In August, Matt Messina—a Michigan Tech student—was in his hometown of Duluth, preparing for his final semester when he received a phone call. It was from Mike Stevens, a friend and teammate, and the video coordinator for the Michigan Tech men’s hockey team. They needed a goaltender.
“I was packing up the golf clubs, and I get a call from Mike, asking me if I’d be interested in playing for Tech as a practice goalie,” Messina said.
He accepted the offer without hesitation, replacing the golf clubs in his car, with goalie pads colored maroon and gold—Duluth Denfeld gold, that is.
The chance to compete with top-level college athletes while also helping his school’s hockey program was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“I think every player kind of wonders how well they can fit in at that level, no matter where you’re at in your hockey career,” Messina said. “Obviously you want to provide some sort of competition for them, so that was my intent.”
Over the course of his final semester as a college student, he practiced with the Huskies hockey team, helping his new teammates by stopping their shots, but his impact went beyond his physical efforts.
He had a positive impact on the surging Huskies, who won their first 10 games this season and remain near the top of the USCHO.com poll.
An Unlikely Path
Wherever Messina went in his young life, the game of hockey seemed to follow.
But hockey was a distant afterthought when Messina enlisted in the Air National Guard just two weeks after graduating high school in 2009.
He treated his new job—maintaining the intricate equipment of F-16 fighter jets—like he played goalie: focused and always for the team. Those two qualities are of the utmost importance when working on instruments that can mean life or death to those who fly the jets.
“It was very rewarding, because you have Army guys and Marine guys come up to you and thank you for doing what you do to keep the F-16s in the air,” Messina, who relished the opportunity to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a member of the Armed Forces.
His unit volunteered to provide their services to their fellow soldiers in Afghanistan for three months in 2012. While stationed in Afghanistan, Messina played street hockey in a rink built on their base. It made the 6,854-mile distance between Kandahar Airfield in Southern Afghanistan and Duluth feel a little shorter.
Returning to Michigan Tech to continue studying civil engineering, he went from playing street hockey in the desert to the team he found when he first came to the Upper Peninsula: the Portage Lake Pioneers. The Pioneers are an amateur team partly comprised of former college and semi-professional players that called Houghton home.
The Pioneers compete against eight other teams representing small towns in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to create the Great Lakes Hockey League.
“I think its pretty special what they have out there with the Pioneers,” Messina said. “There’s a lot of history there. I didn’t even know about this team till I got out there. I never thought I was going to be playing competitive hockey again after high school.”
When an injury left Michigan Tech with only two goalies in August, the team was in need of a third healthy goalie for practices. Matt Stevens, Messina’s teammate on the Pioneers, set up a meeting between the goaltender, MTU Head Coach Mel Pearson and the rest of the coaching staff. Soon after he joined the team and they were happy to have him.
“Coach Pearson and our staff was really impressed with him, just [with] his maturity level,” assistant coach Bill Muckalt said. “We kind of found out a little about his background, and him being in the service and that just kind of spoke for itself. I think [with] that work ethic and that character, you can tell he knows what its like to be part of a team.”
Messina’s work ethic impressed the coaches. When the goalie he replaced recovered and returned to practice, they decided to keep him on the team, much to his surprise. But as their coaching staff saw it, he had become a valuable asset to the team.
Thanks to hockey, he learned to be a team at an early age. The lesson has helped him thrive both on and off the ice.
“He was always a kid that had a direction,” said Duluth Denfeld hockey Coach Kevin Smalley, who Messina skated for in high school. “He was very focused, from the education side all the way to the rink.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that Michigan Tech has found that kind of kid and that he’s getting an opportunity to get to do something he loved to do all his life.”
Messina’s dedication to the team often had him taking extra shots after practices, so many that his shoulders were often left bruised. Tech gave him a new chest protector to help cushion the blows from the extra shots. The rest of the Huskies were amazed at his passion for the game, as well as his skill on the ice. His puck-stopping abilities were strong and his name became a verb for Husky shooters.
“He really made our players earn things, [and] he screwed a couple of our better players up, because they couldn’t score on him,” Pearson said. “They said they were ‘Messina’d’ and they were having trouble scoring, but a lot of goalies don’t want to do that extra work after practice, and Matt had no issues. In fact I think he enjoyed that. I think he had a real love for hockey.”
Passion Pays Off
To honor his efforts for the program, he was awarded an opportunity to dress against the University of Minnesota Duluth, his hometown team, in the final game before he graduated from Michigan Tech in December.
“It didn’t really hit me until I was out there and they throw the lights off and you’re sitting there on the ice and then all of the sudden you got the Bulldogs across the way,” Messina said. “Not too long ago I was a little kid sitting up in the stands cheering for them and now I’m standing across the ice from them. It was pretty cool to have that.”
There wasn’t much glory in store for Messina as a practice goalie for the Huskies, but it took a lot of guts. Most importantly, he was able to play the game he loved, even if it was only in practice.
For others, he was an example of what a hockey player—and a person—should be.
“In this day and age of athletes, it’s all about them. I just thought he brought a real breath of fresh air to our program and I know our guys really respected matt for what he brought to our team, ” Pearson said. “Here’s a coach telling him, ‘You’re not gonna play, you’re gonna come to practice everyday and have these guys wire shots at you, some off your shoulders, a few off your head off your mask.’ There’s no question, there’s no issue, he just wanted to come out and help the team in any way he can.”
Just before graduation, Messina received a job in Madison, another new zip code in the upper Midwest. Hockey will surely find him again. Messina believes he will be able to find a strong hockey culture in Madison, but it also helps that he brings passion wherever he goes and whatever he does.