|Rick Stewart (Getty Images) |
When informed that a pair of reporters were looking to speak with Matt Ellis
after Friday’s win over Toronto, Sabres PR man Chris Bandura retreated to the back room to find the sought-after winger.
“He’ll be out in just a second,” explained Bandura. “He wants to change into a dry t-shirt first.”
Of course he did. Because that’s what happens when you are Matt Ellis
. With the opening goal to his credit on Friday, Ellis left it all out on the ice as usual, draining every ounce of sweat he has in order to remain in the National Hockey League.
Ellis has proven to be a valuable member of the Sabres since being claimed off waivers from Los Angeles on October 1, 2008. Head Coach Lindy Ruff says Ellis is one of those rare players that doesn’t need to be measured by his contributions on the stat sheets.
“He is a consummate pro. From how hard he works, how hard he trains and has an unbelievable attitude. You could take some of his attributes, and if you could drop one or two on different players, it’d be a helluva player. That comes with the battle of trying to stay in this league too. It’s a determination that’s pretty impressive.”
There was a time when just getting to the NHL seemed like a pipe dream for the 30-year-old Ellis. A native of nearby Welland, Ontario, Ellis played his junior hockey with the OHL’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors from 1998-2002. Despite improving his point total in each of his first three seasons, Ellis was passed over in the NHL Draft following a season that saw him record 45 points in 68 games. Ellis knew he was probably running out of options.
“It’s a unique time after being passed up in the draft. I’d never spoken to another NHL team. I really didn’t know where hockey was going to take me at that point in my life. I thought I was going to go the Canadian college route – continuing to play hockey but working on my education.”
Ellis’ offensive talents blossomed during his overage season with St. Mike’s, scoring a career-high 31 goals and 89 points in 66 games. It was midway through that season he got some news that would turn his career around.
You could take some of his attributes, and if you could drop one or two on different players, it’d be a helluva player. - Lindy Ruff
“I had caught the eye of one person in Detroit – (former Red Wings GM) Jimmy Devellano – and they decided to give me a shot. They spoke to me after Christmas time of my final junior season, and said they were probably going to invite me to training camp on a tryout basis. But from then on my confidence just soared. The Wings rewarded me with a three-year entry level contract that spring.”
Ellis played his first pro season in 2002-03 with the Toledo Storm of the ECHL under the guidance of head coach Claude Noel, now the rookie bench boss of the Winnipeg Jets. That was followed by four seasons with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. In 2005-06, Ellis was named the youngest captain in Grand Rapids history, tabbed to lead a team that also included youngsters like Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky, Valteri Filppula and Jimmy Howard.
“It was special to come up the ranks with those guys, many of whom went on to win a Stanley Cup in Detroit. I’ve got a lot of great memories of playing with them.”
The entire Detroit experience still resonates for Ellis. He ended up playing 51 games with the Red Wings from 2006-2008, before being claimed on waivers by Los Angeles on February 21, 2008. Ellis scored six points with Detroit, including his first career NHL goal (a game winner, of course) in San Jose on October 18, 2007.
“It was an amazing experience just to be in training camp with some of the best players to ever play the game. Seeing their work ethic and what they brought to the table. And rubbing shoulders with true winners; guys that have won the Cup numerous times. It’s a really special place to be, and looking back on it now, it was a true honor to be in the same locker room as some of those great players.
“That’s the organization that gave me a break, gave me a start. They helped me develop not only as a hockey player, but as a person. And I think it really helped develop some of the habits that I have today.”
Left Wing - BUF
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 5
SOG: 55 | +/-: -5
This is Ellis’ fourth season in the Sabres organization, but he wasn’t really sure what the 2011-12 campaign had in store for him.
When he signed a multi-year contract in the summer, the speculation was he was headed to Rochester to help lead a young Amerks squad that was rife with newcomers like Marcus Foligno
and Zack Kassian. He traveled with the Sabres as the team’s extra forward during their European adventure, and remained in Buffalo to start the season. He was a healthy scratch for the first seven games of the year before finally getting into the lineup on October 25 against Tampa.
Injuries have been such a huge part of the Sabres storyline this season, and on numerous nights Ellis has been forced to play with as many different linemates as Kim Kardashian as had boyfriends. But he’s not complaining.
“It’s been a different situation, but throughout my career I’ve always tried to stay even keeled as much as I can. I’m thankful for each day. I try to live in the moment, play in the moment. Not worry about yesterday, and not think too much about tomorrow. Just make the most of each day and that’s the attitude I’ve always had throughout my career, and it’s been consistent this year too.”
Living in the moment was exactly what Ellis did on Friday night. When he banked the puck off the skate of Toronto defender Cody Franson to score Buffalo’s first goal of the game, Ellis thrust his arms in the air and reacted like he’d just scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal. Even though he humbly admitted afterwards that he was simply trying to pass the puck in front to Paul Gaustad, Ellis made the most of his moment in the spotlight.
“For me, it’s everything my parents ever taught me before I even picked up a hockey stick. I’ve always been a hard worker and always had fun playing the game. I think that just stems from a pure passion for the game. But there’s also that side that you want to prove yourself. If you want something bad enough, you find a way to go out and get it. I think through some of those traits and determination, I ended up achieving my childhood dream.”