Jeff Szwez is a 6’3” 205-pound left winger out of Etobicoke, Ontario. He’s a late bloomer, just the kind of player the ECHL wants to be known for developing. He played only one year in the OHL, at age twenty, before turning pro and signing with the AHL Binghamton Senators last season, but spending most of the year with the ECHL Augusta Lynx. In nine games with Binghamton, he had one assist.
The 22-year-old Szwez started off with the ECHL Dayton Bombers in 2003-04 and was traded early in the season to the Florence Pride. In 53 games this season, he had 23 goals, 16 assists and 75 PIMs.
Hockey’s Future spoke to Szwez after the Pride’s final game of the season, a 4-1 loss to the Gwinnett Gladiators on Saturday.
HF: How do you feel overall that your season went?
JS: Disappointed. I had a few injuries down the stretch and I was out for probably almost eight weeks when my team needed me most. I know my role as one of the better players, and that’s kind of frustrating. To come back and try to salvage something out of this season, but it’s bittersweet. I’m happy that I’m scoring lots of goals and doing well, but it’s tough that it came at this time.
HF: Can you describe what happened with your injuries?
JS: Yeah, in Louisiana, I got kneed, it was kind of a hip check. It was clean, but it just caught my knee bad and I didn’t think it was as bad as it was. I played the rest of the game and scored and felt fine. Then after the adrenaline went down, it was like oh geez, I sprained my MCL pretty bad. I was out for a while and then I came back for three games and we were losing 9-2 with two minutes left and I got a high ankle sprain, which still really hurts right now. Just bad luck, you know?
HF: You’ve been in this league for two years, how do you feel like you’ve improved over that time?
JS: Well, I only got to play one year of major junior. So it’s a steep learning curve. It’s just different in pro. Our system in Kitchener was great as far as building pro characteristics, but I didn’t get to spend enough time there. It’s just a process. I’m still a young guy, I’m only 22 years old. I’m learning as I go. I think I’m progressing pretty well. All I want to do is get better than last year and I think I did that by leaps and bounds.
HF: What part of your game do you feel you’ve really improved?
JS: My conditioning. My strength and stuff. That was another thing coming into this year. Everyone every time I play against them they say oh geez, you gained a step or two over the summer. I really never went to the gym before. When I went to Ottawa training camp (2002), I was like the worst in camp. I was unbelievably weak. I did 185 like three times, and you’re supposed to do your body weight 10 times. Now I can do that and more. Now it’s just learning the hockey part. Experience in games is only going to get you that.
HF: What kind of contract was it you signed out of that camp?
JS: It was a one-year contract with their farm club. They didn’t get to watch me for four years in junior, so it was a good business decision by them. They hadn’t seen me enough and I understood that. That was my shot and I had some injury problems last year, I had a couple of concussions and didn’t play as well as I’d like to. I don’t know, first year away from home and so many things, so many things. Just growing up, being a man. Learning and coming into my own.
HF: Who are your normal linemates this year?
JS: It varies, sometimes I’m not as defensively aware and coach will put me down on the second line or something. A ‘wake up’ type thing. But I pretty much play on the top l line with Wes (Goldie) and Kyle (Kidney), since I’ve come back it’s just been us. All year pretty much up and down between the top two lines. The last couple games with Wes and Kyle we’ve gotten eight or nine points or something like that. It was really working.
HF: How do the three of you work together, what is each guy’s job?
JS: We’re all really strong in the corners. When we get down low, we spin off guys and make openings and people can’t contain us, plain and simple. We get a lot of chances, even tonight we had tons of shots, tons of chances. Some of them went in, some of them didn’t obviously. They have ‘old man strength’, it’s pretty funny. It’s good to play with them.
HF: What do you think is the best part of your game?
JS: I’d say probably strength, leaning on people. Using my body to my advantage. Holding onto the puck. Creating offense. Creating openings, waiting and being patient. I don’t know, I feel I have a pretty unique combination of size and skill, and I try to use that to my best advantage to make plays for myself and my teammates.
HF: What do you feel you need to improve on the most?
JS: I’ve got to get skates that fit me. It’s pretty unbelievable, but I’ve had the same pair of skates for two years and twice they’ve sent them too big. I don’t really talk about it much, but it will be unbelievable when I get skates that fit me. It will be like ‘who is this guy?’
HF: Do you have a funny sized foot?
JS: No, they just get them too big, I don’t know. My foot kind of shrunk over the years, I went from Grafs to CCMs and I got the same size, but my Grafs are a little bigger. So I got maybe a size bigger. I’ll be a lot quicker when I get those. And they sent the wrong size this year when I got Bauers. It’s a process financially. It’s like if they sent the wrong ones, you’re screwed. I’ll get the right ones this summer.
HF: What’s the next thing after the skates that you need to improve on?
JS: Just getting my conditioning back that I had at the beginning of the year before I got hurt. Building my strength up again. Getting leaner and faster because all the guys up there are like that.
HF: You were playing both penalty kill and power play tonight, do you normally play both?
JS: Yeah, he trusts me in all situations. At the beginning it took a while to earn his trust because sometimes you get labeled as something. But I anticipate plays pretty well. He just trusts me with the puck and that’s it.
HF: If you make it, you’d probably make it as a third liner, don’t you think?
JS: There’s no weak links in the NHL. You have to be able to do anything you’re asked to do. I know what my role will be when I get up there and I’m preparing for that I guess.
HF: You were with Dayton to start the year and then got traded. Why did you decide on Dayton?
JS: I went to camp in Grand Rapids and I didn’t…they had their team pretty much set. Obviously I didn’t do enough to make the team but they had all the veterans coming back and then Dayton was the first team that contacted me through my friend that was going there as well, and said come to Dayton. The general manager contacted me and invited me. I went there and the coach is a first year guy, was a player last year. It just didn’t work. He expected a lot from me the first couple games. I was pretty shocked to be traded. I didn’t get any points in the first few games and they traded me for a guy the same age as me who got like 75 points last year. It’s flattering, but disappointing at the same time. I had never been traded before.
HF: Last year you got called up to the AHL for nine games, but this year you didn’t. Was that discouraging?
JS: No, not at all really. There was a couple times I was going to, but I got injured or something. I’d rather play down here a lot than go up there and be a spare part. I know I’m going to get there sooner or later, I’m confident enough that I will be there. It’s a process. I came back and did well this year. I don’t know, trying to build a reputation, that’s all. There’s not a lot of spots and next year is going to be a tough year. All I can do is go out and play. I know my time will come.
HF: What’s your main goal for next year?
JS: To not play in this league. I don’t plan on playing another game in this league. I hope I’m beyond that now. I know I am. Two years is more than long enough. It feels like I’ve spent my whole career here already. That’s my whole plan, that I don’t plan on being here again next year.