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Stars prospect in the spotlight at Memorial Cup

by Ed Klajman / Dallas Stars

MISSISSAUGA – Matt Fraser was asked how old he was when he first realized he was good enough to pursue hockey professionally.

The Stars’ prospect paused for a moment, looked the questioner straight in the eye, and didn’t hesitate in replying.

Geoffrey Schemitsch #26 of the Owen Sound Attack takes a glove to the face from Matt Fraser #11 of the Kootenay Ice during the 2011 CHL Mastercard Memorial Cup game on May 21, 2011.
“I’ve always done hockey because I’ve loved it. It’s kept me balanced,” said the undrafted 21-year-old, who signed a three-year entry level contract with the Stars last November. “But it never dawned on me that it could turn out to be a career until my first talk with Dallas.”

The six-foot-two, 218-pound forward with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League (WHL) then explained how much it meant to him that Dallas believed in his talent enough to sign him. He said it provided him with the biggest confidence boost he has ever had, propelling him on to the best six months of his hockey life.

First he enjoyed the most productive regular season of his junior career, with 36 goals and 38 assists in 66 games, along with a +24 rating, on a team that finished third in its division.

That was followed by a phenomenal playoff run in which Fraser led the WHL in post-season goals with 17, as well as power play goals with five, while his 27 points tied for second. Most importantly, his team became the Cinderella story of major junior hockey. Kootenay won 16 of their last 17 WHL playoff games – including sweeps over heavily-favored Saskatoon and Medicine Hat – to cruise to a stunning league title.

“Winning that WHL title was the best feeling I’ve ever had in hockey. Words can’t describe winning that title,” said Fraser, a native of Red Deer, Alberta, who began playing hockey on an outdoor rink at the age of five.

Kootenay’s reward is a berth in this week’s MasterCard Memorial Cup. The annual tournament, which ends on Sunday, features a pre-determined host team plus the three conference champions of the Canadian Hockey League in a round-robin competition. Joining the Ice are the host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, runners-up in the Ontario league; Ontario champions Owen Sound Attack; and Quebec league titleholders Saint John Sea Dogs. 

Unfortunately for Fraser and his teammates, Kootenay is off to a rough start, having lost to Owen Sound and Mississauga to open the tournament over the weekend. They now must defeat top-ranked Saint John Tuesday night to stay alive and advance to a tiebreaker game Thursday.

“It’s been frustrating, as a team and personally. I don’t feel like we’ve put our best foot forward yet. I especially don’t think I’ve even come close to playing to my potential. It’s got to be a collective effort for everyone and myself included, to do that little extra, to play that much harder to get your opportunities. In a tournament like this, chances are few and far between and you’ve really got to push for them,” said Fraser, who, despite the fact he has yet to register on the score sheet at the Memorial Cup, has had more than a few near misses. 

While goals and assists are important, Fraser believes offense is just one part of being a well-rounded player, whether it’s at the Memorial Cup or in the NHL, and he takes pride in doing a lot of other valuable things on the ice whenever he plays.

“A lot of people get caught up with how many goals and assists you have but it’s the areas you can improve on away from your goal, that’s where you can really judge how well you’ve done and I really feel like I’ve improved in all areas of the game. I try to do what I can to make my team succeed, whether that’s blocking shots or taking hits to make plays or chipping pucks out,” said the WHL’s 2010 humanitarian-of-the-year award. 

He’s grateful that Dallas’ scouts and management could see those elements in his game and he wants the team’s fans to know what they can expect from him should he ever be fortunate enough to make the squad.

“I hope they enjoy a bigger player who can skate well and shoot the puck well,” said Fraser, who was dealt from the Red Deer Rebels to the Ice early in the 2007-08 season. “I’m a guy that likes to use my body to create space for myself and for other people. I’m playing my best hockey when I’m moving my feet and skating hard and skating fast and when you combine size and speed I think you have a really good combination. And you just have to look for the areas for a guy like me. I’m not the big playmaker or anything like that but I’ll try and find those areas.”

Kootenay head coach Kris Knoblauch believes Dallas has made a very shrewd signing.

“He’s got the attributes to go play pro and be very successful,” said Knoblauch. “I think Dallas is very fortunate to have signed him when they did. I know there were a lot of teams that had a little bit of interest in him at the beginning of the season and now they’re probably regretting not signing him.” 

While Fraser believes he can be a big part of Dallas’ future for the long term, he has no expectations for this fall, other than showing up at training camp and giving an all-out effort to try and make the Stars’ roster.

“If it’s Dallas then that would be fantastic. But if it’s Austin then that’s just great too. I have trust in what they want to do with me and the plans that they have with me. Anytime you’re working toward your dream of playing in the NHL, you can’t really go wrong. I just want to get better every day at every part of the game – just being really dedicated to being a professional.”

For the moment, he’s just focused on the Memorial Cup, and finding a way to step his game up a notch in Tuesday’s contest to keep his team alive in the quest for junior hockey’s most coveted prize.

“You want to be an impact player. That’s something you’ve got to carry in and take pride in when you come into big tournaments like this. The spotlight is on players for a reason and you want to be a guy in the spotlight.”

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