By Mathieu Pompei
Photo by Felix Kastle
The first time I laced up a pair of hockey skates at the age of 4, I immediately fell in love with the game. Since then, hockey has become my identity and has allowed me to see and do things I never thought possible. Like most young hockey players, my dream was to make it to the NHL, and although that didn’t happen, I’m blessed to share my story and how it has shaped me into the person and hockey player I am today.
Growing up, I always played the sport because I enjoyed it and had a passion for it. But like anything in life, at a certain point, you need to take things seriously if you want to make it to the next level. Those serious years usually start around Midget. Players who want a shot at “making it” usually play midget AAA or Midget Espoir (15-year-old prospects).
When I became eligible to play Midget, I didn’t even get invited to Midget AAA and didn’t show up to the Midget Espoir camp because I didn’t think I could make it. I even skipped Midget AA camp and went directly to the Midget CC camp. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make Midget CC and was one of the first players to get cut. Coaches kept telling me over and over again that I was too short. Long story short (pun intended), I ended up playing down in Midget A that year.
For those of you that are unaware with minor hockey and its various leagues, Midget A is basically recreational hockey where hitting is not permitted. In other words, I was playing with 18-year-olds that had a job and basically just played hockey for the fun of it. Everyone else I knew that was really trying to “make it” in hockey, played either Midget Espoir or Midget AAA.
After my Midget A season, I ended up making the Midget CC squad, which is still by no means spectacular, especially if you ever want a chance at playing decent hockey in the future. Even though I was playing lower caliber hockey, I always had a goal to be the best player on my team day in and day out. Meanwhile, my best friend Hugo Turcotte was playing Midget AAA and had a plan to go play prep school the following year. When he found out he was going to play prep-school in the United States, I decided I really wanted to live that experience and play prep school in a year’s time. Headed into my third year of Midget, I remember him telling me, “if you want to get a chance to go play at a prep-school somewhere, you absolutely need to make the Midget AA team.”
There it was. My goal for the upcoming season—make the Midget AA team.
What a lofty goal right? At this point, Most guys were playing Major junior or Junior A (AAA in Quebec), and here I was trying to make it into Midget AA.
Fortunately, I ended up making the AA team and accomplishing my goal. Later in the season, I had the opportunity to pay my way into a showcase in Montreal where a bunch of prep school scouts would be in attendance. I thought this was a good occasion to show off my skills and maybe get one of these prep schools interested in me. After the game, they told us that should a team be interested in you, you’ll know via email within two weeks.
Two weeks went by and my good ol’ Hotmail inbox was as empty as my hopes. That’s when I slowly started to feel like my hockey career was coming to an end and I was going to end up in the beer leagues. Then, past the three-week mark and literally out of nowhere, I got an email from a small boarding school located in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Being that they were the only school to show interest, I decided to commit to this small Canadian prep school for the 2009-2010 season.
With my 18-year-old birthday just around the corner and excited by the opportunity ahead, I couldn’t help but feel like this was the break I needed to kickstart my career. Most people know that 18 years of age is pretty late to give hockey a true shot, but I was committed.
I ended up having an unbelievable season and finished just 2 points shy of the school scoring record, which allowed me to get noticed by a few people in the region. That year, a guy on my team knew a scout (Brad Muise) for a Junior A team which was located in Yarmouth—just 3 hours south of my school. Brad contacted me during the summer and told me the best he could do was get me a walk-on tryout with the team. I told him I would get back to him shortly.
Also, during that summer I attended another showcase in the United States to hopefully get a chance to go play Junior somewhere. The only interest I got was from an EJHL team which was also a walk/tryout offer. Considering both were tryouts, it was a little hard to commit to either. However, being in the Maritimes the previous season and knowing some people there, I decided to take Brad up on his walk-on tryout offer.
I immediately told myself, “I have one goal, make the Yarmouth Mariners Junior A team”.
Still crystal clear in my memory, I remember showing up to the first team meet-and-greet. It was a BBQ where there were returning players, top draft picks, new players who had been traded over the summer and…. there was me—the 19-year-old walk-on rookie. I remember reading over one of the camp sheets that had all the players’ information on it, only to see that I was put down as born in the year 1993—I was born in 1991. I guess they thought I was younger because of my size. Still, I tried not to let it affect me.
I set a new goal for myself, much like I did the other years—make the team no matter what.
A week into training camp, I thought things were going really well on and off the ice. However, it was time for the first few cuts, and I had no idea what to expect. The way it worked has they displayed a list of the players on a sheet outside the dressing room, and if your name was on it, you had to go see the coach (AKA – being cut).
The first time around, my name wasn’t up on the wall. Couple days later, the same thing—my name still wasn’t there. To accomplish my goal and make the team, all I had to do was make it through one more cut—the final cut.
