Family First: The Wolverines gather at Yost for Scott Matzka

Scott Matzka, joined by his family at center ice of Yost Ice Arena, drops the puck in a ceremonial puck drop before the Wolverines' alumni squad took on the Red Wings' alumni team. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

Scott Matzka, joined by his family at center ice of Yost Ice Arena, drops the puck in a ceremonial puck drop before the Wolverines’ alumni squad took on the Red Wings’ alumni team. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

 

By Michael Caples –

ANN ARBOR – It was an emotional night at Yost Ice Arena, for all parties concerned.

It’s hard to watch a member of your family fall ill.

Family, of course, doesn’t have to mean by blood. That was remarkably evident that Saturday night.

The University of Michigan hockey program gathered at Yost on Jan. 7 to play in a charity game against the Detroit Red Wings alumni team in a fundraising effort for Scott Matzka.

Whether they played before, during, or after Matzka’s four-year stay in Ann Arbor, they all came back.

The family gathered for one of their own.

“You never know what you’re getting when you sign that paper,” Matzka said to coach Red Berenson after the game.

“We didn’t, either,” Berenson said.

“Twenty years later, you go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the family right there,” Matzka said. “Way bigger than hockey. Pretty incredible.”

As taken from Matzka’s website chronicling his fight:

“Matzka suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rapidly progressive neurological disease that attacks the nerve responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken and waste away. Eventually, the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost. Most people with ALS die due to respiratory failure, typically within three to five years from the onset of symptoms. The cause of ALS is unknown and there is no cure.”

The Wolverines who suited up to play for Matzka in the charity contest – they dominated play before Berenson told them to stop scoring, by the way – spanned nearly three decades, from 1993 graduate Chris Tamer (who played for the Wings’ team) and 1994 graduate Steve Shields to 2015 graduate Mike Chiasson.

Marty Turco was the senior goaltender during Matzka’s freshman season with the Wolverines – the 1997-98 season that saw Michigan capture a ninth national title in school history. The future NHL All-Star goaltender said he saw something special in the freshman back then.

“He was a great hockey player,” Turco said Saturday. “I was upper-class when he got here, so I got to know him pretty intimately as one of the leaders on the team and being a freshman in our group. First thing that always stood out was just his speed that he had on the ice, but he cared. He was an emotional guy, but he instantly became a Michigan man and I think today from the best perspective at least, shows what it’s like to be a part of this real special fraternity.

“It’s no surprise something like [event] this happened very fast and to have a tremendous amount of support. It sucks why we’re here, to be honest, but to see him talk about it in a way he has put it into perspective, and what he’s doing, too – not feeling sorry for himself, but taking the chance to raise awareness for this terrible disease…hats are off to him and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him or anyone in the Michigan hockey community.”

Matzka's son, Owen, celebrates his goal on Marty Turco to kick off the second period. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

Matzka’s son, Owen, celebrates his goal on Marty Turco to kick off the second period. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

 

When asked to describe the bond his college hockey program shares, Turco credited the coach in charge of it all since 1984.

“It’s pretty tough to put into words really, but just simply it’s a bond that’s going to last forever,” Turco said. “We didn’t have to play with one another to come back here and know what it meant to put on that jersey, represent the school and be part of a program, especially under Red’s tutelage to know what it means to be there for one another and what it means to give back. For this group, this is the easiest thing to do. It’s hard because of who it is and his condition, but just darn proud of what our Michigan hockey alumni has done in the world as people. But it’s not really all that shocking because that’s what Red expected out of us. It’s amazing what happens when you set the bar high.”

That’s why players like Shawn Hunwick (Class of 2012) and Chiasson – players donning the Maize and Blue well after Matzka did – made it a priority to be at Yost for the game against the Wings.

“I live here in Ann Arbor so I’m pretty close with the staff still, and L.J. [Scarpace] said they were putting on the event,” Chiasson said. “Once I heard about it, I reached right out to L.J. and said if there’s any way I could be part of it in any capacity, I would love to. It worked out – they found a spot for me to play and had a really good time. It was a great event for a good cause.

“It speaks volumes as to where the program is and how tight-knitted it is. Obviously you don’t have to play with some guy in order to feel a connection or special bond. That’s the nice part about what Michigan has always done, so it was easy for me to be a part of it. I’m just very grateful and fortunate they found a spot for me to play with some pretty great, not only players, but pretty great people, who would take time out of their schedule to fly back and bring their wife and kids and stuff like that to be able to be part of a pretty special event.”

All of the Wolverines alums who participated in the game, be it for the UM team or the Wings team. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

All of the Wolverines alums who participated in the game, be it for the UM team or the Wings team. (Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey)

Berenson was in the process of trying to sum up the event when Matzka had walked in – just prior to the exchange at the start of this story.

“The purpose of the evening, really, it’s one of our Michigan student-athletes, he graduated from Michigan, he was a good athlete here, and he gets caught up in this disease…it’s a pretty tough situation,” Berenson had said. “But it’s been amazing, the love and the attention and the support that’s coming out of Michigan, starting with the hockey program.”

Then the door opened and Berenson’s eyes lit up.

“There he is!” Red exclaimed.

And he – along with his incredible story – is still fighting. Join his fight at ScottMatzka.com.