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Rookie blueliner ready to show off his talents in Wichita as his team's ECHL all-star representative
Before we begin, perhaps we should post a warning to Newfoundland Growlers’ coach John Snowden and the Toronto Maple Leafs brass:
Though he meant no harm, the opinions expressed by Growlers’ rookie defenceman Joe Duszak may cause a spike in blood pressure of Snowden and other Leaf officials.
“I played forward until I was 14,” says the Growlers’ slick first-year rearguard, “so I always had a knack for joining the rush and getting involved offensively.
“I think,” Duszak added “offence is more fun than defence, so if you have the puck, you don’t have to play defence.”
That noise you’re hearing right about now may be the steam blowing from Snowden’s ears.
Or maybe not.
The Growlers’ mentor has not had many reasons to get upset with Duszak, who has exhibited NHL potential just one year removed from college hockey in Erie, Pa.
A 22-year-old American, Duszak is one of those cagey findings Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas has used to stock his minor league system.
He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college hockey’s top player last season while attending little-known Mercyhurst University, and was one of the highest-scoring defencemen in the NCAA.
Duszak was his conference’s (Atlantic Hockey Association) player of the year, best defenceman and was named a first-team all-star.
All of which prompted the Leafs to sign him to a free agent, entry-level contract.
“We never had that type of player last year,” said Snowden of Duszak, and fellow rookie Mac Hollowell, who like Duszak is a slick-skating, puck-moving offensive defenceman.
“Because of their skating,” Snowden said, “they can escape pressure, make a clean exit from the D zone, find ways to jump up the ice and find those holes to be the fourth man in on the rush.
“And they have a special skillset in terms of making your power play better.”
It’s not only Snowden and the Growlers who have taken notice of Duszak. He’s in Wichita, Kan., the lone Newfoundland representative for tonight’s ECHL All-Star Classic, a four-team, three-on-three round-robin tournament involving Western and Eastern Conference all-star squads and two entries comprised of players from the host Wichita Thunder.
Duszak this week was en route to Kansas from Toronto where he was on recall to the AHL’s Marlies, his second stint this season with the Maple Leafs’ primary farm club.
Despite missing 10 Growlers’ games this season, mostly while on recall to the Marlies, Duszak has 27 points (8G, 19A) in 29 ECHL games, good for sixth in team scoring.
He’s one of the top-scoring rookies and defencemen in the ECHL.
Mercyhurst will never be mistaken for the University of Minnesota in terms of developing pro hockey players, and likewise Franklin Square, N.Y., Duszak’s hometown.
Franklin Square is on Long Island, a short distance from Uniondale, which was home to the New York Islanders for over 40 years until the franchise elected to start playing some games in Brooklyn.
“You come out of my house,” Duszak said, “make a left, go two blocks, make a right and that’s the road to the (Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, home to the Isles).
“It’s like five minutes away.”
Despite the success of the Islanders in the 1980s – the Isles iced teams which won four straight Stanley Cups – lacrosse, Duszak said, is the sport of choice on the Island.
“You look at a lot of Division I (college lacrosse) rosters,” he said, “and there are probably at least three or four guys from Long Island on each team.”
Duszak tried lacrosse as well, but it was hockey that he was drawn to at an early age.
His cousin, Ziggy Marszalek, played NCAA DI hockey at Merrimack University. When Duszak was two, his mom took him to a local arena and Marszalek took his young cousin under his wing and taught him to skate.
Just a few years later, Duszak began playing on a team coached by Mike Bracco, a former Dartmouth College NCAA goaltender.
Bracco had a son on the team, and Duszak and Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco became very close and have remained so, especially when teammates on the Marlies.
“One of my buddies was Mike Sillinger’s son,” Duszak said of the veteran of 1,092 NHL games with 12 different teams, including the Islanders for three years beginning with the 2006-07 campaign.
“He was always around us,’ Duszak said of Sillinger, “him and Ryan Smyth and Chris Campoli and Jason Blake. They were always around the rink, and it was pretty cool.”
Duszak generated some attention from college coaches, and it was Mercyhurst which pushed hardest.
It was a gutsy decision, going to an unheralded school playing in an obscure Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) conference.
“But there are a lot of good players in that league,” he says, pointing out that top-ranked St. Cloud State University was knocked out of the playoffs by AHA teams (Air Force and American International College) the past two years.
“That conference doesn’t get the respect it deserves.”
Duszak is not the biggest defenceman (he’s listed at 5-10) in the world, but there is no questioning the player’s skill.
Who knows if he will find full-time employment in the American league, and then make a bid for a job on the Leafs’ blueline.
But considering from where he’s come, he’s already proven once he can beat the odds.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort