Remembering his roots
by Matthew Ondesko, Managing Editor “When our parents were working, we just took it upon ourselves to go out and play. There were no cell phones and maybe just a basic computer.” - Doug Matteson. Sports in South Buffalo has a special meaning to people. Growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, kids were always outside playing some kind of sport, whether it was baseball, hockey, basketball or football. There were a lot of “athletes” playing around in the street. But, you could always tell who had the goods. Back in the day there wasn’t the Patrick Kane’s or Tim Kennedy’s of the world. There were some kids who just wanted a chance to play a sport they loved. As time went on, the games on Crystal Ave. in South Buffalo became a little more serious. The boys on the street would challenge other streets to play them in hockey. It was a fun way to get in some great competition. There was always one person who stood out in these games. Doug Matteson could do it all. He played hoops, hockey, baseball, golf. Dabbled in tennis and any other sport you put in his way. He really excelled in two sports, golf and hockey. It was kind of strange considering his dad, Gary, was a very accomplished baseball player who played in the Detroit Tigers organization. “My dad was a really good baseball player,” stated Matteson, who dad, Gary, attended South Park High School. I never really excelled at baseball. I decided to gravitate toward gold during the summer and hockey in the winter.” But, baseball was never Matteson’s thing. He was decent where he could probably play high school and maybe college. But, it wasn’t a passion. Hockey was what he excelled at, and everyone knew it. He was one of the best, if not the best, player when the pickup games would take place every day. By his own admission he was a little under sized growing up, but his bulldog attitude was something you couldn’t teach. He didn’t have the skill of a Tim Kennedy or a Pat Kane, but he was South Buffalo tough. He didn’t mind taking anyone on if asked. The street hockey games were legendary. The boys from Crystal would take on anyone. Playing against the best from Folger, Amber or Lockwood would be a daily occurrence. Matteson cut his teeth in those game. There was no age group, so playing against kids much older than him was the norm. It made him tough. It gave him that bulldog mentality. Growing up in South Buffalo also helped with that. Besides growing up with a chip on his shoulder, like most kids in the mostly Irish neighborhood, it taught Matteson what it was like to have a blue collar work ethic. Punching the clock everyday. Rolling up the sleeves and getting dirty. He uses what he had growing up everyday in his life now. And while he lives in Arizona, it’s South Buffalo that’s in him. “Growing up in South Buffalo, your parents kind of pushed you and your friends to go out and play every sport,” said Matteson recently by phone. “Anything that you played with your friends you were competitive. It’s what being South Buffalo is about. Usually, the tough nosed competitive (person).” High School to the Pro’s It’s a dream of many to play professional sports. A lot of young boys and girls get in to sports for that specific reason. They want to be the next big thing. What they don’t realize is that it takes more that just talent to make it to the next level, whatever level that may be. It takes heart, determination, and a strong work ethic. It’s all the little things behind the scenes that people don’t see. Entering Bishop Timon High School, Matteson wasn't the biggest hockey player on a very talented team. Here was this 13-year-old defenseman who may be was about 5-feet-8, 160 pound trying to find his way on a team full of upper classmen. It was an intimidating sight for most, but not him. He had the confidence in himself that he could compete with the big boys. Despite his small frame, Matteson was someone that threw his weight around, and wasn’t afraid to do. That kind of play endeared him to his teammates. “I was this freshman that made varsity. And, I was really small and tinny,” stated Matteson. “The thing about me is I had the heart, and I would just not quit. I got hit pretty good, but I had that chip on my shoulder. I had something to prove to myself. Especially, to my dad, to my coaches, to Mr. Panek. I wasn’t going to let them say that I wasn’t good enough to play, because I wanted to prove to them that I could play.” It just wasn’t about him and his skill. He had mentors that helped his game get to the next level. One of the biggest influence on his early development was former Timon player and coach Chris Panek. Panek was the perfect person for Matteson to learn from. He had a very successful career at Plattesburg, before playing in the Los Angels Kings organization. He was a tough nosed defenseman that could show Matteson what it would take to get to the next level, if he wanted to get there. “Chris was more a teacher to me,” explained Matteson. “He had a great career with the L.A. Kings organization. He was someone I looked up to, especially being a defenseman.I picked his brain when I could. I idolized him a little bit. I said how could I strive to be a better athlete.” We say if he wanted to get there, because Matteson wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do. He was a late bloomer in the hockey world, and he was American. So, a lot of college teams weren’t really coming after him. He also didn’t know if he wanted to keep playing. Then Erie Community College stepped in. They offered Matteson a chance to play at a very high level. ECC isn’t just some run of the mill community college. They have a very good hockey program that has been nationally ranked and one numerous national titles. This was Matteson’s opportunity to be seen. But, it was what he did during his second year on the team that caught the eye of many.
