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Szydlowski ready to roll

Friday, August 5th
Szydlowski ready to roll

At 32, with over 600 professional games under his skates, most people would think Shawn Szydlowski would be ready to ride off into the sunset to conclude a remarkable career in minor league hockey.

Most people would be wrong.

The Orlando Solar Bears announced on Wednesday that the club had agreed to terms with the 12-year veteran forward on an ECHL contract for the 2022-23 season, extending his career for at least one more season after spending the previous nine winters with the Fort Wayne Komets.

Needless to say, Szydlowski is eager to get started.

“Obviously there's a protocol to these things, so sometimes you’ve got to keep the secret and now it's honestly excitement that’s taken over,” Szydlowski said. “I’ve gotten messages from past teammates, a lot of friends and family all excited for me and wishing me the best and I'm just really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a totally new experience for me too.”

When the Komets opted not to protect his rights in free agency earlier this summer, it signaled to Szydlowski that he would be able to shop his talents around the ECHL. After all, what team wouldn’t want an experienced two-way forward with a scoring title, an MVP award and a championship ring in his trophy case?

Szydlowski didn’t remain on the open market for long, however, as conversations got underway with newly-appointed Solar Bears head coach and general manager Matt Carkner once Szydlowski hit the open market.

“Orlando was my first call and actually ended up basically being my last - I didn't really get too far with anyone else,” Szydlowski said.

His new boss is thrilled with having been able to land a player with the all-around skillset possessed by Szydlowski.

“Shawn has a good reputation in the league, he's done some pretty incredible things at the ECHL level and I have a lot of respect for the way he plays,” Carkner said. “He's tough, he's gritty, he's creative, he can score – he does it all. On top of that, his character, his leadership and his hunger to win is what really attracted me after speaking with Shawn.”

How long has Szydlowski been around? Szydlowski’s first-ever ECHL game came back in 2011-12 with the Gwinnett (now Atlanta) Gladiators against the one-and-done expansion Chicago Express. For perspective, this was a full season prior to the Solar Bears taking the ice as an ECHL franchise. That longevity has led to some impressive individual achievements, as he’s racked up nearly 500 points at the ECHL level, and has collected a scoring title and MVP award along the way.

The trade-off of gaining a player of Szydlowski’s stature is that he’s endured some bumps and bruises along the way. After Szydlowski helped Fort Wayne capture its first-ever Kelly Cup in 2021, he underwent offseason back surgery and didn’t return to the Komets’ lineup until mid-December of last season. As he celebrates his 32nd birthday today, the Michigan native remains firm that he has plenty left in the tank and is sure to make a clear distinction that this year heading into training camp is significantly different than the last three summers.

“I'm having this full summer and it's my first one in a couple years [between COVID-canceled and delayed seasons] and then back surgery – it's my first real regular offseason in a while,” Szydlowski said. “I feel great right now, and still have some more time to get in even better shape, so I'll be ready [for training camp], that's for sure.”

It’s that earnest desire that motivates Szydlowski to be a part of another championship squad. Having been through it already once in his career, he has an idea of what it will take.

“The team I played on [in 2021], everyone was close, whether we were at the rink or away from it we're all doing stuff together everyone enjoyed being around each other. You saw that translate on the ice, where late in games guys were blocking shots – even if we were winning a game up by four goals – guys were still blocking shots for each other or standing up for each other and just everyone had that much more fun winning.

 “I really believe in that – the power of just the camaraderie of a team, because when you see some of your best friends going out there and sacrificing their bodies to help you win games, that just makes you want to do that much more and I just believe that's the biggest factor in any championship team.”

That camaraderie will be forged in the locker room in part by mutual respect, even amongst old combatants. One of Szydlowski’s five fighting majors last season came against defenseman Jimmy Mazza, when the blueliner played for the Adirondack Thunder.

By virtue of a trade earlier this summer, Szydlowski and Mazza will now be teammates in Orlando when training camp opens in October.

“I'm sure the second we meet each other, we’ll probably just make eye contact and laugh because …it's hockey right? It's the nature of the business and you know that's part of his game and it's part of mine,” Szydlowski said with a laugh. “I bet you we will probably be pretty close, just because we respect that about each other – just the willingness to stand up for your team or do the things that we need to in this game, it won't be awkward at all, needless to say.”

Szydlowski acknowledged that the Solar Bears play in a competitive division that is routinely stacked – three of the last four Eastern Conference champions in the Kelly Cup Finals have come out of the South Division, with the Florida Everblades taking the crown in 2022. Dating back to when he last played in Orlando as a visiting player in 2015, the South Division has consistently been a gauntlet requiring a certain finesse to get through.

“We definitely won’t be afraid of anyone, that's for sure,” Szydlowski said. “I think that speaks into [Carkner]'s vision for the team – and the one I agree with – is just having a team that can play any type of game; it doesn't necessarily mean we have to be the toughest and be the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ of back in the day – we don't have to be that at all. But there comes a time when you know you're going to get in close games or you're going to have rivalries where guys are dropping the gloves on some given nights, and we’ll need just the willingness to stand up for your team and do what it takes to win hockey games.

“When you play a sport like this, those are the type of guys that we want: the ones that understand why they're here and what we're all fighting for. I want to be on the ice with someone who's going to have my back, so when we go into a battle I'll have everyone’s, so I just want to know that you have mine, and that's the mentality that we’re probably going to go into every game with, so no one’s going to be pushing us around this year, I can promise that.”

That responsibility appears to be echoed in how Carkner views his latest signing will be deployed.

“I think he's going to round out our team very nicely and be a leader in the room; he’ll be a guy who plays the right way and a guy that will keep hold everyone accountable at the same time,” Carkner said. “Shawn is going to be part of our top-two forward lines. We're going to play around with [line combinations] a little bit as we go, but he's a guy who we’ll rely upon heavily – when he's firing on all cylinders and playing the way he can play, there's not too many better players in the league.”

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