Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mark Jankowski Reflects on his California Adventure and New Job as a Pro Hockey Player

Playing hooky to play hockey.

That's basically what it came down to for Providence College senior Mark Jankowski as the longtime Flames prospect cut 17 days of school earlier in the month to travel across the country and play eight games for Calgary's AHL affiliate in Stockton, California.

Having just arrived back on PC's Rhode Island campus this week, I caught up to the 21-year-old by phone from his dorm room, where we chatted about many things including his first taste of pro hockey and how that went, the bittersweet ending to his college career and what summer looks like now that he's employed as a hockey player.

"I had done a lot of summer school to get ahead. So I'm pretty lucky that I only have three classes left to graduate," said Jankowski, completing a degree in Business Management. "Before I left, I met with all three of my professors and they were all very cool with it. I stayed in touch with them while I was out in Stockton and now that I'm back, I have a few homework assignments to catch up on, then I just have to write my final exams and I should be good."

A Taste of the Next Level

The reality that Jankowski was playing at a new and higher level of hockey set in immediately in his first game on April 1 against Ontario, the Los Angeles Kings affiliate.

"First thing I noticed is after every whistle and especially that game in particular, there was some sort of scrum going on. Maybe not a fight every time, but there was something going on. Coming from college where we have cages and can't fight, that was really different for me."

Photo via the Stockton Heat, Credit: Jack Lima
Jankowski was joining in progress some rivalries that were well-established and are naturally going to become heated when you play the same teams as often as you do with the AHL's new divisional alignment that sees the five California teams in the Pacific Division play each other all the time. That night, for example, was the 11th time Stockton and Ontario had met. That included a fight-filled game on New Year's Eve.

"The hatred that the two teams had. You could definitely see it, and every game I was there, we were playing against one of those California teams so I saw it a lot. My first five games were Ontario, San Diego, Ontario, San Diego and then San Diego again. We played the same two teams for a while so you could really see the tension build up."

The temperature rising outside the rink was also a different experience.

"The weather was unbelievable. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt every day, which was great and way different from Providence, where it's much colder at that time of year."

Jankowski spent his time in Northern California sharing an apartment with 18-year-old goaltender Nick Schneider and defenceman Keegan Kanzig, who had each joined Stockton after their WHL seasons had ended. Located right beside the rink and with a restaurant on the main floor, Jankowski said it was an ideal set-up.

Enjoying Some Early Success

In eight games, Jankowski had two goals and four assists including a four-game point streak.

"A great experience," he said. "There were a few nerves in that first game and then you just try and shake those off. I felt that as I got going, every game I was getting more comfortable and more confident, just getting back to playing my game that I've been playing my whole life."

As Jankowski was unable to participate in the Flames 2014 summer development camp due to injury, the only previous experience Ryan Huska had with him came from last year's July camp.

"For me, it was still a bit of an unknown what he was all about when he came here but I can tell you I was pleasantly surprised and very happy with what he was able to do in the short period he was with us," said the coach of the Heat.

"He showed an offensive side, he showed a responsible defensive side, he can make plays from the middle of the ice and every game he played for us, he got much more confident to the point where we were using him in tons of key situations at the end," Huska said. "And a lot of the games that we were playing down the stretch, we were still fighting to get ourselves into the playoffs so the games meant something and I felt he raised his level every game.

"He has a lot of intriguing factors about him because he is that big centre man. If he can continue to put on the weight and continue to challenge himself and come back to camp with confidence, I'm excited to see what he's going to do next year."

The Craft of Face-offs

While he played with a variety of linemates, the one constant was he was deployed at centre the entire time.

Photo via the Stockton Heat, Credit: Jack Lima
"Face-offs went OK. While they didn't know me, I didn't know them so it was new for everyone and there was no real advantage for either of us," said Jankowski. "I had some good games, had some bad games in there but it was great."

Face-offs is an area Jankowski takes a lot of pride in. Tracked as part of Hockey East's advanced stats the past two seasons, he was an impressive 58.1 percent at the dot in 2014-15 before falling off to 52.1 percent this year.

"It's such a big part of the game, especially with all the focus on possession right now. You want to have the puck as much as possible and it starts right away from the face-off," he says. "I've worked a lot at it, it's no different than anything else that you're working on in your game and it's an area that I'm looking to to be successful with in the future."

All in all, he says he got exactly what he wanted out of his short California adventure.

"After our season ended. I knew it would be beneficial to come down for that couple weeks and get those games in. Everything off the ice, on the ice, it was beneficial just to see what life is like as a pro and I'm very glad that I did that."

Final Night as a Friar

The trip to the West Coast was a nice way to finish off the hockey year after a bittersweet ending to his college career. Not just because the reigning national champs, the top seed in the Northeast Region, got eliminated on the first night of the 16-team NCAA tournament, but because of the individual circumstances for Jankowski.

"I was pretty sick with the flu. I started feeling it the day before the game and thought hopefully it will just go away. But then I woke up the morning of the game and felt 10 times worse," said Jankowski, who was the Friars' leading scorer with 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) in 38 games. "But still, I was like I'll go to morning skate, sweat some of these things out, then hopefully have a good pre-game nap and get ready for the game. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way."

Despite his will to be out there on the ice, leading his team as one of Providence's alternate captains, as the 1-1 game went into overtime and then double overtime, he just couldn't persevere any longer.

"After the first overtime, I couldn't hold it anymore. I went to the bathroom and started puking and that's when the trainer saw me and took me out," he said.

Jankowski was by himself in the trainer's room when the winning goal went in.

