As both a versatile and reliable player, Walleye forward Mike Borkowski has been counted on to play in all situations for Toledo this season.
The dependable 25-year-old from Kanata, Ontario, has been a key cog for the Walleye (13-4-2), who are off to another hot start.
“I try to do all I can,” Borkowski said. “I try to be versatile. I play the whole sheet [of ice]. I certainly try to play 200 feet.”
Borkowski, a second-year pro, has been a point-per-game player for a Toledo team that leads the ECHL Central Division. The center ranks second on the team with 17 points in 17 games, scoring seven goals to go along with 10 assists.
Walleye coach Dan Watson said Borkowski is smart and skilled.
“He has an extremely high IQ,” Watson said. “He has phenomenal skill with his passing and skating. He does it all very well. He plays in all situations. He's a guy we rely heavily on. He's a huge part of what we're going here. His hockey smarts are off the charts.”
The Colgate University graduate said he takes pride in knowing all aspects of the game.
“I try to be reliable,” he said. “I'm trying to put my best foot forward here.”
Borkowski tallied a hat trick in a 5-3 home win against Wheeling on Nov. 11. The 6-foot, 183-pound forward said it has been easy to get pumped up for games at the Huntington Center.
The Walleye are off to the best home start in the organization's history with a perfect 6-0-0 record at the downtown arena. No other team in the ECHL is undefeated at home. Toledo also continues to lead the league in average attendance (7,924) with sellouts at every game.
“The crowd definitely helps out,” Borkowski said. “If you make a good play or score a timely goal, you can ride that momentum. You come home and you feel a sense of comfort knowing you're never out of a game here.”
Borkowski played the bulk of his rookie season in the American Hockey League with Toledo's affiliate in Grand Rapids, where he helped lead the Griffins to the Calder Cup. He also played in six games for the Walleye last season and had nine points.
“I've been very blessed to be in Grand Rapids last year, playing in front of those playoff crowds,” he said. “They throw octopus on the ice up there. It's similar here with the walleye being thrown on the ice. I've been very fortunate to play in front of two great fan bases.”
Borkowski said the fan support can be particularly helpful when the team is in the midst of a grinding schedule. Toledo just wrapped up a stretch of eight games in 13 days, including four games in five days.
The Walleye play Friday at rival Fort Wayne and host Indy on Saturday.
After dropping consecutive road games in Cincinnati and Fort Wayne, Toledo rebounded with a home victory against Worcester on Friday and a win Sunday at Brampton.
“When you mix in the travel, it can be hard and taxing on the body,” Borkowski said. “But it is what everyone signs up for. When you don't have your best legs, it comes down to will. [The win on Sunday] was big. Our schedule certainly hasn't been favorable. When you look at that segment, we went 6-2 and we'll gladly take that.”
Borkowski has been paired on a line with dynamic playmaker Shane Berschbach and the big-bodied Austen Brassard. Berschbach, who set single-season Walleye records with 68 assists and 86 points last season, has 12 points in 14 games with 11 assists. Brassard has 10 points in 18 games with nine assists.
“Playing with Bersch has been great. We think the game the same way,” Borkowski said. “We find each other. You look at his stat line and it speaks for itself. Brass is a big body who can think the game and protect the puck. He's tough. It's been a cool little line.”
Borkowski has joined Berschbach as one of the team's assistant captains with defenseman Simon Denis on the injured reserve list. Watson said his decision to name the young player an alternate captain speaks volumes.
“That shows you the type of character he has,” Watson said. “He's an American League player, but because of the depth in Grand Rapids, he's here. He's a very mature kid. He's a pro's pro.”
The team's leadership and depth have been tested lately, most significantly with loss of captain Alden Hirschfeld to a regular-season-ending knee injury.
“It's very hard to lose a guy like that,” Borkowski said. “He means a lot to our group. He can be vocal and he has a good pulse on the locker room. Plus he's a great guy. You can talk to him about anything, so having him around as a [player/coach] will be huge. He is so knowledgeable.”
Borkowski said this team is built to pick up the slack.
“We have guys that will answer the bell,” he said. “We have depth. It's been scoring by committee. Everyone is pulling on the same string. The guys are clicking.”
Borkowski, who played with former Walleye players Tylor and Tyson Spink in college, said he knows how hungry the Toledo organization and its fans are to win a championship. Borkowski and the Spink brothers were Colgate's top three scorers in 2015-16. The trio also played on the same junior hockey team and roomed together as teenagers. The three were reunited in Toledo last season.
“Coming out of college, I wanted to be a part of a winner,” Borkowski said. “Grand Rapids had a pedigree of doing that. My first year of pro hockey I got to experience a winning culture. The [Calder Cup] was the cherry on top.
“It's been the same here. It's been great. We have a good product on the ice. We have 8,000 fans every night. I've seen what it takes to win and it's a lot of intangible stuff. I'm going to do all I can to bring a Cup here.”
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