Ftorek sets example for Wings, ECHL The 40-year old’s pro career started in 1998

Kalamazoo Wings defenseman Sam Ftorek is so old-school he doesn’t really care if you try to make fun of him for it. He’s earned the distinction through experience, tenacity and endurance. He truly is the last of the throwback hockey players and has every scar, bruise and story to prove it.

“When I started, there was a line brawl every week and a bench clearer probably every month,” the 40-year-old said. “It was just a different mentality. You had two or three fighters per team, there was just a different brand of hockey. A lot of clutch-and-grab and cross-checking. They’ve done a good job of getting rid of it and making it more of an affiliated-type of program now. Now you get guys who will be in the NHL. It’s just a matter of getting here and getting used to the games. It’s really evolved quite a bit.”

And so has Ftorek , who played his 1,000th professional game last Friday and broke the ECHL’s all-time games-played record Saturday. Cam Brown held the previous ECHL record with 789 career games

“It’s another year,” Ftorek said in early November. “Every year seems to be a milestone if you get older, and it’s not a big deal unless you make something out of it. For me, I just play. If I stay healthy it’s great. One game is not the goal, one season is not the goal, the goal is the playoffs and the Kelly cup and ending the season as the winner of the whole thing. Whatever comes along the way, whether it’s individual accolades or team glory, whatever, that’s what you are going for is the Kelly Cup.”

Ftorek won a couple of titles while playing in Austria and in roller hockey. The ECHL title is the one he wants, and one he still pushes his teammates to strive for, the one that keeps him playing.

“He’s a guy who thinks the game and loves the game more than anybody else,” Kalamazoo coach Nick Bootland said. “He wants to know why we are doing things or why we’re making those suggestions. He’s intelligent. My first coupe of years I didn’t have an assistant coach and I relied on Sam heavily. I know he wants to coach someday. He shows up every day and gets something out of it.

And he plays in a league where veterans are almost extinct. Any player over age 30 is pushing it to keep playing, but Ftorek turned 40 on Nov. 30. His pro career started in 1998, or when some of his current teammates or opponents were in diapers.

When Ftorek started, he was taught to stand up for teammates, which he did earlier this season when he fought the Komets’ Kaleigh Schrock. That’s old-school, too. Some of his current teammates don’t understand that, but he’s still trying to teach them.

“There are only a few and far between who can show up every day, be your hardest-working player and also be a veteran player,” Bootland said. “It’s not an easy thing to find, and that’s why he’s been here so long, because we appreciate him so much.”

Ftorek understands that and the responsibility being the older player carries. He didn’t start playing in Kalamazoo until he was 34, and now he’s in his sixth season with the Wings. The young guys are still trying to keep up with him. Last year Ftorek led all ECHL defensemen with 47 points. He still plays like a younger skater.

“You know what, you just joke around and goof around, but when it comes time to practice or play you have to do it seriously, you have to try and get better,” Ftorek said. “I know I’m not going anywhere, but I have to play and practice like I am because if I don’t I’ll get passed right by. I wouldn’t have a job this long if I was just complacent at being as good as I was five years ago. You always strive to improve. I’m trying to learn new things and help the other guys. I want to coach eventually, so I want to help them get better, and if what I’m doing with them works then I’ll use those strategies when I coach.”

Ftorek is the son of former NHL player and coach Robbie Ftorek, and he was always hanging out with his dad around the rink. Now his kids – ages 8, 6 and 2 – are hanging out with him.

“I saw how nice guys were to me and nice to everybody else with their kids,” he said. “I bring my kids down to the locker room, usually after wins. You just have to respect the game and the guys playing with you and against you. I’m the oldest guy, but I try to act like a middle of the road guy, not a young guy who doesn’t get it or an old guy who is crochety. I want to be middle of the road so I can talk to everybody.”

It’s about how he treats his teammates and coaches, but it’s also abut how he respects the game. He’d never just go through the motions and still has the passion to be involved. He admits that each of the last three seasons he’s played as if it were his last season.

“I wait until the summer,” Ftorek said of his future. “I’ve always said if I ever have three practices in a row where I don’t want to go to practice that’s when I’ll call it quits. If that starts tomorrow, then that’s it, it’s done. If I don’t enjoy going to the rink, talking to the guys or going out on the ice and lacing up my skates, it’s not worth it. There are enough guys who want to play and enjoy coming to the rink that it’s not worth it for me to come here and be miserable and taking somebody’s spot. That hasn’t happened yet.” <br>

<i> For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and at his blog tailingthekomets.com. </i><br>

<center> Up next </center><br>

Face-off: Komets at Kalamazoo, 7:30 p.m.