MARQUETTE - Marquette native Justin Florek said he enjoyed working on the baseball fields of his hometown last summer in between his junior and senior years at Northern Michigan University.
For the Wildcat senior captain, painting the base paths and getting a tan was good work.
Florek has a new job this summer, however; one that will keep him out of the sun, in the weight room and back on the ice.
Such is the life of a professional hockey player.
"It's not just a college sport. It's a job for me now and I'm going to treat it like that, just like everyone goes to work everyday and usually does their hardest," Florek said. "I'm going to go into the gym with that same mentality.
"I'm fighting for a job. I watched the playoffs this year and I'll be fighting guys like that for a spot on the team next year. I'm not just going to Boston with the goal of playing in the AHL. I want to play in the NHL. It may not happen right away, but progressively I want to get better and play for Boston, hopefully get a game or two next year if the opportunity presents itself. It all starts in the gym."
Once the Wildcats were left out of the NCAA tournament, Florek and fellow seniors Andrew Cherniwchan and Tyler Gron signed pro deals to continue not only their hockey careers, but the 2011-12 season, before returning to the classrooms.
Florek signed a two-year entry level contract with the Boston Bruins in March after being drafted by the NHL club in the fifth round, No. 135 overall, of the 2010 entry draft.
The two-way deal is worth $600,000 a year if Florek plays in the NHL and $67,500 a year if he plays in the AHL with the Providence Bruins. Florek also received a $90,000 signing bonus for each of the two seasons and will be a restricted free agent following the 2013-14 season.
Florek played eight games with Providence in March and April under an AHL amateur tryout deal - his rookie contract starts with the 2012-13 season - to get a feel for pro hockey while also being able to continue taking classes at NMU. He finished with two goals and two assists, all coming in his first pro game.
"I wasn't expecting on playing," Florek said. "I got one shift in the first five minutes, happen to get an assist. That really calmed me down, just getting that assist out of the way, the first pro point. After that, I just tell every body I just blacked out. I don't really remember much."
Not only did Florek get a taste of the pro lifestyle, but he realized the amount of work that needs to be done in the weight room this summer. Florek will be training mostly in Marquette this offseason with a few trips out east, including for the Bruins development camp in July.
"In college, you're playing against 18, 19, 20 year olds," Florek said. "A guy my size, I felt pretty comfortable out there. I was able to push people around most of the time. You get up there and you are playing against men. A couple guys are 30 years old. It's a lot different. They are men out there.
"A lot of leg strength and core strength is big for me. Going into the corners, a big power forward like me, I have to get a lot stronger going in front of the net."
Cherniwchan and Gron both signed ATOs as well with Gron being released from his deal after one assist in three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, a New York Islander affiliate.
Gron led NMU in scoring this season with 17 goals and 20 assists. He is an unrestricted free agent and will have to wait until July to find out where he goes next.
"I wouldn't trade it for the world," Gron said about the experience. "It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot and it will definitely help me out for next year."
Cherniwchan gained the most experience out of the three senior Wildcats to go pro, playing five regular season games and eight playoff games for the South Carolina Sting Rays of the ECHL - a Washington Capitals affiliate - before being eliminated by Kalamazoo in the second round.
Cherniwchan posted two goals in his pro debut to finish with three during the regular season. In the playoffs, he finished with two goals and two assists and played in a pair of overtime thrillers - four OTs in Game 3 and two OTs in Game 4 - that allowed SC to advance out of the first round.
"I only planned on going down for five games to finish off the regular season, then come back for school, but the way things worked out with their playoffs, they really wanted me to stay," Cherniwchan said.
"They were really cooperative. They flew me back to Northern twice to meet with professors, get some exams done and assignments. Then they'd fly me back down for some games. I was just really grateful for that experience."
Cherniwchan played the first five games on an ATO and was signed to a short-term contract for the playoffs. Like Gron, he too is now a free agent, though a restricted one, meaning South Carolina can match any offer from another ECHL team. Cherniwchan, however, is hoping to get a two-way deal like Florek with an NHL and AHL franchise this summer.
"This will be the first summer I won't have a job," Cherniwchan said. "I'm going to try to make a really big push training-wise. I've also never spent a summer in Marquette so I'm going to stay down here until one of my camps at least and just take advantage of the facilities and ice."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.