While his professional career may be just getting started with the Ottawa Senators, Matt Puempel has already put together a resume with accomplishments that only a handful of NHL stars can claim.
To play professional hockey is a process and part of that process is developing a love for the game itself. Growing up in Essex, Ont., the Toronto Maple Leafs came to be his favourite NHL team, though then-Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla, now with the Boston Bruins, gets the nod as his favourite player.
“He's a guy I like watching. He's a pretty good player,” said Puempel.
The next step after growing the love of hockey is familiar to many Canadians — taking to sheets of ice for the first time as a child. “I think it was pushing around a chair and not really being able to skate,” said Puempel. “It was playing on the ponds back home in Ontario. These are things that always stay with you growing up and little memories that don't mean much at the time, but you always remember them.”
Eventually Puempel was drafted by the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey League ahead of the 2009-10 season. He made a splash in his rookie year — scoring 33 goals in his first season of play — and was voted by his teammates as the Petes' Most Valuable Player. He was awarded the Canadian Hockey League's Rookie of the Year Award to top it off, which marked the first time a Peterborough Pete earned the honour and puts him on a list alongside some of the NHL's biggest names.
Puempel, now playing in his first full season with the Binghamton Senators, was selected 24th overall by the Senators in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft after the team traded up to ensure he was available.
When asked about his favourite hockey memories to-date, Puempel doesn’t focus on the individual successes. He chose a moment shared with family and focused on things to come.
“Obviously getting drafted to the NHL was pretty special and something I'll remember for sure with my family,” said Puempel. “Getting my first goal in the OHL and first goal in the AHL. Hopefully one day a goal in the NHL.”
That first AHL goal came on April 14, 2012 with Binghamton in a game against the Norfolk Admirals after Peterborough’s 2011-12 season had come to an end. It was Puempel’s lone goal in nine AHL games that season, but it was the first of many to come.
After a final season in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers, Puempel has settled into Binghamton. “It's a pretty passionate hockey city, the fans here like their hockey,” he said. “It's nice to see them recognize it around town sometimes. Definitely something you like to see as a hockey player, when the fans care about you and come out and support you every game.”
Binghamton game days are routine now, “I wake up in the morning and grab something light to eat, head to the rink for a pre-game skate and then after that, the guys go their separate ways. Every guy eats at different times, I like to eat pretty early and have a nap. Then it's time to go to the rink.”
A few months into AHL life, there have not been any real curveballs for Puempel as the routine is similar to his time in the OHL, “I think what has surprised me is it's pretty similar to the OHL days when you are riding the bus and how much the guys don't change,” he said. “They still want to play in the game and keep coming to rink, no matter how old they are and how long they have been playing. Some of them are 7 year pros. That's a pretty interesting part of it. I wasn't really sure what it was going be like coming into the year.”
While playing for Binghamton is technically a job, that love of the game still carries on to this day. “I enjoy going to the rink every day. We don't realize it sometimes, we don't really think of it as a job because we enjoy it so much. We are just having as much fun as when we were kids,” he said.
For Puempel, maybe it is just like those days on the frozen ponds back in Ontario, which come to mind.