After summer of heartbreak, Ftorek back on ice for K-Wings

KALAMAZOO — Sam Ftorek is a glutton for punishment. In addition to competing in a duathlon and a triathlon this summer, the 37-year old defenseman for the Kalamazoo Wings also took part in the “Muddy Patriot” at Timber Ridge in Gobles.

Even though he was not quite sure what the Muddy Patriot was all about, when he received a Groupon in his email about the event, it was game on.

“I told my wife ‘I’m going to do it,’” Ftorek said. “For no other reason than it is something different. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, I just knew there were obstacles and mud.”

The 1.5- or 3.5-mile military-style obstacle course, which consisted of running up and down ski slopes, through puddles and trenches of mud and rope swings, proved to be challenging for Ftorek.

“It was a lot more difficult than I expected,” said Ftorek, who ran the 1.5-mile course.

Completing the course in about 25 minutes, Ftorek said that it took him as long to recover from the run as it does a 60-minute hockey game. But he would do it again in a heartbeat.

As a hockey player, Ftorek is used to taking hits into the boards, but which would he rather endure: the hits or the Muddy Patriot?

“I’d rather do the Muddy Patriot, the 1.5-mile that is,” he said. “If it was between the 3.5-mile and getting hit, I’d get hit any day of the week.”

Spending most of his 14-year career in the ECHL, Ftorek and his family are planted in Kalamazoo for the fourth straight season, the longest tenure they have had with one team.

“My family loves it here,” Ftorek said. “At the end of the season, I always look for the best team that I could go play for, and it is hard to find a better team than we have been with the last few years.”

Family life has played a role in the Ftoreks’ longevity in Kalamazoo, as his daughter is now in school and loving it. “It’s nice to come back,” he said. “We’ve got a great head coach and a great organization. Everything is kind of coming together, but it is a little different playing in the same place for more than a year or two.”

Before returning to the K-Wings this season, the Ftoreks endured a summer of heartbreak and rebirth.

In addition to purchasing a home, the Ftoreks welcomed their third child, Mason, into the family on Aug. 16. The day before that, Ftorek’s grandmother passed away.

But it was on July 22 when the Ftorek family suffered a tremendous loss. Anna, Ftorek’s 23-year-old sister, passed away without warning of a heart attack.

“Without Mason, we would love to forget this summer,” Ftorek said. “But that’s life. There is a reason. Don’t know what it is right now. I don’t like it. She was happy, hanging around, joking with the kids and then she was gone. She was a big hockey fan and a good, goofy, funny kid.”

Taking to the ice this season is part of the coping process for Ftorek. “It’s one of those things where you move on by staying busy and grieve when you can,” he said. “For me, it’s something where I can go and get a little aggression out and kind of play with a little more freedom knowing that nothing in life is guaranteed.”

An accomplished artist in his own right, Ftorek designed a helmet decal for the Erie Otters of the OHL, where Ftorek’s father Robbie is the head coach. The Otters dedicated their season in memory of Anna.

Ftorek and his K-Wings teammates are wearing the decal on their helmets this season, as well. The sticker is in the shape of an Asiatic lily, Anna’s favorite flower, is yellow and blue, the colors of the Otters, and has musical notes as the pistils, as Anna loved to sing. “It encompasses her,” Ftorek said. “It is something very pretty to look at, and her name is on one of the petals.”

As he has the past several years, Ftorek also takes part in a weekly chapel after practice at Wings Stadium that is headed by Chaplain Jim McKernan. The 15-20 minute chapel revolves around hockey and how the game and lifestyle can relate to the Bible. It is also another outlet for Ftorek in helping him and others deal with the ups and downs of life.

“It is more about how you can keep yourself on the right track because a lot of players can easily get depressed or upset or not happy with where they are,” Ftorek said. “Chapel allows you to have a little more personal interaction and it is a good release and helps to keep you centered and have some stability.”

Ftorek is starting the season strong. In the K-Wings six games, he has two goals and five assists. Both of his goals were scored on the power play in last Friday night’s win over the Evansville IceMen. Ftorek is also second in the ECHL with five power-play points.

The K-Wings are home this weekend for two games. Tonight they battle the Cincinnati Cyclones at 7:30 p.m. and then on Saturday the Fort Wayne Komets come to town for a 3 p.m. matinee.

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