July 31, 2014

Bruins Beat: Justin Florek aims to rise

By Andrew Merritt

Justin Florek scored a goal and had an assist in four regular-season games with the Bruins, then scored in the playoffs against the Red Wings. He had 38 points for the P-Bruins last season. Photo/Getty Images

At a late June benefit event dotted by celebrities from television and sports, Walt Kyle couldn’t help but notice the real star of the show.

The UP Celebrity Golf Classic at the Marquette Golf Club in Marquette, Mich., included appearances by former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely and the Colburn brothers, Monte and Keith, from the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.”

But despite all the football players and reality TV stars, Kyle said, it was Justin Florek who stood out.

“Justin was clearly the most popular guy there,” said Kyle, who coached Florek at Northern Michigan from 2008-12.

Even if his old college coach was exaggerating a little, Florek certainly earned a little more attention upon returning home this summer. The 2014 offseason follows the rookie’s most successful year as a pro, but not only that, it’s a chance to catch his breath after five of the wildest and happiest months of his life.

It all started with a wakeup call from Don Sweeney — literally — early in the morning on Jan. 4.

“In Providence, we played that Friday night, and Saturday morning, we usually show up to the ink around 10,” Florek said. “I had my alarm set for 9, and at 8:30 I got the call from Don Sweeney. He asked me if he was interrupting my beauty sleep.”

The Bruins’ assistant general manager had some big news: Florek was being called up from Providence to the big club. Oh, and his presence was requested in Boston in time for a 1 p.m. puck drop in the Bruins’ game against Winnipeg.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Florek said. “I had to hurry up and eat breakfast and make my way up to Boston. I got the call at 8:30, had to play at 12:30, so not too much time to think about it.”

A few hours later, Florek arrived at TD Garden, and a few hours after that, he had played his first NHL game, logging 10:14 of ice time over a healthy 14 shifts, including a penalty-kill stint in the first period of Boston’s 4-1 win.

 “It was just the best way I could wake up and drive right up here and play the game,” Florek said after the game. “It kind of made it easy for me not to think too much about it and just get out there and play my game.”

Florek’s first NHL call-up was short-lived, as he was sent back down less than a week later. But before returning to Providence, he scored his first NHL goal, a tip-in on Johnny Boychuk’s shot late in a 4-2 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles on Jan. 9.

As the Bruins shuffled their lineup and juggled several key injuries, Florek was bounced back to Providence for the bulk of the second half of the year. But after Chris Kelly suffered another injury late in the year, Florek got the call again, playing in the team’s final regular-season game, at New Jersey on April 13.

It was the reward for a lot of work, and a lot of waiting. Florek played two good, if unremarkable, years with the U.S. National Team Development Program before enrolling at Northern Michigan — an easy choice for the local boy whose mother, an NMU grad herself, taught him how to skate at the campus while she was taking classes there.

“He was a kid we knew we wanted,” said Kyle, who knew Florek well before he came to the school after seeing him play as a Bantam. “As a young player, he was just a big raw kid. He played with the NTDP, and I think they had him pegged as a bottom of the lineup guy there. We thought he could turn into a real good player.”

Justin Florek celebrates his playoff goal with Carl Soderberg against the Red Wings. (Photo/Getty Images)

Sure enough, after starting his freshman year on the Wildcats’ fourth line, Florek moved into a top-line role by Christmas, and never looked back. He was third on the team with 35 points the next year as a sophomore, and second in his junior (28 points) and senior (36) seasons.

Florek’s hockey career might have ended there were it not for a well-placed phone call by Kyle to an old friend. Florek went undrafted before his freshman season, and then again after his rookie campaign, so Kyle decided to do some networking on his behalf. Kyle was the head coach of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds from 1992-94, during which time one of the team’s scouts was Scott Bradley. In 2010, Bradley was the Bruins’ director of player personnel.

Kyle was hoping Bradley would take a look at the promising young prospect who had been passed over twice by NHL teams at the draft.

