By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
As you rise through the hockey ranks, the higher the level, the more complex the game becomes. Whether it's drawing up a specific forecheck, the inner-workings of a power play or charting how your team is designed to break out of the defensive zone and turn defense into offense; the better the players, the more detailed the plan needs to be. Some players have a hard time holding onto the rails during this always-changing roller coaster ride. Hockey coaches talk about it all the time; some players just seem to get it. They can adjust on the fly no matter where they are playing on the ice or who they are playing against. For others, the complexity of the systems bogs down one's performance before they even put on their skates.
Joe Rutkowski has never been behind the learning curve….with anything. He remembers from the very beginning falling in love with the game of hockey, but also recognizing that he could make headlines in the classroom as well. A native of Crystal Lake, Ill., Rutkowski jumped to the North American Hockey League (NAHL) out of high school and immediately turned the heads of coaches and scouts who were watching. It's not a surprise that the talented defenseman quickly stood out, thanks in large part to the way he saw the game and the decisions he made. Sure, he had talent, but in the ever-changing world of hockey schemes and systems, talent was only one piece of the pie. It was his hockey IQ that caught the eye of coaches in the NAHL, United States Hockey League (USHL), and then, soon after, Ferris State University.
"Mark Kaufman, our other assistant who led the defensive unit and our penalty killing, had spotted Joe originally when he was playing in the NAHL," recalled Drew Famulak, the Associate Head Coach for the Bulldogs. "We just kept tracking him and then the next year, I saw him at a USHL camp and we have a tendency here to have smaller and more mobile defensemen within our program, and Joe checked all of the boxes when it came to what we were looking for. He had mobility, offensive instincts, high hockey IQ and a very high compete level."
It was a perfect fit, and after one season in the USHL, Rutkowski began the next chapter of his hockey career during the 2016-17 season as a college freshman at Ferris State. Chapters in books, along with the game of hockey, is something Rutkowski knows a lot about. Since the time he has stepped onto the Ferris State campus, he has also become extremely versed on essays, science labs, time management and the art of taking good notes.
Joe Rutkowski, the hockey player, has emerged as a talented collegiate blueliner for the Bulldogs. Joe Rutkowski, the Biology pre-medicine major at Ferris State, embodies the very best of the term "student-athlete."
He admits that he has always been drawn to the medical field. His mom worked in the nursing field. His sister is currently studying to be a nurse. As Rutkowski began to climb the hockey ladder, he remembers meeting trainers along the way who peaked his interest in the medical field even more. Even though he knew juggling college hockey and the classes required for a pre-medicine degree would be overwhelming at times, Rutkowski didn't shy away from the challenge. The Ferris State coaches didn't, either. Famulak will tell you that one of the many areas he and the rest of the coaching staff believe their hockey program excels at is in the classroom. They have had hockey players in the past who wanted to tackle pre-medicine as well, so they knew what was ahead of them. The only question was whether Rutkowski could handle the workload. It only took a few face-to-face meetings with the young defenseman to find out the answer.
Falling short wasn't an option. With Joe Rutkowski, it never is.
"When you are recruiting the player, you are looking at his academic profile and just Joe's ability to get high grades at high school as well as a great test score, we knew he had the ability to play hockey at the Division-One level, plus keep up with the academics," replied Famulak. "When you watch him play, it kind of mirrors his competitiveness in the classroom. What you like about Joe is his competitiveness on the ice when it comes to the one-on-one battles; the ability to create offense, and that mirrors his competition level in the classroom. We were tracking him as a competitive hockey player, but a competitive student-athlete as well."
First, the hockey.
As a freshman, Rutkowski didn't have a whole lot of time to catch his breath. One of several incoming defensemen who cracked the lineup last season for the Bulldogs, he quickly adjusted to the college game and began to excel. Not only did he play in 35 games, but he made an impact in every one of them. Rutkowski finished the season tied for the team lead in assists with 18 and tied for fourth on the team in points (20). The 18 assists also ranked him 10th in the WCHA, 10th in defenseman scoring and tied for seventh in scoring among all freshmen skaters- all of that while he was also adjusting to college life in the classroom. The word "amazing" is often overused; but, in this case, it fits.
