Growing up in Michigan, Mike Szmatula annually had a firsthand look at Minnesota’s Thanksgiving traditions. As a player at Northeastern he had the opportunity during one to face the Gophers.
Now two years later the Gopher left winger will get the chance to return the favor, riding a six-game point streak when he returns to Boston on Thanksgiving weekend to face the Huskies and Boston College.
“It’s going to be big for us, especially closing out our non-conference series. Just being back there, I always liked their rink so we’re going to go out and try to get two big wins,” Szmatula said.
Szmatula leads the way back to Boston with much more than being the only one who knows which restaurants have the good clam chowder. He sits second on the Gophers in scoring with 11 points (4G-7A) in 10 games. Despite being listed at 5’9”, 184 lbs, he is not afraid to get in front of the net and work to score goals.
That’s nothing new, however. The 24 year-old Szmatula transferred to Minnesota in August 2015 following two seasons at Northeastern. There the now-junior had 68 points (28G-40A) in 73 games for the Huskies.
“For him, he had two good years there, but made a decision to go someplace else. We’re glad he’s on our team,” said Gopher head coach Don Lucia, who is one win away from being the 8th coach in NCAA hockey to reach 700 victories. “He’s off to a good start. He’s been a point a game guy in Hockey East and he’s been a point per game guy for us.”
Szmatula transferring meant he had to sit out a season on top of adjusting to a new school and group of players. Practices became his games. He couldn’t play as the Gophers tried and eventually failed to make the NCAA Tournament. He had to watch his old teammates go on a 20-1-2 run and win the Hockey East conference tournament.
Instead he tried to look at it as a positive. He had a year to step back and become a student of hockey and made the most of it, usually being the first person on the ice at practice before everyone else got there.
“I took it day by day,” Szmatula said. “The coaches made sure that they were working with me extra, which was huge for me and obviously a big part of me getting better as a player. It was a pretty smooth transition.”
His teammates also helped. Having been living with linemate Justin Kloos and the rest of the seniors since coming to Minnesota made on-ice chemistry easier once Szmatula was able to play. That can be seen in his approach on the power play, where three of his four goals have come. Szmatula said he feels confident that all five players on the ice know where they should be at all times.
Between his two schools and growing up just north of Detroit, Szmatula personally experienced the three major college hockey concentrations. Sometimes they overlap.
As a native of Commerce Township, Michigan, he has fond memories of the old College Hockey Showcase at Yost and Munn Ice Arena. Every Thanksgiving weekend between 1993 and 2012 Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State would face one another.
“You knew when the BCs and the Minnesotas were in town. It was a clash of titans so to speak,” he said.
Szmatula also remembers being on the ice at Matthews Arena playing against the Gophers on Thanksgiving weekend in 2014. There he had no points in a 3-2 Northeastern win, however, he played a role in a game-changing moment. Two minutes into the game Mike Reilly was given a game misconduct for checking from behind, further putting Minnesota into a hole after playing the night before.
That player? Mike Szmatula. (“I might have sold it a little bit,” he admitted, just in case Mr. Reilly is reading.)
Now Szmatula returns to the place he once called home with the team he now does. While he has every incentive to want to extend his point streak and put Minnesota in a better position for its own NCAA Tournament run as Big Ten conference play looms going against his old team, Szmatula also knows he won’t be the only one.
“When Minnesota comes to town regardless of what team it is that team is going to have an extra jump. We know we have to be ready," he said.
Minnesota plays Northeastern and Boston College this weekend. Friday’s game against the Huskies begins at 6:00 p.m. CT. Sunday’s game against the Eagles starts at noon CT. Neither game is televised although the Northeastern game features a free stream at GoNU.com. Both games can be heard on 1500 ESPN.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate