SUNRISE, Fla. – The work ethic of Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has reached well beyond the ice since the days of his upbringing in Point-Claire, Quebec.
That was apparent to General Manager Dale Tallon when he drafted an 18-year-old Matheson in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
It was apparent to his coaches and teammates at Boston College, where Matheson excelled and graduated, after only three years, with a degree in psychology.
Fast forward to present day, where the 26-year-old defenseman is putting that work ethic to good use, playing in his fourth NHL season and one game away from his 300th in the league.
It didn't take nearly that many games for Matheson's teammates in Florida to see that the intelligent, soft spoken yet hardworking defenseman would be an ideal candidate to represent them in important league matters.
"I've been the (Panthers' National Hockey League Players Association) Player Rep for two years, and I was the assistant the year before that," Matheson explained. "My rookie year, my teammates tried to make me be the assistant, but I didn’t have enough games played yet. I think they just saw me as a guy that went to college and has an education and would hopefully be able to understand things a little bit better."
Being a player rep was something that intrigued Matheson, and he was interested in being on the NHLPA’s Executive Board, representing his Panthers teammates, from the start.
As has been the case with all challenges in his life, Matheson dove into his new responsibilities head-on. He quickly gained an appreciation for the role and what it has meant to players over the years.
"I think it's an important thing to do, as a player, to be involved in these sorts of things and try to be a voice for your teammates, and represent your teammates the right way," he said. "I just think of all the sacrifices that the players made before us, and I think that it's only right to do your best to do the same and carry on that tradition."
Despite his three seasons of experience as a member of the NHLPA Executive Board, Matheson still considers himself a novice at the position.
You see, it's been a fairly quiet three years around the NHL, as the league has hummed along with its current Collective Bargaining Agreement firmly in place until September of 2022.
Considering each of the past two decades have seen labor disputes and lockouts in the NHL, Matheson knows there could still be rocky roads ahead. He's been wise to lean on others who have lived through those past grievances and issues, and in addition to preparing him for what the future may hold, it's also helping him navigate the league's current situation.
“I try to speak to as many guys as possible. On our team, even though I’m the rep, I’m constantly talking to guys like Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle; they’ve been around for so long, they’ve been through lockouts, they’ve been through so many different things in the league,” Matheson said. “Whether it’s guys on our team, or guys throughout the league that I know, I’ll shoot texts to (them) just to get their feelings on things, or things that I don’t understand and want to learn about.”
BREAKING THINGS DOWN
As Matheson explains it, his job as player rep isn't necessarily to make decisions. It's really just to ensure that the players on his team have the most information as possible.
He and team assistant Colton Sceviour have been on several calls in each of the past few weeks, as the league and the Players Association have worked tirelessly towards coming up with a safe way to resume the season.
The main avenue of communication between Matheson, Sceviour and each of their teammates is a group text message. It's one that they can be pretty active on, but at the same time, try not to let things get too complicated.
"Usually what Colton and I try to do is we take notes during each meeting, and we try to condense them a little bit so that guys don't have to read too much," Matheson said with a chuckle. "They get annoyed if it’s a big, long paragraph that they have to read, so we try to keep it short and sweet and get them the information after a call."
During the stoppage, the Panthers have held one team-wide Zoom video call, a necessary step to allow all voices to be heard as the players prepared to vote on the league’s Return to Play Plan.
Matheson pointed out the importance of making sure every players opinion, even if it doesn't align with most of his teammates, is given the proper amount of time and consideration.
That being said, so far it’s been relatively smooth sailing for the Panthers to this point.
"I think we've been pretty much on the same page for the issues that we've been talking about," he said.
BUILDING A FLEXIBLE BUBBLE
With plans ramping up towards a possible return to play, communications between the players, their association and the league have picked up as well.
A major topic of discussion has been regarding the two hub cities that the league will ask all players and essential personnel to relocate to, and once there, live inside some kind of quarantine situation of which the details are still being worked out.
Matheson and his fellow NHLPA Executive Board members represent over 700 players, which means there are dozens of circumstances to be accounted for.
"One of the first things that came out with the bubble idea was, the initial reaction was jeez, if we go all the way through the playoffs, if you're the team that wins the Stanley Cup or whatever the case, you could go three months without seeing your family," Matheson explained. "There are some guys that are single or young, and that really wouldn't matter all that much, but there are some guys that have three, four kids, or some guys that their wives are pregnant right now or due this summer, and those are just totally different situations."
This being such a prevalent issue, the league and the players agreed early on that proceeding with an airtight bubble, where players would be separated from their families and the outside world, is not something that was realistic.
"The (NHLPA) and the league agreed right away that something would have to be done a little bit differently," Matheson said. "It's not like players can just be completely closed off from their families for three months. That was one issue that everybody agreed on right away."
LOOKING BEYOND PHASE 2
The NHL officially began Phase 2 of its Return to Play Plan this week. Teams were allowed to reopen their practice facilities to players for voluntary, non-contact skating and off-ice training in small groups (no more than six). A limited amount of staff is also permitted in the facility to assist players.
The Panthers will open the Ice Den on Wednesday, and Matheson is among the players that plan to attend.
"I'm excited to be able to get back on the ice, and this is a great way to be able to do it safely and make sure that you're still doing everything the right way, to make sure you're not exposing yourself to coronavirus," he said.
If all goes well, sometime next month the league will move into Phase 3, which would signify official training camps for all 24 NHL teams participating in the postseason.
When that time arrives, Florida will begin preparing for a best-of-five series against the New York Islanders in what the league is calling a qualifying round.
It’s impossible to predict what to expect when players that have been off the ice and under quarantine for three months go from a full stop to Game One in a race to three to save their season.
"It's going to be tough, and it's going to be the same for every team. It's going to be difficult to spend the next month or whatever getting back into number one playing shape, finding your timing, and getting all those sorts of things back," Matheson said. " It can go fast. If you aren't fully ready and the other team is, you can be down 3-0 before you know it, and that's it. You don't get a few warm-up games to get into it."
The best way to achieve that level of readiness, according to Matheson, is aggressive, fast-paced drills during practice.
Lots of game situations.
Anyone familiar with Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville and the way he runs his workouts should take comfort in knowing that rapid-moving drills and high-intensity on-ice sessions shouldn’t be a problem.
"It's going to be pretty quick once it gets going so I think we're going to have to, in those weeks leading up to it, we're going to have to have some compete drills, and as much as you're going against your teammate, you're going to have to prepare as if you're doing those drills against the Islanders," he said.
There is no doubt that Panthers players are amped up for the chance to play for the Stanley Cup, but there are no rose-colored glasses among these Cats.
One thing Matheson made clear is that the opportunity to lace up their skates and continue the season doesn't remove any of that universal feeling of unfinished business.
"When you look at our group, and the conversations we've been having, I think everybody is super motivated and really excited, but there isn't really a sense of accomplishment right now," Matheson said. "Really, we made a 24-team play-in; we didn't make the playoffs, yet. I think our goal and our only focus is to get through this play-in series and get into the real playoffs.
“Anything short of that would just be a total failure.”