Sullivan: Williamsville’s Andrew Poturalski still grinding for his next shot in the NHL

Jerry Sullivan

Andrew Poturalski (Courtesy of Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WIVB) — Andrew Poturalski fell in love with hockey in 1997, when the Sabres were on the rise and his hero, Dominik Hasek, was the best goaltender in the world, during his run of six Vezina Trophy awards in eight years. 

His mother, Diane, remembers how her son would sit in front of the TV set, transfixed by the action on the screen.

“It was amazing, his focus at a young age,” she said. “He was 3 years old. He wouldn’t respond unless I called him Dom. He was the Dominator.”

As a little boy in Williamsville, Poturalski loved putting on the goalie equipment, being like Dom. His parents, Joe and Diane, saw other possibilities. There was the staggering cost of goalie equipment. Also, there was only one starting goalie on a team, so he’d have a better chance as a skater.

“So, we steered him away from goaltending,” Diane said. 

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It was the wise move. “I think scoring goals was a little more exciting,” Poturalski said. “So that took over.”

It soon became apparent that Poturalski was a naturally gifted scorer, a player with great hands and touch and vision, someone more equipped to creating goals than keeping them out of the net.

“At every level he’s been at, he scored,” said Jake Rosen, who played hockey with Poturalski at a young age and has been a close friend ever since. “He’s a goal-scorer. I remember in high school, he got called up to the USHL. His first game, he scored two goals. That’s just the type of guy he is.”

Poturalski became one of the best offensive talents to come out of Buffalo since Patrick Kane. At 14, he was a star at Nichols. In 2011-12, he played a year for the Junior Sabres and had a two-game stint with Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League at the end of the season. 

Andrew Poturalski (Courtesy of Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)

He also suffered his share of adversity along the way. Poturalski broke his right leg three times during his high school years, each time in what he describes as “freak accidents.” It happened during his draft year, which might have explained why he went undrafted by the NHL. 

Undaunted, he played two years of junior with Cedar Rapids, scoring 64 points in 60 games in his second season. Then he spent two years at the University of New Hampshire. As a sophomore in 2015-16, Poturalski finished seventh in the country in scoring and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

Poturalski left school early to turn pro with the Carolina Hurricanes in March of 2016. As usual, he scored. In 2016-17, he was leading the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in scoring when he was recalled to the parent Hurricanes in April. He played two games in the NHL was and was sent back.

He hasn’t returned to the NHL since. But it’s not because he hasn’t produced.

In 2018-19, Poturalski was the top scorer and playoff MVP for the Checkers in their run to the Calder Cup as AHL champs. He had 23 points in 18 playoff games, including two goals in the clincher. Last year with San Diego, the Ducks’ top farm team, he led all AHL scorers with 44 points in 43 games. 

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Still, he waits for another chance in the big-time. Carolina never gave him another shot his first time in the organization. The Ducks never recalled him last season, or even placed him on the taxi squad established by the NHL during the pandemic. 

He perseveres, though he admits it has been discouraging at times. 

“Oh yeah, there have been down times throughout my career,” said Poturalski, now back with the Carolina and playing for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. “It’s good to have a strong support system with friends and my wife and family to help me to stick with it and keep grinding and keep going.”

“I’m sure everybody has their reasons for why they should get a chance,” he said before leaving for a bus trip to Grand Rapids. You’ve got to put your head down and keep working and hope that the right things happen. But yeah, there’s definitely been times when it’s tough.”

Andrew was raised to be tough, to rise above difficult circumstances. Diane, who played softball at Erie CC and the University of Iowa, was a competitor and an honest, unsparing critic. He says he got his competitive fire from his mother.

“She was always super hard on me and my brother (Mike) growing up, pushing us,” he said. “I owe a lot to her. She brought out my competitiveness; that’s definitely where I get it from. My dad ran track. We always joke that he played non-athletic sports and my mom was the good athlete.”

Diane admits she pushed him. Her basic message was that if you were going to do something, do it 100 percent. It’s not supposed to be easy.

“I’ve always been honest with him,” said Diane, who still plays competitive softball in Western New York. “I told him from day one, ‘I’m not going to be the rah-rah parent. If you want an honest opinion, I’ll give it to you.’ And I would do that.”

He would always be honest in return. There were times when he expressed his discouragement at not getting another chance in the NHL, despite his glittering minor-league resume.

“Oh, definitely,” Diane said. “Even though I felt the same way as him, I’d try to spin it another way and ‘Just say work harder’ or ‘Do this to get their attention.’ I didn’t want him feeling sorry for himself. I wanted him to just keep working hard. 

Andrew Poturalski (Courtesy of Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)

“But yeah, it’s frustrating when you see other guys getting called up and you know you’re as good or better than them, and you’re just not getting an opportunity. It would be different if he got 10, 15 games and didn’t do anything. But he hasn’t. He’s never gotten a true chance. And it’s frustrating, it sure is.”

Poturalski doesn’t want to be remembered as one of those career AHL stars who didn’t cut it in the bigs, a Jody Gage type. He could have gone overseas the past couple of years, maybe to Russia, and made bigger money. But the NHL has been his dream, ever since he was answering to “Dom” as a little boy.

“It’s always enticing with how much money you can make over there,” he said. “But obviously, my goal is still to play in the NHL and try to get the best opportunity. I’m not really worried about Europe right now in my career.”

