DEFENSEMAN MATT BARTKOWSKI KEEPING EYES ON NHL WHILE BEING VET PRESENCE WITH IOWADec 13, 2018
By Tom Witosky
When veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowski signed this summer with Minnesota, he understood he might be returning to the days of his youth.
The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native began his climb into professional hockey with two seasons in Lincoln, NE, back when the United States Hockey League was growing into a proving ground for future college and pro hockey players.
“I was in Lincoln when Matt Read was playing in Des Moines,” Bartkowski remembered recently. “Back then it was a pretty tough league, but it was a lot of fun.”
Bartkowski would use his two years in the USHL to get a scholarship at Ohio State before making the jump into a nine-year professional career with Boston, Vancouver, and Calgary. In 2008, the Florida Panthers picked Bartkowski in the seventh round of that year’s NHL Entry Draft.
Now he finds himself back in the American Hockey League where he played more than 200 games with Providence. Ask him just how it feels to be back in the AHL with Iowa and Bartkowski’s answer might surprise.
“It’s been pretty good,” Bartkowski said. “Certainly having the team we have has made it that much better because we have a pretty good team. I like the coaches and the staff. There really isn’t much to say that’s bad about the spot we have here.”
Bartkowski’s arrival in Des Moines this season is simply part of his strategy to get back to the NHL, where he spent most of the last two seasons on the Calgary Flames’ healthy scratch list. In two seasons, Bartkowski played in only 42 games.
“I have no idea why that happened,” said Bartkowski, who is known in Iowa locker room for a straight-talking but biting sense of humor. “I had the coach telling me it was the GM’s decision, I had the GM telling me it was the coach’s decision. I don’t really know. I wasn’t injured, I was just being scratched.”
It got so frustrating, Bartkowski acknowledged, he and another player, Freddie Hamilton, began playing the well- known baseball song “Centerfield ” by John Fogerty in the Flames locker room when they knew they weren’t going to play. The song’s well-known refrain: “Put me in coach, I am ready to play … today.”
“It was Freddie’s idea the first time,” Bartkowski said. “We came in one day and he put the song on for the coaches who came in. We were dying laughing and we just kept putting the song on even after bag skates.”
To no one’s surprise, including Bartkowski, the Flames decided not to re-sign him, but that set-up his chance to move on. Minnesota was in the market for a proven NHL quality defenseman who also would be willing to play in the AHL while serving as a d-line reserve for Minnesota.
Tom Kurvers, the Iowa Wild general manager, had been watching Bartkowski’s career since the two had met playing golf a few summers ago near Brainerd, MN with Bartkowski’s agent, Dan Grillo. Grillo and Kurvers have known each other for years.
“You can learn some things about a person on the golf course,” Kurvers said. “I liked the way he handled himself so I kept my eye on him over the last couple of years, mostly because I knew him.”
When it became evident Bartkowski had a hit a dead end in Calgary, Kurvers moved to have Bartkowski think about a fresh start.
“You watch him skate and watch him play, he is clearly NHL capable,” Kurvers said. “But when you don’t hone your skills over a couple of years you find yourself not improving plus you find yourself out of sight and out of mind.”
The pitch was simple.
“Our conversation this summer was that he needed minutes,” Kurvers said. “It wasn’t me that brought it up, but we both knew that is what he needed to get to get back up to the NHL. Even his agent said he needed to play hockey.”
In many ways, Bartkowski’s predicament and solution compare favorably to former Iowa Wild goalie Alex Stalock, who spent the 2016-17 season playing 50 AHL games and compiling a winning 23-17-1 record for a team that finished out of the playoffs. Since then, Stalock has been with Minnesota as its backup goalie.
“This game is unusual because for a lot of players, you don’t have a steady rise or a steady fall. It is a bit more like a roller coaster based on the situation you find yourself in,” Kurvers said. “That then creates a tough decision for them. It’s humbling, but many of them see they are still young enough and skilled enough to have a pathway back to the NHL.”
Bartkowski said he has been happy with his decision both on the ice and for his wife, Jessie, and daughters, Finley (17 months) and Murphy, who was born in Des Moines about a month ago.
“I didn’t think this area would be as metropolitan as it is,” said Bartkowski. “We live in West Des Moines and we fit right in. It didn’t take us a week to get well settled.”
On the ice, Bartkowski has nailed down the top pairing from Coach Tim Army, who often matches him with veteran Ryan Murphy, but also has paired him with rookies like Gustav Bouramman. In 25 games, he has collected eight points, but – better yet – has a plus-10 plus-minus rating.
That kind of work is likely to attract attention of the scouts who are often in attendance at Iowa games.
“Matt brings a physical presence to his game that makes him hard to play against. He makes contact and does it well, but also can skate and pass a puck out of trouble when we need it,” Army said.
Bartkowski also has brought an NHL style accountability to the locker room with a quick wit that can sting a bit. Some likened Bartkowski to Stalock, again, who also could needle someone into playing better and do it like an uncle who has a bit too much at the family Christmas party.
“He reminds me of Alex,” forward Sam Anas said. “He might cross the line a bit with something he says and it will have a bunch of guys laughing, but maybe not everyone. At the same time, he is a funny guy and he gets along with everyone.”
Anas also said younger players need to see the kind of confidence Bartkowski exudes.
“He’s clearly been around for a while and he carries himself that way, but not in a bad way,” Anas said. “He knows what he is doing and having been at the NHL level for a while a lot of us respect it”.
Prior to games, Bartkowski gets ready to play in the office of Mike Lefczik, the Wild’s head equipment manager. He has been in Lefczik’s office so much that Bartkowski has his own leather chair.
“We watch a couple of game shows usually as he gets ready,” Lefczik said. “He is the kind of guy who simply enjoys hanging out in the equipment room.”
As for the future, Bartkowski said his goal right now is to make back to the NHL. He has little doubt that he can make it and turn some of his frustration into a success story.
His story, he added, is a good example of what other members of the Iowa team need to recognize – opportunities don’t go come along all that often and requires a diligent respect for the game.
“I’ve been through this on good teams and on bad teams,” he said. “The one thing you have to understand is that these kinds of opportunities don’t come along often and you have to make sure you are giving everything you’ve got to keep having the success. You can blink your eyes and it can go. You have to appreciate what you have.”