I slowly walked up to the sheet outside the dressing room, took a deep breath, and started scanning the list of names.
It wasn’t there. My name wasn’t there.
I remember leaving immediately to call my parents and share the good news. I had made the Junior A Mariners as a 19-year-old rookie!
I recall in the first few weeks of practice with the team, the Head Coach (Laurie Barron) called me into his office and said, “Matt, how old are you, 18 years old?” With a blank look, I answered, “19”.
Thinking back, I might have made the team just because the staff made a mistake and thought I was a year younger…who knows! But all I needed was that one opportunity.
The time had finally come, the first regular season game. The lineup was displayed in the room and I saw my name on the fourth line. I was a little disappointed but told myself, “I’m here, have fun and make the best of it.”
The first period went by and I had touched the ice for a total of 3 shifts. I told myself, “man this is going to be a long game.” Then the second period came around. On my second shift, there was a scramble in front of the opposing net and I just shoveled the puck into the net.
I was excited, but it was short lived— I still ended the game with an average of 2-3 shifts per period. That went on for 3 games until one of the drafts picks got a major penalty for hitting from behind, causing him to be suspended for 3 games. This was my chance. I got bumped up to the third line. During that game, I had the opportunity to go out on the Powerplay.
Fortunately enough, I got a good bounce and put the puck in. Personally, I thought I played well, and even managed to get a goal and an assist. I stayed on the third line for the majority of the season but still managed to finish 3rd on the team in points (for a total of 44) without much powerplay time.
Knowing that my next season was my last in Junior, I decided I wanted to be a threat in the league, and so I give it out all summer in the gym and on the ice to prepare myself.
Side note: My billets (the family I was staying with in Yarmouth) spoke to my head coach after the end of the season, and he mentioned that he planned on cutting me pretty much right away without giving me the chance to prove myself. Unfortunately, that’s often the case when you’re a walk-on—you’ve got to impress as soon as you hit the ice. I guess I had done something right!
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, I had big plans for myself. I knew I my coaches and teammates would rely more heavily on me, and as a veteran, I was expected to be a leader (even though it was only my second year in the league). I wanted to play Division I hockey and knew a good season was necessary for that to happen. As hoped for, I had a career high in goals (43), allowing me to finish scoring leader and third in the league with 82 points.
At the end of the season is when the calls started to come in.
Unfortunately, absolutely no Division I schools were interested. I was only getting calls from Division III schools. I took initiative and decided to call USsports (CIS) schools in the Maritimes who might have had the opportunity to see me play during the season. Still no interest. Without anywhere to go, I still started my summer working out hard in hopes of ending up in a College uniform the following season.
Once again, I was slowly seeing my career come to an end. It was the beginning of July at this point. During my summers, I was lucky enough to play with the Bauer Equipment team twice a week. The reason why I am sharing this is that it was another turning point in my career.
Fortunately enough, former McGill Redmen assistant coach Dan Jacob also played in the Bauer Equipment league. Dan was really good friends with my best friend’s brother, Yan Turcotte (who had previously played at McGill for five years). Dan and Yan were talking about the Redmen’s recruitment progress and how they had this one guy from out West who was potentially going to commit to McGill, but nothing was set in stone. Yan then turned to Dan and said, “why don’t you take Matt? He’s from Montreal and just had a breakout junior season.” Dan had seen me play a few times during the summer. He immediately took Yan’s request and contacted Head Coach Kelly Nobes.
The following story is not a lie. Both Kelly and Dan came out to watch me play in the Bauer summer league. Pleased with what Kelly saw, Dan immediately contacted me to get the school registrations done because the deadline was a week away.
Within 2 weeks, I had committed to McGill University and was ready for the 2012-2013 season!
McGill University Redmen
Similar to my Junior career, I was not the typical recruit coming in that was going to be the first line center. I was going to have to fight and grind to prove myself each opportunity I had.
During the first exhibition game, I got 2 shifts in the first period against Royal Military College. Again, during the intermission, I told myself what a long game/year this was going to be. At some point in the second period, we drew a penalty and Kelly put me out on the powerplay to see what I could do. Couple of seconds in, I scored.
Two shifts later, we had another powerplay and I ended up getting another chance to be out there.
I found a way to score again….and again.I ended up completing my hat-trick in the third period in my first USPORT game, which ended up being a McGill Hockey record.
I got my chance and showed the staff what I was capable of. Even though I had a tremendous pre-season, after two regular season games, I ended up getting healthy scratched for the homecoming games at McGill. However, that didn’t stop me from ending the season with a point-per-game average But, I was still not a go-to guy on the team and I wasn’t satisfied. During my end of year meeting with Kelly, he mentioned to me that one of the main reasons I got to play this much during the season was because of all the injuries our team had. That comment gave me motivation. I knew I was capable of playing in this league…I just had to show it.
