Life is always an adventure for rugged Luke Witkowski, the Holland native who has made a career out of bouncing between the NHL and AHL.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Around the right elbow of Luke Witkowski is a tattoo that reads “Movimiento es vida,” which is Spanish for “Movement is life.” It’s a reference from World War Z, the zombie pandemic film starring Brad Pitt that happens to be a favorite of his and his wife Erin.
The phrase resonates on a couple of levels for Witkowski, an avid outdoorsman who loves all types of fishing as well as other adventure activities. It is also an approximation of his pro hockey career, which has seen him move twice between the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings as well as moves up and down to their AHL affiliates.
Witkowski has already made a few trips to the Wings’ taxi squad this year after starting the season with the Griffins. Although he would always rather be playing, he doesn’t mind waiting for another chance to play in the NHL.
Being on the taxi squad, “the food is way better, the rooms are nicer, but you’re not playing, so you’re in limbo, but you’ve got to stay ready,” he said. “You’re in the middle but you’re still closer to where everybody wants to be.”
Never one to be afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates, Witkowski has learned to roll with the punches.
“That’s been the story my entire career,” he said. “And I don’t plan on changing (careers) any time soon.”
His story starts in Holland, Mich., where he was born into a blue collar family, four years after his older brother Nick, now a management program analyst with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“When we were younger, he’d beat me up a lot… until I got bigger. Of course, we got mature so he doesn’t mess with me now,” he chuckles. “We’ve been best friends from the time I was 14 until the present.”
Their parents, John and Kristen Witkowski, loved the outdoors, so camping and fishing became frequent family pastimes. The outdoors was always their favorite playground.
His official start in hockey came at Griff’s IceHouse West in Holland, which was known as the Edge Ice Arena when it opened in 1998 when he was eight years old.
“The dad of one of my best friends growing up was from Vancouver and he had seen me skate,” he said. “In Holland, they had these tennis courts that they would fill up and freeze and that’s where we played hockey. When he saw me skate, he told my dad, ‘You gotta get that kid into hockey.’ The rest is history.”
Witkowski took to the sport like a duck takes to water.
“I immediately loved it and the other sports fell to the wayside,” he said. “I ran a little track in high school and the soccer coach in high school tried to get me to play goalie but I didn’t want to do that. The football coach always wanted me to play because I played a little football in middle school, but hockey just really took over because I enjoyed it more than anything else.”
He spent two seasons in the GRAHA program and soon was immersed in the local hockey scene. “I grew up going to Griffins games,” he said. “It’s funny that I’m now playing for the team.”
Although neither of his parents had played the sport, they were totally supportive of his interest in hockey.
“They would take turns driving me,” he said. “My dad would usually do the longer weekend trips. Sometimes they’d both go. When we went to places like New York or Minnesota, they would turn it into a camping trip. They’d take me out to wherever and they’d stay the week and camp. They’d find ways to kill two birds with one stone.”
Eventually, his play reached the point where he decided to leave home for hockey. At 17, he headed to the USHL to play for the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets in preparation for college hockey at Western Michigan University.
“As soon as I had the chance, I was going, no questions asked,” he said. “I was already committed to Western at the time and I didn’t want to go play major junior, so it was a pretty easy decision. My mom may have missed me. My dad probably didn’t miss me much. He probably wanted me out of the house.”
Already regarded as a physical, stay-at-home defenseman, he was picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
“That was amazing,” he said. “I knew there was a chance because I was ranked, but I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t go to the draft because I was at my grandparents’ house in Holland for their 50th anniversary, so I was with all my family when I got the call. It still gives me chills thinking about it. That was a very good moment.”
He played another year in the USHL with the Fargo Force before joining the WMU Broncos, a struggling team in its last season under head coach Jim Culhane.
“I may have thought about Michigan and I was kind of a Boston College fan, but Western invited me to a visit,” he recalled. “The head coach at the time said, ‘Would you rather play for Michigan or would you rather beat Michigan?’ I thought about it and I thought OK, let’s do it. And that first year we didn’t beat Michigan once.”
