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Alumni Spotlight: Matt Ellis

During playing days, Academy of Hockey's head development coach filled leadership role within Sabres organization

by Brian Duff @duffersabres /

Born in Welland, Ontario, Matt Ellis defied the odds and played in more than 900 professional hockey games - 356 of them in the NHL and 290 of them (regular season and playoffs) with the Buffalo Sabres.

Ellis knew while in the midst of his final contract as a player (an AHL deal with Rochester in 2015-16) that he would be interested in coaching and development. He was in constant communication with Kevyn Adams, the former Sabres assistant coach who is now the director at the Academy of Hockey and the general manager of Harborcenter, about his second career. He knew that he and his family wanted to remain in Buffalo.

"Our life is here, we love it here, and opportunity presented itself to jump right back into a role that I knew I was going to love and embrace," Ellis said. "So, after doing a little bit of soul-searching and multiple discussions with Kevyn - and others - I made the decision to take a job at Harborcenter in player development and I've never looked back."

Ellis has been involved in coaching with his oldest son for the past six years. While working with the Jr. Sabres program, he's on the ice and running practices for all 10 teams at least once a week. And his workload with development and coaching is steadily climbing now that he is the head development coach at the Academy of Hockey.

As we prepare for our broadcast Saturday afternoon that will include special segments featuring the Academy of Hockey staff, Ellis took some time to chat for this edition of Alumni Spotlight.

What piece of advice do you like to impart on young players?

When I engage a group, the first thing that I tell them is that when you walk through the arena doors, you are in control of three things: You control your effort, your attitude, and your focus. If you control those three things, everything else will take care of itself. I tell all my athletes that, whether it's a private session, whether it's a team I'm coaching, whether it's a development group.

Secondly, the work comes first. You can have all the skill in the world but the work's gotta come first. In a perfect world, that work ethic and the skill layered on top of it is the perfect marriage. That's what I tell my 9-year-olds and my NHL guys that I work with in the offseason.

What would you say is your approach to and style of coaching?

I believe that everything is about the relationship. You formulate the relationship first. It helps create the trust that, in my opinion, is necessary to get the athlete buy-in. Also, with today's athlete, validation is important. Everybody wants to know the "Why?" and that's one of my biggest strengths as a coach, is that communication is imperative. 

I think I have a knack for really explaining to our athletes why you are doing something, whether that comes from my own personal knowledge or from statistics or from NHL film or video feedback. Being able to formulate that is all part of the package to create the buy-in. One thing I've learned as a development coach is that if you can formulate that relationship with the buy-in and with the validation, you set the grounds where an athlete becomes OK with failure. 

And that's all part of development. You want the athlete to be able to fail forward, and you don't have that ability unless you set the groundwork beforehand. Once you take that failure and you're able to work your way through it and you're able to execute, you're able to thrive as an athlete.

On the development side, I believe that being able to do what I talk about has given me an advantage on the ice. If players can see it, if players can feel it, if players can understand it, I think it goes a long way in a different setting. Because it also shows the passion for doing it. I know there are sessions where I walk off the ice and I have just as much of a lather as my athletes do because I'm living it.

What's the best praise that you can receive in your current position?

That one is very simple for me: When you have an athlete take off his glove and give you a handshake and look you in the eye at the end of a session, it means the world.

You've got to realize as a development coach that you are a piece. You are an accessory. You are there as a piece to the athlete's journey, you are not the journey.

But when an athlete recognizes that you've assisted them to get better, that you've provided the environment and some of the know-how and knowledge to get better and they take off that glove and they look you in the eye when they're dripping sweat, there's no greater feeling than that in the world. It validates everything that you are doing.

What would make people want to come to the Academy of Hockey?

I think our greatest selling point is understanding that for everyone the journey is unique. 

Understanding that everybody is built different, everybody is wired different, everybody has different strengths that they play into. Our ability to embrace that uniqueness and add within an environment that doesn't just develop the player, we develop the athlete and work hard to develop the person as well, which kind of gives us that holistic approach that we've prided ourselves on here.

Ellis found his way to Buffalo after parts of two seasons in Detroit (Ellis never managed to get his name on the Stanley Cup despite consecutive titles for the Red Wings in 2006-07 and 2007-08) and 19 games with the Los Angeles Kings. Heading into 2008-09, he was claimed off waivers by Sabres general manager Darcy Regier and never left, save for extended stints in AHL Portland and Rochester.

I found a way to carve out a role for Lindy Ruff. I earned his trust early. Some of the intangibles that I was able to bring fit into the way Lindy liked his role players - work ethic, dependability, trust - and also understanding the way I prepared whether I was in or out of the lineup. 

The influence that I was able to have on others - being able to push the pace and execute in practice - I earned Lindy's trust early which in turn helped me with Darcy and it turned into multiple contracts with the Sabres where I was able carve out a role up here as a fourth line player, and in the minors as a leader that helped groom and develop the younger players.

Ellis' obsession with the art of preparation was established very early in his OHL days with the Toronto St. Michael's Majors.

I kind of grasped that right away. I fell in love with preparing myself to be better. To play, to improve. There were probably times where I loved preparing as much as performing.

I remember times in the OHL when where guys would rib me because I'd be the guy on the bus that was reading "Muscle and Fitness" or any other kind of muscle mag and I'd be the guy that's pulling for the snack in his bag and it's a protein bar or pre-made protein shake. And it wasn't that I was trying to show anybody up or be a hero, I loved that aspect and I saw that piece as an avenue for me, as a way to get better. That kind of became my motto: I always wanted to be better. 

I wanted my diet to be better. I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to become a better leader. I wanted to set a good example as I became an older player. Now, I have fallen into a place in coaching and developing where my love of preparation is able to be translated into the players that I coach. 

I believe that when you feel something in your heart, it comes out in your work, and it has that effect on the people that you work with. That's something that I'm extremely thankful for, is that I'm able to do that on a daily basis.

What would you consider to be your highlight with the Sabres?

The '09-10 season. We had a very good regular season and for myself, being able to score at home in Game 2 of the playoffs in Round One against the Bruins was one of the career highlights for me. The intensity, the energy, the buzz in the city and in the building and being able to contribute...was definitely something I'll never forget.

Do you find yourself sharing these memories often with inquisitive young players?

Yes. I talk often about the life, the memories, the moments, and what the journey entails. 

I believe it is a true journey, full of ups and downs and having the choice and it's every players' choice to choose the way that they react to certain events. It is about finding a way to stay around and get better. Now that I'm in my second hockey career...I'd be doing all the young athletes a disservice by not sharing.

When you're part of the hockey family, that's just what you come to know. You're always sharing. I believe that development is all about the influences that you take from all over the place. There's not one right way.

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