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FEATURE: How a Pandemic Started a New Chapter for Craig Wyszomirski

Monday, August 31st
FEATURE: How a Pandemic Started a New Chapter for Craig Wyszomirski

Hanging up the skates is one of the most difficult decisions any hockey player can ever make. At some point in their lives, every professional athlete must face the proverbial fork in the road and move on from the sport that they love. As players struggle with those decisions, new questions arise about their future. Will they regret it? Will they miss the game? Are they going to fit in the real world?

As the 2019-20 ECHL season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these questions were answered quicker than former Indy Fuel captain Craig Wyszomirski would have liked. Struggling with the decision to retire before the 2019-20 season, Wyszomirski returned to the ice for one last year in professional hockey.

In late August, just before training camp, Wyszomirski signed with the Indy Fuel for what was likely going to be his final professional hockey season. Eventually becoming the captain of the young Fuel team, Wyszomirski led them to one of the best years in franchise history. 

“It was awesome. It was everything you want,” said Wyszomirski. “I was in a place sort of mentally where I was so happy with what was going in our locker room and on the ice and our situation and how we were coming around as a team that I was like, ‘if this is it, if this is my last ride, I’m good with that.’ ”

Wyszomirski began his career in the Los Angeles Kings organization splitting his time between the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign and the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs. Enduring the flights across the United States from Manchester, New Hampshire to Ontario, California was no easy task but the right coaching eased the burden of making it to the AHL. “The flight was obviously tough,” said Wyszomirski. “That was a little challenging. For the most part, our coaches did a really good job of preparing us (for the AHL).”

Every season players are called up and sent down between AHL teams and ECHL teams. Playing in 31 AHL games in 2018-19, Wyszomirski’s season was divided between the Ontario Reign and the Manchester Monarchs, who were coached by current Fuel Head Coach and General Manager Doug Christiansen. To Wyszomirski, the difference between the AHL game and the ECHL game comes down to the details. “I would say, yes it’s harder to play in the A(HL). It’s also easier in some sense. Guys are bigger, faster and have more skill. But the thing I found was everybody’s so positionally sound in the AHL, that everybody’s where they need to be. You have the right support, you have the right help, you don’t have to do as much.”

Playing the first half of the 2018-19 season in Manchester, Wyszomirski skated in 27 games for Christiansen. Signing with the Fuel for the 2019-20 campaign, Wyszomirski knew what he was going to get from his coach. 

“I knew what he brought to the table,” said Wyszomirski. “I knew how passionate, how invested he would be in my career, in my game and that’s helpful. He’ll do anything he can to move his players on regardless if we’re in first place or last place. He’s going to do his very best to move guys to the next level. That’s all you want, just honesty and passion. He brought a lot both of those things.”

Coaching Wyszomirski throughout part of 2018-19, Christiansen knew what to expect from the stay at home defenseman. He knew that having “Wyz” on the blue line this past season would pay off big time. “I don’t think it was a coincidence that when he returned we really took off as a team,” said Christiansen. “He is so well respected by his teammates and staff and when he speaks, everyone listens. He is an outstanding leader and a true gentleman who leads from the front.”

Playing three seasons for Manchester, Wyszomirski was no stranger to playoff hockey. Before coming to Indy, the defenseman had played in 39 playoff games in four years. To him, betting on anybody other than the Fuel was the wrong decision. “We were a dangerous team and we were gearing up for a big playoff run. I know that for a fact,” said Wyszomirski. “I was really excited and looking forward to what we were going to bring to the table in playoffs but obviously, it’s tough that it got cut short. All I can say is we were primed to be really dangerous. I would have put the mortgage on us winning, to be honest with you.”

After an abrupt ending to the 2019-20 season, Wyszomirski was among many players who wondered what the next steps were and more importantly, where the next paycheck was going to come from. Stepping up to the plate to support the players was former National Hockey League forward and former Wheeling Nailer and current host of the popular Barstool Sports Spittin’ Chiclets podcast Paul Bissonnette. 

Commonly known as “Biz,” Bissonnette showed his support for ECHL players, helping to put together the ECHL Player Relief fund, which has currently raised over $300,000. Knowing Biz from playing together in Ontario, Wyszomirski reached out to see if he could help. “I thought that was awesome,” said Wyszomirski. “So I just sent him a message (saying) that I was really thankful and appreciative of that and if he needed any help doing anything, just let me know and I’d be happy to help in any way. We actually jumped on the phone together and started brainstorming a few things.”

Having a brand like Spittin’ Chiclets and a former NHL and ECHL player like Bissonnette on board and supporting the ECHL shows how small of a world the hockey universe is. “I think a lot of the owners stepped up and helped out as much as they could, which was really cool to see,” said Wyszomirski. “But at the end of the day, without a presence like Biz and Chiclets, you’re not going to gain any traction. And I think one of the reasons that it was what it was, is because when you have someone like Chiclets backing it, and for them to do it on their own time with no kickback or anything like that; it speaks volumes about the type of guys they are.”

Don’t let his humbleness fool you, Wyszomirski became one of the largest advocates for the ECHL Player Relief Fund on his own time. With his help on social media during a game-worn jersey auction, the Indy Fuel raised $13,320 for the player relief fund. 

As a team captain, you can’t ask for much better when it comes to leadership. Starting a new chapter in life is a difficult and stressful step for anybody but luckily for him, this year was one that he won’t soon forget. “I had an absolute blast. It was one of my favorite seasons of all time,” said Wyszomirski. “I was extremely lucky and fortunate to play, not only in Indy but with the team I played with, with the guys I played with, the coaching staff I had and the ownership group.” 

Starting his new life in the corporate world, Wyszomirski doesn’t know where this next step is going to take him, but finishing his hockey career in Indy was okay with him. Like he said, “If this is it, if this is my last ride, I’m good with that.”

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