Mattson takes challenges in stride

UND senior Nick Mattson gains confidence on the ice, finds his way back into the lineup

Senior defenseman Nick Mattson skates at Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Chanhassen, Minn., native spent eight games out as a healthy scratch before Christmas. Photo by Jennifer Friese/The Dakota Student.

The epitome of a kid growing up in a hockey family in Minnesota, Nick Mattson spent mornings before school stickhandling or shooting pucks in his garage. He went to school, then to practice, and then put his well-worn skates right back on and skated on an outdoor rink on chilly winter evenings.

It was all he ever wanted to do, and his small backyard rink in Chanhassen, Minn., was the place he fell in love with the game at four years old.

On that particular morning, Mattson was out of his bunk bed at 5 a.m. with a wake up call by his dad. They skated together on a smooth sheet of ice, and he knew that moment would forever influence the path he now follows.

It wasn’t until he was eight or nine that he knew he couldn’t stop. The hectic schedule or long hours on the ice that followed the repetitive lacing of his skates didn’t bother Mattson. He preferred it that way.

“I didn’t really seem like work,” Mattson said. “It just felt like the only thing I ever wanted to do. That feeling’s never really gone away.”

The feeling in his gut that he was in the right place as he strolled down University Avenue and toured Ralph Engelstad Arena brought him to Grand Forks.

He still remembers that first game he stepped out on the ice before the game in front of thousands of cheering fans at the Ralph. He was stretching for warm ups, and it suddenly hit him — he wasn’t on his backyard pond anymore.

“I looked around at the fans and I remember, it wasn’t a panic attack, but I kind of lost my breath,” he said. “I was having a really hard time breathing. The first time I went out there was something I’ll never forget.”

Now a senior defenseman on the UND men’s hockey team, Mattson became accustomed to the unwavering support from the fans and the community, and entered his final season in a green and white jersey hoping to be play a bigger role this time around.

That wasn’t quite the case.

For much of the first half, Mattson didn’t spend time in pregame warmups or skate to the blue line as one of UND’s starters when the lights dimmed like he often used to like one of the team’s reliable skaters.

The 6’1” senior who posted a career-high 23 points during his junior season was in his street clothes instead, sitting out for eight games as a healthy scratch.

After spending four straight games in an unfamiliar situation, he was called back into the lineup in Denver on Dec. 13 and wasted no time proving himself capable of staying put.

He scored the team’s first goal  that night and helped North Dakota salvage a split after it lost one night prior.

Nick Mattson was back.

“He went through the ups and downs that sometimes real good athletes go through,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “The months of November and December weren’t a way that any of us had envisioned Nick in his senior year. But it’s not really about that. It’s always the response to things that happened during a season, or in life. Nick’s response has been phenomenal.”

Mattson has been back in the lineup ever since, and now leads the team in scoring with 18 points during a 19-game stretch. He says he feels more in control and less apt to be distracted, using that time of learning and waiting as a time to clear his head.

“It’s still something I think about every once in a while to use as motivation,” he said. “Kind of puts a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. It’s hard to let go, but I think over time, I learned how to use it as positive motivation instead of feeling sorry for myself.”

That’s just his personality.

He threw away the constant worry of making mistakes and adopted a new style. His work ethic propelled him to a new perspective that’s allowed him to be successful on a consistent basis.

Leader on the rise

When he sees something going wrong or a teammate that’s frustrating or down about something, he’ll step in and talk to them, especially the younger guys.

“Any time I can pull them aside and build them up, I try to do that,” Mattson said.

He knows all too well what it’s like to be in their position. Ben Blood, Mario Lamoureux and Andrew MacWilliam guided the 2011-12 team with fierce determination, making sure each player wearing a Sioux jersey knew where they were and what they were working toward.

Mattson remembers them well. They were carrying on a powerful tradition he realized during his freshman as he watched the veterans. He was scared of them at first, but realized their intentions and earned their respect and trust.

“It’s intimidating,” Mattson said. “Especially here, you kind of have to earn your place here; nothing is really handed to you. The older guys are really hard on you, but looking back, it’s for a reason. They want you to see what it takes to play here and build you into the player you can be. It should be hard, but when you realize the guys really care about you and want you to help the team, it’s a really cool feeling.”

He’s come full circle to be that source of guidance for others in the locker room with a distinct style of leadership.

“He’s a little bit of everything,” Hakstol said. “I think a lot of people look at him as maybe one of the quieter guys on the team, but that’s not really the case. He doesn’t say a lot, but in my experience, when he does speak, he’s dead on. He gets it.”

Not only does he spend long hours on the ice and traveling to games, Mattson maintains a high grade point average and was named to the NCHC Scholar Athlete Team.

The management major says he sees accomplishments in the classroom just as important as those on the ice — garnering him the honor of being named to the 2013-14 NCAA Elite 89 Award last season, which is given to the player with the highest cumulative GPA in the Frozen Four.

But this is it for Mattson.

One last shot

This year was a little different. Mattson remembers growing up noticing North Dakota’s almost expected second half run after what many would deem a broken season.

“Every year it seems like we kind of get to a point of the season where we reach rock bottom and everyone in the country kind of thinks this is the year that North Dakota is down and out,” Mattson said. “But we rally together and kind of turn the season around and have a great second half, I think that’s been probably the coolest thing.”

He used to think it was a fluke. But every year he’s been here, he’s been in meetings where the team decides its not playing to the potential and letting things slide. While the 2014-15 season might not have constructed quiet as high of a hill to climb, the team knew it was capable of more.

“We kind of banded together,” Mattson said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice, but it makes winning feel a lot better.”

Mattson has a short time left in his college career, yet he said he would stay forever if he could.

North Dakota will play in the West Regional in Fargo on Feb. 27, hoping to advance to the game on Feb. 28 that would send it to the Frozen Four in Boston.

Mattson will miss a lot of things, but the fans leave a strong impression on him.

They’re the ones that caused him to nearly lose his breath the first time he skated at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

They’re the ones who rallied around this team and made these four years an unforgettable bonding experience.

“It really does feel like when we’re on the ice, we’re in it together with all the fans and the school and it definitely isn’t the case at other places,” Mattson said. “I just think we feel so united with everyone and it’s a pretty special feeling. I’m really going to miss all of those people that made this such a great ride.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor of The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].