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A star on the horizon in western New York

Athleticism is probably the best word to describe Milan Bartovic. His love of athletics and fitness started at an early age. Bartovic was always very active as a child growing up in Trencin, Slovakia.

One of Milan’s fond memories was the time he spent skating during the winter.

“I remember skating on the frozen river with my dad when I was young,” Bartovic said. “When I was about five years old, my father took me to play hockey with the other little kids and that was that. I loved to skate and hockey was very fun.”

Growing up, Bartovic was always very involved in sports. Milan grew up playing soccer and hockey. When he was 15 years old, he made the decision to focus on one of the two to try to develop a potential career.

“My dad was a big soccer player, so I have always loved to play that game,” Bartovic said. “But, the best opportunity to be successful was to play hockey, so that’s what I decided to do.”

Bartovic’s dedication and pure skill led him to a successful hockey career as a teen in Slovakia. Milan participated in two World Junior Championships in 1999 and 2000, including a silver medal showing in the 2000 games. Bartovic also enjoyed success with Dukla Trencin of the Slovakian Junior League. During his last season with Trencin, Bartovic collected an impressive 71 points (36+35) in 46 games.

At 17 years old, Bartovic had to make another major decision. He had the option to stay at home and to attempt a successful playing career in Slovakia, or travel to North America to try to play in the NHL. Bartovic knew that the differences in the style of play across the pond would be his ticket to success and happiness.

“It was a tough decision, but I love to play very physical and mix that with speed on the ice,” Bartovic said. “The game in North America was a perfect fit.”

Coming over to North America was no easy task. Bartovic did not speak English and had to leave his family and friends behind. Bartovic’s decision led him to the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League during the 1999-2000 season. Luckily, future Amerks linemate and Czech Republic native Jaroslav Kristek was on the same team to help with the language barrier.

But not long after the season started, Milan was traded to the Brandon Wheat Kings, which hindered his immediate acclimation to a new country. It took Bartovic a while to settle into his new surroundings, but by season’s end he was one of the top rookies in the WHL. He was a WHL All-Star selection in the CHL Cup.

Bartovic was selected in the second round (55th overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres. Milan’s dream of playing the game he loved at the highest level in North America was getting closer. In his first season in Rochester (2001-02), Bartovic was reunited with Kristek and finished with 26 points (15+11) in 73 games. Bartovic was tied for fifth on the team in goal scoring and ninth in points, despite still learning the game at the professional level.

During his second full season with the organization last year, Bartovic picked up 28 points (18+10) in 74 games with Rochester. But on Apr. 2, 2003, Bartovic was finally able to live out his dream. Bartovic suited up for the Buffalo Sabres against the Atlanta Thrashers. A few nights later, he scored his first NHL goal against the Boston Bruins.

“It was such an awesome feeling playing in my first game, and then scoring my first NHL goal,” Bartovic said. “It was such a thrill.”

The next night, he played in two games on the same day. He helped Buffalo to a 2-2 tie with New Jersey in the afternoon, then traveled to Rochester to help the Amerks clinch a playoff spot with a 4-2 win over Hamilton.

“That was quite a day,” Bartovic laughed. “I didn’t know if I could do it. I was pretty excited from the night before, and I was obviously excited to play with the Sabres, but the game with the Amerks was huge. In order to make the playoffs, we had to beat Hamilton.

“When they told me I could play both, it was great. In the Sabres game, I only played about 10 minutes, and actually I felt so much better in the second game.”

So far this season, he has put together an impressive third full year in the AHL. Bartovic was named the Sher-Wood AHL Player of the Week for the week of Jan. 18. He also recorded a career-high 11 game-point streak, which began in late December and ended in February.

During the streak, he was recalled by the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 22. Bartovic appeared in the Sabres, 3-1 victory that night against the Boston Bruins, where he was paired with two speedsters who have worn the Amerks red, white and blue in previous seasons, rookie Derek Roy and forward Maxim Afinogenov. On Jan. 25, Bartovic scored his first goal of the season with Buffalo against the Carolina Hurricanes. He played in seven games with the Buffalo Sabres during his first recall of the season, his longest stint as a pro.

He was reassigned to Rochester on Feb. 6 and played in 11 more games with the Amerks before he was summoned to Buffalo again. Before his latest recall, Bartovic had appeared in 52 games with the Amerks, collecting 29 points (18+11) and a team-high five game-winning goals. In addition, he has played in 14 games with the Sabres and has one goal and three assists.

Now in his second recall with the Sabres, Bartovic looks to be well on his way to molding into the consistent sniper that many believe he can be. With his pure speed and athletic prowess, a full-time NHL career may not be too far away. But for now he is very happy to have the opportunity to play within the Sabres-Amerks family.

“I am lucky here,” he said. “It is a great opportunity for me and a great family to be a part of.”

Away from the ice, Bartovic likes to listen to music and just relax. Milan also likes to just go to the mall or go to the movies. But as much as he enjoys the North American lifestyle, he still looks forward to going back home each off-season.

“I like the off-season because I can go back home and relax and think about what I have to work on for next year,” Bartovic said. “It is great to see all my family and friends. I like to play golf, tennis, and soccer or hit the weights. But most importantly, I get to see everyone back home.”

Milan is looking forward to having success this season, whether it is in Rochester or Buffalo. But the message is the same, no matter where he ends up.

“I try to play and work as hard as I can every shift.” Bartovic laughed. “That’s what makes this game so fun. Each shift, you have the opportunity to contribute and make a difference for the team.”