By Justin Skelnik | Photos by Ross Dettman
Growing up in Calgary, hockey was life for defenseman Mark Matheson. His parents put him into skating lessons and signed him up for his first team at the age of five. The rest, as they say, would be history. Except that was not necessarily the case for him.
“I really enjoyed being in those skating classes and always wanted to play hockey, but I wasn’t the best skater at first,” Matheson said. “My parents always laugh looking back because after the first year of hockey, they thought there was no way I would continue to play, because I was the worst skater on the team. I could barely stand up.”
Matheson decided to stick with the sport and enrolled in power skating lessons. Two years after he was deemed the team’s worst skater, he became one of the best skaters through hard work and determination. His youth hockey career blossomed after that.
“I was fortunate enough to live in Calgary, which has a great youth hockey program and was lucky to be on really good teams,” Matheson said. “The guys I grew up playing with, we all moved up together. It has thinned out now and I am the only one still playing from our little group, but we all had pro aspirations.”
Matheson played minor hockey up to midget and then was scouted to play juniors in Calgary. He also was a two-sport athlete growing up. In addition to hockey, he was a competitive lacrosse player.
“Lacrosse is a sport that kind of goes hand in hand with hockey with all the hand eye coordination,” Matheson said. “The same group of guys I played hockey with, I played competitive lacrosse with. We were all pretty good at lacrosse and we competed in some national tournaments.”
One of the players Matheson played lacrosse with was former Wolves forward Jamie Hunt. The two grew up playing against each other and then ended up at the same high school and became teammates and friends. Matheson’s lacrosse career came to an end once he began playing junior hockey due to the time commitment. He also didn’t want to risk getting injured playing lacrosse, plus hockey was always his true passion.
“I enjoyed lacrosse, but hockey has always been my No. 1 sport for sure,” Matheson said. “A lot of my friends chose to play lacrosse because they thought it gave them a better chance to earn a US college scholarship and I thought the exact opposite.”
Matheson turned his one season of juniors into a scholarship offer from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He accepted and became teammates with another former Wolves forward, Matt Anderson.
“I really enjoyed the whole college experience,” Matheson said. “I had a pretty solid career, especially my junior and senior seasons. My senior season, we went to the Frozen Four for the first time in school history and it was pretty special. There was a core group of guys, including Matt Anderson, that all came together at the right time. To be able to get to the Frozen Four and have the support from our school was something I won’t soon forget.”
The day after UMass lost in the Frozen Four, Matheson received a call from the assistant general manager of the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators, asking if he wanted to play for their American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. It was an opportunity Matheson jumped at and eventually turned that tryout into a contract.
He spent the next three seasons toiling the Admirals blueline, where he posted 46 assists and 52 points in 190 games. In the summer of 2010, he departed Milwaukee and signed a free agent contract with the Admirals’ fiercest rival – the Chicago Wolves.
“It was definitely weird at the start of last year’s training camp being a member of the Wolves,” Matheson said. “Milwaukee was my first, and only, pro organization. After three years, you get comfortable and you get this mindset of wanting to beat the Wolves. Then to put on a Wolves jersey and go the other way, it was weird.
“At the same time, it was exciting. I knew quite a few people on the Wolves roster and in the organization. I didn’t know how awkward it was going to be playing against Milwaukee, but I enjoyed those games and had a lot of fun. Now my mindset is I want to beat
my old team.”
Matheson’s first season with the Wolves didn’t start off like he hoped.
He was a healthy scratch the first seven games before getting into the lineup. Sitting was something he was not accustomed to in Milwaukee.
“The beginning of last year was pretty frustrating,” Matheson said. “But it is no different anywhere else when you are the new guy in the organization and there are lots of players fighting for a few spots. I tried to wait for my spot and when I got it, I tried to keep it by working hard.”
Keep it he did. Matheson would go on to appear in 69 of the team’s final 72 contests. He set career-highs in every offensive category with 9 goals, 24 assists and 33 points. His 9 goals were three more than he scored in his three years combined with Milwaukee.
“As I played more and more, I gained more confidence and I was able to start creating and really owned my spot,” Matheson said. “Around Christmas, I was able to work my way onto the top special teams units and was able to stay there. That really is what helped me put up career points.”
In addition to increased ice time, a nickname from the past crept back into Matheson’s life to ease his transition in a new town and team.
“If people know me well enough, they know my nickname is Mad Dog,” Matheson said. “It comes as a bit of a shocker for most because I am kind of a calm person and I don’t often get rattled. Last year, (Wolves Senior VP of Operations) Courtney Mahoney learned of my nickname and started calling me by it. People in the organization got wind of it and it picked up steam.”
Matheson wasn’t the first Mad Dog in the family. His dad held the original claim to the moniker and it was passed to Mark when he was younger and had a quick temper.
“The name was used a little in hockey because of my dad having the name but it really stuck in lacrosse because of my quick temper on the field,” Matheson said. “It died for a while in college because I was really calm and no one knew my nickname from back home. Every now and then I go back home to Calgary and I’ll be with my wife and people will call me Mad Dog and she always gets a kick out of it. I am kind of a silent worker so the name doesn’t really fit, but I like it.”
Back for his second season with the Wolves, Matheson has his goals set on another career year, but would put the individual accolades aside for team success.
“Personally, I just want to pick up where I left off from last season,” Matheson said. “I think all you can ask from yourself is to work hard, give a consistent effort and try to get better every game.
For the team obviously it starts with making the playoffs and you never know what can happen once you get in. We just have to go from a bunch of people and come together as a team. We can find our own ways to bond and hopefully we have a good year.”