"I heard a bunch of cheers from the crowd so I asked hey, what happened, someone go check and they told me we lost. When I heard that, especially not being out there with the guys when it happened, it was a tough, tough feeling and a difficult one to get over.

After everyone got changed, the guys stopped by the trainer's room to talk to him.

"Definitely an emotional night as we had our final good-byes as a hockey team," said Jankowski, one of nine players that were together for all four of his seasons. "But only one team gets to win it all at the end. We were lucky enough for that to happen to us last year. We have a lot to be proud of, especially our team this year, we accomplished a lot and we all recognize that."

Time to Talk Contract

With Jankowski completely focused on the playoffs up until that point, no contract discussions had taken place yet. Those were saved for after the season ended, after giving him some time to recover from the flu and the sudden end to his collegiate career.

Photo via the Stockton Heat, Credit: Jack Lima
There were two things that Jankowski knew going into the negotiations. One was that he definitely wanted to be part of the organization that showed such faith in him by taking him 21st overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. Second, he wanted the next step to be what was best for him.

"I always wanted to be a Calgary Flame, that was never an issue for me. It's been a great organization, they've been nothing but top notch, especially when the management changed and Mr. Treliving and his staff took over. We've talked a lot, we have a very good relationship and I just felt this was definitely the place where I wanted to be a pro hockey player."

A path so many college players have gone down previously -- see Kenny Agostino, Ben Hanowski, Bill Arnold, Bryce Van Brabant -- was demanding during the contract talks to sign a contract that began immediately. In such a scenario often referred to as 'burning the first year', he would have been added to the NHL roster, paid an NHL salary for the remainder of the season and also gotten into some NHL games.

While that wasn't the initial offer on the table, the Hockey East First Team All-Star probably could have got it had he pushed for it. After all, he had the leverage of being able to become a free agent if he waited until August 15.

Instead, Jankowski agreed to the deal that was offered, which was a two-year, two-way entry-level contract that begins in 2016-17. In that scenario, he was able to go to the AHL this season by signing an amateur try-out (ATO) with Stockton.

"You can look at all things and take everything into consideration. The one thing I have to look at is what's best for my development as a hockey player," he said. "I felt what was best for me was getting better from being sick then going into Stockton and getting a feel for what professional hockey is like. Being there for the couple weeks that I was, I got to play eight games and it was a very valuable experience that I can look back on this summer as I'm training and getting ready for training camp."

Ready for the Next Chapter

As he catches up on missed homework assignments and gets ready for his graduation on May 15, the native of St. Catherines, Ontario, says he's ready for the next chapter in his hockey career.

That includes continuing to get bigger. A scrawny six-foot-two and between 165 and 170 pounds when he was drafted by former Flames GM Jay Feaster four years ago, he's now six-foot-four and played this season at 198 pounds. His next goal is to get to between 200 and 205 pounds by development camp and at that point, he'll meet with Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan Van Asten and set another goal for September.

He knows Van Asten from having worked with him last summer when he arrived in town ahead of development camp. He plans to spend even more time in Calgary this year, training hard with the many players in the organization -- including guys on the NHL club -- that also work out at least part of the summer in town.

Another thing he's looking forward to next season is being reunited with Jon Gillies, his teammate for three years at Providence including that 2015 championship team.

"We've been texting and talking. It's definitely nice to have someone in the same organization that I've spent so much time with over the years. We can talk about things, he can show me the ropes a little bit. I've known him so well for the past four years, Jonny and I getting to be teammates again will be a great experience. We've had some success in the past together and we definitely want to have success in the future."

While the experience will be new this summer in concentrating fully on hockey, the surroundings will not be. When you've been around the same organization as long as Jankowski has, there are lots of familiar faces at this point.

He roomed with Patrick Sieloff when he came to Calgary last year. He also lists Morgan Klimchuk, Brett Kulak and Kanzig among the  other guys he's gotten to know quite well over the years.

Final Word

"One of the biggest things I can take away from my time in Stockton is while I may have had a little bit of success in the first stint, I need to have a huge summer and be prepared for training camp and next season. That league, like any pro hockey league, is not easy. You can't take anything for granted. Any success that you've had. You have to build off that and you can't be complacent."

Photo via the Stockton Heat, Credit: Jack Lima
Just look at guy like Klimchuk. A prolific scorer during his time in major junior, he scored just three goals and nine points in his first pro season. The jump to pro hockey is always big one.

"(Jankowski) did have success while he was here in this short stretch and it's how he handles that success moving forward that will be key," said Huska. "His mindset has to be I'm going to make an impression when I come to my next camp. They're going to notice me on the ice and I'm going to make sure every day that I'm playing for keeps. Then I think you'll see a guy that a lot of people will notice when he steps onto the ice."

For Flames fans, their next opportunity for an eye examination of the much talked about prospect will be at WinSport in July. But unlike the past four years, this time when that camp ends, Jankowski's message to his teammates won't be see you next summer, this time it will be see you in September.

Rookie camp, the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, main training camp. Life as a pro hockey player begins.

"I'm excited for the summer but also really excited for next season. This is my first summer as a pro and it's already starting to sink in that this is my job now. It's not just school anymore."

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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1 comment:

  1. Joe who unlikely, but a top six would not surprise me at all, and a mid six is a bet I would take any day of the week. Can you shed some light on Arnold and Smith? I am curious to know if they have tried Bill on the RW and I just think Hunter is a great young man, and would love to see him in Calgary. In his case I am more curious as to his skating. Thx for all the great work Darren. I am really enjoying your radio spot. Stairs not so much lol, but A for effort Sir.