USHL: QAs with Chris Hickey and Troy Mattila
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey recently had the chance to chat with Chris Hickey and Troy Mattila from the Tri-City Storm, who have both gotten off to fast starts this season. The talented forwards talk about their game, future college commitments, being drafted, career paths to date and goals for the upcoming season.
Chris Hickey Interview
McKeen's: What was your youth hockey experience prior to playing for Cretin-Derham?
Hickey: I started off playing Mendota Heights hockey, until about squirt year, and then our city didn't have hockey anymore, so I switched to West St. Paul, played bantam there for two years and then went on to play Cretin my freshman year.
McKeen's: You won the State Tournament with Cretin-Derham in 2006 and you also led your team in scoring every year up until last year, describe those first three years in your development.
Hickey: It was a learning experience for me, definitely. My freshman year I went in there, I didn't really have any expectations, I just went out there every single day and just try to earn my keep, and sometimes hockey is a weird sport and the puck bounces on your stick more times than not and that's kind of what happened my freshman year. I was in the right place at the right time, led the team in scoring, played on my brother Matt's line, who plays at West Point right now, and for two years I played with him and that was great. Then, my junior year, I just kind of told myself, I want to be the leading goal scorer in the state. I came up a little short, but I scored 37 goals in about 30 games and I was pretty happy with that, but it was a heck of a time in high school.
McKeen's: What was it like to be drafted by the hometown team, the Minnesota Wild? You have attended two of their prospect camps, what have those been like?
Hickey: That's fun. I look forward to going to that every time, since I was in it my first year. Those guys are just great players. They're so fast, they're so quick. Everything is just tape-to-tape and straight shots. You go to the camp and that's where you've got to be, and they set the bar and I've got to get there. It's definitely a learning experience to come out of there. I have ten times more knowledge of the game than I came in there with.
McKeen's: How big of a jump was it the first time you attended camp, just after your junior year, going to a prospects camp with guys who are looking to play as high as the AHL or NHL?
Hickey: I was definitely a little timid when I went out there, but I knew if I played scared to get hurt, it would look bad. So, you've got to go out there and you almost have to be not cocky but you've got to say I deserve to be here. I'm a good player. You've just got to talk yourself up a little bit and you can play with those guys. They're definitely better but it's definitely something that I can get to. After coming out of there, it's not too far away. I see those guys, I see where I'm at, and I feel pretty good and think positively after I go through that.
McKeen's: How does the USHL compare so far to high school hockey in Minnesota?
Hickey: It's a lot more chippy. It's not a bad chippy, it's just everyone finishes their checks. They're clean hits most of the time. It's a lot more physical and a lot more speed. I'd say those are the two biggest things. It's more fun, I'd say. It's a good time, great players.
McKeen's: What do you feel are the strengths of your game and, on the flipside, what are some of the things you are looking to work on before you go to Wisconsin?
Hickey: My strengths I'd say, are being tough, being a power forward, driving to the net, getting pucks, winning the battles in the corner. I'd say ten feet around the net is my territory. I'm going to find the puck and I'm going to put it in. That's what I believe is the type of player that I am, and I'm going to pursue that further. Some of the things I'd like to work on. I'd say a little quickness, a little quick step to beat the "d", kind of on a one-on-one or something like that and I could always be a better passer, be a better shooter, be a better stickhandler, all of those little things come with just more experience and playing with better players. So overall, I'd say just work on everything but the little things you've got to work on too.
McKeen's: What are some of the things that factored into your decision to go to the University of Wisconsin over some of the Minnesota schools?
Hickey: I visited North Dakota, I visited Colorado College, I visited Denver, and I liked all of those schools, and my dream was to go to a WCHA school, a big college, a big college town, and it was probably between Minnesota and Wisconsin. I just felt more comfortable with the coaching staff at Wisconsin. Not to say that the Gopher staff is bad by any means, but I just felt I fit in at Wisconsin and what their system was and everything that they had to offer me I felt would better myself as a hockey player.
McKeen's: Did you think you'd have a little bit better chance to get a little more icetime a little bit sooner with Wisconsin than maybe Minnesota, with some of the guys they bring in there?
Hickey: I try not to think about that. I mean, Wisconsin has got some great forwards that just came in and the Gophers always have some good forwards coming and going out, all I can do is just work my butt off and earn the icetime. They're not going to give it. Anywhere you go, they're not going to give you more icetime. You've got to go there and you've got to earn your keep. So I'm not really concerned about that until I get there and when I do get there, I'm going to show them that I deserve some icetime and should be able to play with the best of them.
