A steady defensive presence with untapped offensive potential, Travis Gawryletz has been a pleasant surprise as a freshman for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs this season.
Gawryletz arrived at UMD after two rock solid seasons with the Trail Smoke Eaters of the British Columbia Hockey League (Junior A).
In 2003-04, the 6’2, 200 lb. rearguard recorded 30 points (9 goals, 21 assists) in 51 games for his hometown team, earning BCHL Interior Division First All-Star Team honors in the process. He was named to the circuit’s All-Rookie Team the previous season.
Gawryletz’s accomplishments and emerging skill were well noted by NHL scouts, who attended his games in greater numbers as last season wore on. Ultimately, he was selected by the Flyers in the 8th round (253rd overall) of last June’s NHL Entry Draft.
As one of only two freshmen defensemen at UMD this season, Gawryletz managed to nail down a permanent roster spot at the beginning of the season. He appeared 33 games during the regular season, totaling four goals (two of which came last weekend against Wisconsin) and one assist, along with 26 PIMs.
Hockey’s Future had the opportunity to speak with Gawryletz earlier this week, as the Bulldogs (11-13-4 in WCHA play, 15-15-6 overall) were making preparations for this weekend’s WCHA first round playoff series against North Dakota.
HF: What are your overall thoughts on your freshman season at UMD so far?
TG: Well, I think it’s been a bit of a learning experience for me. I’ve played quite a bit and I’ve learned a lot from the coaches and the other guys on the team. I feel that, team-wise, we’ve struggled a bit this season, but we’re coming into the playoffs right now and things are starting to look a lot better. Overall, I think it’s been a very positive year so far.
HF: Talk about the adjustment to college hockey. How long was it before you felt comfortable?
TG: It definitely took a while. Probably a couple of weekends of playing regularly, just to get completely used to the pace. It’s a much smarter game here. It probably took about a month before I really felt comfortable and had a good deal of confidence in myself at this level.
HF: What was the most difficult part of the adjustment for you?
TG: I would say that the mental aspect of the college game was the toughest thing to get used to. Mentally, you just have to be so much smarter in college hockey. With or without the puck, if you make any mistakes, it’ll cost you. You have to be fully prepared every time you step on the ice, or you could put your team at a disadvantage. So, I think the mental aspects are a main part of that really big jump.
HF: Who would you say has been the most helpful to you so far?
TG: Our head coach, Scott Sandelin, has been really great. He spent some time with me, showing me a few small things defensively. He always has the time and is always willing to help out. On top of that, he’s a great teacher. So, I would definitely say that he’s helped me the most so far here in college.
HF: How would you describe your style of play at this point?
TG: Right now, I think I play pretty solid defensively. I’m pretty good in my own zone. I like to make that first pass, that breakout pass out of my own end. I like to start the plays going the other way. But, I also like to keep it simple. I try to do the little things that the coaching staff asks of me.
HF: As a freshman, you’ve played in 33 of 36 games for the Bulldogs. So, the coaching staff seems to have a lot of confidence in your abilities.
TG: Yeah, the coaching staff threw us [freshmen] right into the mix at the beginning of the season. We’ve been given a chance to play on a regular basis, which is great for our development. For me, being able to play on a regular basis has given me the chance to gain experience, the chance to learn more about our system. I think my ice time this season has been really fair. It’s been nice to have the opportunity to contribute every night and be a main part of this team.
HF: You’ve been paired with Tim Hambly a lot of late. What kind of chemistry have the two of your established so far?
TG: Well, I actually started and played most of the season with Neil Petruic, but he was hurt for a little while. So, I’ve been playing with Tim for a while now. Both Tim and Neil are seniors, so they’ve helped me out quite a bit. During the games, we’ve been switched up a lot, really, so I’ve played a little with just about everyone. I feel comfortable playing with any of the other d-men on the team. I’d say I have equal chemistry with all of them.
