GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – Rookie forward Mike Szmatula will represent the Adirondack Thunder in the 2019 ECHL All-Star Classic. The 26-year-old currently leads his team in goals with 15 and is third in points with 26.
Szmatula was born in Marshall, Michigan, and grew up an only child in Commerce, near Detroit. The son of a former soccer player, Mike chose hockey instead. “I’m just not a big fan of running I guess,” he explained with a laugh. He preferred to skate, though he wasn’t the best at hockey either. “I remember my mom taking me to the rink when I was about three or four years old. She said I was pretty bad, I was probably the worst player. I think I was picked last for my mite team.” But Mike stuck with it, with his mother bringing him to open skates and skating school so he could continue to improve. “It’s definitely a credit to both my parents for letting me pursue what I love to do. Just like any other hockey parents, they made huge sacrifices for me. I wouldn’t be here without them or the abilities that God has given me.”
Religion is very important to Szmatula and has played a crucial role in his life and career thus far. “My faith is probably the number one thing in my life. I’ve obviously had my own personal experiences that have kind of swayed me in that direction to follow Jesus. Right now that’s the most important thing to me. I’m just grateful I’m able to do what I love and have been injury-free for the most part here. I’ve been blessed so far for sure.”
Szmatula continued to improve over the years and eventually played college hockey, first at Northeastern University in Boston, where he racked up 68 points in two seasons. He then transferred to the University of Minnesota and sat out a year. “Overall it was a good experience for me, I kind of really came into myself as a person. Going through that transition period was tough for sure, but I learned a lot, I was able to practice my game in that year off.” He played the following two seasons for Minnesota, adding another 40 points to his resume.
At the end of his college career, Szmatula had a decision to make. He had received offers from a couple of teams, the Adirondack Thunder being one of them. It was a “seamless transition” for the newcomer, with Adirondack’s core group making him feel welcome instantly. Szmatula contributed instantly, picking up two assists for the Thunder in the closing games of the regular season. He earned a spot on the playoff roster and went on to score five goals and eight points in the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
The Thunder were impressed enough to sign Szmatula over the summer, and the AHL’s Binghamton Devils were impressed enough to invite him to training camp, though he didn’t make their opening night roster. He returned to Adirondack and used the experience as a stepping stone, eventually earning a two-game stint with the Stockton Heat of the AHL before being returned to the Thunder. Now Szmatula can add an All-Star game to his already impressive rookie season.
Szmatula remains humble when discussing the All-Star game: “Obviously super honored and excited, but at the same time it’s just a testament to my teammates for sure, and the coaches for allowing me to have the belief in myself. They’ve given me confidence all year to play how I know I can play, and without that, I wouldn’t be in this opportunity.”
Red Wings Connection
Many fans in Glens Falls started out as fans of the Adirondack Red Wings, Detroit’s AHL affiliate from 1979-1999. Some even became fans of the NHL club as well. Thunder Associate Coach Pete Dineen played for the Adirondack Red Wings for three seasons and for the Detroit Red Wings for two games. Szmatula, who grew up near Detroit, was naturally a Red Wings fan. He was such a big fan of guys like Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, he’s always chosen his jersey numbers based on his favorite players.
“All the numbers I’ve picked growing up have been from the Red Wings, like Steve Yzerman was my favorite player. This year I picked 91 for Fedorov. Just the way that he played and just growing up in Detroit, especially when they were the powerhouse back then, ’97, ’98, it was super cool. That’s probably a big reason also why I fell in love with the game. Fortunate to grow up there during that era of the Wings.”