Payton Matsui has followed up a summer of uncertainty with a summer of anticipation.
“I’m going from my longest summer to my shortest summer, but I can’t really complain about it,” Matsui said of reporting to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Aug. 1 to prepare for his freshman year. “I’m really excited for college hockey and this past year has given me confidence to go in, whatever my role is.”
Matsui built that confidence with a season as the North American Hockey League Forward of the Year. He was also the offensive leader of an Aberdeen Wings team that played in the Robertson Cup final.
In 56 games during a season that got off to a late start, Matsui produced 27 goals and 38 assists. The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder from Lakeville, Minnesota, led the league with 65 points and 10 game-winning goals, and his 10 power-play goals tied for the most in the NAHL.
“It’s hard for me to fully grasp individual awards just because there is so much more that goes into that,” said Matsui, who has shown he could play comfortably in different roles throughout his junior career. “I think anyone on our team could have had a year like that. I just try to work as hard as I can on and off the ice and to be put in that situation is definitely a huge honor.
“I couldn’t credit enough to my teammates who helped me with that award.”
After spending most of the previous two seasons playing in both the USHL and BCHL, Matsui knew a change was in order for his final season of junior hockey. He attended two training camps and was convinced by head coach/general manager Scott Langer that Aberdeen was the right place.
The now 21-year-old made his first and only NAHL season a successful one.
“I had a blast this year,” Matsui said. “… For me, the biggest thing was not to worry about point production or anything like that.
“I wanted to go into the season and I wanted to win and I wanted to have fun, which was the biggest part. I wanted my last year to be one to remember and it wound up being that for sure.”
Matsui praised Langer as one of the biggest reasons he came to the team that had won the 2019 Robertson Cup prior to the 2020 title was unable to be contested because of the pandemic.
Langer earned the respect of others as well. He was selected Coach and General Manager of the Year. The Wings, led by owner and governor Greg Odde, were also named Organization of the Year.
Aberdeen continued its on-ice success and navigated COVID-19 to rank second in the league in attendance.
That was just part of the Wings leading the season awards.
The biggest honors went to Jake Sibell, whose record-breaking season in net led to Most Valuable Player and Vaughn Goaltender of the Year recognition.
Langer cited Sibell’s dedication to work with goaltending coach Josh Aycock throughout his two seasons in Aberdeen. Sibell dropped his goals against average from 2.65 in 2019-20 to 1.19 and raised his save percentage from .906 to .952.
“Last year, Jake played behind Henry Welsch, who had a great year for us and he just continued to battle,” Langer said in an April interview. “He had a great offseason and came into training camp and just took the ball and he’s never given it back.
“His work ethic every day is phenomenal. He’s a humble individual who gives the team all the credit and just continues to play good hockey.”
Sibell, 21, from Isanti, Minnesota, set a league record for wins while going 43-2-1. The Niagara University commit also set records with his GAA and save percentage and tied another with his 11 shutouts.
The other two major on-ice awards went to Grant Docter of the Minnesota Wilderness as Defenseman of the Year and Jay Ahearn of the Johnstown Tomahawks as the Rookie of the Year.
Docter, 20, from Golden Valley, Minnesota, led league defensemen in points with 40 and 18 goals.
Ahearn led the league with 31 goals and finished second in points. The 20-year-old from Staten Island, New York, will be a future teammate of Sibell’s at Niagara.
Matsui, Ahearn, Docter and Sibell were joined on the All-NAHL first team by New Mexico Ice Wolves forward Cole Hanson and Aberdeen defenseman Nico DeVita.
Other awards included: Executive of the Year, Bill McCoshen, Janesville Jets; Apex Learning Virtual School Academic Achievement Award, Jaxson Ezman, Janesville; Leadership Award, Luke Mountain, Maryland Black Bears; Community Service Award, Clayton Cosentino, Aberdeen.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.