A Leader Without Even Trying
Matson's Work Ethic Boosts Minnesota
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
TAMPA, Fla. Minnesota hockey is about speed. It's about winning championships with flourish. It's about tradition and dominance. In the last four years, though, Minnesota hockey has been mostly a story of frustration and unmet expectations.
As talented as ever, the Golden Gophers had not qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Even worse, they'd been shut out from the Frozen Four since 2005.
Quality coaching and players were still present at Mariucci Arena, but the Gopers lacked something. Putting a specific word to it is as difficult as advancing to the Frozen Four. Watching this year's edition of Minnesota, though, makes it easier. The Gophers were missing players like Taylor Matson.
The senior forward missed the postseason due to injury in each of his first three seasons with the Gophers. Severe knee and ankle injuries ended his first two seasons, before an untimely tweak forced him out of a WCHA quarterfinal series last year. In each of these three playoffs, the Gophers failed to advance as far as they hoped.
His presence hardly guaranteed a different result, but playoff hockey reveals the best in players like Matson. Grit over glamour, fierce over flashy, Matson's health provides Minnesota coach Don Lucia with both a reliable three-zone player and an example for his other players. One that the previous three seasons demonstrated a desperate need for.
"We've always had the talented teams with high draft picks and various skill guys," Matson said. "This year, I just feel like everyone's on board. No one's focused on advancing their careers or anything like that. This year, guys are focused on playing every single game."
Aside from making his job easier, Lucia admires Matson, the Gophers' captain, for his determination and perseverance. Lesser players — lesser people — may have fallen victim to the injury problems of seasons past, especially as they kept mounting. Matson, however, has used his mishaps to become a better player.
"He's had knee surgery and a broken ankle, then he got injured in the last weekend of the regular season last year," Lucia said. "Here he is as a senior, and he had never gotten to partake in the playoffs. He's just had a hard-luck career with injuries. I don't think I've ever had as hard-working a player as Taylor Mattson. That leadership was apparent when we voted our captains. He was unanimously voted by the players. He just kind of leads through his actions. He's made players work harder than they've ever worked before, because if they didn't, he was going to embarrass them."
For Matson, working back to form to become a critical piece of a team two wins from a national championship was the easy part. The difficult side of things was helplessly watching his team try to extend its season in each of the last three years.
Like most other Minnesota players, Matson committed to the program in hopes of securing a place within its legacy. Playing there, for Minnesota kids, is enough of a dream, but being part of a club that brings banners to Marriucci Arena makes the experience even sweeter.
Three years without an NCAA Tournament appearance is an eternity in the Twin Cities. The players responsible thought it was even longer. The return of Matson, paired with the emergence of gifted young scorers, helped the Gophers return to form throughout the 2011-12 season.
"Getting back to the Frozen Four has been a goal of ours since I was was a freshman," Matson said.
Leaving Tampa in similarly high spirits will take quite an effort from the Gophers. Thursday's national semifinal game means a matchup with Boston College, a team that hasn't lost in its last 17 games.
The motivation for Minnesota, beyond the obvious prize of a spot in Saturday's national championship game, is transforming the legacy of his class. The difficulties of his first three years led Matson to strive for this exact position.
"I grew up going to Minnesota games. The legacy they've had is unbelievable with the national championships and Frozen Four appearances," he said. "I wanted to play for the Gophers to hang banners and be a part of something special. It's been difficult the last couple seasons, but it gave us more motivation in the offseason to get back to work."
A MacNaughton Cup from this year's WCHA regular season title means Matson and the team have already left their imprint on the rafters at Mariucci Arena. However, the Gophers and their captain have their eyes on something greater.
"We already have one with the WCHA (regular season) championship," Matson said. "Adding a sixth national championship for this program would be something special that we would never forget. With everything I went through the first three seasons personally, to win a championship my senior season would be spectacular."