Like many players across the Ontario Hockey League, the past 14 months haven’t been easy for Sault Ste. Marie native Jack Matier, but they’ve been an opportunity in a sense.
Coming off a gold medal win with Team Canada at the World Under-18 Hockey Championship, Matier has used the time to work on part of his game and take advantage of the lack of game action with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.
“With the gyms and rinks opening and closing, it’s been tough,” Matier said. “Like a lot of kids across Ontario, a lot of practices were skill-based and working on individual skill. I was still in the gym whenever I could be when it was open. I was working on stuff I needed to work on and it really helped improve my skating and overall strength.”
Eligible for the NHL draft this summer, Matier had some goals in mind as he worked to improve his game.
“I really wanted to improve my explosiveness,” Matier said. “It’s one thing that, working with Aidan Wright (locally in the Sault) and my trainer in Ottawa, has really translated on the ice with my skating and my first three strides.”
With the OHL eyeing a return to the ice in the fall with training camps beginning in early September and regular season action beginning roughly a month later, the 18-year-old is looking to maintain that improvement heading into what will be his second OHL season.
“It’ll be pretty similar with a lot of explosiveness and quickness drills, but also overall strength,” Matier said. “It’s something at this age that every kid needs to improve on. Those are probably the things I’ll key in on and really work at.”
Like players throughout the league, Matier is looking forward to a return to some form of normalcy and get back into the regular routine with the 67’s.
“They’ve been nothing but awesome to me,” Matier said. “The whole experience has been awesome with Ottawa. It’s really a world-class organization.”
Selected in the first round of the 2019 OHL Priority Selection, his first year in the league was a learning experience for the young blueliner.
“A big thing with our team and our coaches is the pro atmosphere that we live by and bring to the rink every day,” Matier said. “That’s with our schedule, our practices, and our work ethic. It’s second-to-none and that’s why we’re such a successful organization and it really starts at the top with our coaches and their attitude and work ethic.”
Playing with a team that featured five NHL draft picks in 2019-20 and three more players who would go on the be selected in the 2020 NHL draft, two of which were first rounders Jack Quinn (eighth overall by Buffalo) and Marco Rossi (ninth overall by Minnesota), practices were up-tempo throughout the year and a good opportunity for young players on the roster.
“Every practice was like a game,” Matier said. “The thing with those guys, they’re so competitive so it really drives the younger players and pushes them to their limits. It was a great place for me to spend my first year and grow as a player.”
The 67’s finished the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 OHL season with the league’s best record at 50-11-0-1 and part of the success for the team was the willingness of players to buy-in.
Playing on a blueline that featured three NHL draft picks at the time, Matier learned a lot playing with a veteran group of defencemen.
“A big part of our team was people buying into their roles as a player on our team,” Matier said. “You had Noel Hoefenmayer, who was good on the power play and an offensive defenceman. Then you had someone like Kevin Bahl, who was playing a shutdown role and running our penalty kill. The same with Nikita Okhotyuk. He was playing a lot of PK. Those guys really bought into their roles and accepted them and that’s what made us such a successful team. They left their egos at the door and really bought into their roles.”
Matier is coming off his first game action in an extended period, having been a part of the Canadian entry that captured gold at the World Under-18 Championship in Texas that wrapped up in early-May.
“It was something I’ve never experienced,” Matier said. “I’ve never played for Team Canada before this and once you put that jersey on, it’s the best feeling in the world. To be so successful and win the gold is something I’ll never forget.”
For a handful of OHL players who played with Team Canada, it was their first game action since March 2020 when the OHL cancelled the remainder of its season at the time due to COVID-19.
“For guys that didn’t play in 13 months, the exhibition game was kind of like a stepping stone,” Matier said. “Once we got that first game under our belts, everyone was comfortable and really confident. That’s really what pushed us to win.”
The Canadian roster featured a number of players Matier was quite familiar with from his time in the OHL, including team captain Shane Wright, who suited up as an OHL rookie with the Kingston Frontenacs after earning exceptional player status and entering the OHL draft a year early in 2019.
The OHL’s East Division was well represented on the Canadian team with the likes of Matier, Wright, Brett Harrison (Oshawa Generals, and Mason McTavish (Peterborough Petes).
“It was an awesome experience getting to know the other side of them,” Matier said. “To become friends, that friendship will last a lifetime. It was awesome to get to know the other side of these players that I always play against.”
The tournament was a confidence-builder for Matier as he settled into his role with the team.
“As the tournament went on, I started to feel more confident and I was playing to the best of my ability,” Matier said. “I was playing a lot of penalty kill and that was something that was really important to me and something I take pride in.”