CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. --
It’s picture day at the Florida Panthers Ultimate Hockey School at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, and every boy and girl in attendance is hoping to get a spot close to “Coach Mike.”
A special guest instructor at the weeklong summer camp, Panthers rookie defenseman Mike Matheson is sitting happily at center ice, surrounded by a giddy group aspiring young hockey players, all of them grinning ear to ear as they wait for the camera’s flash to go off.
It’s a heartwarming moment, one that speaks not only to the promising growth of hockey in South Florida, but also to Matheson’s own personal growth from a prospect into a professional over the course of last season.
“It’s really cool to see how excited they all are to play hockey,” Matheson said of his students, who are between the ages of seven and 17. “It shows that hockey is getting bigger down here. You can tell by all the excitement that these kids have down here playing hockey at a camp in August. They love every minute of it.
“I want this camp to be something that they remember. I want it to be something that pushes them to continue playing hockey through the rest of their lives. If they enjoy it, that will allow them to be passionate about it. The more kids that do that, the more popular hockey will become.”
With NHL training camps set to begin next month, Matheson admits that his own excitement might actually rival that of his students. In less than a year, the 22-year-old rearguard has quickly gone from a player on the rise to one that could be playing a prominent role on Florida’s blue line during the upcoming season.
“On my flight down here, knowing that soon I’d be on a flight down for training camp, it’s definitely really exciting,” Matheson said. “This year should be a pretty exciting time for the team. I’m just hoping to come down for training camp and make an impact and be able to make the team.”
With this excitement, however, also come increased expectations.
“There’s definitely expectations now,” Matheson said. “I think that’s when I play my best hockey; when I don’t put any pressure on myself and I just kind of focus on playing well and not really reading into what my spot is in the lineup. I’m just going to focus on every single shift and making an impact.”
A first-round pick (23rd overall) of the Panthers in the 2012 NHL Draft, Matheson competed in only three regular-season games for the Panthers last season before taking on a much larger role in the team’s opening-round playoff series against the New York Islanders. In five post-season contests, he recorded one assist and averaged 21:41 of ice time, earning heaps of praise from both teammates and coaches for showing exceptional composure under tough circumstances.
“I thought I handled being cast into the fire pretty well,” Matheson said. “I obviously wish I’d been able to do more so that we could have gone further in the playoffs than we did, but I was happy with the way I played. I took each game as a new game and kept things simple early. As the game progressed, I’d try to get a little more involved. As the series went on, my games got better and better.”
Following Florida’s first-round playoff exit, Matheson was able to continue honing his skills against top-tier talent while playing for Team Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia. Playing both alongside and against some of the game’s top talent, Matheson still managed to become one of the biggest stories of the tournament, recording six points (2-4—6) in 10 games to help lead Canada to a gold medal.
“I didn’t let myself realize that I was playing with some of the best players in the world,” said Matheson, who was named defensive MVP of the annual tournament. “I went into both the world championship and the playoffs with no pressure on my shoulders. I knew that in both situations I was kind of the unknown with very little expectations. I was able to fly under the radar, which was perfect.”
Looking ahead, Matheson knows that he will no longer have the luxury of flying under any team’s radar. He made a big name for himself in a short period of time, and the next step in his career will be living up to that. However, as he looks back on what he was already able to accomplish last season, the smooth-skating blueliner is confident that he’ll be able to live up to expectations.
“There are so many less unknowns that you’re thinking about,” Matheson said of the upcoming season. “You have a direct goal that you’re constantly thinking about throughout the entire year. I remember last year, I was working throughout the summer and I didn’t really know what the year would look like. Now, there’s so much less of that. I know what the AHL looks like. I also know what a bit of the NHL looks like, so it’s a bit of a comfort level. With the way the year ended, it gives me a lot of confidence heading into this year.”