Tanner Fritz is old enough to have perspective and priorities, so he is not carrying any delusions about why he is at training camp with the Islanders, or what his role with the organization might be.
He wants to prove he’s still capable of playing, yes, and he thinks that in the unlikely event of an NHL call-up, he could hold his own, of course.
But at 32 years old, not having skated in an NHL game since 2019, he gets the big picture.
“The dream is always to be in the NHL,” Fritz said. “But reality kinda hits you.”
Reality hit Fritz and his family, in the worst kind of way, in the fall of 2019.
He started that season coming off a hand surgery that scuttled a call-up to the Islanders late in the prior season.
But after four games with AHL Bridgeport, he needed hip surgery.
Then, in March 2020, as the pandemic was just starting, his son, Emmett, developed health issues at just seven months old.
“My focus went towards him during that COVID time,” Fritz said. “I kinda let my hip go a little bit and was more focused on him. And I didn’t really know the path I was gonna go. Just wanted to make sure that he was taken care of, we were doing everything we could for him.”
He eventually did rehab the hip injury, but Fritz admitted he wasn’t quite ready for the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season and “didn’t perform like I should.”
In an industry that so often asks players to put the sport above everything else, Fritz is past the point where that is feasible.
“Gotta put family first with where I’m at now and I’m happy,” he said. “My son’s in a good spot. I think everything happens for a reason.”
Emmett is one of the main reasons Fritz is back in the Islanders organization, after spending the last two seasons with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford.
Now four years old, Emmett is doing well, but still has some special needs.
He’s been in a “really good” program in Farmington, Conn., Fritz said, so the priority was staying local.
Since he’d spent the first six years of his career in the Islanders’ organization, Fritz retained a good relationship with Bridgeport GM Chris Lamoriello.
He thinks he can work well as a mentor for young players, and contribute to the AHL team.
A minor-league deal came together at the beginning of September.
“I know when I was going through that process of being somewhat of a prospect, it’s always nice to have an older shoulder to kinda lean on and talk to,” Fritz said. “Hopefully I can do that for a couple guys down there.”