But the fortunes of Western, which had been unranked for years, soon changed.
Jeff Blashill took charge of the Broncos during Witkowski’s sophomore year before leaving to be an assistant coach with the Red Wings and, later, the head coach of the Griffins. Andy Murray, who had spent the previous 10 years as an NHL head coach with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues, was WMU’s bench boss during his junior and senior years.
“With Andy Murray, we were always prepared for every game,” he said. “That guy prepares more than anybody. I don’t think he sleeps. He lives hockey. He breathes hockey. He eats hockey. Attention to detail was very important to him.”
When it came to his development, Witkowski gives special kudos to Pat Ferschweiler, an assistant at the time who would later become an assistant with the Griffins and Red Wings before becoming the head coach at Western this season.
“Pat Ferschweiler did the most for me,” he said. “Because I was playing defense there, he helped me hone my game and made me a more consistent player. Look at what he’s doing now as head coach. Western is ranked third in the country this year.”
Witkowski joined the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch after his senior season and saw action in three regular season games, but his youth and inexperience cost him a spot on the playoff roster for the team that would eventually face the Griffins in the 2013 Calder Cup Finals.
He spent the next three seasons splitting his time between Syracuse and Tampa. He made his NHL debut during the 2014-15 season and appeared in a career-high 34 NHL games during the 2016-17 season when he found himself becoming a more valuable piece, thanks to newfound versatility.
“I think there was one game in the minors where I played forward but I was in Tampa sometime in 2016 and we had some injuries. (Head coach) Jon Cooper asked me if I would play forward and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I think I did pretty well. I was doing my job and doing what I needed to do, so I just went with the flow.”
In addition to his 34 contests in Tampa, Witkowski also played 19 games for the Syracuse Crunch during the 2016-17 season. He was back in Tampa at the end of the regular season when the Crunch began another Calder Cup run that once again ended at the hands of Grand Rapids. “They didn’t want to send me through waivers and risk losing me, so I didn’t get to play,” he said.
As luck would have it, Tampa would lose him during the off-season to another team that recognized his value. Witkowski signed with the Red Wings and started 2017-18 in Detroit, where he would remain for the next two seasons.
“Joining the Red Wings organization for the first time was amazing,” he said. “The day my agent called and said they were really interested and the day I signed with the team rank among the best days in my life. There were instant chills and my phone began ringing off the hook.
“Honestly, it was a dream come true. When you grow up a hockey player in Michigan that’s where you want to play, and to have gotten that opportunity is incredible.”
He saw sporadic action during his first season in Detroit. He had played only 20 games with the Wings before he notched his first NHL goal on Feb. 17, 2018. A pass from Anthony Mantha sent him on a breakaway and he used a beautiful backhand to beat Nashville netminder Juuse Saros.
“It happened to be the Red Wings fathers’ trip, so my dad was there,” he said. “I wasn’t even supposed to be on the ice. [Justin] Abdelkader had run into [Trevor] Daley and Daley was slow getting off the ice. Our ‘D’ coach didn’t say who was up, so I jumped onto the ice and just happened to get the puck, and away I went.
“It was awesome that I got to share that moment with my father. It can’t get much better than that.”
After two seasons in Detroit, Witkowski returned to the Lightning for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns. His fishing pole likely saw more action than he did. His playing time was curtailed both years, first by the talent on Tampa’s Stanley Cup-winning roster and secondly by the shortening of the season due to the threat of the coronavirus.
Witkowski is as serious about fishing as he is with his chosen profession. Whether it’s the Great Lakes or the Florida coast or somewhere between or beyond, he will happily go anywhere there are fish to be caught. His Instagram feed is filled with pictures of species of all sorts, from brown trout and sturgeon to tarpon and tuna.