Matteson was named captain his sophomore year of a very young hockey team. The team didn’t have any expectations heading into the season. Like most captains, you have to find a way to motivate a club that isn’t expected to do anything. So why not take them to Mighty Taco. What happened after that little team bonding moment is made for a television movie. “When I went to ECC I was part of a great organization. They had two great teams,” said Matteson. “My second year I was named captain of the team. We proudly lost 80 percent of the team. It was going to be a tough year. I remember at the beginning of the year I took every one out to Mighty Taco. I said this is the way it’s going to be. We don’t have a lot of expectations because everyone is new. But, if we tried hard, and everything else. And we play for our coaches and play for ourselves, and for the school, who knows what we will do. We went 29-0. Set a record for the best junior college team in the United States. We were ranked number one in the nation. Then we lost one game in the nationals, and that’s what kind of cost us. And we finished I think number two or three in the nation that year.” That experience at ECC taught him that he loved the game. He wanted to be part of the game. He needed the game. It showed him what he could do if he kept his mind focused and on the prize. That focus got him to the next level. He spent time in the minors with the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. The minors isn’t pretty like they make it out on television. It was long hours on the bus. Back-to-back games in cities you never even heard of. You are truly playing for the love of the game. Because back then you weren’t really playing for the paycheck. The paychecks in the minors back then aren’t like they are now. You are also playing for the carrot at the end of your nose. You know which one. The one that dangles in front of you. The one that gives you hope every morning when you don’t want to get out of bed. Yeah, that one. The one that reads National Hockey League. Everyone in the minors wants one game. Just one, stinking, game in the NHL to say they made it. That all that hard work from age 5 to now was worth it. Those early morning practices at Caz Ice Rink was worth it. It’s tempting. The closer you think you are to the carrot, the farther it moves away. It’s that carrot that keeps you going. “Hockey is one of the sports that everyone wants to play it growing up. But, people don’t realize, it’s like anything. Only so many make Peyton Manning, Tom Brady kind of money,” explained Matteson. “Playing hockey you have to play a lot for the love of the game. You are always hoping you get that shot. One chance to go play in the show or prove that you can play.”
Injuries, New Life Matteson chased those dreams of playing in the NHL for as long as he could. At some point, however, you have to give it up and move on with your life. It wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough to make it. It was because his body was telling him it was time to stop. The beating he put on his body all those years finally caught with him. He had two major injuries that derailed his career and got him thinking off another life. The first injury came in Detroit where he tore his shoulder. The second was with the Rangers when he injured his leg. Those injuries, couple with the fact the NHL was moving to a much quicker game, got Matteson thinking about what else he wanted to do. “It got to the point where I got some injuries and I started thinking outside of the love of the game,” said Matteson. “I started thinking about more of the love of me and my future. What am I going to do? Can I see myself playing eight, nine more years in the minors, and maybe trying to get up and play in the NHL. It was a hard decision for me to say I need to look at other options.” Going from hockey player to police officer is no easy task. Especially, when you want to move on from the only area you knew as home. While Matteson was looking for chance, he was going to do it in a different city. No more cold, snowy, Buffalo winters for him anymore. He was going to sunny, hot, Arizona. While he would be missed in South Buffalo, all his friends were jealous that he was going somewhere so warm and nice. The kid that was playing street hockey, football and hoops, was now growing up and going out on his own to start a new life. He would be one of the first ones off Crystal to do it. But if was something that he had to do for himself. “I kind of needed a change in my life, and that’s one of the reasons why I moved out here to Arizona,” said Matteson. “Leaving Buffalo was a tough decision. I’m still Buffalo at heart. It’s tough to get away from the people and the food. The weather is a little different. That’s the thing that always brings me home is the tight knit family. I saw myself going other places than just staying in Buffalo. I knew there was more out there for me. I just wanted something to push myself more.” While in Arizona he was the public relations person for the famous Sheriff Joe and also did other things. Until tragedy struck.