HF: You’ve been solid from the start, but your game really seems to have taken off since around the mid-point of the season. To what do you attribute your improved play?
TG: It’s just a matter of playing harder in practice, staying focused and getting more experience. I’ve been getting more and more comfortable as the season has gone on. That just carries on to the games. I’m just trying to take care of my own end first. Just making sure that you don’t make those little mistakes kind of helps you along a little bit, helps me jump in to the play a little more and get a few more offensive chances. I think just working hard and paying attention to the small things have really helped me out and helped me play a little better of late.
HF: In terms of offensive output, you played the best two games of your young college career against Wisconsin last weekend. Talk about that experience.
TG: Oh, it was great. I scored goals in two consecutive games against Wisconsin. I was definitely pretty excited about it. I haven’t put up too much offense this year. But scoring two goals in some pretty big games, our last two games at home this year, it was great. It was good for the team as well, as we got a few points out of it. It was a pretty big thrill overall.
HF: Any specific reflections on the goals?
TG: The one on Friday night came from T.J. Caig’s hard work. He just won a battle in the corner, came out. I saw an opening in the slot, he hit me and I put a one-timer on net. I don’t think [Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Bruckler] ever saw it, and it went in. The one on Saturday night was a simple play. The puck just came out to the blueline where I was, and I just put it on net. I guess it just shows the importance of putting the pucks on net whenever you can.
HF: Both goals came against a fellow Flyers prospect, Wisconsin’s Bernd Bruckler. Were you able to gain any particular insights on him?
TG: Not really. As a defenseman, I honestly can’t say that I paid much attention [to him]. Both goals, I just tried to put the puck at the net and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it worked out for me. I’ve never had the chance to speak to him, and I don’t know him personally. But, I do know that he’s a great goalie. He’s had some great years for Wisconsin. He’s definitely been a top player in our conference, that’s for sure.
HF: How would you describe the team’s mindset heading into the WCHA playoffs?
TG: We’re focused on Friday night, our first game [in a best-of-three series] against North Dakota. The series is at North Dakota, so we really want to go in there get that big win in the opening game. We definitely want to take it one game at a time, not looking ahead to anything else.
HF: How do you feel the team matches up against North Dakota?
TG: I think we match up really well with them. We were 1-1 against them in the regular season, I believe. North Dakota is a really good team, definitely one of the better teams we’ve played against this season. They’re always moving, they’re a physical team, they play great defensively. So, I think it’s going to come down to who wants it move, who is going to outwork the other team.
HF: How old were you when you started playing hockey? How did you get involved with the sport?
TG: I think I was about five when I really got involved at an organized level. My dad, he played hockey, and my older brother [Brandon] obviously got into hockey as well. I guess my parents just kind of got both my brother and I involved at first, then it just went on from there.
HF: Was there a particular player or someone in hockey who you idolized while growing up?
TG: Actually, Bobby Orr. He was a major influence on me.
HF: Interesting. I’m surprised that you would mention someone from an earlier era.
TG: Oh yeah, definitely. Bobby Orr is a legend, of course, and he was such a great player. I’ve seen a lot of videotapes of him, and you have to love the way he played, the way he revolutionized the game from the defensive position. Just from watching those old tapes of him playing, he was definitely one of my idols while growing up.
HF: Who else, would you say, had a major influence on your career?
TG: Well, definitely my brother, who I mentioned earlier. He was definitely a big influence on me as well. He was a few years older than me, so I would always go watch him play. He was always a few levels higher. He kind of inspired me to get to where he was at whatever particular point in time. So, I always strove to be as good as he was. He was always very helpful and supportive of me while growing up, and was always willing to give me advice and show me different things. So, yeah, my brother was definitely a pretty big influence on me as well.
HF: You played with Brandon last season at Trail in the BCHL. Had you ever played on the same team before?
