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LEADING BY EXAMPLE

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres
(RIT Athletics)

Matt Garbowsky had no idea just how much his junior season would be affected when he hurt his wrist at Robert Morris University last November. The injury, he thought, was just a bone bruise. Garbowsky even played another shift after it occurred.

In the days following his injury, the Rochester Institute of Technology forward practiced as usual. His wrist was uncomfortable, but he didn’t think he’d be making it any worse. The results of a magnetic resonance imaging scan took him by surprise.

“I got the MRI back and found out that it was broken,” said Garbowsky. “It was at the point that I realized my season was kind of over.”

One year later, in his senior season, Garbowsky is making up for lost time.

The Tigers’ captain has channeled the dedication he gained from missing the bulk of last season into one of the hottest starts in NCAA hockey. Through RIT’s first 14 games, Garbowsky has already matched his previous career high with 11 goals – the most in Division I, ahead of top American prospect Jack Eichel (nine).

Matt Garbowsky

Garbowsky’s 19 points are fourth in the nation, with the bulk of them coming during a 10-game point streak that came to an end against Sacred Heart on November 22.

How has he done it?

“I think he’s more determined this year,” said RIT head coach Wayne Wilson. “There’s certain things I think all athletes take for granted and then having to miss a significant amount of last year, missing the amount of games he did I think just made him come back determined to take advantage of every game he’s going to play.”

Garbowsky agrees. He missed 24 games after breaking his wrist, returning for the final two games of the regular season against Canisius and for RIT’s three-game Atlantic Hockey Conference playoff series against Holy Cross. He did not score a point in those five games.

“I was just kind of not really with it I guess,” said the 24-year-old from St. George, Ont. “And that was one thing I was really trying to work on this summer, to practice really hard and practice like I was going to play in a game.”

Assimilating to game situations was difficult for Garbowsky at the end of last season. He rode a bike and worked out to stay in shape while injured, but it didn’t compare to game competition. It was frustrating for him to be an upperclassman and have to sit on the sidelines during games.

The nature of the injury, his coach says, was even more frustrating. Garbowsky’s body was ready to go, but his wrist was not. The lack of blood flow to the wrist made Garbowsky unable to play even with a cast.

It’s got to start with someone, and I can’t think of a better player to start with.RIT head coach Wayne Wilson

As tough as it was for a junior watching his second-to-last season slip away, it was equally tough for the team to lose their leader.

Nonetheless, the team did everything they could to allow Garbowsky to fulfill his captain duties off the ice. They appointed him to lead their pregame stretch, thinking it would give him an opportunity to speak up.

“He did a good job, but it can be very difficult for a player to rant and rave about a loss when they didn’t play in the game,” Wilson said.

Garbowsky has never been a ‘rah-rah’ type of leader. Wilson recalls him being a quiet, hard-working, respectful player upon first coming to RIT. He knew right from wrong, he was accountable, and he didn’t make excuses – all the intangibles of a team captain.

On the ice, he takes as much pride in his defensive game as he does scoring goals. More often than not, the 5-foot-10 Garbowsky is matched up against the opposing team’s best player because his coaches know he’ll care as much about checking or not letting the other team score as he will about scoring himself.

Wilson says Garbowsky’s greatest attribute is his determination.

Garbowsky’s teammates saw that early. He was voted as a team captain for the first time when he was only a sophomore, a rare feat when votes are coming from a locker room consisting of upper classmen. Since then, he hasn’t changed – his goal is to lead his teammates by actions and example.

“I always try to work my hardest in practice and on the ice,” Garbowsky said. “Every shift I try to work my hardest; if something needs to be said I think I say the right things. Mainly, I’m just trying to show the guys that if we want to win we have to work hard and I just try to push the guys to do that.”

Eleven goals in 14 games isn’t a bad example to lead with. But Garbowsky makes sure that any conversation about his personal goals or the potential to lead the nation in scoring quickly becomes re-focused towards his ultimate ambition: an Atlantic Hockey Championship.

“I haven’t really thought about (leading the nation in goals), I guess it’s in the back of my mind that it could be possible and it’d obviously be really nice too,” he said. “Right now, it’s just trying to get wins. We’ve dropped a couple of games that I think we could’ve won. Right now I think our whole team is trying to find a way to win and that comes first and foremost.”

RIT is 3-5-2 in conference play, putting them eighth in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. But with three months still to play, the Tigers will have their chances to rebound.

Wilson believes they have the right man to lead them back up the standings.

“He’s very confident and we’re very confident that he can lead us towards it. It’s got to start with someone, and I can’t think of a better player to start with.”

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