Mark Borowiecki’s bruised up opponents might disagree, but the former Ottawa Senator defenceman is generally regarded as one of the nicest, smartest, and classiest people in the NHL.
So when the 34-year-old Ottawa native decided to officially end his playing career back in May, the Nashville Predators knew right away that “Boro” was exactly the kind of person they wanted working with their young players.
Borowiecki’s final NHL appearance was last October when he fell awkwardly against the boards in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was stretchered off the ice, taken to hospital and later released. But Borowiecki had suffered a concussion – another one – and would go on to miss the entire season because of it.
But that injury and the ones that came before it, weren’t the sole reasons for Borowiecki’s retirement. He and his wife, Tara, had already begun talking about it.
“After the birth of our third child, our second daughter, it just sort of started to hit me a little more that, hey, maybe regardless of injury situations or health or whatever, this potentially would have been my last season last year,” Borowiecki said.
“Being a professional athlete – my routines, my habits, training, my nutrition, and my sleep schedules just really took over my life. I think that it gave me a lot of success, but it also had some diminishing returns too. I realized that for me to be the present father and husband that I wanted to be, I knew there needed to be more give and take. So those thoughts had already crossed my mind.
“And obviously, with the concussion history, and after that last concussion, I had a really tough time being around my kids while I was recovering in the first few weeks. I was getting migraines just from the noise and activity. And I told Tara, ‘The way I am right now is not fair to you and it’s not fair to the kids. I know I’m going to get better from this concussion, but who knows what’s going to happen from the next one?’
“So that kind of made the decision for me.”
Meanwhile, the Predators were making their own decisions, and they had a job ready and waiting for Borowiecki as their Professional Development Coach. Boro may not have realized it, but his three years playing in Nashville were a big hit, and probably served as a fine audition for the new gig in Music City.
“In Ottawa, I was going through some tough times personally, away from the rink, and it kind of made me resent the game a little bit,” Borowiecki said. “And then I think the last part of my career, especially in Nashville, my second season here, I just had such a great year and I just loved it. And I kind of fell in love with the game again.
“When I went through a tough patch here in my first year, our assistant coach, Todd Richards, was talking to me about life and hockey. And he knows how much I value education. He was like, “You know, Boro, you’ve got a PhD in hockey. Why would you throw that away?’
“And it kind of resonated with me. So I kind of grew into this mentor role here in Nashville as an older guy on the team. When I got hurt last season, I told them, ‘Hey, you’re paying me. I don’t want to go sit on my butt somewhere and do nothing but collect a pay cheque, just because it’s a guaranteed contract. I want to contribute to this team. I still care about these guys here.
“So they gave me the opportunity to be a resource for guys when they needed it, especially injured guys. I was able to get on the ice a little bit for rehab skates and I really started to love it. It transitioned into more of a formal position and a formal offer from them. And I knew this is what I wanted to do. And it’s been pretty fulfilling for me.”
Faces: So what’s the long term goal now? Is it coaching or management?
Boro: I’m not sure. I think if I were to tell you right now, I think the management side of things appeals to me a little more. A little less of the day to day anxieties you’ve got as a player or coach. Those guys grind. It’s tough. By no means am I saying management doesn’t ride those ups and downs too, but it’s a little more of a long term game plan. So I think there’s some appeal there.
Having said that, I love running skates for guys. I love being on the ice. I certainly wasn’t the most skilled guy out there, but I love running skills practices. I like to try to look at guys’ games and, even with forwards, I try to pick apart their games a little bit through a defenseman’s perspective.
I’m not going to tell you how to score goals, but I can tell you what I hated playing against when I was a defenseman. So I think it’s an interesting perspective and I’ve kind of found myself falling in love with that too. The beauty of player development is you get to do a little bit of everything.
Did the Senators ever reach out and offer you anything?
We had some informal discussions, but one of my core values in life that I was raised with is loyalty. And by no means am I not loyal to Ottawa after what they’ve done for me. But my loyalties at the time were here in Nashville with this organization. These people here bent over backwards for me, not just as a player, but as a human being.
When I was going through a real tough time in my first year here, I felt a really immediate connection with our director of player development, Scott Nichol, who’s now my boss. He was an undersized guy who went through the wars in the league. He fought, he was a role player, and when he told me how he views player development and treating people and players, not just as assets, but as human beings too, I was kind of like, bingo, this is a guy that I want to work for.
And then when I got to know (new GM) Barry Trotz a little bit, it was like two for one. These are guys who I want to be working for, guys who I want to be associated with. So that just kind of made the decision pretty easy for me.
Will your kids play hockey someday?
