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Men’s Hockey: Former Buckeye Tanner Fritz enjoying instability of pro hockey career

Former forward Tanner Fritz (16) makes a play on the puck during a game against Michigan in 2015. Credit: Lantern File Photo

It seemed like a routine, early January day for Tanner Fritz.

He had just finished another morning practice with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s New York Islanders. He skated, went through drills and discussed strategies with his coaches and linemates. The former Ohio State forward did absolutely nothing he had not done since the season began in the fall.

Everything was normal until Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson called Fritz into his office to inform him he was being called up to the Islanders to make his NHL debut.

Since that moment, Fritz’s life has become anything but routine. He has faced no shortage of obstacles in his first month in Brooklyn playing hockey at the highest level. Yet, with the opportunity to live out his lifelong dream now possible, he is determined to maintain his mental stability and enjoy the moment.

Fritz went undrafted after playing for Ohio State from 2011 to 2015. After graduating, he joined the Missouri Mavericks of the ECHL for the 2015-16 season. The following season, he signed a professional tryout contract with the Sound Tigers, eventually earning a two-way contract that allowed him to be called up to the Islanders.

“I continued to get opportunities,” Fritz said. “It just wasn’t at the level I thought it was going to be at. I just kept working hard, kept pursuing it.”

Fritz’s hard work finally received vindication when Islanders head coach Doug Weight inserted Fritz into the lineup against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 2.

“He’s earned his trip up here,” Weight told reporters, according to MSG Networks. “It’s no bones about it, we need some energy … We need some swagger, and I want him to bring his energy and bring his confidence.”

Taking the NHL ice for the first time was an unforgettable experience for Fritz.

“It’s just kind of cool playing against some of your childhood idols,” Fritz said. “You kind of get star-struck a little.”

Although Fritz said his first game felt surreal, the beginning of his NHL career has been far from fantasy.

Fritz is on a two-way deal, which means at any moment he might have to pack his gear and make the 90-minute drive between Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Brooklyn to either be promoted or sent down. Fritz underwent this process of being sent back to the Sound Tigers and recalled by the Islanders twice within a month of his NHL debut.

He also had to overcome an injury. After his second recall to New York, Fritz suffered a lower-body injury, which held him out of six games in mid-February.

Despite the instability, Fritz has tried to remain mentally grounded regardless of where he takes the ice.

“Now that I’ve been up and down a couple times, you just stay level headed,” Fritz said. “No matter where I’m at, I’m just going to try to be the best player I can be.”

Fritz has had to adjust his game on the ice.

At Ohio State, Fritz had the largest offensive role on the team. As a senior, he led the Buckeyes with 27 points and scored a career-high 11 goals. He led the team in assists with 24 as a junior and 16 as a senior. Fritz also was a leading offensive contributor in Bridgeport, but has been asked to play more of an auxiliary role in New York. However, Fritz feels that his style of play translates to any role he is asked to play.

“You can kind of throw me wherever in the lineup and I think I’ll have some success and I’ll adjust my game accordingly,” Fritz said. “I played a little bit different game [in Bridgeport]. [In New York] I’m just a little bit more cautious and maybe not taking as many offensive chances.”

Many individuals in the Islanders organization have helped Fritz become acclimated with the NHL game, but Fritz directly cited his linemate Jason Chimera, a veteran winger who has played more than 1,000 NHL games, as one of the people he has leaned on for support.

“One of the first things [Chimera] told me was you were called up for a reason,” Fritz said. “[He told me,] ‘Play to the best of your abilities and you’ll have a long career in the NHL.’ Hearing that from a guy that’s played 1,000 games, that’s pretty uplifting.”

Fritz has a long way to go until he skates in 1,000 NHL games. For now, he is just attempting to relish the opportunity.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” he said. “Wherever I am at … I just want to have fun playing hockey and enjoy it because you never know when it’s going to be your last game.”

On Monday, in the second period of his 14th career game, Fritz was able to enjoy the moment of scoring his first NHL goal.

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