Mariusz Czerkawski spent quite a few years putting up big numbers for the New York Islanders. These days, back home in his native Poland, his life is all about putting up low numbers. That's right, the Polish Prince - the one who told his teammates, "Golf is boring," and said, "Maybe when I'm 60" - has become a golf fanatic. As a natural athlete, it's not a surprise that he's become very good at it. He has a four-handicap and recently won the World Golfer's Amateur Championship in Poland. Next stop: an all expenses paid trip to Malaysia to represent his country in the international portion of that same tournament where over 25 different countries will be represented.
But back to the big numbers for a minute. Czerkawski scored 35 goals and added 35 assists for 70 points in the 1999-00 season and went on to represent the Islanders in the NHL All-Star Game that year. In a career that spanned 12 seasons and five different teams, Czerkawski's best years were with the Isles, scoring 50 or more points three times in his five consecutive seasons with the team (from 1997-98 to 2001-02) and then adding 49 more when he came back to the team in 2003-04. He left the NHL in 2006 and played two seasons for the Raperswil-Jona Lakers in Switzerland's top league before retiring from professional hockey in 2008.
The fact is, it's not easy to play that many years of professional hockey and not learn to play golf. It's such a natural fit as an off season activity, it's become hockey's unofficial past time. Everybody plays - Canadians, Americans, Europeans - and almost every team in the NHL hosts a charity golf tournament or two.
So Czerkawski played a few times when he couldn't avoid it, but it didn't stick. That is, until he was back in Poland and a golf-loving friend who knew he was a left shot in hockey encouraged him to try using lefty clubs, instead of the off-handed righty ones he'd tried the game with. Once he was properly outfitted, his game took off, and Czerkawski hasn't stopped playing since. These days he travels all over the world to play - Portugal, Mauritius, South Africa, Dubai, the list goes on.
The slow burn of Czerkawski's golf obsession was fine with him. Perhaps without realizing it, Czerkawski gave a little insight into the mind of a truly competitive athlete: He's actually really glad he didn't like golf when he was playing hockey.
"I lived on Long Island with beautiful courses all around. If I were in love with golf then, instead of focusing on just hockey and everything around hockey, I'd be thinking about my next tee time," Czerkawski said. "When you fall in love with something like I did, I mean, I was dreaming golf. Can you imagine before a hockey game, if I were thinking about my next round? No, I'm pretty happy I started it after."
When Czerkawski first hung up his skates and returned to Warsaw, he did some typical after hockey stuff - giving motivational speeches at corporate gatherings, investing in real estate, buying a chain of work out gyms, etc. But he also wanted to help out with Poland's national hockey program, so he took positions as the team leader, (think General Manager) the special advisor to the President, etc. He also started a foundation, Sports 7, which not only does charitable work, but also promotes hockey across the country by sponsoring skating competitions at schools, giving instruction, and hosting various hockey tournaments across the country. Czerkawski himself is there each year to present the Czerkawski Cup to the winners.
His most important role, however, may be just the inspiration he provides to kids who love the game. Parents and kids alike still ask him all the time how he made it to the NHL. A few years ago he answered them with a book called "My Life on the Ice." (You'll need to be fluent in Polish to read it though, as it hasn't been translated into English yet.)
In the book, he tells the story of growing up playing hockey in communist Poland in the 1980's. He didn't have access to many things - one of them being satellite feeds of NHL games. So he couldn't even dream of making it to the NHL. He thought maybe if he was good enough, he'd play pro in Sweden or somewhere in Europe. Then, at the age of 19, he played very well in the European Junior Championships in Sweden in 1990, finishing third in scoring behind Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr, Not too shabby, eh? But it was a game against Germany that put him on the scouts' radar. Czerkawski scored seven goals and added an assist in an 8-7 victory over Germany. Not only did he have a hand in every goal, he scored in almost every possible way: even strength, power play, penalty kill, penalty shot, 5 on 3, 4 on 4… He was drafted by Bruins the next year and made his first NHL appearance at the end of the 1994 season.
Czerkawski was traded to the Islanders in 1997. When asked why he felt he played so well in New York, he said he was at the peak of career age-wise, but more than that, it was the way people treated him. Coach Mike Milbury gave him a real chance - playing him with Robert Reichel and sometimes with Ziggy Palffy. And Coach Butch Goring used him a lot also.
"I liked the surroundings," he said. "I had good friends on the ice and off the ice. And we had good fans who stuck with us through some bad times and ownership changes. They made me feel like an an important part of the team, and that helped a lot."
He remembered the time in Tampa Bay when the trainers came in and told him the coaches wanted to see him before the game. He walked into the office nervous he was going to be traded, but Butchie just wanted to inform him that he'd made the All Star Team. He came out to high fives all around from his teammates - the trainers had told them all beforehand. He also remembered the last game of that season, playing in Florida. He went goal for goal with Bure - they each had a hat trick - but the Islanders won the game, and while they didn't make the playoffs that season, he said the win added a "little bit of sweetness at end."
Czerkawski, who has covered Olympic hockey for Polish TV at the last three Winter Olympics, said, "You know you are getting older when they ask you to do TV." He still enjoys being around the game and seeing friends and former teammates - like Alexei Yashin who's been doing commentary for Canadian TV, despite his Russian heritage.
But these days he also has some parental coaching to concentrate on. His nine year-old son, Iwo, is a hockey player who golfs - just like his dad. Czerkawski said Iwo is better at both sports than he was at that age. But then he points out, Iwo started swinging sticks and clubs much earlier than he did - not to mention, Iwo has an ex-NHL All Star with a four handicap for a coach.