McKeen's: What are some of the things you have done over the summer in training to help keep you in the best condition you can be, especially for those prospect camps?
Hickey: I work out, probably five days a week. I do a lot of conditioning. I worked out with Kirk Olson of the Minnesota Wild for a little bit with some of the players of the team and got to work out with better players and see what they do. You keep up with the faster pace. Also, I stickhandle all the time and shoot in my backyard. I have a sport court back there and a lot of room. Otherwise, I go up to St. Thomas Academy and skate up there with FHIT (Flexx Hockey Institute of Training). It's pretty nice. There are some good guys up there, a lot of ex-pros and stuff like that. When I'm busy, I kind of go around and travel to different spots and kind of keep it down.
McKeen's: What are some of your goals in the USHL this season?
Hickey: (Laughs) That's a good question. My goal is definitely to be, I want to be one of the top scorers in the league. I could have came in here and just be going to Wisconsin sooner or later, but I want to come in here and make a statement and show that I'm one of the best players in the league and have a good plus/minus, I guess you could say, because I want to play good defense… (pauses) and just make the team better. I want to win the Cup. When the year comes down, I want to be the last team with a win. That's my number one goal, is to take this team to the championship.
McKeen's: How helpful was it growing up with your brother, who is a defenseman at Army? Did that help you out at all, to have a good defenseman to scrimmage against a lot?
Hickey: Yeah, we had some great battles, every day we could. We'd go out to a pond close to us or we'd go in our backyard. I've got another brother Joe, who's not really a hockey player, but he'd always be in there kind of hacking around. Playing with two brothers, especially one who's a really good hockey player and that I look to and he's a mentor for, and stay in touch with him pretty much everyday. It definitely helped to play against him every single day growing up with a great set of brothers.
McKeen's: Lastly, I understand that you were a decent football player and a decent baseball player. What made you decide to pick hockey?
Hickey: Hockey's always been my passion. Minnesota is the State of Hockey. I grew up playing pond hockey and I just loved it. I won the baseball State Championship last year, I played center field, I loved to play baseball and my hockey coach was my baseball coach (Jim O'Neill). So, it kind of worked out and he's a great guy. Football, I was watching it on TV and I miss it. I used to be a running back and I was a strong safety. I was just kind of an athlete. I definitely miss those sports but hockey is where I want to play for the Wild someday. That would just be a dream comes true.
McKeen's: Big Joe Mauer fan?
Hickey: Definitely. He comes by, he stops by school. He stopped by a few times last year when we won State and kind of gave us motivational talks. He's a great guy. He's a class act.
Troy Mattila Interview
McKeen's: You grew up in Rockford Illinois your whole life playing for your dad with the Rockford Icemen. What was that like?
Mattila: I was born in Rockford, lived there my whole life. I just played youth hockey there. I played one year in Chicago of AAA hockey, but I ended up playing high school for my dad with the Rockford Icemen. I think now they are 12-time defending state champions from their division, so that was obviously really fun. I got to play with a lot of my friends and stuff while not playing for the AAA route, which is usually a little better hockey. Then, I left my senior year to go play juniors in the North American League in Springfield.
McKeen's: Whom did you play for in Chicago?
Mattila: I played for Team Illinois.
McKeen's: Okay. They are pretty good.
Mattila: Yeah, my bantam minor year.
McKeen's: I understand you played for both the Midget AA team and the high school team. How did that work, and was it the same roster for both?
Mattila: We have Midget AA and high school, and there were maybe three or four people that were different on each team. It was based on what school they went to. The level was pretty much the same. The top-end high school teams and the AA midget teams are pretty much the same thing.
McKeen's: I understand you had 214 points your junior year of high school before going into the NAHL. How big of a jump was that?
Mattila: From my junior year to my senior year, it was a huge jump. Obviously, the high school hockey in Illinois is, you know, it's not like Minnesota, it's not like Michigan. It's Illinois. It's different. Everyone plays AAA there. So, because I was outside of Chicago, I kind of had to play high school. The speed was a lot different, the skill was a lot different, but I caught up pretty quick.
McKeen's: How much extra preparation did you receive playing for your father (Tim Mattila), since he played some semi-pro hockey and even coached the Rockford IceHogs in a stretch in an emergency? How much did it help you to have somebody that knowledgeable to refer to all the time?
Mattila: Obviously, it was a huge part of my development, especially when I was younger. I went through a good phase there where I didn't believe anything he said, so he always had other people tell me for him. But, pretty much, it helped a lot, because there was always someone there that knew a little more than me about hockey.
McKeen's: What are some of the biggest things that improved in your game playing with the Springfield Jr. Blues?
