Back in the states: Marquette native, ex-Northern Michigan University Wildcat Justin Florek returns to US to play pro hockey
Well, not entirely home, as the Marquette native and former Northern Michigan University player won’t be returning to the Upper Peninsula, but he will be lacing up his skates in the U.S. this winter.
After spending the last three years suiting up in Europe — two years in Germany and another year in Austria — Florek signed a deal for the upcoming season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, a Washington Capitals’ minor league affiliate.
“I’m happy to be back in North America and I’m excited about the opportunity,” he said in a phone interview last week. “It’s great to be back and be closer to family stateside.”
Playing in two countries in three years may seem like something that might be difficult to adjust to, but Florek says that wasn’t the case for him.
“It was pretty much the same,” he said comparing his time playing in the U.S., which included a stint playing for the Wildcats from 2008-12. “A lot of the players go back and forth between the leagues over there. So I played with a lot of players in Germany that I played with in Austria. It was good.”
Florek, who turned 30 during the coronavirus pandemic, may be back in America, but he’s still in unusual territory, as unlike Marquette, New England or Europe, South Carolina may not seem exactly like a typical hockey area. However, the Stingrays are one of the more successful professional minor league franchises in North America. Before the league had to cancel the end of last season due to the pandemic, the Stingrays had missed the playoffs only once since they were founded in 1993 and have won three Kelly Cup championships.
When asked if the Stingrays had reached out to him while he was overseas, Florek said it was the other way around.
“Actually I reached out to them,” he said. “With everything going on, and the future of everything is kind of uncertain, especially in sports, so things in Europe just really weren’t working out to what we wanted them to kind of look like. My daughter is going into first grade, so we just wanted to look at places to play in North America.”
One of the things that enticed Florek to sign with the Stingrays was their history of success in the league.
“They’re affiliated with Washington and the Hershey Bears (an American Hockey League affiliate, which) are both great affiliates to be a part of,” he said. “It’s a great organization. Washington just won the Stanley Cup (in 2018), Hershey is always competitive. And then South Carolina is always competitive every year that I can remember.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys, I have a lot of friends who have played here, and I did my research, and literally everyone has said great things about the organization and the city. And the weather, that was a big plus as well. It sounded like a pretty nice spot to be.”
Another big thing that enticed Florek about the Stingrays was that he would be reuniting with former Wildcat teammate Andrew Cherniwchan. The two also played together as members of the AHL’s Providence Bruins for two seasons. Those two aren’t the only Wildcats on the South Carolina roster, though, as former defenseman Jordan Klimek is also a Stingray.
“I’m really excited to play with Andrew again,” Florek said. “That’s one of the reasons I signed in South Carolina is that I talked to him and I know how much he loves it here. We were teammates for four years at Northern and a few years in Providence together; so a little connection there.”
Florek says he has many fond memories of his time playing at NMU, and also said he appreciates all the people in the Upper Peninsula who are still following his career.
“It’s very nice to know that people care and everything because I love Marquette,” Florek said. “That’s something that’s very special about the city — there is the sense of community and how much people care about each other. It’s nice to go back and talk to family and friends and everybody.
“And I feel like almost everywhere I go and I’ve played, I’ve met people that have been to Marquette and say how special of a place it is, and how nice the people are. Even to this day, I still meet people down here that know of Marquette.
“It’s nice to be back and playing in North America because I’ll be able to play in cities where I have family and everything. So it’ll be pretty special to me.”
He last played for a North American-based team in 2016-17 with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. His National Hockey League experience came in the 2013-14 campaign when he was with the Boston Bruins for 10 games, six of them in the playoffs. He had a regular-season goal and a playoff goal in that stint.
Florek may not get to play any games with his new team for a few months, though, with the ECHL delaying its start date because of the lingering issues with the pandemic. However, for the time being he’s just enjoying getting settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and spending time with his family.
“I hope things open up as soon as possible,” he said. “I obviously understand everything, so I’ll be patient. But at the same time, I’m excited to get things going and I’m excited to be back.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is email@example.com.