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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Defenseman Nick Tuzzolino, 27, is back with Komets after playing six games with them in 2007.

Big man savvier than last with K’s

– It was enough to make Nick Tuzzolino feel old, as he glanced around the room at Memorial Coliseum, saw all the fresh-out-of-juniors teammates and realized he was once one of them.

Tuzzolino, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound defenseman with the Komets, played his first six professional games for Fort Wayne in spring 2007 – when it was in the UHL.

He was 21, still so young that he was able to return to juniors with the Sarnia Sting.

“I definitely feel old, seeing all of this,” he said. “But I don’t think I am.”

Three leagues and four championships later, the Komets are different – they open their 62nd season, second in the ECHL on Saturday at the Coliseum – and Tuzzolino, 27, is different, too.

He’s married now. He’s more comfortable in his body, knows how to handle the rigors of a 72-game season. And he’s ecstatic to be part of the rebuilt Komets, who missed the playoffs last season.

“I remember the fan support was unbelievable here, at restaurants and everywhere I went,” said Tuzzolino, who is from Buffalo, N.Y.

“When I was at that age, it was great. Having a wife now, it’ll be even better being here.”

A seventh-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2005, Tuzzolino has played 50 games at the higher-level American Hockey League. That includes 14 games last season with Abbotsford, with which he had one goal and 11 penalty minutes.

He also played 44 games last season with Utah of the ECHL and totaled five goals, 36 points and 160 penalty minutes.

He’s savvier than when he was last with the Komets and could wind up the captain or an alternate.

“I think it just took me awhile to get into my body and my game,” said Tuzzolino, whose brother, Tony, played nine NHL games with Anaheim, Boston and the New York Rangers.

“I try to be a physical presence on the ice and also put up some pretty good numbers, so every year I just try to outdo myself from the last year. And, of course, winning a championship is the ultimate goal.”

The Komets want Tuzzolino to do a little bit of everything, including man the point on the power play.

“He’s got a presence out there,” general manager David Franke said. “Physically, he’s a big guy and skates well for a big man. He’s got good hands. He’s a positive thinker and is good on the power play. He’s a physical presence for us.

“He does a lot for the hockey club. The more I’ve been around him in training camp, the more leadership quality I see out of him, too.”

Fans of the Komets have seen what Tuzzolino can do as an opponent; in 2007-08, he had 10 goals, 44 points and 159 penalty minutes in 76 games for Flint.

He remembers helping to end Fort Wayne’s 25-game winning streak at the Coliseum, which was a franchise and IHL record.

“It was quite a feat for Flint in those days,” said Tuzzolino, who said even then he was learning what it took to be a successful big man.

“You try and do less. When big guys try to do too much, that’s when they get exposed. So it’s really about being in control and using your assets, such as your reach and your legs.”

There may be pressure on Tuzzolino with the Komets, who have only five players back from last season, but he’s OK with that.

“No more (pressure) than I have on myself. It’s hard to be a professional athlete and not hold yourself to a high bar,” he said. “Every year, I want to do it all – from the scoring to the penalty minutes and everything – and I won’t be happy if I don’t play that way and neither will my teammates.”