Mattila: Just my speed, I would say, for the most part. That was biggest issue coming into juniors. My foot speed wasn't very good; because I could always skate slow in high school. My hands and my shooting were fine, but definitely my skating was a little bit behind.
McKeen's: Being drafted by the Islanders, were you somewhat surprised by that or did you have an idea that might happen?
Mattila: I had a tiny hint that it could happen. I got a questionnaire in the mail from them, but they never called. I pretty much didn't expect it. I watched the draft to see if some of my friends were getting drafted, I really wasn't watching it for myself, and I ended up seeing my name pop up. But, I wasn't planning on it.
McKeen's: Have you gone to two of their prospect camps?
Mattila: No, I have only gone to one. They don't have my rights anymore.
McKeen's: Oh really? How did that come to be?
Mattila: Because I'm playing juniors again this year, they had to offer me a deal, because I didn't go to college this year. Basically, they had to either offer me a contract or release my rights, and they ended up releasing my rights. I didn't have a really good season last year, so I didn't go to college, so they couldn't hold on to me.
McKeen's: You have since committed to Dartmouth, is that verbal?
Mattila: It's verbal, but it's what I plan on doing.
McKeen's: Tell me about last year. First, you were drafted by Des Moines, and then you were traded to Chicago. Did Chicago have an interest in you to be closer to home?
Mattila: I wasn't involved in that at all. I mean, obviously, Chicago must have had some kind of an interest in me. I think I heard it was for a goalie, and I guess Des Moines was in need of a goalie, so it worked out for them. I had no say in it, I really don't know why.
McKeen's: With the Steel, you had fair icetime at the beginning of the year but then it reduced. What happened with that?
Mattila: I was getting a lot more ice at the beginning of the year. As for the team, there were many games off, so the coaches definitely had to change things up all the time and we just never really got it together. I'll take responsibility for it. I wasn't playing my best hockey. I think I was letting losing bring me down as a player, and I should not have let that happen. I'm not going to say I shouldn't have gotten played, but it was just in general, as the team slacked off.
McKeen's: How did things change when Steve Poapst was brought it?
Mattila: I think he did a good job, but he came in the middle of a losing season and didn't have much to work with. He was new to the league, he was a new coach. I think he was coaching a younger team, a youth team before that. I think with time he could be a good coach.
McKeen's: You were traded to Springfield in February, and I understand the coach (Nick Pollos) went against an unwritten rule he had against not taking players back that had left for the USHL, but obviously he allowed you to come back. What made him break that unwritten rule and how did you like the rest of the season with Springfield?
Mattila: I was up front with him when I left. His rule is not to take kids because they would tell him they're coming and then they would make a USHL team and then just never talk to him again. I respected him and I told him I was going to try to leave. He didn't tell me I could come back, but he didn't tell me I couldn't. He saw I wasn't doing well in Chicago and that is where I got sent. I don't see why he would have sent me away, because I never did anything personally to him, and I was up front about leaving in the first place.
McKeen's: Now that you are back in the USHL, what are some of your goals this year, some of the things you are looking to work on so that you can be a better player heading into Dartmouth and regaining interest from NHL teams?
Mattila: Well, this year, the first priority for me is winning. I've already got my college commitment. I just want to have a winning season. I think we have a good team. Personally, obviously I would like to put up some points. I think I need to work on my skating and maybe get a little stronger. For me, this year, it's more of a team thing.
McKeen's: What made you choose Dartmouth? I understand that Colorado College offered you a partial scholarship, and a few other schools, but what made you choose Dartmouth?
Mattila: The stuff in the past, there was a lot of stuff that went on that just didn't really work out and Dartmouth is a very good school. I thought it would be good for me to go to a school like that where if hockey doesn't work, I have a lot of options coming out of school.
McKeen's: What do you plan to study at this point, or is it kind of up in the air?
Mattila: It's up in the air, because I knew I didn't have to make a decision for another year (smiles), so I didn't. I'll figure out, hopefully by next year.
McKeen's: In the long term, what are your goals with hockey, assuming you go further than Dartmouth?
Mattila: Well, obviously, I would like to play in the NHL, or professional hockey at a high level. So, that is all I can really hope for, is keep working for that.
McKeen's: The AHL has moved into your hometown this year. What kind of impact do you think that will have on hockey back home?
Mattila: I think that is going to be great for hockey back home. The UHL team there drew a lot of fans and got a lot of kids interested in hockey, and now they're going to get to see guys that are coming and getting ready to move on to the NHL. I think that will spark a lot of interest and it might even help with the Blackhawks' interest with how short of a drive it is.