February 8, 2018 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Penn State's 'Mayor' Makes Things Happen

Junior Sturtz Brings Infectious Attitude to Nittany Lions

 (photo: Heather Weikel)

(photo: Heather Weikel)

by Sara Civian/CHN Reporter

It’s Oct. 22, 2016 and Denis Smirnov is accelerating down Notre Dame’s ice. He’s zeroed in on completing a neutral zone transition in overtime, so forgive “the magician” for not noticing his wide open teammate banging a stick against the ice. 

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound forward to Smirnov’s right just bangs harder. He forces Smirnov to notice him, collects the ensuing pass and flies at the net. Penn State takes down its highest-ranked opponent in history off his backhand 1:20 into overtime. 

That’s Andrew Sturtz, and it’s kind of his thing.

Three months later and Sturtz is fielding questions from a melodramatic media scrum after the Nittany Lions dropped two in a row last season. He can sense the tension rising with every question, so he greets it with a smile.

“You gotta have fun. I mean, if you told us we’d be where we are right now in August then I’d be pretty happy,” he says, and his smile grows as if he’s convincing himself as he goes along. “You know what? We’ll get back on track this week … We’ll go to Minnesota and have some fun.”

That’s his other thing, and apparently it has been forever. According to his mother, Jill, he’s always just worn his heart on his sleeve. She calls his presence “warm and fuzzy”; Call it what you want, it has a momentum-shifting power no matter where he happens to be. 

If he’s in the Pegula Arena press room, he might be changing the mood from tense to fun. On the ice he’s probably doing the same for his team on a shorthanded breakaway — a statistic he perpetually hovers at the top of the NCAA in. If Joe Louis Arena still existed, maybe you’d find him in the same locker room from the intermission before the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s second consecutive night of double overtime. He was double fisting pizza and laughing, and why shouldn’t he do that again? We saw how it worked out the first time. 

“He’s a clutch performer ... he’s an absolutely clutch performer,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky says. “His emotion is so infectious ... you can’t watch him and not want to go out and play.”

While there’s no exact statistic for clutch, his NCAA-leading three shorthanded goals on the season are a decent starting point. And he’s Penn State’s leading scorer, ninth overall in the NCAA with 35 points on 12 goals and 23 assists.

It’s just that his stats, as impressive as they are, aren’t the whole story. They aren’t even most of it. 

Andrew Sturtz is the boy who once woke up to the news that a small Canadian town had started him a mayoral campaign. He’s the player who showed up to his Penn State recruitment trip missing a row of teeth. He’s the man who looks you in the eye and shakes your hand if he recognizes you from Pegula Ice Arena, even when you’re nowhere near it.

“He’s one of the few faces that comes to mind when you think about what it means to be a Penn State hockey player,” said Kara Walters, president of the Roar Zone, which is the team's fan club. “When he sees you, he always makes a point to come over and catch up a little bit. Half the time it's not even about hockey, just day to day stuff.”

In that way, he’s become an unofficial representative of Hockey Valley (or the “mayor” of what his teammates playfully refer to as Andy Valley). The perfect fit is exactly why it’s such a shock to find out he's at Penn State on a whim.

Growing up, all the energy pent up in him was ... a problem. It was a bit more than Jill could handle, if she’s being honest, and there’s a wall in her basement covered in puck marks if you need some proof. Sturtz grew up in Buffalo and his dad’s side of the family was big into hockey, so it made sense to put him in Mini Mites at 4 years old.

What makes less sense is the cycle that started then and never really stopped: He overachieved (which is apparently possible in Mini Mites), someone suggested he aim higher, he went for it — "Why not?" — and excelled. This came to a head when a teenaged Sturtz was so painfully bored of bantam hockey that Jill realized two things: Her son actually has a shot at some sort of future in this game he loves, and she’d have to take one hell of a risk to give it to him. Shipping your child off to juniors is hard enough, but Jill knew he’d only reach his full potential on an older team.

“He was just so, so bored with playing with his age group. He needed to play with older hockey players,” Jill said. “We put him in Junior B. He was 15 playing with 20-year-olds. We took a lot of heat for that, but I’ll tell you what — it was the best thing for him. I think that made him the person he is today.”

Sturtz reflected on the whole experience as “kind of fun,” and, “a good way to grow up,” because that’s how he talks, and he talks how he lives. He clarified that he was “just playing hockey for fun” until he got traded to the GOJHL’s Fort Erie Meteors in the middle of the 2012-13 season and his teammates convinced him to aim higher. 

Why not?

“When I got [to the CCHL], I didn’t even think Division I was in the cards ... I thought I was gonna play one more year [ever],” he said. “Then things started going my way.”

That’s one way of putting what happened. He scored 104 points in 58 games (51-53—104) for the CCHL’s Carleton Place Canadians, so that's another way of putting it.

Around the time the points started coming, Sturtz also started modeling his game after Montreal’s Andrew Shaw. 

