If there was one aspect consistent throughout the young career of Matt Garbowsky, it is familiarity.
Familiarity was an important factor in where he decided to pursue a college hockey career, and as one of the newest Rochester Americans, that trend continued in his desire to play professionally.
Garbowsky isn’t from Rochester. He isn’t from the United States for that matter. His favorite NHL team as a youth wasn’t the Buffalo Sabres.
So what compelled him to inking a deal with the Amerks? It was the familiarity of playing in Western New York following four years attending the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
After two seasons with the Powell River Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League, Garbowsky wanted to play his college hockey in a town that offered a chance to win and play relatively close to home. Ultimately, the St. George, Ontario, native elected to go to RIT, and the rest, they say, is history.
“They had a winning pedigree, and I wanted to go to a winning team,” Garbowsky said. “I also wanted to go to a team where I knew I’d get a fair chance at starting. Coach [Wayne] Wilson told me right away that I’d be given the chance. It was what I did with it. It was kind of close to my home as well.”
The 24-year-old spent four seasons with RIT, earning a number of honors this past season as a senior, including a nomination for the 2015 Hobey Baker award as college hockey’s best player.
His eventual decision to join the Amerks came a year after Garbowsky struggled through a tough junior season, where he missed nearly four months and 24 games after suffering a significant wrist injury. Garbowsky suited up in just 13 games in 2013-14, posting seven points. Admittedly, Garbowsky was unsure about what his future held.
“I had my doubts,” Garbowsky said. “It was a pretty tough injury. I was out for most of the season and I knew that I wanted to get my wrist strong again and train hard to get myself back to where I thought I should be.”
He returned in stunning fashion, guiding RIT to its second Atlantic Hockey championship in five years and a berth in this year’s NCAA Tournament, where the Tigers upset the top overall seed, Minnesota State University. The next day, however, RIT fell to the University of Nebraska to end their Frozen Four dreams.
Immediately, Garbowsky’s sights were set on signing with a professional team, and the Amerks seemed like a natural fit. Garbowsky signed a an Amateur Tryout for the remainder of 2014-15 simultaneously with a one-year American Hockey League deal for next season on March 31, just two days after his Tigers were eliminated from the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament.
“Location kind of helped sway the decision,” Garbowsky said. “I played in Blue Cross Arena, I knew where everything was, I’ve been around the area, things like that. I think those were the major things, as well as I knew I was going to be able to come in and try to make an impact.”
Garbowsky’s signing with the Amerks is just another example of professional teams utilizing college hockey to pick up strong prospects and strengthen their farm system. According to Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy, the NCAA has been feeding talent to the NHL and AHL for a number of years now.
“There are so many players from the NCAA that are playing in the NHL now that everybody pays pretty close attention to it,” Cassidy said. “You’re usually getting an older player, and somebody that can probably step in because they’re a little more physically and mentally mature.”
Rarely is the transition seamless. Professional hockey, particularly in the AHL, is played with a much different style than college players are accustomed to.
“It’s a little more of a structure game [in the AHL], where you play twice a week at the college level and its go, go, go all the time,” Cassidy said. “It’s a hard, heavy forecheck with a lot of chip and chase, a lot of dump-ins. I think the pro game has got a little more control to it. You’re playing 76 games [here], sometimes three-in-threes, and most of the time three or four games a week.“
It has been an adjustment for Garbowsky, who has one assist in six games since joining the Amerks back on April 1. Still, he has gained “a lot more confidence” since his first game with the Amerks and will strive to “get back to my game going forward”.
If nothing else, Garbowsky has cemented his candidacy as a true Rochesterian after four years in the area’s top college hockey program and now a contract with the city’s only professional hockey team.
“Being here for four years in college and another year next year with the Amerks… it kinds of feels like my hometown now.”