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Szczechura's Hard Work Earns NHL Call

by Tris Wykes / Tampa Bay Lightning

With his Monday promotion from the Norfolk Admirals to the Lightning, Paul Szczechura has reached the goal of so many young Canadian boys. The kid from Telephone City has gotten the NHL call.

Hailing from Brantford, Ontario, where Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, Szczechura spent more time identifying with another famous city native: Wayne Gretzky.

“Everywhere in Canada, you're going to be exposed to hockey,” said Szczechura, a third-year pro at center who's produced 25 goals and 50 points in 47 Norfolk games the past two seasons. “But Brantford's a bit more of a hockey city than most because of Wayne.”

Growing up less than two miles from the Gretzkys' house and fabled backyard rink, Paul was coached by Wayne's father, Walter, when he was a youth player. But it was Szczechura who created his own breaks, always making the city's top teams and even traveling to Sweden and Finland for Peewee tournaments.

The youngster stayed in town to play Junior B hockey in his mid-teens and was drafted by the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. However, regulations stipulated that if Szczechura's OHL tryout lasted more than a short time, he'd lose his college hockey eligibility in the U.S. He wasn't sure which path to take.

The decision came down to one night, when Szczechura knew college scouts would be attending one of his Junior B exhibition games. He needed to leave for Barrie if he was going to make the Colts' tryouts in time, but chose to stay in town and lace up his skates.

“I had been back and forth on it, but that day, I made up my mind I was going to college,” Szczechura said. “I got a scholarship offer the next day.”

Western Michigan University, a Kalamazoo, Mich., school with an NCAA Division I hockey program, was the institution making the offer, which Szczechura quickly accepted. An older friend of his from Junior B was enjoying his freshman year at WMU and committing early ended any tension.

Szczechura shined in his last season of junior hockey and arrived at college to significant expectations. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he found himself lacking the strength many Broncos possessed and he struggled for the first couple of months.

“Seeing my teammates in the weight room every day was a shock at first,” Szczechura recalled. But the 17-year old adjusted to competing with and against players as much as five years older and managed a respectable 20 points in 39 games. By his senior season, Szczechura put up 19 goals and 45 points in 37 games and signed as a free agent right after the campaign with the AHL's Iowa Stars.

In 53 Iowa games during the next two winters, Szczechura played mostly in a checking role and managed only 16 points. He was traded to Norfolk for future considerations midway through the 2007-08 season and this time arrived as almost a complete unknown.

Not only was the new guy's name difficult to pronounce (Shuh-HER-uh), he didn't seem to be a neat fit as a checker or a scorer. But it didn't take long for the Admirals' coaches to figure that one out, as Szczechura piled up 26 points in 24 games and committed only eight minor penalties. He signed his first NHL contract with the Lightning last summer.

“He doesn't really look like a player if you see him in the mall but he's got great hands, great vision and a great shot and he's not afraid to battle in the corners,” said Admirals wing Brandon Segal, who's been on a line with Szczechura and Radek Smolenak since the start of the season. “When he gives the puck to me he's always trying to find holes so I can give the puck back to him.”

Not particularly fast or especially shifty, Szczechura compensates with excellent anticipation and knowledge of how to best exploit it for scoring chances. If a lane opens for either a pass or a drive to the net, Szczechura rarely pauses and Norfolk rivals find themselves surrendering goals on back-door feeds or goalmouth scrambles.

“He plays a rough game for a small guy and he doesn't get credit for that,” said Admirals captain Zenon Konopka, who plays the same style. “He gets through little cracks where if you have fear or hesitation, you won't make it.

“He always seems to get the puck through to the net even if he's off-balance or out of position. He's being rewarded for getting the puck into the high-traffic areas.”

Mike Butters, the Admirals' general manager, had only been on the job a few weeks when he became convinced Szczechura had a big-league future. Butters watched how the 23-year-old focused on pregame preparation and paid attention to the smallest technical details on the ice.

Afterwards, it was off to the exercise bike or the weight room for endurance work and serious stretching. Szczechura leads Norfolk with 11 goals and 24 points in 23 games and his plus-7 rating is second on the team.

“I think by this time next year, we could well be having a conversation about how well Paul is doing in the NHL,” Butters said in mid-October.

Come to think of it, such talk might be heard a bit earlier.

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