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Feeling the Flo-rek

Marquette native and former NMU star having fun playing in Germany

MARQUETTE — Last year, Justin Florek embarked on an interesting journey.

After spending some of his professional career in the NHL and the American Hockey League (AHL), the Marquette native and former Northern Michigan University star, headed overseas to play for the Iserlohn Roosters in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, the top-tier league in Germany.

That could be a big change for just about anybody in his position, but Florek also thought it would be a great experience for both him and his family.

“I figured it’d be a great opportunity,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot from many different people that had went overseas and really enjoyed their time over there and the experience. It’s really good hockey and I figured it’d be a fun opportunity and experience for me and my family.”

Although Florek was eager to arrive in Germany, that didn’t mean it wasn’t an adjustment as when he arrived, many emotions were circling in his head.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” Florek said. “Not being able to read anything, like any street signs and talking to anybody was a bit difficult. We slowly picked up German throughout the year and got more comfortable. By the end, we were able to kind of communicate with people everywhere we went and become more accustomed to all the ways over in Germany. It’s a challenge learning but I think we had fun throughout the whole process and I think that my family really grew from it, which was really fun.”

Even more of a surprise for Florek was finding out how much Germans enjoy hockey. Most fans know about Sweden, Finland and Russia being hockey hotbeds, but Germany is quickly making a name for itself. Winning the silver medal in the Winter Olympics back in February helped as well.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “At the same time, I didn’t know that hockey was that big of a sport in Germany. After playing there, I saw how much the fans love the game and it was really cool to see how well they did in the Olympics this year. All of the guys on the German team are in our league. So it was really good to see everyone do well as they did and it’s a really good league. Every team has quite a few ex-NHLers, so it’s really a lot fun.

“I can’t even describe it. They (the Roosters) sell out every game. Half of our arena is standing-room only and it’s bleacher-style, but they all stand. It’s kind of like the European soccer-style where they chant throughout the whole game. I think the fans are just sports fanatics and they carry it over into hockey. Every single game is an event and the town embrace it very well.”

Iserlohn has one of the smaller arenas in the DEL, just shy of 5,000, but some teams like in Cologne and Berlin are massive, reaching NHL-size capacities. Florek says that the Berlin franchise (the Polar Bears) sells out almost every game, so that emphasizes just how much Germany loves its hockey.

Florek said the Roosters take a bus on road trips — the longest is about seven hours away — and that they never play back-to-back games, which not only makes travel easier, but lessens the toll on the body. He played in 53 games this season, including two playoff contests, and finished with nine goals and 21 points. Florek also knew the majority of the guys in the league as well.

“Last year, they (the Roosters) kind of had a rough year,” he said. “They ended up second to last and we started the season a little rough too. Our coach got fired and we had a new coach come in, but we ended up making the playoffs and we had a great turnaround. We had a great group of guys and I think a lot of it was that we had a lot of new guys too. Once we kind of got used to the learning curves, things started to go a lot better and it was a lot of fun.

“Each team has to have a certain number of Germans, but we had five Americans on our team and around eight or nine Canadians. So there’s a pretty strong North American group on our team and every team is like that. A lot of the guys have kind of been in my position, getting to play in a few NHL games and out in the AHL and then they go overseas. I know quite a few guys on every team so that makes it kind of fun playing against guys I’ve known my whole career. It’s just a great league over there.”

Florek said the Roosters provided his family with an apartment and a Mercedes-Benz car as well as a view of horses in the backyard, which pleased his four-year-old daughter Lillian. He did say it was a bit of an adjustment for his daughter as she goes to kindergarten (which Florek says is ages two to six in Germany) in an all-German school. However, she has learned quite a bit of German and will even correct her parents on their pronunciation. Florek and his wife also had a baby overseas, a son named Jacob, and Iserlohn reinforced its love of hockey when he was born.

“Where we are is a huge hockey town,” Florek said. “The hospital where we gave birth, they give the newborns hockey jerseys to every child born in the hospital. They put the year on the back. My number is 18, like it was here at Northern and through my pro career. So my son got his own Roosters jersey with an 18 on the back.”

Florek and his family are currently in Marquette, but will be heading back to Germany in August as he is in the second year of his contract with the Roosters. He isn’t sure where he’ll be after 2019, but he’s definitely enjoying his time in Iserlohn.

“Experiencing a whole new culture and a new life has been kind of fun,” he said. “It’s kind of been eye-opening and to try to have a different mind with everything. It’s just been a cool experience with my family and I’m really fortunate to have the family I do. My wife and both my kids have followed me wherever I’ve played. I’m just really lucky that they let me enjoy playing hockey as a job. Hockey has taken us a lot of cool places and we’re very fortunate.”

Florek also said that he hasn’t forgotten about his hometown or his alma mater, as he followed NMU’s run to the WCHA Championship Game and he hopes that he can inspire the kids of Marquette as much as previous hockey players did for him.

“Growing up here, I just looked up to different hockey players that kind of paved the way for me,” he said.

“I always watched them play on the Legions, the Electricians and the high school. Then I saw a lot of local guys go on to play at Northern and my goal all along was to play at Northern. There were a lot of guys before me that I watched play at Northern and I just hope that I have the same impact on the kids in Marquette. I think that’s kind of my biggest thing — to show kids that they can play the sport that they love as a job and make a living out of it.”

Florek continues to prove that point with every goal he scores.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal .net.

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