Life Changing Moment What would you have done if you saw your life flash before your eyes in an instance? If everything you have worked and dreamed about had changed just like that? Matteson had to be asking himself those same questions eight years ago when his life would change forever. Living in Arizona, Matteson was on his motorcycle driving down the highway with a buddy when an off duty cop, driving his mustang, tried to split to the two. Needless to say he was unsuccessful and what happen next was something that change Matteson’s life forever. The car hit Matteson and sent him flying off his motorcycle and in the process severing his leg at the knee. To make things worse, Matteson was lying in the middle of the road and literally pulled himself to the side where he could get medical attention. Matteson, who was a policeman with Maricopo County, saw his life and everything he strived for flash right before his eyes. At one point, he even thought he wasn’t going to make. “I was thinking about my mom and not letting her down,” said Matteson. “When they brought me to the hospital, they didn’t expect me to live. My brother, who was visiting me in 2004, had to make that phone call to my parents and had to tell my mom that I was pretty much dying.” When news of the accident reached everybody back home in South Buffalo, the outcry of support was immediate. People in the community, especially those that lived on Crystal Ave., and those who went to Bishop Timon High School, were all about helping. The community support touched Matteson deeply when he arrived back home from Arizona, and to this day he still doesn’t forget it. “When I came home, I almost expected it. Because, that is what South Buffalo is about,” he said. “This community does want to see their locals do well. It was very special when I came home and saw that. It was so hard for me to experience everything, because I wasn’t there mentally. It’s Buffalo, they look after their own and it was nice to be able to come back.” Matteson, who isn’t one to ask for handouts, didn’t want a fundraiser to help pay his medical bills. He was, and still is, someone who likes to do things himself. So, when his family organized a fundraiser at Timon, Matteson was grateful – but didn’t want everybody to make a fuss. That’s the kind of person he is – no free rides. “My thing is this, I don’t expect anything from anybody,” he said. “I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me. I will make it myself. But, it is nice to know that people do care. I don’t expect donations or charity, I will do it myself. I will push hard. If I don’t get it, I will push harder for it. That’s how I always been.” New Outlook on Life That kind of accident changes a person forever. They may look ok on the outside, but in the inside they are scarred for life. It’s something that will haunt you the rest of your life. Matteson has been home a few times after that tragic accident took place more than 10 years ago. He is always upbeat when he comes back. He makes sure he hits up Mighty Taco and Bella Pizza while he is home. His friends know him as the same Doug Matteson they grew up years ago. A kid who would give back when he could and always help out everyone. They never looked at him differently because of the accident. In fact, many were amazed that he still could play golf at a high level like he does. He recently told a story where he was shooting one under par before a bogey bogey. But, then, got back on track and hit a couple of pars. It’s kind of his new lease on life. He knows what happen to him. Hell, everyone who knows him knows what happened to him. He knows he has bad days with his leg. But, it doesn’t stop him. It doesn’t deter the man who has the bulldog mentality. The man who people graviate to. The man that people want to call him their friend. “It’s pretty easy for me to make friends,” stated Matteson. “I’m just one of those guys that you put me in a room with 20 strangers and an hour later I have 18 of them that I will be calling my friends and hanging out with them.”