Fresh start has helped rejuvenate Fritz’s career

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Alex Thomas | AHL On The Beat

Tanner Fritz has been a staple of professional hockey in the state of Connecticut since his arrival during the 2015-16 season. The thing is, Fritz had been a staple of the Bridgeport Islanders organization, not the Hartford Wolf Pack. That changed in September, when Fritz joined the Wolf Pack on a one-year contract.

Now, the well-respected veteran is one of the hottest players in the American Hockey League. He also has his Wolf Pack near the top of the Atlantic Division standings and on the path towards their first playoff appearance since the spring of 2015.

It wasn’t an easy choice for Fritz, but the veteran forward was due for a change after playing in just 24 games combined during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for me and my family,” Fritz said about the decision to leave Bridgeport and join Hartford. “The Islanders organization gave me a chance to fulfill a childhood dream and play in the NHL, and I couldn’t be more thankful for my time there. There came a point where it was time for me to start fresh somewhere else. Hartford was one of the first teams to reach out to me.”

Fritz officially signed with the Wolf Pack on Sept. 15, joining a team that had been a heated rival for six seasons. Staying in Connecticut was a priority for the veteran, and a familiar face ― former Ohio State teammate Anthony Greco ― helped make the decision a little easier.

“Our family didn’t want to move far because our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Emmett, has some health issues and his doctors are close,” Fritz said. “That was a big reason why we decided on Hartford. Obviously, I knew Greco before I arrived here, and we chatted a good amount before I signed. He told me nothing but good things about the organization so it all just lined up nicely for us.”

Things hadn’t exactly lined up nicely for Fritz during the past couple of seasons. An All-Star with Bridgeport in 2017-18, Fritz made his NHL debut on Jan. 2, 2018, with the New York Islanders against the Boston Bruins. He’d play in 34 total games with the Islanders that season, and another eight during the 2018-19 campaign. Then, the trouble began.

Fritz’s 2018-19 season ended in March when he underwent surgery for a blood clot in his hand. In 2019-20, Fritz appeared in only four AHL games during the month of October when injury struck again. When the AHL resumed action in February of 2021, Fritz had played just four games in nearly 23 months. He skated in 20 contests during the shortened 2020-21 season, scoring six points.

Now fully healthy, Fritz is back into his routine and is producing like the player who once haunted the Atlantic Division. He’s having quite a bit of fun doing it, too.

Photo: Kelly Shea

“I definitely feel rejuvenated after the past few seasons of not playing much hockey,” Fritz admitted. “It’s nice to get back into a routine where I’m on the ice five to six times a week and playing meaningful hockey. It was tough timing for both of my injuries that kept me out for a while, but I believe everything happens for a reason and I just tried to stay positive through it all.”

Staying positive is also a trait that allowed Fritz to deal with an uncharacteristic start to his 2021-22 season. The veteran forward recorded just one point in the Wolf Pack’s first seven games. In the eighth game, Fritz scored his first goal with his new team against, you guessed it, the Islanders.

Since that goal? Fritz has been one of the league’s most dangerous players. He’s scored 13 points in 11 games and is riding a five-game points streak as the Pack get ready for a trip to Lehigh Valley on Sunday afternoon.

“I think it was just about getting comfortable. This is the first time since I started my pro career that I joined a new team,” Fritz said when asked about the start to his season. “The past two seasons, I’ve been limited to only 20-some games and I think, finally, I’m starting to get back into a rhythm and obviously I’ve been playing with some really good players so that always helps. It’s always fun to score against your former team and even better when you win. I think it all goes back to playing hockey again during a normal season, it’s easier to get confidence and get comfortable when you’re playing two to three times a week.”

With bad injury luck and a change of uniform behind him, Fritz has found the rhythm that made him an All-Star earlier in his career. Next up on the list? Getting back to the playoffs. The veteran has appeared in just three Calder Cup Playoff games in his career, all coming back in the spring of 2016 with Bridgeport.

With a 12-4-2-0 record, the Wolf Pack are right in the thick of the playoff chase. Fritz believes their hot start, coupled with the group in the locker room, gives this team a high ceiling.

“It’s one of the best locker rooms I’ve been a part of in my pro career,” Fritz proclaimed. “We have a great mix of young guys and veterans who all get along great. I think that off-ice chemistry between everyone just naturally makes us a dangerous team on the ice. We’re all on the same page when it comes to winning, we all want the same thing and that’s to make a deep run.

“With everyone in that room and the start we’ve had, our expectations are high. We all know what we’re capable of and I believe we have something special going and we all hope to continue that for the rest of the season.”

If there’s any lesson to learn from the difficult journey travelled over the last three seasons, it’s to never count out Tanner Fritz. It’s that tough mentality that has brought him to where he is now, and the Wolf Pack hopes will bring them where they ultimately hope to be come springtime.