Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Shawn Matthias-Climbing the Ladder

From the time that the Belleville Bulls first laced up their skates over twenty-five years ago, we have watched many of them develop into wonderful hockey players, but more importantly, into fine, well-rounded citizens.

They gather in the early summer as draft picks, as potential super stars. They return in the fall to try to gain a foothold into the organization. They may end up “riding the pine”, watching from the sidelines as the veterans tear around the sheets of ice in the Ontario Hockey League. As they bide their time, they learn the ropes. Or at least that is the intention. If they fail to glean the nuances of Major Junior Hockey, they may find themselves back in their home towns wondering what went wrong.

As is the case with all rookies, Shawn Matthias watched from the bench in his first year in the OHL in 2004-2005. He got into 37 games, often for only a shift or two. He managed to garner 15 minutes in the penalty box, and had one goal and one assist. There must have been some very frustrating nights for the rangy forward, times of self doubt and personal questioning. But he was being watched by the scouts from the rafters of the Yardmen Arena, and all of the other hockey barns in the league.

Rick Meagher, a local Belleville product who has been eying Junior Hockey as a scout for many years, told me at that time to keep an eye on Matthias in the years to come. There were areas for improvement, as there are for all sixteen year old kids. Incidentally, Meagher once told me that he was able to skate well the very first time he put on the blades, at the age of three. He was well known for his skating ability during his stellar NHL career.

The following year, Matthias received more ice time and took advantage of the opportunity. He notched 13 goals and added 21 helpers. The team awarded him two trophies at the end of the season: Most Improved Player, and Most Sportsmanlike Player.

He was a member of Team Canada at the 2006 World Under 18 Championships, and participated in the 2006 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. Following the season, he was eligible for the NHL Draft. He was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the Second Round.

He returned to the Bulls and cranked it up yet another notch. In 64 games, he netted 38 goals and added 35 assists. More importantly, from the time that he arrived in Belleville, the team has improved each year, from 68 to 72 to 83 points last year. Expectations are high for this year.

The Mississauga native may have pictured himself in Red Wing colours for years to
come, but such is not the case. As he described the situation to me recently, he thought his hockey future was pretty well determined. There is a program called “Trade Centre” on the TSN network that outlines all of the trades made at the NHL deadline.

Matthias discovered at that time that he had been traded by the Red Wings to the Florida Panthers, in a deal that sent Todd Bertuzzi to the Red Wings. Apparently the Wings wanted to add instant beef to their lineup. After their failure in the playoffs last spring, they allowed Bertuzzi to sign as a free agent with Anaheim.

“It was a shock to me. It was not something I expected,” Matthias told me after the Bulls’ overtime win against Saginaw last Saturday night. “At the same time, it has added pressure. I plan to use it as a source of motivation.”

At the Panthers camp which Matthias attended recently, he learned a few things about the game at the NHL level. “I now know something about the training necessary to play at that level. Although it is just a game, it is a business as well. I know that I have to be my very best every night.”

Matthias was really impressed with Panthers’ captain Olle Jokinen. “I know why he wears the ‘C’. He plays the game at such a high level. I was really impressed with the way he handled the puck. He is the leader on the team.”

Shawn got a chance to play at the NHL level, in an exhibition game. “You just don’t realize how powerful those guys are until you play against them. I got pushed around a little bit. But I will use that as motivation to develop so I can play at that level.”

Another Panther that helped Matthias in Florida was Steven Weiss. An OHL product, Weiss knows the ropes in cracking a lineup at the NHL level. Matthias was grateful for the help he got from Weiss. “We talked about the fact that I had basically been traded for Bertuzzi. They are big shoes to fill. I knew I had to prove myself when I went there. I think they realized that I can play.”

Panthers’ brass sent along a few words of advice as he headed north to the Bulls. “They told me to work on my game. They especially wanted me to work on the give-and-go play. They want me to get stronger, to try to dominate in the OHL.”

Matthias is in a select group of Belleville Bulls who have been selected in various drafts by NHL teams: Matt Beleskey and Eric Tangradi-Anaheim Ducks, P. K. Subban-Montreal Canadiens, Bryan Cameron-Los Angeles Kings, and Michael Neal-Dallas Stars.

They have all returned to the Bulls. I am certain they have all received the same message: there are spots in the lineup for you. Earn your place. You will appreciate it.

It is the dream of so many kids who lace up their blades, all around the world.

Shawn Matthias will continue to follow that dream, with plenty of hard work, and determination.

He won first star honours on Thanksgiving Day in the Bulls’ 5-1 victory over the Kingston Frontenacs. That is what the Panthers expect from him. That is what he expects from himself, as he climbs the ladder to the NHL.

James Hurst
October 9, 2007

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