Willingness to go to tough areas pays off for Szmatula
by Jim Leitner, Dubuque Telegraph Herald www.thonline.com
Mike Field hadn’t even settled into his new position as the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ director of scouting last summer when head coach Jim Montgomery gave him a daunting assignment.
The Saints needed to find a top-six forward to replace first-round NHL Draft pick Mark Jankowski, who informed the team in late July he would enroll at Providence College instead of spending a season in the United States Hockey League. By that point in the summer, most top-end Junior programs have their rosters finalized, so finding a high-impact player wasn’t going to be easy.
“It’s my first week on the job, so I told Monty, ‘OK, I’ll do my best,'” Field said with a chuckle. “But the first guy I thought of was Mike Szmatula. He was a guy not a lot of people knew about, but he really embodied what Fighting Saint hockey is all about. I thought he’d be a great fit.”
Szmatula, a 20-year-old from Commerce Township, Mich., jumped at the opportunity to spend his final season of Junior hockey eligibility for an organization that established itself as one of the USHL’s elite just two seasons after re-joining the league as an expansion franchise.
He’s been more than just a good fit. He’s been making Field look brilliant all season long.
Szmatula leads the USHL with 37 goals and ranks third with 72 points in 58 games, and on Sunday he set the franchise record for goals in the Tier I era. Johnny Gaudreau, a sophomore at Boston College and a leading candidate for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, scored 36 goals in 2010-11. Steve MacSwain set the overall franchise record of 60 in 1980-81.
“It’s nice to be mentioned in the same sentence as such a great player as Johnny Gaudreau, but, honestly, my coaches and teammates deserve a lot of the credit because of the opportunities they’ve given me,” Szmatula said. “I just want to work as hard as I can to give our team a chance to win. Fortunately, pucks are going in for me.
“I pinch myself every day that they gave me the opportunity to play here this year. I couldn’t have asked for a better organization to go to.”
Szmatula thanks the coaching staff every day with his grit and determination, which sets a positive example for his younger teammates. Montgomery named Szmatula an alternate captain shortly after the team broke training camp in September and likened him to Zemgus Girgensons, the Saints’ captain a year ago and a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres.
“The kid is relentless, and when we’re playing well as a team it’s because we’re relentless,” Montgomery said. “He’s very similar to Zemgus in his will and his passion to score goals. That’s what drives him to the tough areas of the ice where you have to go to score goals.
“Most of his goals come from inside the hash marks, and when you go there, you know you’re going to have to pay a price.”
DISCOVERED BY ACCIDENT
Last season, Szmatula led the Maritime Junior Hockey League in scoring with 36 goals and 87 points in 52 games and earned league MVP honors for the Summerside Western Capitals.
But very few college coaches venture to Prince Edward Island to scout the league, because the majority of the players previously played Canadian Major Junior hockey and have forfeited their NCAA eligibility. So, Szmatula didn’t make the radar for most college programs.
Field spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at American International College, a small NCAA Division I program in Springfield, Mass. In scouting for a lower-budget program, he had to find diamonds in the rough who might have slipped through the cracks and eluded the super powers of college hockey.
Last season, Field received a phone call from a coach in the Maritime League asking him to look at a player with college aspirations and the grades to match. Before traveling to see the player, Field asked to see video of the player.
“The kid didn’t play on Szmatula’s team, but I knew Summerside had the best quality of video and I’d get the best read on this kid if I watched him against Summerside,” Field said. “That was a game where Mike really stood out, so I found myself watching him instead of the kid I was supposed to be scouting. Even when I went back and watched a second time, I found myself fast-forwarding to all of Mike’s shifts.”
Field immediately began recruiting Szmatula for AIC’s 2012-13 season. But Szmatula intended to play one more season in Summerside before moving on to college, and he eventually committed to Sacred Heart University, AIC’s rival in the Atlantic Hockey Conference.
Szmatula also turned down an invitation to try out for the Youngstown Phantoms, who selected him in last spring’s USHL entry draft. The opportunity to compete for a top-six forward spot in Dubuque changed his mind on the USHL.
“Obviously, I knew Coach Field from the recruiting process, but what I really respected was the fact that Dubuque did its homework on me,” Szmatula said. “When I talked to Monty, he knew who I was and what I did the last couple of years. I felt like I was going to get a fair shot with him in Dubuque.
“I really liked that the head coach took a personal interest in me and wanted to know what kind of a player I was and how I could fit into the team before he brought me in for a tryout. I’m a player kind of like him, who developed a little later in his career than a lot of other guys do.”
TOUGH TO STOP
Mike Downing, a defenseman projected to be selected in the first two rounds of this summer’s NHL Draft, faces Szmatula every day in practice. He’s glad Mystique Community Ice Center isn’t full of fans when they go toe-to-toe.
“‘Szmats’ does everything harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Downing said. “He’s always crashing the net. If there’s a loose puck in front, he’s going to get to it before anyone else.
“When you play against a guy like that in practice every day, it really prepares you for what you’re going to see in games.
“He’s so hard to play against. Like any great player, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to make you look pretty stupid at times. The only thing you can do is try to put a body on him and slow him down a little bit.”
Szmatula never stops moving his feet, which enables him to create offensive chances despite his relative lack of size. He certainly doesn’t play like someone 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds.
“People have always told me that I’m too small to play, and I guess that’s given me a little extra hunger to go to the tough areas to score goals,” Szmatula said. “A few times, you’re going to end up on the trainer’s table because of it, but I don’t mind paying the price.
“The most important thing to me is getting the two points in the standings. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team win hockey games.”
The Saints have certainly done that. With six games remaining in the regular season, Dubuque owns a franchise-best 41-10-7 record and has clinched the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Saints also hold a three-point cushion on Sioux Falls in the race for the Anderson Cup as regular-season champions.
GETTING BETTER WITH AGE
Prior to his breakout season in the Maritime League, Szmatula played Junior hockey in his home state for Traverse City of the North American Hockey League. He contributed a solid 16 goals and 33 points in 57 games during the 2010-11 season.
Szmatula never stopped mucking and grinding, and now he’s reaping the benefits. Last fall, he de-committed from Sacred Heart and accepted a better scholarship offer from Northeastern University of the powerhouse Hockey East Conference.
“Mike’s a great lesson for anyone, regardless of what you do in life,” Montgomery said. “You should always keep working and trying to get better. At (age) 18, he was a good player in the North American League, and at 20 he’s a great player in the USHL, which is the best league you can play in. It’s a credit to his work ethic and his beliefs.
“I’m just thankful Mike Field knew about him and convinced him to come here.”