I’m not against it. I’m not going to be the kind of dad who forces them into it. We’ve got a three year old boy and two girls – a one year old and a 5 month old. Miles loves playing hockey off the ice. He tells me the ice is too slippery for him. So that’s fine. That’s a logical explanation. I asked him if he wanted to do skating lessons when we got back to Ottawa and he said, yeah, if I was on the ice with him. So we’ll do that.
But I’m not going to lie. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and think that maybe chess or ping pong is the way to go for Miles. It doesn’t look like that though. He calls the Predators Daddy’s team whenever he sees them. I also do a lot of work with Milwaukee, our farm team, the Admirals. He’s got an Admirals water bottle on his bedside table. He calls it Daddy’s other team. So he’s into hockey. He likes it. So we’ll see where it goes.
Where will you live? Ottawa or Nashville?
We’ll be living in Ottawa full time. That was a condition that I had sort of brought to Nashville. The past decade plus we’ve made decisions for me and my professional career and Tara has gone along with them. Now I need to make decisions based on what’s best for Tara and the kids. And that’s being in Ottawa with a support system for them.
If you could go back and chat with your 14 year old self about what the next 20 years in hockey were going to be like, what would you tell him?
I’m glad you asked that question because this is how I try to think about giving advice to younger players now. One thing is, you’ve got to be present and enjoy it. I think I spent so much of my career worrying about what I’d just done or what comes next that I forgot to enjoy it for what it was. And that was the opportunity to play the game that I loved and do what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old.
I spent so much time wrapped up in my own worries and anxieties and doubts, I think there were a lot of times when I forgot to enjoy the game of hockey. And now when I go out on the ice and I run these skill sessions I’m like, “Man, I love hockey!’ I wish I’d had this mindset a little more when I played.
The second thing I’d tell the younger me is don’t play to not make mistakes. I spent my entire career playing to not make mistakes. I can’t help but think about what I left on the table in terms of my potential, my ability to be something more in the league.
Obviously, there’s a time and place to play a safe game, to play a smart game. I’m never going to tell guys not to do that. I’m never going to tell guys to not worry about the defensive details, but I’m going to tell guys to go out there with the mindset that anytime that puck is on your stick, you can be a guy to change the course of the game in a positive way.
And that’s a mindset that I never had. Well, maybe a couple of years I had it.. My last year in Ottawa when I had 7 goals. I can’t put a finger on it, but that was a year when I wanted the puck on my stick. And I think the results spoke for themselves. So those are two things that I would tell my previous self, but also things that I’m now going to tell guys in Nashville too.
A lot of people in the Ottawa media had you pegged as a future broadcaster. Was that ever a consideration?
Yeah, it certainly was. You kind of go through that period where you don’t have a job lined up so you explore all your options. And I was like, maybe broadcasting’s a fit.
But then I sort of sat back and I’m like, ‘What do I really want to get out of this? What do I want to do?’ And for me, it was helping people and helping the next generation of hockey players. This is where the fit is, being on this side of things. I would never rule anything out in the future. But I think right now I’m feeling very fulfilled by this. I enjoy it. So I’m just going to kind of ride it out and see where it takes me.
If you became a big TV star or something they might make you wear your front teeth all the time.
I’m working on it! I’ve got braces on for a year on my bottoms to try to get my implants done properly. So I’m getting there.
How did you lose your teeth? Was it a fist, a stick, or a puck?
It’s actually a pretty good story. I was the captain in Binghamton and I just threw a huge hit in a game in Rochester, like a massive hit at center ice was two for charging. The top of his helmet knocked my teeth down pretty severely. So the captain of Rochester at the time was a guy named Drew Bagnall and as I got to the box, he’s like, we’re going. I was like, all right. So I actually kind of TKO’ed him a little bit. But I also took another punch into the face and the rest of my teeth went.
The dentist said he could build up what was left of the teeth but I told him to just get rid of them. So, you kind of regret it later down the road when you’re older. The plan is to fix that soon with implants. I’ve definitely got a bit of orthodontist work to do.
What would you say about your memories of being an Ottawa Senator and your interactions with Ottawa fans over the years?
First off, I don’t think I enjoyed it enough. I look back on those years and I’m like, ‘Man, that was special.’ We had a special group of guys. I was playing in my hometown. I have these lifelong friendships now, J.G. Pageau, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, the Karlssons, all these people.
I wish I’d taken a chance to sit back, step back and take it in for what it was. It kind of makes me emotional talking about it. Tara and I look back on it now and we’re like, ‘Those truly were some of the best years of our lives.’
And I think I was a little too wrapped up in the business side of hockey too to appreciate it for what it was. A big reason it was so special was the Ottawa community. That’s another reason we want to come back. That’s home for us. That’s where our hearts are. That’s where we want our kids to be raised. We want our kids to be members of the community in Ottawa.
And the fans there were special. They treated me with so much kindness, especially as my career went on. We just can’t wait to get back.