For one member of the Adirondack Thunder, Law Enforcement Appreciation Night extended well past a victory for the home team.
Long after everyone else has forgotten the final score of the game or which players found the back of the net, Austin Orszulak sits with much greater memories.
For Orszulak, Law Enforcement Appreciation Night represents a link between his present as an Adirondack Thunder hockey player and his future in the law enforcement industry.
“Knowing that hockey will one day come to an end for me and eventually going into law enforcement, it was pretty cool to be a part of that night,” Orszulak said. “Having a ton of law enforcement in the crowd and on the ice before the game was cool to see.”
The night started with an interesting wrinkle, one that might have appeared to be an error to someone looking in from the outside. Orszulak has worn the number seven on his jersey for the entirety of the season, but in his stall on March 10 read the number 17, the number he had worn throughout his youth and into his collegiate career at American International College, where he played four seasons of division one hockey.
“I was talking with [Paul Rodrigues, usual wearer of 17] the week before about how cool it’d be to wear 17 on this game,” Orszulak said “When I got here, all of a sudden, I had 17. I had no idea it was happening. It was cool just to wear my old number for this game especially.”
Rodrigues’ gesture is a testament to the brotherhood shown between teammates. The players in the Thunder locker room play for one another, and the number gesture proved to be only the beginning of a memorable night for Orszulak.
When Adirondack Thunder Head Coach Brad Tapper read off the starting lineup he had no hesitation in including Orszulak. The 5-10 winger has been in-and-out of the Thunder lineup this season but Tapper felt that Orszulak deserved to not only play but to start on this special night.
“From the very first day of the year, getting to know the guys and what their plans are for life after hockey, Austin came up to us and was talking about law enforcement,” Tapper said. “He’s been really going after it, he’s been taking exams, studying hard away from the rink. We’re a family-oriented organization and we want what’s best for our players and want to make them comfortable, make them happy. He deserved to be in the lineup that game and he deserved to start.”
As the Thunder took the ice, three local sheriffs – Jeffrey Murphy of Washington County, Patrick Russo of Rensselaer County and Michael Zurlo of Saratoga County – awaited at center ice for the ceremonial puck drop.
The ceremonial puck drop is an honor typically reserved for a captain or alternate captain but when the moment presented itself, Thunder captain Mike Bergin sent Orszulak out to represent the Thunder.
“We were on the blueline and [Bergin] told me ‘this is you tonight, go do the puck drop’ which was really special,” Orszulak said. “It shows the character he has and the leader that he is.”
Between Rodrigues, Tapper and Bergin, not to mention extra work and money put in by several Thunder staff members to make the evening special, the true comradery in a hockey locker room was shown.
“It was amazing to see, I didn’t have to say a single thing about it,” Tapper said. “Those guys did it themselves, it was a decision made by the players. When your guys are making big decisions like that in the room, being men and sacrificing for their teammates it’s great to see. Allowing him to take the puck drop, allowing him to wear 17, which was his number forever, it shows the character in our locker room.”
Orszulak went on to play the opening shift, kicking off an important night for the Thunder, which ended in a 4-1 win for the team amidst the playoff push. While the two points were welcomed for the Thunder in the short term, it was the bigger picture that was clear to Orszulak and his teammates.
“You have those hockey dreams as a kid and I’m blessed to say I’m living this life but I know, in the end, a more long-term career for me is in law enforcement,” Orszulak said. “My family knows my plans, the guys and the coaches know, that law enforcement is the long term plan for me.”
Orszulak’s story puts the life of many ECHL players into perspective: Hockey is his job in the present, but it won’t be his job forever. Orszulak admitted that while he could extend his career for five, ten, or however many more years, doing so would set him back in what he views as the future plan.
“It’s going to be sad when one day playing professionally comes to an end, but a night like that is one I know I’ll never forget,” a smiling Orszulak said. “If that was the last game ever of my life, it would’ve been the cherry on top.”