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After Heading West, Szydlowski Prepares For Collegiate Run at Western Michigan

Photo Credit: Russ Alman/

WENATCHEE, Wash. – Before the start of the 2021-22 season, Wenatchee Wild forward Garrett Szydlowski left the North American Hockey League and headed west. With the 2023-24 season on the horizon, he’ll head west again…but only within the confines of his home state.

Szydlowski will begin his NCAA career next season at Western Michigan University after a four-year, 185-game stint in junior hockey. Two of those seasons and 86 games were spent with the Wild, after a two-year run with the Maryland Black Bears in the NAHL’s East Division.

The Brighton, Michigan native cut his teeth in the sport early, stepping on the ice at just three years old.

“Growing up, I had a bunch of buddies playing, and I was looking for something else to try,” said Szydlowski. “My mom took me to the hockey rink, and ever since, I’ve loved it. My dad wasn’t too happy about it – he was complaining that it’s the most expensive sport, but he’s made the sacrifices to keep me in it, and so has my mom.”

Coming up through the famed Little Caesars AAA program in the Detroit area, he soon found himself playing alongside a who’s-who of up-and-coming talent – three teammates on his 16-and-under team alone have gone in the National Hockey League draft, and 11 of his counterparts on that team suited up for NCAA Division I programs this past season.

The group won a handful of Michigan Amateur Hockey Association state titles before going its separate ways, and had a bench boss who knows a thing or two about winning championships himself. That coach: none other than four-time Stanley Cup champion Kris Draper.

“It was awesome. At first, everyone was kind of fanboying over him, but after that, he turned into a buddy, a friend, and someone you look up to,” said Szydlowski. “He was a great coach – he taught me how to play the game right, play the game the right way. I’m really blessed to have him teach me the way, and I still talk to him. It’s really nice having him (as a coach).”

The first two years of junior hockey saw Szydlowski on a Maryland team that was in the North American Hockey League playoff hunt as the COVID shutdown hit in March 2020, and his return to the ice in 2020-21 ended in the East Division final against the Maine Nordiques.

Then it was time to head west.

“Coach Leigh (Mendelson) got me out here,” said Szydlowski. “He was talking with my advisor for a few years, and when I turned 18, COVID hit and I couldn’t do it. The following year, after my second year at Maryland, Coach Clark called me and said he’d like for me to come out, and it’s been good ever since.”

Szydlowski thrived in his first season in Wenatchee, making his 100th junior appearance in his Wild debut and setting a new career-high with 31 points in his first year.

Injuries slowed him down some early in 2022-23, missing more than a month after notching five points in as many games to start the year. He rebounded handily in the second half of the season, however, wrapping up with 26 points in 34 contests.

“Everybody goes through ups and downs throughout the year, it just depends on how you respond to it,” said Szydlowski. “I try to keep a positive attitude no matter what it is. I had (to deal with) concussion stuff, and I wanted to get that checked out. Once I got good news, I’m just staying positive, not getting down on myself, and I keep going.”

“The first thing that stood out to me about Garrett was how much fun he had at the rink every day,” said Wenatchee Wild head coach Chris Clark. “He made every day enjoyable because he was always smiling and bringing the energy. Garrett was a player that scored some big goals for us over the last couple of years, and someone we also counted on when we were up a goal late in games.”

One major box was already ticked before he reached Wenatchee, though – an NCAA commitment. Szydlowski announced his commitment to WMU during his final season with Little Caesars in 2019, just before leading the program to the national 16U semifinals.

“It was really nice not having to worry about that, because it’s always in the back of your mind if you’re not (committed),” said Szydlowski. “You still have to put in the work. Even though you’re committed there, you haven’t put pen to paper. It’s still in the back of your mind, but not as much. It was good to have it out of the way early and just be focused on my craft.”

There is one question, though. Brighton is in the heart of Big Ten country, situated right between the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Michigan State University in East Lansing…so why Western Michigan?

Turns out, there’s quite a logical answer to that question. Garrett’s father, Allen, played quarterback for the Bronco football team during the mid-1980s, and made frequent trips back to the alma mater with Garrett in tow.

“Ever since, I’ve always wanted to go there,” said Szydlowski. “Their fans, the Lawson Lunatics, are the best in college hockey.”

He says after two years in Wenatchee, he’s seen the fruits of his efforts, and he’s looking forward to seeing what developments continue in Kalamazoo.

“Coming here really separated a lot of things,” said Szydlowski. “Playing in Maryland, I enjoyed it, but coming here, you play more offense. The best defense is a good offense, and coming here, I learned how to play away from the puck more and contribute offensively.”