Projected top draft pick Michael Matheson puts education first, chooses NCAA
With his opponents tick-tacking passes through the neutral zone, 17 year-old Michael Matheson seems to stop on a dime. Though his feet never stop moving, he appears to be standing still as the play unfolds around him. Then it happens. With a quick snap of his wrists, he’s stripped the puck from a baffled Viking forward and is exploding down ice, leaving opponents and teammates alike to play catch-up.
It’s nothing new for Matheson. Anticipation and a willingness to go against the grain have become something of a trademark for Quebec’s top young defenceman. From his decision to play his final year of bantam to choosing the NCAA over a more traditional CHL route, Matheson hasn’t been afraid to blaze his own trail.
For the second consecutive year, the Montreal native has led his Lac St. Louis Lions to a berth in the Quebec midget AAA hockey championships. They clinched their semi-final series versus the St. Eustache Vikings with a thrilling 4-3 victory in double overtime the night I sat down with the blossoming young star.
But it has been Matheson’s decision to play U.S. collegiate hockey that has garnered him the most attention of late. Forgoing the traditional CHL route wasn’t an easy choice for Matheson, who visited with both Halifax and Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL before making his final decision.
“I think it was definitely a combination of (education and hockey),” said Matheson when asked about is reasons for choosing the NCAA. “Defence is more of a tactical game, there’s a lot more to learn. And I want to take the time to let my body mature... My dad and I looked at the average schedule for a Q team and there just isn’t a lot of time to practice or lift (weights).”
With his sights set on studying Sports Psychology or Osteopathy at Boston College, Matheson will be heading to Dubuque, Iowa this season for a year of prep with the Fighting Saints of the USHL. It’s a step he’s looking forward to with nervous anticipation.
“It’ll be hard to be away from home, but we went to visit Dubuque... it’s a great place.”
With the recent media focus on players’ health, I wondered how Matheson thought the NCAA compared to the CHL when it came to protecting its players and physically preparing them for the rigors of professional hockey.
“There’s no hiding from the number of games (in the CHL). If you play more, there’s more risk of injury...and on top of that, you have the chance to develop your body more in university, so obviously you’re less prone to injury if you’re bigger and stronger,” he responded.
Despite being the less popular choice among Canadian players, the NCAA has claimed a few very high-profile athletes in recent years. Most notably, fellow Lions alumni and Montreal Canadiens draft pick Louis Leblanc spent a year at Harvard before returning to Montreal to play for the Juniors this season. I wondered if Leblanc’s career path factored into Matheson’s decision.
“I made my choice based on what I believe is best for me. I know a lot of people have tried to predict that I will come back because Louis did, and I know it’s hard not to compare because we’re both from Lac St. Louis... but I think it comes back to the difference between forward and defence. It’s a completely different development process. I’m happy for Louis’s success, but my decision was for me.”
Matheson attributes his patience to life lessons learned from his father. “My dad graduated from university when he was very young. He was in a hurry to get out into the workforce and looking back on it now, he’s realized that there was really no point rushing.”
And the younger Matheson certainly isn’t afraid of giving his own career path the time it needs to develop properly.
“A lot of people have tried to promote the Q as the fast track to the NHL... That was the main criticism of (the NCAA), that it was the less direct route, but I wanted to take my time to develop. My parents helped me a lot with that decision and I think it really is the right choice for me.”
A recurring theme in our conversation was the respect he has for each program he has visited.
“I weighed all of my options carefully. I know some people have criticized my decision, saying that I was never really willing to give the CHL a chance...but I tried to have an open mind about all of my options. There was a time when I was really thinking the Q would be (my best option).”
He’s also quick to defend the Quebec league, as well as other players’ right to make their own decision.
“I want to be clear that I’m not against the QMJHL at all. It’s a great league. A lot of players aren’t as interested in school, and it’s a great option for them, but I had to make my decision based on what’s best for me.”
I also spoke with Timothy Clark, Assistant Director of Media Relations for Boston College Athletics. While he was clear that NCAA regulations do not permit universities to comment on specific players until an official letter of intent has been signed, he was happy to comment on the general benefits of choosing the NCAA route.
“I won’t say that any one path is better, but I do believe that the NCAA has a lot to offer potential recruits. The sense of community within a collegiate program is remarkable. We have 31 teams here at BC and they’re all very closely intertwined within the athletics program... We’re very pleased that more and more Canadian athletes are considering the NCAA as an option.”
Although Matheson is happy to be heading to Boston College, he is also grateful for the difficult decision he faced in choosing a university.
“I visited Boston College, BU, Vermont, and Northeastern. When it came down to it, I had my choice of some amazing options. Everywhere I went has such a strong program and such a great coaching staff, it made the decision very difficult. It was never a matter of ‘this program is good and this one isn’t’, I was honestly trying to choose the best out of a few great options.”
Michael Matheson’s approach to hockey, on the ice or off, can be summarized with two words; patience and awareness. This is a young player who personifies a commitment to proper development. Whether he’s breaking out of his own zone, or breaking into the world of professional hockey, it is his ability to accurately assess his surroundings and his willingness to wait for the perfect moment that will carry him on to future success.
Choosing to play for an American university may make the road to the NHL slightly longer, but I have a feeling Matheson’s timing is just right.