TG: No, we never had. That was the first time I ever played with him on the same team. It was great, definitely a change. You know, you’re always going to have that sibling rivalry, those feuds that two brothers pretty close in age will get into at times. But, overall, it was just fun to get a chance to play with him last season.
HF: Brandon left Trail last year as well, and is now a freshman defenseman at Alaska-Fairbanks. Have you kept in close contact with him this season?
TG: Yeah, I talk to him pretty often, see how he’s doing up there. We definitely like to keep in touch and compare experiences from time to time. It’s nice to have someone who you can share your thoughts with in that way.
HF: Talk about Trail and the BCHL experience in general. How did it prepare you for the collegiate game?
TG: Playing in Trail was great. It was my hometown, so I loved playing there. We had a pretty good team, had a pretty good run both seasons that I was there. And I got to play in all situations, which really helped me improve. My coaches there were great, they really helped me along in my development. I think that playing two seasons there in the junior league really helped me develop and prepared me to jump into college hockey.
HF: What were the factors behind your decision to commit to UMD?
TG: They talked to me a few times, and I liked what they had to say. I came down on a visit and I got a chance to meet the coaching staff. Everyone was great. I really liked the atmosphere, and the place seemed to be a really good fit for me. It’s a program that looked like it was on the rise, so it was very attractive in that way. That situation would help me out in my development as well, so that was pretty much why I made my decision.
HF: Is this your first extensive time being away from home?
TG: Yeah, this is really my first time away from home on a consistent basis. It’s a whole different experience, but it’s been great. I miss Trail and, of course, I miss my family and friends back home. But this is just such a great opportunity, getting a chance to go to school and play hockey at the D-1 level. It’s great.
HF: How has the college experience been for you thus far?
TG: Oh, it’s been excellent. It can be tough to balance school and hockey, but it’s a lot of fun. Just hanging out with the guys, you basically have free reign to do what you like. It’s been a really good time. Definitely a lot more freedom than I’ve ever had before. I love it.
HF: You were drafted by the Flyers in the eighth round last June. How did you find out about it, and what was your reaction?
TG: It was on the second day of the draft, so I wasn’t able to follow it on TV or anything. I found out when someone from the Flyers, I can’t remember who, called me up at home. I was pretty excited to find out about it. It’s obviously a dream come true, something I’ve worked very hard for. And I was really happy to be going to an organization like the Flyers. I didn’t really expect to be drafted, to be honest. So, it was a great surprise. I was just very excited to be picked.
HF: Why did you suspect that you wouldn’t be drafted?
TG: I don’t know. I just figured, not this year,maybe next. I had talked to a few teams very briefly before the draft, but that was it. I really didn’t think it would go anywhere, didn’t think it would lead to anything. So, when I found out that the Flyers had selected me, I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled.
HF: What kind of contact have the Flyers kept with you since the draft?
TG: I talked to [college scout] Chris Pryor over the summer. He pretty much told me that I have four years of school to go through, so they’re just going to leave me alone and let me develop. He said I should just focus on playing and developing my skills, and we’ll see what happens after my four years are up.
HF: Did Pryor have any additional advice for you?
TG: Not really. He made sure to tell me to just keep working hard and do what I do. That was basically his message, just keep working hard. I think he just wanted to check in and sort of introduce himself and the organization to me.
HF: So the plan, as it stands now, is for you to play a full four years at UMD?
TG: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s definitely the plan right now. Thinking about making it to the pros or playing for the Flyers, well, that’s just a long ways down the road from this point. I’m just going to take my hockey season by season, I guess. Just do what I can, and if I end up fitting into the organization’s plans eventually, then good. If not, well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
HF: For now, what are the things you feel you need to improve on the most?
TG: I think skating is something I need to improve on, for sure. I want to get better in that area. And I think my overall physical strength could improve also. I need to be more physical on a more consistent basis at this level. Again, it’s a long ways down the line, but if I want to even think about some day making that jump to the pros, those are some of the things I just have to work and improve on. Hopefully, it will all come with time.
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