After putting up big numbers and earning all-star honors with the Bakersfield Condors of the East Coast Hockey League, Pope had to turn down a call-up from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League due to an injury. When he was healthy, the phone rang again, but this time it was the Binghamton Senators who were calling. Pope played four games with the Senators, recording three points along the way. Despite his strong play, however, the Senators were forced to release Pope due to the number of players on their roster. Luckily enough, the Moose called again and Pope played well enough down the stretch to earn a contract with his hometown team, the Vancouver Canucks.
Although Matt Pope played his first games in the American Hockey League with the Binghamton Senators, the Manitoba Moose always had the inside track.
“We’ve seen him play college for the last three years in Bemidji,” said Moose General Manager Craig Heisinger. “He played center there and he was an okay college player. He had been on our radar, I mean we liked him in college, but he really moved to the forefront this year based on his start in the East Coast league.”
Pope says it was easier to play his game this past season in the ECHL and AHL as opposed to in college.
“My college team was very defensively focused, so it was tough to get a lot of offense going. I led my team in goals with only 14 in my senior year. The pro game is much more to my liking. I like to make big hits and that gets me in the game.”
(There may be hope for Patrick White after all.)
After finishing off the regular season with the Moose, Pope was left with a tough decision: return to Bakersfield and play a big role in their playoff run, or stay with the Moose as an extra – without knowing for sure if he’ll even play. Pope chose the latter, and after recently signing on with the Vancouver Canucks, he seems to have made the right decision.
Pope, the Langley, B.C. native, says there were a few factors that made his decision easier. He was quick to point out that Bakersfield was playing better after he left, so he didn’t feel as if he was letting his team down. Additionally a conversation he had with Moose head coach Scott Arniel may have sealed the deal.
“It was tough to stay when I wasn't sure if I would play, but the coach told me there would be injuries and I would get my chance.”
And that he did.
Pope suited up in 12 playoff games for the Moose, who came up short against the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Final. Along the way, he recorded three goals and three assists, often finding himself playing alongside Jason Krog and Jason Jaffray.
“There are not very many young guys who get to play on one of the best lines in the American Hockey League,” said Heisinger when asked of the opportunity Pope received. “He got that opportunity, but he did take advantage of it. You know what, he made some strides. He still does some things that young players do out of college and out of the East Coast league. He’s got a fair ways to go, but certainly he took advantage of his opportunity.”
And taking advantage of that opportunity ultimately gives Pope a new one. Starting next month at the Canucks prospects development camp, Pope will look to make a positive impression on his new team with the hope of eventually cracking the roster of the team he grew up cheering for.
“My best memory was going to the games when [Pavel] Bure was playing, and following the team to the finals back in ‘94; that was exciting,” said Pope, whose email and answering machine have been overflowing over the last week with messages of congratulations. “It's great to sign with the hometown team; I’d love to be able to play in front of everyone I know, it would great. There were a couple other teams at the NHL level who were interested but I’m glad the Canucks made me a good offer and we were all happy.”
Heisinger, who describes Pope as a “big guy with decent hockey sense that skates pretty good,” says his contract with the Canucks doesn’t change anything in relation to the Moose.
“He has an NHL contract but that does not guarantee him a spot in the American Hockey League. He can guarantee himself a spot in the American Hockey League by doing what he came in and did.”
Although Pope is happy that he played well enough with the Moose to earn a contract with the Canucks, he still feels a feeling of emptiness due to the Calder Cup loss.
“It's a huge disappointment to be playing for so long without the celebration at the end. I gained a lot of experience and the contract came from a long playoff run but it still doesn't ease the pain of losing. It's just so unsatisfying to come out with nothing.”
Spoken like a true Mike Gillis character type.
Farhan Devji is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. For more of his work, visit http://www.farhandevji.com.