Originally created 11/20/02

Hockey helps rookie find his life's path



So you're a hyperactive teenager from a broken home with a serious problem with authority. You're bright yet foolish, gifted yet misguided, passionate yet disenfranchised.

So, what are you going to do with your life?

As he was growing up in Toronto, Augusta Lynx rookie forward Jeff Szwez would ask himself that question all the time.

Eventually, he realized the answer was hockey. Now, the once-confused youngster considers himself lucky. Lucky to have figured it out before it was too late.

"When I was in grade 10, I reevaluated my life and where I was going and what I had to do to be successful in life," said Szwez, who played his best game as a pro with a pair of goals in Sunday's win at Columbus. "I just decided hockey was the easiest way to go. Once I started to play, I really enjoyed it and excelled at it."

Blessed with raw athletic ability and boundless energy, Szwez has beaten long odds to play pro hockey. While most in the game have been on the ice since the time they could walk, Szwez didn't begin playing until he was 16. He played only one year of major junior hockey in Canada before the NHL's Ottawa Senators signed him to an AHL contract this season.

"He's a tremendous athlete," Lynx coach David Wilkie said. "He's one of the fastest skaters on our team and has great hands and tremendous raw ability. He just needs to learn to play the game the right way. He's only been at it five, six years, so he's still learning. But you can't teach ability."

Before finding himself on the ice five years ago, Szwez was a self-proclaimed "bad little punk." He was on and off the prescription drug Ritalin throughout his childhood as he battled Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. There were other troublesome aspects of Szwez's childhood he says he "wouldn't want to put in print."

Szwez made it out OK. He made it to the ECHL.

He says it is just the beginning.

"How far have I come in five years? I'm in the ECHL," Szwez said. "I aim much higher than this. I'm not gonna say 'At least I made it this far.' Forget that. I say I can be in the NHL next year. With a good summer of working out, I can be there next year."

If the articulate, free-spirited Szwez sounds cocky, that's because he is, but his Lynx teammates say he's lovable cocky. Healthy cocky. To a man, the players seem to love having him around.

"He's a pretty confident guy, eh?" Lynx forward Lance Galbraith said with a laugh. "Great guy to have on the team. Always having fun, enjoys every day, loves everything about hockey. He's such a positive person. He never lets anyone around him get down."

As he entered high school, Szwez was feeling down and out.

"I wasn't criminal bad, but I was a pretty bad kid," Szwez said. "My parents got divorced when I was real young. I got suspended from school all the time. I had a real opposition to authority."

He also knew he had the intellect, talent and drive to be something besides suspended and flunking out of school.

Szwez loved music, books, drama and sports. He thought about playing guitar in a classic rock band. He thought about becoming an actor. He thought about studying English literature.

He thought about doing a million things. But his ADHD made him feel like his brain was spinning at a million miles an hour.

That's when he realized hockey was just his speed.

"Hyperactivity is conducive to a hockey career; it's almost a prerequisite," Szwez said. "I was always moving as a kid, always antsy. Hockey was the best combination of my intelligence and energy. A perfect mesh of everything. I just fell into it by default, and ran with it."

Now he's running down a dream.

"I always wanted to be famous and wealthy,' Szwez said. "But as you grow a bit older, you step back a bit and your thoughts become more realistic. I just want to be a productive member of society who lives a comfortable life. I don't think that's unrealistic."

Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425.