FORT WAYNE, IN — Jamie Schaafsma isn’t used to playing professional hockey like this.
But that’s not a reference to the 34-year-old putting together one of the most productive seasons in his 13-year career.
Schaafsma is a forward, team captain and assistant coach for Fort Wayne, but he added yet another role down the stretch. Because of injuries to Bobby Shea, Will Weber and Kyle Follmer, the winger moved to the blue line during the final two regular-season games.
Although this wasn’t the first defensive experience for Schaafsma as a pro—he played “seven or eight games” there in a pinch for the Allen Americans two years ago—it was still an unfamiliar place for the longtime attacker.
“Defense is a lot different,” he said. “It’s a lot more of a mental game. There’s not as much skating to it, but there’s definitely a lot more thinking involved in the position. It’s not easy to just transition back there. I know I made some mistakes.”
Schaafsma helped Fort Wayne sweep consecutive outings against the Mallards, following up Friday’s 5-2 triumph with a 6-1 victory to close the regular season. The Komets closed the campaign at 45-19-8 overall and will challenge Quad City in the first round of the 2017 ECHL Playoffs.
Interestingly, Schaafsma volunteered to make the switch after watching the injury report pile up and understanding the team’s struggle to acquire a healthy defenseman.
“We really didn’t have another option,” Schaafsma said. “They were looking at bringing guys in but they were having trouble finding the right person. … I’ve done it before, and I really enjoyed it. I knew I could do it for a couple games; I could do a job for them. So I just said, ‘hey, if you need me back there, I’m fine and willing to do it.'”
But that doesn’t mean it was also a seamless transition for the veteran.
“I felt like yesterday I was a little uncomfortable,” he said. “At the beginning of games you’re a little uncomfortable, but as the game goes on you get more comfortable and realize what your job is out there.
“A lot of it’s footwork. The footwork is a lot different. There’s a lot more pivoting and a little more backward skating, so it’s just different. And when you haven’t worked on it all year it’s definitely hard.”
Schaafsma, who after the game joked he deserved the team’s Defensive Player of the Year award because of his “position-best” 62 points, skated alongside Jason Binkley in both outings.
“He’s a smart player,” Binkley said. “When you put a forward back on defense, they obviously think a lot more about their defensive responsibilities compared to trying to get up the ice and forechecking and things like that.
“So, you know, there’s a learning curve, an adjustment curve for both of us. But overall, we played two games, we were out there for one goal against, so not too bad.”
Schaafsma notched one assist Saturday night, providing the lone helper on Shawn Szydlowski‘s goal. That point helped Schaafsma end the season averaging 1.17, his highest career mark while playing for an American club.
Although his time on defense is likely coming to a close, Schaafsma garnered praise from head coach Gary Graham for the brief stint on the blue line.
“I thought Jamie did a heck of a job on defense these last two games,” Graham said. “That gives me some confidence knowing that if we did get jammed up for whatever reason we have somebody like that to fill in back there.”
Graham said the Komets expect Weber to be available for Game 1 against Quad City and Follmer around Game 3. Should any blue-liner get injured in the playoffs, though, Schaafsma would be the No. 1 option to fill the void.
And if he does, Schaafsma will be better prepared from the challenge.
“It was fun for me, I had a lot of fun doing it. The guys were great and they helped me out back there.”