Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fritz' cup of coffee in NHL

Mitch Fritz subscribed to the theory, it's best to throw the first punch then receiver it.

The former Kelowna Rockets enforcer gave more than he took both as a junior player and as a pro. 

Now living in Osoyoos, BC, the 35 year old  spoke candidly during an interview this week on his first Western Hockey League training camp with the Kelowna Rockets, his 20 game stint in the NHL with the New York Islanders, his most notable fight and life after hockey.  

Fritz stood out like a sore thumb when the 6'8 forward attended Seattle Thunderbirds training camp in the fall of 1998. After being released by the American based team, Fritz quickly made his way back to the Okanagan to attend Kelowna Rockets training camp four days later.

"I was listed by Seattle and I went to their camp. They were four days ahead of Kelowna's. Skating obviously wasn't a strong part of my game so that extra four days of conditioning before I got to Kelowna probably helped me out. I remember the first day in Kelowna, Justin Jack was there. I think he was testing me a little a bit. We had a bit of a tussle. He had to goat me into it pretty much. I was definitely not into fighting back then. He was testing me and that is the kind of guy he was, a good organizational guy trying to test me to see what I was like. He ended up hurting his shoulder in the fight and after he was hurt they needed somebody so they kept me around".

According to, in two seasons with the Rockets (1998-99-1999-2000), Fritz would fight 52 times. It wasn't something he liked to do, it was a matter of something he needed to do in an effort to realize his dream of playing in the NHL.

"There was no other way I was going to make it. I would say it wasn't told to me but it was pretty much told to me that this is your job and if you want to do this job you will have a chance. I remember talking to different people outside the organization that if you want to make it, this is your avenue and you have to do it. If not, it is going to be a lot harder."

For seven seasons, Fritz toiled in the East Coast and American Hockey League and took on every would-be tough guy that wanted to make a name for himself. Then on January 11th, 2008, Fritz received his big break when the New York Islanders called him up to play against the Montreal Canadiens. Fritz knew his time in the NHL would be numbered, so he had to make the most of each and every opportunity. For Fritz, it was engaging in a fight with Canadiens designated tough guy George Laraque, who at the time was arguably the toughest player in the NHL.

"He was at the peak. He was the top guy. At that point it was almost like me getting to validate everything that I had done for eight years. I was either going to know if I wasn't good enough or good enough and I did pretty well".

Don't believe him? The fight can be viewed on Youtube where Fritz is seen tangling with Laraque, who at the time was 6 foot 3 and 280 pounds.

For all the fights that Fritz was involved in over his pro career, he thanks his lucky stars that he was never hurt and doesn't have the after effects of too many hard blows to the head.   

"One inch one way or another and ya, you could end up with major brain damage which could turn into concussions, depressions or that type of thing. Maybe I was a different style of fighter? I don't think my height hurt me. I think it was a huge advantage where I didn't get hit as hard as some guys that were a bit shorter. They had to take a few more punches maybe to land a few more."

After just 20 games with the Islanders in 2009, Fritz wouldn't see the NHL ice again. He would spend two more seasons with the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals before a hip injury ended  his playing career.

"I still often wake up from a dream about playing hockey but it is those weird dreams where you are trying to get on the ice but you can't find your skates or you can't find your gear. You are watching warmups and you are getting nervous and you can't get out there. It was tough to walk away from the game but I was content walking away and was fortunate I wasn't badly hurt," Fritz added.  

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