By Aileyahu Shanes
Follow on Twitter @a_shanes10
When your teammates place upon a nickname like “Bobby Orr” on you, it’s hard to live up to those expectations. As a defenseman who had 1.39 points per game over his twelve-year NHL career, one must be truly worthy to be compared to one of the best offensive defensemen of all time. However, freshman Matthew Brkljacic lives up to that mold and the nickname that was placed on him.
Brkljacic is currently a freshman majoring in business. He has a big frame, standing at five feet eleven inches and 170 pounds. Although he went to high school at Plant High in Tampa, he was originally from Windsor, Ontario, where he first fell in love with hockey. Although living in Ontario, Berkie became a Montreal Canadiens fan. “It’s got to be a Canada team growing up in Canada; and it wasn’t Toronto because that was who was closest, and my dad’s a Canadiens fan.”
Berkie is having a phenomenal season so far. In just seven games, he has recorded a total of eight points, three goals and five assists. He currently leads all defenseman on the team in points. He really started to break out during the UCF weekend. In the first game of the back-to-back he had two goals and in the second game he assisted on four goals. “I think that’s when it took charge,” said Brkljacic when asked when the “Bobby Orr” nickname started. “Connor [Nicholson] would make jokes on the bench and so would the coaches about my style of play.… I got to basically live up to the nickname now.”
Although he is named after the legendary Boston Bruins defenseman, Brkljacic emulates his game after another defenseman from a northeastern team. “P.K. Subban,” Brkljacic instantly answered when asked about the player he tries to model his game after. “He used to play on the Canadiens when I was growing up; he was my favorite player.… He’s an offensive defenseman heavily, which I see as being more productive for the team and more exhilarating to watch in general. So, when I watched him, I fell in love with his style of play and try to do it myself.” Like Subban, Brkljacic also has great puck control and skating ability. This always makes him a threat on the ice and allows him to create seamless offensive breakouts. “I’ve always been a quick player,” said Berkie, “speed has always been my number one.”
Like most players, Brkljacic got into hockey at a very young age. “I’d say about five, maybe six, I started [playing hockey], and it was growing up in Canada that played a big factor into it, just a huge sport up there. The stereotype is absolutely true. It’s something that everybody does at some point: play hockey. Through that, I grew up in a good city where there were competitive teams that I could play on, and I carried that through ever since.” He played competitively for three to four years in Windsor for the Windsor AAA Zone, formerly known as the Windsor Spitfire, a AAA program. “[AAA] is the highest you could possibly go as that age.” Said Brkljacic. However, right before high school, Matthew and his family moved to Tampa. “Obviously I wanted to continue playing hockey, but I didn’t know at the time that there was good hockey down south like this.” Said Brkljacic on his move and hockey hopes. However, Berkie was able to find competitive hockey in Florida. He joined the Plant High hockey team, where he put up 34 points in 46 games over the four-year span, and he joined the Florida Alliance, a AAA team that was part of the North American Prospects Hockey League. “It was a team that was put together and practiced on weekends on occasion,” said the defenseman on the team, “and then had games and you would train on your own.” After that, Brkljacic decided to continue his pursuit of hockey by taking a gap year and playing in the USPHL, a junior hockey program consisting of DIII college schools, for the Boston Junior Bruins. This experience helped Brkljacic transition well as a freshman. “I played with guys that were older than me during that year and got a lot from it. It was a good time. I think it made the transition that much easier… just cause it’s faster. You’re playing with some big boys out there, so it’s going to be more physical than what your typically used to…. So, playing with older guys now, it’s similar to junior hockey, in a way, from a size perspective.” Although being a younger guy in the USPHL, Berkie was still able to put up thirteen points in 41 games.
Only a few games in and Berkie is already making memories. “What’s going to stick around the most is the Embry-Riddle game,” He explained on his favorite memory so far, “Just cause, even when playing junior hockey, we never had fans to that extent, not even close. So, walking into that, I wasn’t expecting that from SEC club hockey…I got on the ice and honestly had chills.” The freshman defenseman still has a whole college career ahead of him, but even with a small sample size, it looks like Brkljacic will be a cornerstone for this Gator team for years to come.