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The NHL's version of Rudy and Rocky all in one

by Chuck Gormley /
Take a quick look at the New York Islanders' scoring leaders and you'll find the usual suspects.

John Tavares, the top pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, busted out with 19 points in his first 21 games. Kyle Okposo, the seventh pick in 2006, posted 13 points through 20 games.

And Matt Moulson ...

Wait a minute. Matt who?

"Yeah, it's pretty amazing, isn't it?" admits Moulson, a long-haired, self-effacing, 26-year-old winger who through 20 games was tied for the Islanders' lead in goals with 8 and was second in points with 16 to Tavares' 18. After a 2-goal game against the Bruins Monday night, Moulson now leads the team with 10 goals and is second to Tavares with 18 points. Not bad for a guy who was cut from his junior hockey team and was drafted higher by the National Lacrosse League than he was by the National Hockey League.

Matt Moulson is Rudy Ruettiger on skates. Rocky Balboa in a helmet. A feel-good, against-all-odds story that should be required reading for every young athlete and parents as well.

It all started when Moulson was 3-years-old and his father, Scott, laced him up in skates for the first time in North York, Ontario.

"My Dad tells me I didn't stop crying the whole time," Moulson said.

Scott Moulson waited a year, tried again when Matt was 4, and watched him skate his way straight to the NHL.

OK, so it wasn't exactly that easy.

Moulson said his childhood was a lot like other kids from suburban Toronto. He played hockey in the winter and his first job was picking up garbage at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the nation's largest annual fair.

When he was 14, a teammate's mother called him the worst player in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and when he was 15 he was cut from his junior team. It was in the somber car ride home from that failed tryout that Moulson heard the six words that helped give him direction and ultimately changed his life.

"Matt," his father said to him, "I still believe in you."

During that car ride Scott Moulson told his oldest son that if he wanted to walk away from hockey, he would support his decision. But if he wanted to continue to play at a high level, he'd need to work harder than he ever had in his life.

Moulson began dragging himself out of bed at 6 a.m. every other day to run five miles. He ran sprints until his legs burned. He made daily pilgrimages to the gym and improved his bench presses from a measly 55 pounds to 240 and his leg presses from 250 pounds to 720.

He also began working at a goalie camp, where he was paid $100 a week to shoot pucks, and began reading a book co-authored by Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and his father, Jay, titled "So Your Son Wants To Play In The NHL." Moulson clung to a nugget of advice from Bylsma -- "It takes three things to succeed: talent, hard work and dedication. And the greatest of these is not talent." -- and used it as inspiration.

Moulson plowed forward and despite getting cut from tryouts for the British Columbia Hockey League and the United States Hockey League, flourished as a member of the Junior B Guelph Dominators, recording 102 points in 42 games and earning a scholarship to Cornell University.

When Moulson scored 13 goals in 33 games as a freshman at Cornell, the Penguins thought enough of him to take him in the ninth round of the 2003 draft -- the 263rd pick. Two years later, the NHL cut back its draft to seven rounds.

"What does that tell you?" Moulson laughed.

Before heading to Cornell, Moulson played lacrosse for the Mississauga Tomahawks and was taken by the Rochester Nighthawks in the fourth round of the NLL draft.

"There's a lot more money in hockey than there is in lacrosse," Moulson said, "so it wasn't much of a decision."

Moulson returned to Cornell, where he was named team captain and was selected to the exclusive Quill and Dagger society for students that exhibit great leadership, character and dedication to service.

"I wanted to play for a winning team and I can see that developing here. It's not going to happen overnight, but there are a lot of good things we can do with this team and we're starting to see it."
-- Matt Moulson

Unable to crack the Penguins lineup, Moulson signed with the Los Angeles Kings and played two seasons for the AHL Manchester Monarchs before getting called up by the Kings for 22 games in 2007-08. When Moulson spent most of last season in Manchester, he opted for free agency and signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Islanders. Moulson said the biggest reason he chose Long Island was Tavares, who had played lacrosse with Moulson's younger brother, Chris, who is now a freshman hockey player at Cornell. Tavares and Moulson had trained together since Tavares was 14 and he wanted to be part of the new era of Islander hockey.

"Even when he was young he had God-given talent that was hard to miss," Moulson said of Tavares. "He had amazing skills in hockey and lacrosse, but it was his work ethic and competitiveness that stood out. If you know Johnny at all, he hates losing."

Moulson said that with Tavares, the Islanders would have the beginnings of a winner and he wanted to be a part of it. He had no idea he'd be such a big part.

After seeing him score a pair of goals in his second preseason game and looking like the perfect fit for Tavares, Islanders coach Scott Gordon put Moulson on the left side of Tavares and Okposo and the trio has been together ever since.

Moulson, a sturdy 6-foot-1, 204 pounder, said that while Tavares provides the sizzle on the Isles' top line, Okposo is the steak.

"Kyle's one of the strongest kids I've ever seen," Moulson said. "He went into the corner with three guys one night and I went in to help. He gets through all three guys, comes out with the puck an almost runs me over. I was apologizing to him on the bench, saying I should have known better."

Moulson said he considers himself more a worker than a goal scorer, saying all those days of shooting pucks at goaltenders taught him one thing.

"I learned I need to score all my goals from the blue paint in," he said. "My best attribute is probably just getting to those areas where you can score."

At 26, Moulson has been around long enough to know that his fame may be fleeting. But he also knows that if he works hard enough, his stay in the NHL could be just as long and rewarding as the road it took to get there. After two months in a hotel room he finally moved out of the Marriott across the parking lot from Nassau Coliseum and into a three-bedroom cottage owned by teammate Doug Weight.

His new roommate is Tavares.

"I know Johnny and the type of atmosphere he brings," Moulson said. "I wanted to play for a winning team and I can see that developing here. It's not going to happen overnight, but there are a lot of good things we can do with this team and we're starting to see it."

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