Another day and another Knight is heading off to college. Tyler Watungwa, a crucial mid-season addition to the EHL team, and an elemental piece to the Knights second-half run has committed to Finlandia University. The Lions compete in the highly-competitive NCHA Conference in NCAA Division III hockey.
“First off, it came highly recommended by coach Fusco, him being an alumni of their program and a former player for its head coach Joe Burcar,” said Watungwa. “He had nothing but good things to say about both Finlandia and the coaching staff there. That was a huge part of it. Once I was started looking into it a little more, they had the program that I was looking for. It’s called physical therapist assistant and that’ll lead me down a path of exercise science, hopefully allowing me to be an athletic trainer once hockey is all done.”
“I was just doing my job as a coach and reaching out to other coaches at the college level to talk about my 97’s,” said Fusco. “One of the schools I talked to was my alma mater Finlandia. Coach Joe Burcar, was my coach. I know what what he likes and what he demands out of his players. I wanted to help him out and ultimately help Tyler. Burcar wants hockey players and he’s getting one in Tyler.
The Ottawa native came to the Knights in mid-December, while the team was still finding their footing in the Eastern Hockey League. After returning from a two-year absence, the roster was filled with talented, but young players, many that were still new to the junior level of hockey. Watungwa saw through that and reached out to a place he felt he could help.
“He actually reached out to me,” said Fusco. “We were playing the Boston Junior Rangers and East Coast Wizards and I got an email from Tyler expressing an interest in playing for us. He wanted to come to an organization with a good reputation and some prestige while getting some exposure to scouts. I took a look at some clips of him, talked to his coach, and even had the benefit of having Austin Weber, one of his former teammates, already on our roster. Web backed up what I saw and that was that Tyler was a good hockey player who worked hard, was strong and hard to move off the puck. At the end of the day, he was a ‘97 who wanted to be here, who wanted to be a Knight and that worked out perfectly.”
“Where I was before, I wasn’t really sure if I was getting these looks,” explained Watungwa. “I came back to the EHL, where the goal is getting looked at as much as I could. I knew coming in, this is the spot to do it. The league showcases are amazing in terms of all the scouts that are there. The team and the league as a whole put a whole a lot of effort into moving guys up, which is awesome.”
Once aboard with the Knights, Watungwa immediately made his presence known as an explosive and gritty playmaker. In his first seven games, he scored five goals and two assists while installing himself as crucial piece in all situations.
“He came in, and I thought he was going to be a middle six forward, a kind of a grinder guy, but right off the bat he proved he could be a goal-scorer,” said Fusco. “It let me put him on a line with Tyler Nielsen and Cody Rumsey for a good portion of the season, and that was a really solid combination for us. On the ice, his best skill to me, is his puck handling. He’s a skilled guy and a really strong player. He’s hard to push off the puck. He makes a lot of good plays with his vision. Ultimately his ability to move the puck, to get down low and win possessions for us, and keep it on his blade made him a really essential forward in our lineup.”
“I think I just bring compete level,” said Watungwa. “That’s what I tried to bring to the Knights program, just working hard every shift. Whether it’s making a hit, blocking a shot, making a play offensively or defensively, I’m always going to try to do it at 100%.”
Beyond the stat sheet, leadership is another trait Tyler exudes. It wasn’t lost on his coach or his teammates.
“That early production really grabbed the attention of our locker room,” said Fusco. “His work ethic, his habits, his effort in practice, that all combined to create a really positive influence for our guys. He was the prime example of leading by example. He brought the same effort and enthusiasm every day and really that’s exactly what you want from one of your veteran players.”
With his junior career now over, Watungwa is preparing for his next team, and like his entrance to the Knights, he’s thrilled for the opportunity.
“They (Finlandia) are in a rebuild year, but they are definitely really excited about where the program’s going,” he said. “I was really happy to get in when I could to help be a part of that rebuild. Honestly the big thing I’m excited about is that I get to play hockey for another four years. Obviously I’m excited to go to school, to get that part of my life started, but I get to do a thing I love for another four years, and I think that’s just awesome.”
Under Coach Burcar, the Lions program is looking to get back to its earlier success in his first stint as the team’s bench boss. In the last four seasons of that stretch, Burcar guided Finlandia to a 57-43-7 record, including an MCHA postseason conference championship in 2006-07.
“Finlandia is a tight knit community that loves and is passionate about their hockey,” said Fusco. “They have strong support from the school. Coach Burcar is back there rebuilding the program in a very strong conference and it’s very exciting to send one my players there. It means a lot that I can help move a player to his goal of division III college hockey, but also exciting and sentimental to send him to coach Burcar and Finlandia. It’s a great fit, Joe is excited and Tyler is excited-it’s a perfect fit.”
In parting, Watungwa isn’t going without fond memories. The season may have ended a few games earlier than he had hoped, but he’s happy to have been on for the ride.
“Making 20 new friends,” he said of his favorite part of wearing the Knights sweater. “Every team you go to, you’ve got 20 guys you’re going to war with every night. All those guys in our locker room, I consider brothers. I’d say the relationships that I made over the last three and a half months were pretty awesome.”
His gratitude was not limited to just those he skated with.
“First and foremost, I want to thank my mom,” he said. “She’s been a big part of getting me into sports. She drives me to all these crazy places in the middle of nowhere just to play hockey. She’s been a real inspiration for me. A huge thank you to coach Fusco and the whole Knights organization for giving me the ability to play at a level where I could be in front of all of these scouts and giving me the right coaching and the tools I needed to get to the next level. I want to thank all the teammates that I had this year and past years who helped make me a better player and a better person.”
Fusco shared the sentiment but reversed its direction.
“I want to thank Tyler for being a part of this year with us,” he said. “It takes a special type of player to accomplish what he did in our dressing room and on the ice. He’s an incredibly ward worker, and a great person. I’ll be following his career eagerly, and I wish him only the best in hockey and in his life beyond.”
The Knights join coach Fusco in thanking Tyler and wishing the best of luck at Finlandia and in all his pursuits in life!