“When you’re actively pursuing a certain fish and you catch it, it’s awesome,” he said. “I have a pretty big list of fish I want to catch in my life. Roosterfish, mahi-mahi, marlin, pretty much any fish that exists. I’ve been to Alaska multiple times, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
“My family went on camping and fishing trips all the time when I was growing up. My dad would throw us in the car and we would travel all over the country. We’d bring our fishing poles and usually camp wherever we went. I didn’t grow up golfing. My dad taught me how to fish.”
He has also done his share of hunting. “I grew up rabbit hunting, pheasant hunting, turkey hunting, and deer hunting,” he said. “I didn’t get a buck but I shot two deer last year. My wife doesn’t eat pork or beef, so we eat a lot of venison.”
There is now a third mouth to feed. He and his wife welcomed the arrival of their daughter, Fenn, who will celebrate her second birthday on Feb. 6.
“It’s crazy how much she has changed our lives,” he said. “We own a house on the east side of the state, but we’ve been living at my parents’ house in Holland right now and it’s been great. She’s hilarious. One of her favorite things to do is wash dishes with my dad. She definitely has a personality and it’s been fun to watch her grow.”
Luke, Erin and Fenn live upstairs and his parents still work, so everything has been working out since he decided to return to the Red Wings last fall, signing a new two-year deal with Detroit as he continues to bounce between the two organizations.
Now in his 10th pro season, Witkowski considers himself very fortunate. “They’re both very good organizations who treat their players very well,” he said. “That’s why they attract the players they do.”
Some NHL observers might be surprised to learn that Witkowski is more than happy to be playing in Grand Rapids this season.
“I’m really enjoying hockey right now,” he said. “Hockey’s good. Life’s good. We have a good group in both Grand Rapids and Detroit. When guys are close, you enjoy coming to the rink every day, and that helps everybody when it comes time to play the game.”
He is especially thankful for all the ice time that he is getting this season, whether he’s playing defense or helping out at forward.
“It’s been nice. This year in GR, I get to play at least. When I was in the NHL, I might get only six or seven minutes and I felt like I couldn’t get better. I’ve noticed this year that I’m getting more confident at playing forward.”
“If you ask [Griffins coach] Ben Simon, he doesn’t even need to have the conversation with me. He can just put it on the board. I’ll do whatever he needs.”
In fact, Witkowski has played both forward and defense in the same game this year.
“Most of the time, it’s a quick fix,” he said. “My last game in GR, I played the first two periods at forward and the third period at defense. When I’m playing forward, I’m usually playing on the penalty kill. It’s funny. Sometimes I’ll switch back to defense and I’ll catch myself going in on the forecheck.”
Once he remembers where he is playing, it’s all good. He is just happy to be a regular in the Griffins’ lineup after years of uncertainly – not with which position he is playing but whether he is playing at all.
“I’m at the point where I’m enjoying what I’m doing more than I’ve ever done in my career,” he said. “Even if I’m sitting out games, it beats an office job. I know I’m closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning, so you get a perspective on those things. You want to take advantage of all the time you have.”
And that perspective applies to life in general. He reminisces about the time he went skydiving on a whim in Moab, Utah, after mountain biking in Telluride, Colo. He talks about convincing his wife that it might be a good idea to buy an RV so they can travel the U.S. He dreams of renting a squirrel suit, jumping off a cliff, and gliding to the ground.
While he says he looks forward to the day that he can be a stay-at-home dad, he wonders if his future might lie in becoming a guide. He wonders if he could follow in the footsteps of someone like Steven Rinella, the American outdoorsman and conservationist who built himself into a media personality after growing up in Twin Lake, north of Muskegon.
“What he’s doing is kind of what I would like to do someday,” Witkowski said. “If all the cards fall where they should, maybe I’ll become a guide. It’s intense, from sun up to sundown. That’s why I’m interested in doing something like that. I’ve got to have a passion for what I’m doing.”
Movimiento es vida. Movement is life.