Mike Szmatula is one of many players who have spent time in the North American Hockey League before finishing up their junior hockey careers in the United States Hockey League.
Szmatula’s path from the NAHL and USHL, however, was a bit different than most.
After spending the 2010-11 season with the NAHL’s Traverse City North Stars, Szmatula joined up with the Summerside Western Capitals in the Maritimes Junior Hockey League. In his one season in eastern Canada — facing the older and physically tougher competition in the Maritimes League — Szmatula was the Most Valuable Player and the leading scorer. That gave him the confidence to produce similar accomplishments this season in the USHL.
Szmatula won team MVP honors on the league’s top team, helping the Dubuque Fighting Saints win the Anderson Cup as the USHL’s top regular-season team with a 45-11-8 record. He finished fifth in the USHL in scoring, tied for second in goals and had the league’s best plus/minus by a forward.
“I just felt I needed a change and a chance to develop into the player I hoped to become,” Szmatula said of his season with the Western Capitals. “By going to the Maritimes, I was able to do that. I found my game.
“Honestly, I had no idea I’d be playing in the USHL this year.
Mike Field found Szmatula’s game in the Maritimes, too.
While scouting another player, Field noticed Szmatula and began following him. When Field became an assistant coach and the director of scouting for the Fighting Saints in August, he was quick to mention Szmatula to head coach Jim Montgomery.
Field liked what he saw of Szmatula and Montgomery liked what he heard when he contacted the 20-year-old from Commerce Township, Mich.
“I just loved the energy over the phone,” Montgomery said. “He talked about how he scored a lot and how the transition to junior didn’t go smoothly, but then he found his confidence last year out in the Maritimes.”
When looking back at his own days as a hockey player, Montgomery remembered making a lot of improvement after the age of 18 and he has noted others doing the same during his time as a coach.
“You could tell he was someone brimming with confidence and continuing to develop as a young man,” said Montgomery, who will take over as the University of Denver coach after leading the Fighting Saints through the USHL’s Clark Cup Finals, which begin Friday against the Fargo Force.
Szmatula’s production with Dubuque was immediate. He scored two goals in a 4-1 win over the Tri-City Storm in the Sept. 28 opener and added goals in the next two wins, giving him four of the first nine scored by the team this season.
By mid-November, Szmatula had 14 goals in 16 games and a commitment to continue his hockey career at Northeastern University.
“I didn’t have an idea that this was going to happen,” Szmatula said. “Everything just came together real quick. Ever since we came to training camp, our team has been real close together.
“We just had a strong chemistry. And, personally, I fortunately had a good start. My confidence grew and it just took off from there.”
Szmatula finished with 37 goals and 39 assists while going plus-49 in 63 games. He has another four goals and three assists in eight games while helping the Fighting Saints win their first two playoff series.
“He’s a guy who drives the net fearlessly and scores high-end goals off the rush because of his speed and skill attacking the net,” Montgomery said.
Szmatula said he found the confidence for “driving to the net, being a tough player and getting to the areas where you can score goals,” during his season in the Maritimes. He brought those abilities with him to Dubuque.
“I am just very fortunate to have an opportunity to play here,” Szmatula said. “It’s been great so far.”
The Fighting Saints are fortunate that Field helped bring him to Dubuque to help as it awaits the Western Conference champion with the Clark Cup on the line.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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