Bartkowski happy to be back on the ice with Amerks

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

Matt Bartkowski is only a few weeks removed from one of the most stressful experiences that any American Hockey League veteran can experience.

Plenty of familiar AHL names can relate to those worries: Hockey still has them in its grip, and they still can play, but jobs in hockey’s top developmental league rarely are easy to find as the years accumulate.

As October started to wind down, the 34-year-old defenseman needed a job. After a summer that did not yield a new contract, Bartkowski had gone to training camp with the New York Rangers. But that didn’t pan out either.

After nearly 700 pro games, including 256 in the National Hockey League, Bartkowski found himself facing some difficult questions as he waited at home, worked out and skated while hoping to hear his phone ring.

When an October weekend rolled around, Bartkowski was meant to be playing, just like he had done for his past 12 pro seasons. Not sitting at home. Even for an easy-going, upbeat personality like Bartkowski, this was rough.

Was this it for him?

“Mentally, it’s pretty taxing,” Bartkowski said of not getting another opportunity. “It’s going to creep into your head at some point. It’s not easy to keep it out.”

But there was hope. The Rochester Americans needed a defenseman. A few defensemen, actually.

Carefully constructed through the summer, the Rochester blue line had already been battered by injuries and recalls to the Buffalo Sabres within the first two weeks of the American Hockey League season. Buffalo ended up needing Kale Clague, Jeremy Davies, and Lawrence Pilut while the Amerks were dealing with injuries to Chase Priskie and Peter Tischke.

In late October, Rochester put in a call for Bartkowski, who dressed in 72 of 76 games in a leadership role for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season, picking up 16 points (four goals, 12 assists).

That strong effort had not yielded a new contract, but as a seventh-round pick by the Florida Panthers in 2008, Bartkowski had already long surpassed expectations. He had played three full seasons (2013-16) as a regular in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. He had a well-established reputation as a leader around both the NHL and AHL. He had worn a letter with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season. He had more to offer as he sought another opportunity.

“You just try to remember that once you start playing it’s going to be awesome,” Bartkowski said of staying ready at home.

When that call to sign a professional tryout of his own did come, he was ready.

He made a quick contribution, picking up his first goal with Rochester in a 7-2 win over Syracuse on Nov. 2. For someone not particularly known for his offensive work, Bartkowski sped down the right side and backed in Syracuse’s Darren Raddysh before roofing a backhander past Max Lagace for a highlight goal.

“It looked like I knew what I was doing, right?” said Bartkowski, who also has added two assists in his seven games with Rochester. “Every now and then.”

Quite the first impression, but Bartkowski is not really in Rochester for his scoring prowess. What an already-strong Rochester dressing room could use was another big-brother figure, and Bartkowski surely fits that description. Really, any AHL team can use a veteran who can quickly fit in, someone who can serve up a laugh or a pat on back for a young prospect after a turnover or a rough weekend. That especially goes in a league known for putting young defensemen through a demanding development track.

“[The role means] helping out where I can with the younger guys,” Bartkowski said. “It’s more just bringing positivity, teaching them that mistakes are going to happen. Just let it go and go on to the next play.”

And Bartkowski must acclimate himself as well. Rochester is his third stop in as many seasons, and there is an ever-changing group of new teammates to learn, which is where a good week or two of practice time can help. The Amerks (7-4-1-1) are off the AHL schedule until Friday, when they begin a home-and-home series with the Utica Comets.

While Rochester was unfamiliar to Bartkowski, the Sabres and Amerks certainly knew him, especially Amerks head coach Seth Appert. When Appert was the head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he had offered Bartkowski a scholarship. Instead Bartkowski, a Pittsburgh-area native, went to Ohio State, where he played two seasons before turning pro.

Photo: Micheline V

“Thankfully he doesn’t hold a grudge,” Bartkowski again laughed. “Maybe I should have played for him back then. He seems like a pretty good coach and a really good guy. It came full circle, and we’re here now.”

No grudge there.

“He’s just an unbelievable presence,” Appert said of Bartkowski. “He’s kind of a dude, and he’s got a real kind of cowboy way about him. He’s calm, he’s good for our young guys, and he knows how to play.”

The Sabres, and by extension the Amerks, have been engaged in a long-term rebuilding project. When Buffalo hired Appert before the 2020-21 season, his background in college hockey and the United States National Team Development Program were major advantages in his favor. Veterans are needed to propel that development of young talent. But they must be the right veterans. Bartkowski was going to be a new face, so the organization quickly went to work vetting him.

“We knew we were getting a good player,” Appert said of the decision to bring in Bartkowski. “But we as an organization are very diligent about the character that we bring into our locker room. The last couple of years we’ve been very young. We have a lot of very important prospects in our organization.

“We want to surround them with great people [who] are real pros.”

So Appert worked his extensive list of contacts around the hockey world.

“Before we signed him,” Appert said, “I made sure that we’re adding not just a good hockey player, but the kind of human and competitor we want to surround our young prospects with.”

Clearly Bartkowski passed, and the two sides have found an easy fit. A week full of practice time like the one ahead is where a veteran like Bartkowski can really make a mark in bringing along would-be Sabres.

“Especially in the AHL,” Bartkowski said, “a lot of the development comes from practice and just building consistency. I was a younger player. I wasn’t very consistent, so learning that I think is the biggest part, especially with these kids these days. I mean, they have so much skill, so it’s just bringing that every night.”

Now Bartkowski is back on the ice, his weekends are busy, and the Buffalo organization has another mentor for those key young prospects in Rochester. It sure beats sitting at home for Bartkowski, who is back in his element once again.

“I’ll play till they say ‘no.’”