“He kinda makes everyone’s life miserable,” he smirked, “And for me and [smaller] guys, if you wanna play at the next level you gotta be a dog on a bone. You’re going to take a beating some nights, but it’ll be worth it.”

Sturtz and his family had barely even considered college an option, and after that prolific season they figured the next step was the OHL. But it turns out ending the season as the league’s MVP, scoring the most goals, scoring the most points and winning a championship all while modeling your game after Shaw will turn some unexpected heads.

The next season (2014-15) was more of the same — a CCHL championship win, First All-Star Team accolades and the CCHL Playoffs MVP title — so the heads kept turning. Sturtz was fielding offers from a few professional teams and colleges at this point, but nothing felt quite right to him.

What do you do when it’s time to make a life-altering decision and none of the options sit well enough? If you’re lucky enough, you call mom.

Her advice was simple: “When in doubt, don’t do it.”

So he didn’t. 

“I’m not comfortable doing this, I’m not gonna sign,” he told her. “And don’t worry mom, something better will come along.” 

Carleton Place is a tiny town with 10,644 residents about 30 miles west of downtown Ottawa. Take a roadtrip through Canada and you’d probably glaze right over it, but a fiesty free agent was somewhere in there tearing it up — of course it was on Matt Lindsay’s radar. The assistant coach and his eye for recruiting is one of many essential parts that made Penn State hockey a success. So, yes, Lindsay knew about Carleton Place. The weirdest part, though, was when he knew about it — exactly one week after Sturtz chose to hold out for “something better.”

If there’s one thing you need to understand about Sturtz, it’s that he cares more about the way he plays — like Shaw, hopefully — than the number of points he racks up. Lindsay caught right on.

“You could tell he was a guy opponents hated playing against,” he said. “There were a lot of pieces in his game that we felt would fit the way we like to play, regardless of whether his offense or stats would translate from the CCHL to the Division I level. ... We liked the fact that he was a competitive kid with a lot of energy and tenacity.”

That was intriguing enough to Sturtz, but when he visited campus in Pegula Ice Arena’s second year of existence, he saw how hard Penn State was playing against then-No. 1 Minnesota. After that, he saw Pegula’s crowd. Sold.

His future head coach was probably all in on him before this. But one time, Sturtz — this 100-plus points scorer, mind you — showed up to Penn State with his mouth all busted up. Gadowsky, who is missing a tooth himself, interpreted Sturtz’s mess of a smile as something more.

“It was just very evident that with him what you see is what you get,” he said. “The fact that he had no teeth and his mouth was all busted up he gives you an idea of how genuine he is.”

Three years later, a four-point weekend against top-ranked Notre Dame has Sturtz one point shy of becoming the second Nittany Lion to reach the 100 point milestone. Gadowsky is still adamant as ever about two things: That’s not the only thing Sturtz can do, and it’s not even the best thing he can do.

“I actually think his infectious quality is probably even more important than the numbers he puts up,” Gadowsky said.

And really, that’s where all the randomness starts to make sense. A hyper kid in a Buffalo basement became a two-points-per-game stud in juniors, but he was still the hyper kid. When Sturtz said he wanted "something better," did he mean a coach that could see past his ridiculous numbers through to the real player? Did he want someone who could harvest his Shaw factor, and a place to unleash it where it's appreciated?

Well, rest assured — Andrew Sturtz is still the most annoying player on the ice. And the Roar Zone loves it.

Even so, those numbers are still important and they keep improving: 27 points in 37 games as a freshman, 37 in 37 as a sophomore, 35 in 29 so far as a junior. What’s different about this season’s campaign is the uptick in assists — he already has 23 compared to 2016-17’s 15.

Zoom out for a second. Sturtz’s career is what happens when you ask yourself 'Why not?' and actually go for it, a ride Jill “never thought would go so long” and Sturtz is determined to “enjoy every day” of. With so much focus on the present, a lot of caution to the wind and a little superstition, there’s not much room for thinking that far into the future. Luckily for them, Gadowsky and his staff have. It's the driving force behind his assists this season. 

“At the next level, he’ll have to distribute and collect a little bit better,” Gadowsky said. “It [assisting more] was a small suggestion from the staff at the beginning of the season and we think he’s taken it to heart.”

So, there’s a next level?

“I mean, my main goal is to make a good run at it, get my degree, then see what happens,” Sturtz started, of course.

But then he actually continued… “I know a lot of people here think I’m a goal-scorer, but my game, to me, is getting under opponents’ skin and being a 200-foot player. There’s a lot of guys at the next level who were scorers and had to become complete players.”

Hear that? “The next level.”

The undrafted free agent attended Penguins training camp over the summer, and sources from more than one National Hockey League team say they are interested.

But don’t tell him that. The mayor of Andy Valley is a little tied up at the moment. He's got a 100th point to score, a few hands to shake and quite a few opponents to drive insane. Maybe not in that order.

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