“Scott came in and watched him, and it was like immediately, this guy’s for real,” Kyle said. “From that point on, the Bruins were going to draft him.”

And in 2010, they did. Florek was the Bruins’ fifth-round pick, 135th overall. After his four strong years with the Wildcats, Florek signed with the Bruins and played 71 games in Providence in 2012-13, scoring 11 goals and 16 assists.

It was a good year. But Florek knew the 2013-14 season was the time to make a leap.

“I knew it was going to be a big year for me, that I had to make some big strides, make an impact in the AHL level, and hopefully play a game or two in the NHL level,” he said. “The goal this year was to get a game or two with the Boston Bruins.”

What he didn’t know, at least until late in the 2013 offseason, was just how big a year it was going to be. On Feb. 17, he had 12 goals and 16 assists through 49 games with the Providence Bruins; he had the best wakeup call of his life from Don Sweeney; and he had three games of NHL experience, including his first NHL goal.

On Feb. 18, he had something even better when his wife, Kylie, gave birth to their first child, Lily.

“It definitely added to the craziness of this year; it was so exciting, the adrenaline was pumping throughout the pregnancy and the birth, and on top of that the experiences with Boston,” he said. “My wife is great; she’s helped me so much, and I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

Being a new parent is hard in any profession, but when your job requires you to put in grueling physical effort and work late hours, it’s important to have some help. And that’s where Kylie picked up the biggest assist by a Florek this year.

“She allowed me to get the sleep I needed to perform the nights before games,” he said. “You look at guys who have done it, and they’re doing just fine. I knew it would be a mental battle as well. It’s been great to come home and be with my wife and daughter and family.”

It’s been a whirlwind year for Florek, but he’s handled the twists and turns well. So well, in fact, that when Kelly went down late in the year, Florek got the call again for the last game of the regular season and stuck with the big club for the start of the playoffs.

Growing up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Florek was a Detroit Red Wings fan when he was young. In fact, it wasn’t until he was drafted that he became a fan of the Boston Bruins. So it was a surreal moment for the “Yooper” to be playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs against his boyhood team.

Florek acquitted himself well in the series, averaging about 11:39 of ice time over the five games while playing primarily on a line with Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson. And in Game 4, Florek scored the biggest goal of his career — so far — when he knocked in the first of four Bruins goals in a victory that gave them a 3-1 lead in the series.

Florek also became a bit of a statistical oddity, as he has more Stanley Cup playoff games (six) than regular-season games (four) on his NHL résumé.

“It was pretty crazy. I thought about that for a while there, I’ve actually played more games against the Red Wings than in the regular season,” he said with a chuckle. “It kind of blew my mind. You dream about playing in the playoffs, playing for the Stanley Cup. Just knowing I can play at that pace, that intensity, it’s important to know I can play at that level.”

And it’s not just important for him. Florek’s ascendancy is meaningful to the Bruins, too, as they have to make some hard roster decisions to stay under the $69 million salary cap for 2014-15. While the core is still in place for a few years in Boston, there are some big roles to be filled in the coming months, and Florek’s impressive performance, albeit in a limited sample size, could make that process a little easier for GM Peter Chiarelli.

“The forwards are coming; you even look to our American League team this year and we had some pretty good performances,” Chiarelli said in a pre-draft conference call. “(Seth) Griffith, (Alexander) Khokhlachev, (Ryan) Spooner, they’re all at various levels of development, but the (Brian) Ferlins, the (Justin) Floreks, the (Matt) Frasers, there’s forwards that are coming.

“Last year I thought we had a very healthy competition with some new forwards, including (Carl) Soderberg and Reilly Smith, and I thought it really helped invigorate, or reinvigorate, our group, and this year I would expect the same thing.”

If Florek proves Chiarelli right and challenges for a roster spot in training camp — as his old coach, Kyle, thinks he will — then the next time there’s a summer charity benefit in Marquette, the crab fishermen and football players will have to take second billing to Florek, who’s hoping his very big year only leads to bigger and better.

This article originally appeared in the July edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com

Twitter: @A_Merritt