This season, it has been more of the same. While the classes, and in some cases the competition on the ice, has gotten harder, Rutkowski has continued to handle the speed bumps like a veteran. Truth be told, he is one now. After being plugged into the everyday lineup shortly after arriving on campus, to go along with the 35 games last season, Rutkowski has played in all 25 contests this year, posting eight points (one goal, seven assists) for the Bulldogs. All of this as his classroom responsibilities have also increased. The pace these days has been so hectic that it's common for Rutkowski to leave practice early just to get to his science labs on time.
"With his hockey IQ being so high, at times you really don't have to tell him what to do because he has already figured it out. You are maybe going to give him some concepts to look for. He's quarterbacking our power play, he's one of our top penalty-killers coming off the bench as a defenseman, so he's already ready for situations before they are happening on the ice," mentioned Famulak. "What we see in Joe is he's going to where the puck is going, and not where it's been. His ability to almost be a coach out there in terms of whether it's a faceoff play and setting up guys in the right spot, or just his ability to create offense on the fly is special. It transfers over to the classroom. Once he leaves the arena he's able to pick up that same thread in the classroom and be successful there."
"I say it's pretty challenging. I think the University tries to make these first two years of my degree kind of like a weed-out process for all of the students. I think they do that because you have to prepare for the MCAT, which you have to take to get into medical school, as well as the workload which comes with everything," commented Rutkowski. "It's definitely a challenging path, but my coaches, along with my mom and dad, have helped me out a lot. A lot of it is myself too; studying on the road and in hotels and making sure I get ahead before I leave on a road trip.
"We work out twice per week and practice every day," continued Rutkowski. "This semester is challenging because a certain class I need is only offered one or two times per day and that conflicts with practice time right now. I show up to the rink early to try and get that extra practice in because I need to get off the ice before practice ends to get to those classes. There are also two, three-hour labs per week, one in chemistry and one in biology, which requires a lot of studying and reviewing notes."
Time management. The ability to juggle multiple projects at a time and prioritize what's happening at that moment and what is going to happen next. Handling pressure and pushing through it. The correlation between the skills needed to succeed on the rink and the strengths needed to excel in the classroom are obvious. Successfully making it all work is something entirely different. At the end of the day, that is what sticks out to Famulak and his fellow coaches. The goals or assists one can produce in a season pales in comparison to the success they want their players to have outside of the game of hockey. There is no doubt that the majority (if not all) of the Bulldogs players see professional hockey as the next step in their athletic careers, but whenever that journey ends- and it will- Famulak almost gets more excited about Rutkowski's dedication when it comes to preparing for life after hockey.
"The one thing about Joe is that Joe is always thinking ahead, so even though we are in spring semester right now, he's already asking himself what he can do in the summer to help him next fall so everything lines up and he can continue to do both at the same time (play hockey and continue with his major). That's the great thing about Joe, is that he sees the big picture and is able to think ahead to make sure that big picture happens," stated Famulak. "Here's what I love, not only about Joe but all of our hockey players here at Ferris State; not only are they highly competitive on the ice, but they are highly competitive in the classroom. I think we have roughly a 3.5 GPA as a team. I think it's good to see that. I would say that if you ask all of our guys, they want to play pro hockey but in the back of their minds they also know that at some point, I'm going to need to go out and get a job, and they are always looking at the bigger picture as well to be the best student-athlete they can be."
"I think growing up, my parents always put an emphasis on doing good in school. I was lucky enough to get picked up to play hockey at the collegiate level. My parents have always talked to me about how important that academic side is as well," mentioned Rutkowski. "You look at guys in the NHL and maybe a handful of them play into their mid or late 30's and then after that, you have to start another career somewhere, so I think it's definitely important that you have a career in place. There is a slim chance I might be able to play beyond college hockey, but there is a bigger chance I might have to start a career somewhere else. I think it's important that when that time comes, I'm ready for whatever happens."
Joe Rutkowski has always been ready. The question is…are his future opponents- both on the ice and away from it- ready for him?
Rutkowski and the Bulldogs return to the ice this weekend with a home series against Bemidji State.