Going into my second season and third year, the scenario was quite similar. Each summer I worked really hard in the gym hoping to come in each season and be a better player for my team. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as much of an impact player as I would have wished. My third season was my most disappointing one of all. I had my worst season in the McGill’s uniform, getting way below a point-per-game average and took it as motivation to bounce back the next season. It was in my fourth year that things turned around. Going into my fourth year, we had lost many of our key players in the front end and many of us were going to become the go-to guys on the team. I knew going into the summer that this upcoming season needed to be—yet again—a breakout season for me. My goal was to graduate after the season, and if I wanted any chance at playing pro hockey, I had to make sure I had my best season yet. That summer was probably the summer where I transformed the most physically. I got stronger, faster and more powerful. I had a goal to be the best player I could potentially be.
The season, in general, was a great one. Not only for the team but for myself personally. I had become a better player defensively and I had put up 37 points in 28 games. After three years, I achieved my goal and became a go-to guy on the team.
After the season, as I mentioned earlier, my plan was to graduate and try to find somewhere to play professionally in Europe. Unfortunately, the offers weren’t quite what I was looking for.
On the other hand, I had the option to return to McGill for a fifth year. This also meant I might get the opportunity to represent Team Canada in the Universiade Games (FISU Games) in Almaty, Kazakhstan. That was something I was eyeing for a couple years, so I decided to return for a fifth year and get a chance to crack the Team Canada roster.
After another great summer of workouts, I had a tremendous start to the season. Every December, there is an annual event in which two exhibition games are played against Team Canada World Junior in preparation for the upcoming tournament during the holidays. The opposing team is formed by a CIS All-Star team. Fortunately enough, I had been selected to be part of this mini two-game series. The head coach for Team CIS All-Star was also the head coach for the FISU games. This was another great opportunity to show what I was capable of.
Less than a month later, a bunch of us headed to Toronto for a four-day camp to try and crack the Team Canada roster. Desperate to make the team, I gave it my all every-day.
They told us they would give us a call on New Year ’s Eve to let us know what the verdict was.
New Year’s Eve couldn’t come quick enough.
The morning of New Year’s Eve, my phone suddenly vibrated and woke me up. I knew who the call was from. I was both nervous and excited at the same time, and that’s when I heard it: “Hi Matt, you’ll be representing Team Canada in Almaty next month.”
I accidentally let out an F-bomb because I couldn’t contain my excitement. I knew this was going to be the only chance in my life where I was going to be able to put on my country’s colors while playing hockey. I wanted to make the best of this opportunity.
In the tournament, we left with a bronze medal. Not what we initially went there for but I got the chance to live unforgettable memories that I will cherish forever.
Coming back to McGill after the FISU games, it was time for the playoffs in hopes of winning a National Championship. Unfortunately, we made it to Nationals but had a season-ending loss against St. Fx.
It was a hard moment for everyone. Not only was my 5 year college career over, but I knew that some of these guys would never play competitive hockey again and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me either.
I stayed positive going into the summer, optimistic that something good was going to show up. I was lucky enough to have a connection who put me in touch with a German agent. After months of waiting and turning down offers from various leagues, my agent came up with an interesting one. A six-week tryout in the DEL2 (Germany) league. The only bad thing about that was the tryout part.
That made me pretty nervous, to be honest. However, I did my research, called people who had seen me play, and decided I should jump on the opportunity. It wasn’t a sure thing because I could end up back at home within 6 weeks if it didn’t go well.
After days of reflection, I told myself, “this is your career in a nutshell. You show up with nothing to lose, make the best of it and only good things have happened since. Why not take it!”
So I decided to accept the challenge and never look back.
Now, here we are. It’s only been a month since I’ve came into a new country, not knowing the culture or anyone here and made the best of it. Having had a good training camp and good exhibition games, I was able to ink a professional contract with the Ravensburg Towerstars.
I know I’m not playing in the NHL, but I’m among the few players in the world that can consider themselves professional hockey players.
For those of you out there that might not be the top players on your respective teams, don’t give up. Keep working hard. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. Focus on the things you can control and get better every day.
I was always the smallest guy on my team and most times in the entire league. I couldn’t control that. What I could control was how I prepared myself off the ice to make sure height was not an issue anymore.
Make sure that when you’re given an opportunity, you’re ready to show them what you have to offer. Take that chance and give it your all, because you don’t know when that opportunity will ever come again and you might regret not being ready in the moment. Remember that all it takes is one successful opportunity to change everything ahead. I consider myself a late bloomer.
If you asked me if I would change anything about my career and the path I took, I’d say no without hesitation, because I’ve learned that if you really want something and are willing to work hard enough to get it, you can make anything happen. All you have to do is believe in yourself.