You can never be absolutely certain you are on the right road.
But when you are the wrong one, the world has a way of letting you know.
That’s what Maple Leafs’ prospect Matt Frattin
would tell you.
He would tell you the right way isn’t hard to find, but it can be murder to navigate. For Frattin it would ramble from Edmonton to Grand Forks North Dakota, back and forth, back and forth until August 2009 when the trail went dry.
Frattin, a fearsome sniper for the Fighting Sioux, is famous for being able to stand his ground. A six-foot-two, two hundred and five pound right-shooting, right wing, Frattin’s strength on his skates is near legendary.
But by August of 2009, holding his ground was no longer an option. His scholarship was revoked. There had been too much for the coaching staff to stomach. He was acquitted on a DWI charge that nonetheless embarrassed the school and the hockey program. He pled down to charges in connection with a bout of drinking where he and a friend tossed household items off the roof of a house.
There was more. How much more doesn’t matter. What UND coach Dave Hakstol saw was a likeable kid who hadn’t yet developed the emotional equipment necessary to keep alcohol from damaging his life.
“There were a lot of little things in terms of playing and reliability,” said Hakstol. “There were other things away from the rink I was aware of. I knew he was going in a bad direction.”
“I got into a little bit of trouble,” Frattin said from Edmonton. “The coach told me that I had to get back on track and to find out what hockey meant to me.”
Booze in college is like meat in a grocery story. It is part of the experience, but if you have ever been the only person at a party not drinking, you know what Matt Frattin
And that’s only if he made it back. First he had to go back to Edmonton, face his parents and explain what happened. There was no guarantee whatsoever the school, let alone his teammates, would take him back.
Many would have told you the day he was sent home figured to be the last time Matt Frattin
showed his face at the school.
Coming back home, he said, was the hardest part.
When he got home, he sat down and told his Mom Val and Dad Gilberto what happened. “The three of us talked about what direction I wanted my life to go. It was my decision but they were behind me.”
Frattin went straight to work pouring concrete. You want a kid to get serious about university? Hand him a shovel.
“It doesn’t take too many 12-hour days to realize working was not like going to school and playing hockey,” he said.
Like any serious hockey player, Frattin did not earn his scholarship on his own. Coming home meant facing the people who had helped and guided him toward college hockey and put him on the map. “You get that feeling of letting people down,” he said. “My parents are the ones who made the sacrifices, who drove me to the rink at 6 a.m., who got me the extra coaching when I needed it.”
When Frattin got home, he found help within his family.
“My Uncle Renato stopped drinking when he was 23. He’s 46 or 47 and he hasn’t had a drink since. Anyway, we talked a lot. We own a family business, an Italian bakery, and he would put me to work painting. We had some great talks.”
Still the walk back would be Frattin’s alone.
Frattin found $9,000 through a hastily arranged student loan. That was enough to get him back in the front door. Hakstol had said under the right circumstance, he would talk about Frattin’s future in the second half of the season.
Frattin practiced with a junior team, spoke with team officials and teammates and gradually re-established himself in the eyes of teammates.
“I didn’t know how he would be until I saw him,” Hakstol said. “Within 10 minutes, I knew. I saw a change in terms of him being relaxed. He was comfortable with himself.”
Hakstol and administrators agreed to let Frattin come back in the second term.
“People like to say we just needed a good player,” he said. “That’s such a small part of it. If he wasn’t a good kid, this wouldn’t have happened.
“He may or may not be successful in the NHL but whatever happens, he’s going to be successful.”
Frattin stopped drinking for eight months after he was kicked off the team. He doesn’t know whether he is an alcoholic or not. But now he knows what it’s like to come face to face with what alcohol abuse brings you.
“I still go to team functions, but no one is pushing a drink on me,” he said. “If that happens somewhere else I just think about my career and my reputation going down the drain.”
Meanwhile, his standing as a prospect is surging. Frattin has scored a staggering 17 goals in 20 games. Seniors notoriously feed on younger players but the goal scoring totals have generated talk of a Hobey Baker award for the 22-year-old.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who can pull the trigger as quickly and shoot the puck as accurately as he can,” said Tim Hennessey, the voice of the Fighting Sioux for 31 years.
“He’s a power winger. When he wants to, he just completely owns the game. There are times you think he’s playing in the wrong league. He should be playing in that other league.”
So the story has come full circle. One road ended Matt Frattin
’s tenure at UND. He had to find the other one for himself.
“We risked losing him to get him back on track,” said Hakstol. “He needed a kick in the rear to get back, but the guy who changed things was Matt himself.”