To understand the past few years of Matt Bartkowski’s NHL career, just cue up his unofficial theme song — “Centerfield,’’ by John Fogerty — and press play.
Sure, it’s about a different sport. But last season, when the defenseman watched most of Calgary’s games from the press box, that baseball hymn and its refrain became a regular part of the locker-room soundtrack. Put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play, today.
“One of my teammates, Freddie Hamilton, was the one that put it on,’’ Bartkowski said Friday, after practicing with the Wild at Xcel Energy Center. “Neither of us was playing for a while, so it became our song. We’d even put it on after bag skates.’’
The 30-year-old veteran wouldn’t mind getting a new signature tune this season, maybe something like Sara Bareilles’ “I Choose You.’’ For the time being, he’s happy hearing anything that’s playing on the Wild’s sound system. Bartkowski signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Wild in July, in the hopes of winning a roster spot as a depth defenseman.
The jovial journeyman has become used to biding his time. Since playing a career-high 80 games with Vancouver in 2015-16, Bartkowski has seen action in only 42 NHL games over the past two seasons.
His career has included a skate with the Stanley Cup in 2011, when he got to join the on-ice celebration with Boston despite not playing in the postseason, and some long stints in the minor leagues. Through it all, Bartkowski has become known for his professionalism, persistence and good humor, part of the reason the Wild is giving him a long look at camp.
“I’ve been in this situation before,’’ said Bartkowski, who got 19 minutes, 28 seconds of ice time in Thursday’s 3-0 preseason loss to Dallas. “If you don’t really love playing the game, it could be miserable.
“But I just love playing. Here in camp, I’m just focusing on what I’m doing on the ice, staying positive and having fun with the guys.’’
When he laughs — which is often — Bartkowski displays a classic hockey grin, minus one front tooth. His game is that of a classic stay-at-home defenseman. Bartkowski reads the ice well and is strong in the corners, and he is an excellent skater, surprising Wild coach Bruce Boudreau with his mastery of the team’s pre-camp skating test.
Based on what he’s seen while playing against the Wild, Bartkowski thinks he could be a good fit in Boudreau’s system. Though he joked that his style is “boring,’’ he has many of the qualities the coach prizes, including relentlessness, diligence, reliability and 253 games of NHL experience.
“He’s a really good skater,’’ Boudreau said. “He’s a veteran who’s been around a while. He’s a guy that’s played in a lot of NHL games. Any time you can have that depth, it’s a good thing.’’
After two seasons at Ohio State, Bartkowski, a Pittsburgh native, signed with the Bruins in 2010. He spent most of his first three seasons with their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, then played most of the next three in the NHL with Boston and Vancouver.
When the Canucks did not re-sign him, he returned to Providence before landing in Calgary as a free agent in 2017. Like fellow Wild defenseman Nate Prosser — who skated alongside him in Friday’s practice as the fourth defensive pair — Bartkowski developed a reputation for being able to jump into the lineup and play steady defense, no matter how many games he had been idle.
At one point last season, he sat for 26 consecutive games, listening to “Centerfield’’ as he worked to stay prepared. It’s a skill he’d rather not use. But it’s among the reasons Bartkowski has won the admiration of teammates and coaches in several organizations, and it reflects the approach he is taking in camp.
Put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play, today.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,’’ Bartkowski said. “I’ll just stay focused on myself, put my best foot forward and whatever happens, happens. That’s all you can do.’’