Robert Bortuzzo made hockey history this season.
On Nov. 5 he suited up for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the 10:38 he spent on the ice against the Los Angeles Kings made him the first former Superior International Junior Hockey League player to skate in an NHL game.
Bortuzzo, a restricted free agent this summer, went on to play five more games with the Penguins before a head injury shut his big league season down.
The 23-year-old, who spent the 2005-06 season with the then Fort William North Stars, was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 17, returned to action on Jan. 7 in the American Hockey League, where he helped lead the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins into the second round of the playoffs, where they fell in seven games to the St. John’s IceCaps.
He’d like to head back to Pittsburgh, the team that drafted him 78th overall in the third round of the 2007 NHL entry draft.
“That seems like that’s going to be the plan,” said Bortuzzo said last week, before lacing up his skates to take part in the annual Thunder Bay Midget Kings alumni game.
“Things are kind of just getting worked out right now and hopefully I’ll get it out of the way soon.”
His first taste of the NHL has him wanting more and was definitely a learning experience, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound blue-liner said.
“I learned a lot. I learned what the game was going to bring to me physically and I learned a lot from veteran guys like (Brooks) Orpik and (Kristopher) Letang. I learned how to be an NHL professional, so I’m just going to carry that into next season and hopefully it helps.”
Bortuzzo finished his debut season with no points in six games, collecting a plus-one rating and two penalty minutes.
A graduate of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, Bortuzzo said that first game against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings was a bit of a whirlwind.
“It was crazy. I didn’t know if I was going to be in the lineup or not. It was in L.A. at the Staples Centre, so everything was coming at me pretty quick,” said Bortuzzo, who wound up with three goals and 12 points in 51 AHL games last season.
“It was exciting and I remember walking onto the ice and Jordan Staal was walking ahead of me. He kind of turned around and laughed and said, ‘This is happening.’ I kind of chuckled and got settled into the game after that.”
Having a fellow Lakehead player like Staal, since traded to Carolina in the offseason, there to calm his nerves was just what Bortuzzo needed.
“He’s been a good friend of mine for awhile. Having a familiar face around never hurts,” he said, promising to do the same for Thunder Bay goalie Matt Murray, taken by the Penguins in the third round of the 2012 draft.
The Penguins have already dealt defenceman Zbynek Michalek and rumours floating around Pittsburgh suggest Paul Martin could be on the block.
Long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hockey reporter Dave Molinari also says Bortuzzo is close to sticking with the Pens, though he’ll be fighting for spots with fellow hopefuls Simon Despres and Brian Strait.
Bortuzzo just hopes his six-game audition turned some heads.
“Hopefully I did enough to prove myself up there, so hopefully I can stick there this year,” he said.
“That’s my plan right now, that’s my goal. That’s why I’m working hard this summer and I feel like this is going to be my year to make the jump. It’s going to happen soon.”
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