Mike Matczak ’11 was in bed when the Adirondack Phantoms called last Saturday morning. The American Hockey League team wanted him to play for them that night.
The former men’s hockey blueliner packed his bags and drove three and a half hours to the Phantoms’ rink in Glens Falls, New York. By 7:00 p.m., he was wearing one of the Phantoms’ orange jerseys and skating shifts on defense against the Wilkes-Barre Penguins.
“Saturday is a big blur for me at this point,” Matczak said. “I woke up at New Haven, and next thing I know I’m playing for the Phantoms.”
Matczak is one of five Elis to have received calls from professional hockey teams since the Yale season ended with a loss in the NCAA Tournament almost two weeks ago. Goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11 has also signed with the Phantoms, and Denny Kearney ’11, Chris Cahill ’11, and Jimmy Martin ’11 have also logged time on professional teams.
All five heard from the professional clubs in the same manner — a phone call — and then left Yale for an unfamiliar city. Cahill had the longest trip of the group: a flight to Wisconsin for his gig with the Milwaukee Admirals. The rest of the Elis have had easier commutes — Kearney had to drive just an hour to his gig with the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons.
The Falcons, the Admirals, and the Phantoms — who have Rondeau on their roster as well as Matczak — play in the American Hockey League, just one step below the top professional league in the world: the National Hockey League. The minor league is full of players who have seen action in the Big Show, or are on the verge. The game is faster-paced and more controlled than college hockey.
“It’s the same sport, but each man is a little more skilled than the guys are in college,” Kearney said.
That higher level of play has not stopped the former Yale left wing, who has racked up a goal and three assists in his three games with Springfield. His most recent assist, which he earned with a pretty pass across the crease to linemate Greg Moore, came in a familiar location: Bridgeport’s Arena at Harbor Yard, the site of Yale’s season-ending loss to Minnesota-Duluth on March 26.
“During warmups, the goal judge from our game against [Duluth] said, ‘Hey, remember me? When you scored on UMD you jumped against the glass and scared me to death,’” Kearney said. “That was funny, but being there was strange. It was too soon to be back.”
Although Kearney is the only Eli who has made the trip to Bridgeport for a game so far, all have experienced the same rapid turnaround from the end of their Yale season to the beginning of what each one hopes will be a long professional career.
Martin had just two days to make the transition. The Reading Royals of the East Coast Hockey League called him last Tuesday. He was on a plane to Pennsylvania before the day was out, and played that Wednesday.
“You’re still getting over the [Duluth] loss, and having to think about moving on was brutal,” Martin said.
The Reading regular season ended last Saturday, so Martin played three games in four days with the club before he returned to Yale and to classes. The rest of the Elis will all spend at least a full week with their new teams because the AHL regular season does not end until this weekend.
For Matczak, Kearney, and Cahill, those extra games meant missing a full week of school.
“Luckily, I have a lot of downtime,” Matczak said. “So I’ve been able to keep up with most of the work.”
The five Elis have all signed amateur tryout contracts that expire at the end of their professional teams’ regular seasons this weekend. After that, they will return to Yale, graduate, and train over the summer.
“My plan is to go back to school and hopefully my play will catch the interest of someone,” Kearney said. “I’m hoping I can parlay the opportunity to showcase my skills at this level into a contract for next year.”
If Kearney and his former teammates become full-time athletes next year, they will compete against each other, former teammates such as Ryan Donald ’10 and Sean Backman ’10, and dozens of former NCAA opponents. Kearney, for one, is currently playing on a line alongside Cam Atkinson, whose Boston College team eliminated Yale from last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“It’s an overwhelming situation,” Martin said. “Obviously, I’ve played with other teams before, but I’ve been with Yale for four years and the core group there had played together all season. It’s tough to move on.”