NEWARK, N.J. — He might be living large these days as one of the youngest players in the NHL, seeing action with the top line on the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils. But 18-year-old Stefan Matteau doesn’t forget his first foray into big-time hockey, when he was selected to be part of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
“It really meant a lot to me,” said Matteau, who played with the NTDP for two seasons, scoring 15 goals in 46 games last year and tallying four goals in 28 games in 2010-11. “I was a 17-year-old kid playing against some of the best [NCAA] Division I players, some of whom were like 25-years-old. To be with the best players in my age group, playing on a national level was really great. It definitely got me ready for what I’m doing now. It felt good to be on that team for two years, and I was able to wear the Team USA sweater for two years. It was a great honor and I was really proud of it.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Matteau was selected last summer by the Devils as their No. 1 draft pick and the No. 29 pick overall.
Matteau, the son of former NHL winger Stephane Matteau, thought that he was earmarked for junior hockey this season, but he earned an invite to the Devils’ shortened training camp due to the NHL lockout and managed to find his way on the team’s opening game roster.
“I don’t know how it all happened,” said Matteau, a native of Chicago who now calls Blainville, Quebec, as his hometown. “Everything happened so fast. I didn’t have high expectations coming into camp. I just wanted to work so hard and make an impression. I was really surprised I was coming to New Jersey. I found out the night before the first game. Now, I’m here. I’m 18 years old and playing with guys in their 30s.”
It was first thought that Matteau was to be given a five-game tryout before receiving his ticket back to the juniors so the Devils wouldn’t have to pay his full salary for the season.
However, Matteau’s aggressive play and fearless attitude has enabled him to remain. He’s now played in nine of the Devils’ first 15 games and on Feb. 9 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Matteau scored the first goal of his NHL career.
“It was a crazy feeling, something to be really proud of,” said Matteau, who followed up his first goal with his first assist in another win against the Penguins. “I just hope it’s the first of many to come.”
Matteau’s teammates secured the puck for him and presented it to him after the game.
“I got the real one,” Matteau said. “I was sure of that.”
Matteau said that he’s feeling a lot more comfortable being an NHL player after seeing action in nine games.
“I’ve been saying since the first day that it’s still great to be here,” Matteau said. “The guys have made me feel comfortable and make me feel like I belong. I’m able to fit in well.”
Devils coach Peter DeBoer has been impressed with Matteau’s contributions.
“I think the thing that stands out with Stef is that he’s a big, strong kid and nowadays you can’t get enough big-bodied guys who can play in this league,” DeBoer said. “They are the ones who make a difference. What I like about him is that he’s not overwhelmed by this all. There’s a quiet confidence about him. I think that comes from being around his father and being around NHL locker rooms all his life. He’s comfortable with this environment, and that’s a lot easier said than done.”
Matteau said that he received a lot of guidance from his father, who spent 13 seasons in the NHL with six different clubs.
“I saw my dad play at the end of his career,” the younger Matteau said. “I was about 11 years old when he retired. He was always on the road and that was a little tough, so really my Mom [Natalie] was the one who drove me to the rinks early in the morning, then took me to school. She deserves a lot of the credit. When [Stephane] retired, I was fortunate to have him with us, watching me and guiding me.”
It’s ironic that the elder Matteau’s most famous goal came in double overtime of Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals against the younger’s current club, lifting the New York Rangers into the Stanley Cup Finals, where they eventually won the Cup against the Vancouver Canucks.
There’s a famous radio call from famed announcer Howie Rose, who currently does New York Islanders television, where he screamed “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” after the elder Matteau tucked the puck behind the younger’s current teammate Martin Brodeur.
“I’ve heard that call a thousand times,” Stefan Matteau said. “It’s funny because Marty is still here. My first game here, my dad came down and talked to Marty. I’m just glad to be a part of this organization. I’d love to follow in my dad’s footsteps and have a long career in the league. He’s been a great role model for me.”
Matteau was asked if he could appreciate the rapid rise from an NTDP player just last year to the NHL this year.
“I don’t know if it’s happened too fast,” Matteau said. “I just know that I’m here now and I plan on staying here. It’s one thing to make it. It’s another thing to stay here. That’s my goal now.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Tag(s): Player Features