Paul Taibi still has the voicemail saved on his phone. It was January 2011 when the coach of West Virginia University's club hockey team saw the message from Matt Bartkowski, whom he had coached at Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh. The Boston Bruins defenseman had called to tell Taibi he would be in the lineup for his first NHL game.
The game was in Pittsburgh against Bartkowski's hometown Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He actually got me tickets. It was pretty big," Taibi told NHL.com. "There was a lot friends and family there. I don't know how he got so many tickets."
It was a triumphant return for the Pittsburgh-born Bartkowski, who in 2006 captained Taibi's Mt. Lebanon team to an undefeated season and the school's first state hockey title in 30 years. In a city that has recently started to produce top NHL prospects -- the Chicago Blackhawks' Brandon Saad, the Anaheim Ducks' John Gibson, and Vincent Trocheck of the Florida Panthers -- Bartkowski came first.
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 12 | +/-: -1
He returned home again Saturday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, but after anticipating for an entire week that he would get to play on this stage in front of his hometown fans, Bartkowski was not in the lineup. The return from injury of defenseman Andrew Ference
forced Bruins coach Claude Julien
to make a decision, and he opted to keep rookie Torey Krug
and bump Bartkowski out of Boston’s 3-0 victory in Game 1.
Bartkowski was skating with the Bruins' scratches Monday morning, making it unlikely he will play in Game 2 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
“It’s disappointing not playing, but at the end of the day it’s a coach’s decision and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bartkowski said Monday. “We won the game, and that’s the most important thing.”
Bartkowski admitted that he and the rest of the Bruins have had this matchup in the back of their minds since the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, and even though his family would love to see him take part, he says they are still happy to watch the series.
“We’ve been waiting for this matchup for a while. We obviously didn’t focus on it at the beginning of the playoffs, but we figured this is how it would end up,” Bartkowski said. “They obviously want to see me play, but they still like seeing the Bruins playing the Pens. If we’re not playing they’re rooting for the Pens and if we’re playing they’re rooting for us. They’re just happy to be able to watch good hockey.”
Julien understands the disappointment Bartkowski feels watching these games in his hometown, but he also appreciates the manner in which Bartkowski has handled it.
“Matt has grown immensely on and off the ice, and his approach right now is all he wants is for our team to win,” Julien said. “And if he's not in, he's going to be supportive of his teammates. But at the same time he's going to be ready when his name gets called to play. So he's been great, especially in this unique situation where he's at home. There's no doubt it has to hurt a little bit. But he's able to put priorities first and he's thinking about our team right now.”
Regardless of whether he dresses, Bartkowski remains three wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. That is quite a journey for someone his former coaches remember as the multifaceted defenseman who was a pioneer during a time when NHL prospects simply didn't emerge from the Steel City.
"People looked at you like you had screws loose if you said you were going to go to the NHL [from Pittsburgh]," said Ralph Murovich, the founder of the Pittsburgh Predators youth hockey program, where Bartkowski started playing as a 13-year-old.
Remarkably, part of the reason Bartkowski found his way to Murovich's Ice Castle Arena was because he had been cut by the Pittsburgh Hornets, considered for years the main training ground for the city's elite youth hockey players.
By the time Bartkowski emerged as a strong midget major blueliner with the Predators, Murovich and Taibi began coordinating a way for these recruits to focus equally on multiple interests. And Bartkowski had several interests.
The son of an engineer, Bartkowski earned straight A's at Mt. Lebanon and dreamed of following in his father, Rick's, footsteps. The anchor of Mt. Lebanon's varsity team, Matt also played cello in the school's orchestra. When an arm injury during Bartkowski's sophomore year ended his hockey season prematurely, it also kept him out of a major performance at Pittsburgh's fabled Heinz Hall, the home venue for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
By the time the arm healed, it was apparent hockey might be a larger part of Bartkowski's future than the cello.
"He always had good size (now 6-foot-1, 196 pounds), but what impressed me the most was how strong he was on his skates. He was impossible in high school to knock off his skates," Taibi said. "He logged a ton of ice time for us and was a very good team leader. That [senior championship] season, we played 22 regular season games and only gave up 13 goals."
At a tournament staged during his senior season, Bartkowski led Mt. Lebanon into the semifinal against eight-time state champion Meadville. A few hours after defeating Meadville, Mt. Lebanon topped La Salle, 1-0, to win the championship.
"We had 11 skaters. Two 45-minute games, so that's 90 minutes [total]. [Bartkowski] probably played, and this is no exaggeration, 89 minutes and 10 seconds," Taibi said. "He was just dominant. Even the second game, midway through the game where you think he would be dog tired, he was still rushing the puck. It was an unbelievable performance."
Bartkowski's real coming-out occurred shortly before graduation, when he competed on a Taibi-coached squad representing Pittsburgh at the heralded Chicago Showcase tournament. Team Pittsburgh won the tournament and put Western Pennsylvania on the hockey map.
"We beat Team Minnesota that year. He scored the game-winning goal. Team Minnesota never lost in this thing. Every scout from the [United States Hockey League] was at that game," Taibi said. "Matt was named MVP of the Chicago Showcase that year, which is rare for a Pittsburgh player. I don't think he was being heavily recruited at that point. He called me a week later and said, 'I've heard from every team in the USHL this week.'"
Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski returns to the Steel City as a member of the opposing team, but he's the pride of Pittsburgh as the first homegrown player to make it to the NHL. (Photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI)
With a generation of parents inspired by Mario Lemieux to throw their children into hockey, Pittsburgh was looking for its first homegrown star, a local player who could help establish Pittsburgh as fertile ground for talent. As he wrapped up his career at Mt. Lebanon, Bartkowski had a chance to be the trailblazer.
He played two years in the USHL with the Lincoln Stars before two years at Ohio State University. As if being a Pittsburgh product didn't already make him an anomaly at OSU, Bartkowski was the only engineering student on the team. He had abandoned the cello by then, but his performance in the Chicago Showcase remains legendary years later.
"When I put up my applications for Team Pittsburgh, I always include Matt. Matt Bartkowski they recognize. I'm sure that helps my attendance at the tryouts," said Gina Colligan, Team Pittsburgh's general manager. "I think there was always a little bit of optimism that one of our kids was going to make the break [to the NHL]. In the back of your mind, you think maybe someone could make it someday."
Facing a new group of Penguins stars who are inspiring a new generation of Pittsburgh hockey talent, Bartkowski appears to be that one who made it.
And one coach in particular plans on commemorating the defenseman's accomplishments.
"I have a wall, which I intend to call the Wall of Fame, where we want to put life-sized pictures of these kids as they make it to the NHL," said Murovich, who also coached Gibson and Trocheck with the Pittsburgh Predators. "There's no question that Matt Bartkowski is the first player to legitimately make it to the NHL. He's the first guy. He's the patriot. He's the guy who is paving the way."
Of course, if Bartkowski continues to pave the way for Pittsburgh hockey, it could come at the expense of the hometown team.
"He's coming back in the wrong uniform," Taibi said. "But he's coming back."