It wasn’t his dream to play two games, but to be a full-time NHL player. Poturalski would be unfulfilled if his hockey biography listed only two games and zero stats for the Hurricanes as his NHL legacy. 

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “You grow up as a kid, watching the Sabres, dreaming of playing in the NHL. You can’t be satisfied at any rank of pro hockey. If you’re satisfied, you’re not going to be getting better.”

He needed to get better. That’s why he decided to return to the Carolina organization this year. Ryan Warsofsky, who had been an assistant on the 2019 Calder Cup champs in Charlotte, was now head coach for the Chicago Wolves, the Hurricanes’ new AHL affiliate. 

Warsofsky, who is 33 and seen as one of the rising coaches in hockey, had kept in touch with Andrew and talked about getting back together in Chicago. On Aug. 11, it happened. Poturalski signed a one-year, two-way deal with Carolina. The contract guaranteed him $250,000, with a $200,000 minor-league figure and league-minimum $700,000 if he plays in the NHL. 

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“There’s a sense of familiarity,” Poturalski said. “They knew me and I know the organization pretty well. I had a good relationship with Ryan and always kept in touch with him. I had a level of trust with him. He’s going to push me, not only to be content to play in the AHL, he’s going to push me to keep getting better every day and hopefully make that jump at some point.

“He was definitely a big reason why I signed here.”

Warsofsky was blunt with Poturalski during their talks late in the summer. He didn’t tell “Potsie” he belonged in the NHL. He told him what he needed to do to get there. Clearly, his scoring wasn’t enough to convince people.

“We talked about his speed and pace of play,” Warsofsky said Tuesday on the bus ride to Michigan. “He needed to get a little quicker. Credit to him, this offseason, he put in a lot of work. We’ve hired a track coach to work on his speed and agility off the ice, and now it’s really showing dividends.

“He looks quicker on the ice. He looked really good in training camp in Carolina. He made a really good statement there. He piqued a lot of interest. They said, ‘Wow, he looks quicker.’”

Warsofsky saw Andrew perform at the highest level on a championship team. He saw him accept criticism and work to become a better player. Last week, when the Wolves embarked on a new AHL season, he made Poturalski his captain.

“Guys kind of gravitate to him,” Warsofsky said. “He’s got experience at winning at this level. He’s a player that can make plays. I want our young guys to see that. He’s not the most vocal guy, which is fine. Patrice Bergeron’s not the most vocal guy, either.

“The way he does things, the way he’s a pro off the ice, the way he trained this summer. I want guys to watch how he takes care of himself and how he prepares himself on and off the ice. And I think when he speaks, guys listen.”

He also wanted to push Andrew, to give him new responsibilities and get him out of his “comfort zone.” He also put him at center, which will test his defensive skills and make him more attractive to the big club, which isn’t terribly deep.

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Poturalski is a competitor, above all else. He bet on himself by staying in this country. Rosen, his old friend, has seen that side of Andrew in golf. Poturalski has worked to become one of the top amateur golfers in the area, good enough to earn a spot in the Porter Cup three years ago. He finished fifth in this year’s Buffalo District men’s championship behind Anthony Delisanti.

Rosen, who was a star hockey player at Buffalo State, said Andrew “takes the cake as a competitor”. He compared him with Michael Jordan and tennis great Andy Roddick. 

“He’s one of the most competitive people I know,” Rosen said. “I don’t know how he has enough hours in the day sometimes, because I’ve been with him and he doesn’t stop. The reason he’s so good an athlete, too, is his mom has that same mentality. She’s unbelievable.”

Poturalski says his wife tends to balance him out. He and the former Haley Fromen met in high school at Nichols (her father, John, is a close friend of Jake Rosen’s dad, Bob). They got married in 2020, during the pandemic, then had a “vow renewal” ceremony with family and friends this past summer. 

Andrew Poturalski (Courtesy of Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)

“She keeps him grounded,” Diane said. “She’s a great girl. He’s been with her since he was a sophomore in high school, so she’s been through everything with him.”

Haley is a certified yoga trainer. It’s a more, oh, mellow mindset. 

“She tries to help me do meditating and breathing,” Andrew said. “At first I wasn’t on board but it’s good to hear a different perspective.”

Rosen, now a financial planner at L&M Wealth Management in Amherst, said it’s Poturalski’s powerful self-belief that stopped him from jumping at the overseas money and continuing his quest to get back to the big-time. 

“He knows he’s good enough to be in the NHL,” Rosen said. “He can go to Europe and come back. But it’s a lot easier to be here and get called up. He believes in himself. The best person to bet on is yourself, and that’s what he’s doing.”

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Poturalski led the Wolves with five points as they won two of three to begin the season. Of course, he could always score. If he’s faster and better than the guy who was MVP of the playoffs three years ago, and the leading AHL scorer last season, how could he not be destined or another stint in the NHL? 

He turns 28 in January. He believes his time will come. Until then, he plans to outwork everyone and be a leader for his team in Chicago.

“It’s always been a thing with me, a sense that it’s the way I have to be,” he said. “It’s not an option to me — going to the gym every day, doing a little extra work, wanting to be the best version of yourself. 

“That’s something my mom ingrained in me when I was younger. You want to be the best and do the most. When you’re done with your career, you don’t want to think back and say, ‘Maybe if I would have done this a little bit more.’ My wife will complain in the summers with golf, how I want to practice and do everything and get the most out of it. It’s pretty much how I treat everything.

“You just want to be prepared, and be ready.”

More From Jerry Sullivan

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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