young hockey-playing kid’s dream. Including all the players still grinding away in Providence. However, it was clear that there was no animosity or jealousy from Robins about Florek’s opportunity.
“He can definitely do the job. He’s very dependable out there and a very responsible hockey player defensively and offensively, and that’s what they’re looking for,” he continued. “And they know and we know that he’ll do the job.”
Robins also summed up nicely why the “Factory Line” had been so effective last season.
“We just kept it simple. We were all big guys. It was pretty strange for me to be the smallest guy on the line,” he grinned. “But we got the puck out, got the puck in and went to work.”
Perhaps what made it clearest that Robins and his fellow Providence Bruins were happy for Florek though, came when Robins mentioned having just talked with Florek in the Providence Bruins locker room.
“I just spoke with him in the locker room and let him know that he belongs up there and that he fits right in and that he looks fast and told him I was happy for him,” Robins said, sounding a little like a proud parent.
When the Boston Bruins were able to tie the second round series, against the Montreal Canadiens, which Florek was a healthy scratch after having played in the first of the two games played in Boston, he was asked about the comments Robins made in regard to his belonging in Boston.
“It’s great when you have the support of your team mates,” he responded. “It’s just awesome to get the chance to come up here and play up here, and to have the support of everyone down in Providence is great. Great team mates down there and they’re doing a great job in the playoffs right now, so I’m rooting for them too.”
Indeed, though Florek has been called up during that most important of times in the hockey season, he is still definitely connected to his Providence team and has been happy to see how well they have been doing so far. And though he is up in Boston, he understands the “revenge” that is on the line as Providence meets the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the second round beginning on Friday, May 9. After all, it was the Baby Pens who ended the P-Bruins’ run for the Calder Cup during the 2012-13 season.
Even when scratched though, Florek has a positive outlook and feels he can contribute as well as continue to learn.
“Just [bringing] positive energy, I think that’s the biggest thing. Being positive about it; helping out the team when I can,” he said after thoughtful consideration. “Just taking it all in from the game. Being able to sit up top, you can take a lot of points out of it and just see what you can do to your game to help out and beat Montreal.”
And as was stated early in this piece, Florek did not all of a sudden spring forth as a fully-grown NHL playing hockey guy. He’s worked hard, honed his skills and continues to keep a level head on his shoulders.
When asked by The Pink Puck about what he might say to those guys in juiors, high school, or college what they should do to stick to the grind, he showed that positive outlook that has carried him forward to where he finds himself right now.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, just have the mentality every day to just go in and get better,” he said, smile firmly on his face. “A quote I kinda live by is ‘Every day you either get better or you get worse.’”
Every day you either get better or you get worse.
He expanded on this showing his commitment.
“Just come in every day, whether it is practice or a game, and try to get better. And just come in with that mentality,” he said in seriousness. “You know, look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and just ask yourself if you got better. That’s kind of how I have treated my career so far and that’s [how] I am going to continue to treat it.”
It is clear that this approach is working for him. And his commitment to working on his game and his skills along with that radiating positive energy speak volumes of what should be a long and successful career living the dream.