Nick Mattson felt like he was witnessing his hockey career dissipate while he was a healthy scratch for North Dakota early this season.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, Mattson thought. He was a senior. He was a Chicago Blackhawks prospect. He envisioned playing a key defenseman role in helping North Dakota make a run at a national championship.
Instead, he found himself in street clothes having to watch games and losing his ice time to younger players. He was a healthy scratch in eight of North Dakota’s first 17 games. There were two weekends in November and December he didn’t suit up for either of the team's games.
“It truly was hard, especially senior year. Almost felt like my senior year was getting flushed down the toilet because this is my last chance,” said Mattson, who is one of two college seniors in the Blackhawks system. “You play the game your whole life. You obviously have big-time goals. It felt like it was slowly slipping away. It was a bad feeling.”
Sitting out crushed Mattson’s spirits and confidence for some time. He was wrecked. But once Mattson hit the bottom, he began looking at his situation differently. When he was given a chance in mid-December to play again after four consecutive scratches, he had a complete chip on his shoulder and felt carefree about what was about to happen.
Mattson played unlike he had all season on that day. He scored a goal, his first of the season, and had an assist in North Dakota’s 3-1 win over Denver on Dec. 13. He drew praise from North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol after the game. Like that, Mattson turned his season around.
Mattson had to wait for it, but he’s finally having the senior season he sought. Beginning with that Denver game, he’s had four goals, 14 assists and is a plus-10 in the last 19 games. He helped North Dakota to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament semifinals last weekend with a goal and three assists in two wins over Colorado College. North Dakota is currently 27-7-3 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
“I think up to that [Denver game] every game I had played in the season I felt like I was playing bad, playing timid,” said Mattson, who is from Chanhassen, Minn. and is 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds. “Going into that game, I was just so burned out from the experience. I just felt like I was going to go out and have fun and see what happens. That’s probably the loosest I’ve ever been going into a game because I had nothing to lose.
“My instincts and everything took over. It felt great. It felt like I got the game I love back. The first half [of the season] I felt like I lost a part of myself. My whole life I dedicated to hockey. It felt like I got a whole piece of me back. Everything has been great since then. That was a pretty extreme turning point going from not playing to play very well. It’s been a good ride.”
Hakstol has enjoyed seeing that ride, too. His decision to sit Mattson wasn’t personal. Hakstol believed he was doing what was best for his team. North Dakota was better off with Mattson out of the lineup then, and it’s better off with him in it now.
“I know Nick went through some real struggles through November, December, the early portion of the year,” Hakstol said. “Really I think all the way along our confidence in Nick as a person and the character that he has, we knew he would work his way through ... All the credit in this case, huge amount of credit goes to Nick, his intelligence, his understanding the game and to his mental toughness to be able to step in and take his role back when an opportunity was given to him.
“How he came back to that night, it set the stage. That was the bar for him, and he’s been able to hold that level of play. He impacted every single game he’s been in since Christmas in a positive way. He’s defending well. He’s defending with his feet and his intelligence. He has a little bit of grit to what he’s doing defensively and with the puck. He’s got confidence right now. There’s no situation where he lacks confidence. He’s just out making plays. Whether it’s outlet passes or the offensive plays, he’s making them.”
The Blackhawks were among those pleased to see Mattson, their sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, flip the switch on his season.
Blackhawks director of player development Barry Smith said the organization was in constant contact with North Dakota and Mattson throughout his early struggles. Smith said the Blackhawks’ greatest concern was Mattson wasn’t going to play much in the second half of the season.
“We were hands-on and were hands-on with the coaching staff,” Smith said. “If they didn’t feel like he was going to play in the second half, we have to find something for him. Everyone has the chance to play. It’s up to him what to do with the second half of the year if he’s not playing. It never had to come to that, because he played.”
The Blackhawks have been active in Mattson’s development since he was drafted. They’ve had him as a prospect for nearly five years. Mattson’s offensive game and skating ability have been his greatest strengths. His defense is something the Blackhawks have helping him with throughout his college career.
“He’s a smooth-skating player,” Smith said. “He likes to handle the puck. That’s his skill set. He likes to play on the power play. He had to address his defensive deficiencies. We’re still working on them. Now he has to get his defensive reads and improve to be a complete player.”
Smith said the Blackhawks’ front office will sit down after Mattson’s season and determine what the next step will be. Mattson said he was uncertain whether he would be offered an entry-level contract. He certainly hoped he would.
“I think they play their cards close to their chest,” said Mattson, who models his game after Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith and even copies his stick curve. “Depends on what their needs are at the time. All I can continue to do is continue to play. I think the better I play, the better chance I have to be in a good spot at the end of the year. Absolutely, [I would like to sign with them.] They’ve been my favorite team for a while even before I was drafted. Everybody who has played there say it’s a great organization. I would be honored.”
Mattson will worry about that when the time comes. For now, he's concentrating on finishing up his senior year and getting North Dakota into the NCAA tournament. As low as he was earlier in the season, he now looks back at that experience as something that has helped him.
"The biggest positive is I've really learned to clear my mind and go out and play," Mattson said. "It's a great feeling. It's almost like I'm playing the game through new lenses."