When Mark Jankowski finally sees his hometown football pitch for the first time, it will be because he is skating on it.

And hopefully the 27-year-old Buffalo Sabers forward will not only practice at Tim Hortons Field with his teammates on Saturday afternoon, but he will also join them in the roster for games against the Maple Leafs. of Toronto at the Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday.

“I’ve never been there, but when I was young I was at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium a few times to watch Tiger-Cats games,” says the Dundas native, who is in his fifth season in the NHL. “And I was there for flag football finals in elementary school, which was at Ivor Wynne every year, and that was always a really cool thing.”

It will be even cooler, metaphorically and in reality, this weekend.

After the Sabers’ pre-game practice on the outdoor rink on Saturday, there’s a night of skating on the same ice for the players’ friends and families. It’s all part of the NHL’s mission to make the outdoor event more special than a normal regular season game. Jankowski says his mother Rose Mary, father Len and siblings David, Nicole and Natalie will be at Tim Hortons Field, as will his girlfriend and part of his family.

“It will be great to have them experience this with me,” he told The Spectator on Wednesday. “To get my family skating and see what it’s like on the big outdoor rink. My family has sacrificed so much and I wouldn’t be in this position without them. Not everyone will be skating, but they will all be at the rink.

Jankowski worked diligently to return to the NHL after accepting a contract in the American Hockey League in mid-October to play for the Sabres’ top farm team. The Sabers liked what they saw and signed him to the NHL in late November and he’s been with Buffalo ever since. He’s not playing every game because the struggling Sabers are trying a variety of roster combinations in a season that’s the first step in another rebuild.

Buffalo Sabers center Mark Jankowski (17) of Dundas is congratulated after scoring against the Nashville Predators in mid-January.

He was Calgary’s 2012 first-round pick, 21st overall, the highest pick ever out of a Canadian high school (Stanstead College in Quebec) and was a full-time flame in 2017. He scored 31 goals in his first two years in the NHL. , but after a sharp drop in production in 2019-20, Calgary released him and Jankowski spent last season in Pittsburgh where he scored the NHL’s first goal of the pandemic-delayed campaign.

His contract wasn’t renewed and he didn’t have a team until the Sabers signed him to add stability and experience and to set an example for young players on how to behave as professional players.

“I kind of saw it all in my time in professional hockey,” Jankowski said. “I’ve seen guys go up and down. I’ve been through a lot, so I’m taking it day by day and trying to be a positive presence. I went to Rochester to prove I can come back to the NHL and I think with the help of their coaching staff I did a good job. »

Buffalo GM Kevyn Adam agrees with this analysis.

“We had heard good things about Mark as a person and obviously he’s been a good pro his whole career,” Adams told The Spectator. “He played really, really well in Rochester, so we decided to bring him up and he’s been really good for us. Mark’s been in and out of our lineup, but when he’s been in he’s been good, so we don’t hesitate to use him. He’s strong on faceoffs, downplay and can add offense.

He has played 19 games, with a pair of goals and three assists and is a significant plus-two in a team that has allowed 55 more goals than he has scored.

Jankowski has a long family hockey history. Her dad played college hockey at Cornell, her grandfather Lou played in the NHL, her brother is captain of the NCAA St. Lawrence Saints, and her great-uncle was Hall of Famer Red Kelly. .

The last time he played a competitive game in Hamilton was 12 years ago against the Junior Bulldogs when he was with the St. Catharines Minor Midget AAA Falcons. He’s been a close follower of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs since general manager Steve Staios allowed him to practice for a week and a half with the major junior team while he waits for his US work visa to be approved.

Installation work continues at Tim Hortons Field on Tuesday for this weekend's NHL Heritage Classic game featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabers.  Additional seats have been added to the south end of the stadium, increasing the capacity to 33,000.

Jankowski won’t know until game day if he’ll play, but it would be at least a slight surprise if he doesn’t, as he’s the only hometown skater on the two-team roster and the skaters who return to their roots generally brings an infectious energy to the whole range. Additionally, the Sabers are the home team for the game and will use the Tiger-Cats locker room.

“It’s a coach’s decision and you’ll honor it whatever decision he makes, so I’ll take it day by day,” Jankowski said. “But it would be really special to be from the Hamilton area and to have so many friends and relatives there. I played in Toronto and Buffalo is not far from my home, so they have to see me play in the NHL before.

“But in an outdoor classic in my current hometown, with all the experience of outdoor play? That would be really cool.”