Matt Niskanen is no stranger to playing in front of large crowds. A former University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog, the 27-year-old now competes on the NHL stage with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But even before pushing his game to the highest level, Niskanen was in front of thousands of fans when he helped Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl to the team’s first-ever state tournament appearance in 2005.
Niskanen is making a similar impact on the Penguins with a banner year, helping the team in its hunt for a playoff spot. He took a break to reminisce about his state hockey tournament experiences with Minnesota Hockey Journal.
MHJ: Growing up on the Iron Range and in the Virginia Amateur Hockey Association, was hockey just a natural choice?
Matt Niskanen: Pretty much. I got into hockey because all the neighbor kids played. Every kid gives the sport a try and up until you’re about a Peewee, you play mostly outdoors which is where I got my start. My dad had a key to the outdoor rink and drove the Zamboni, so we were lucky to have good outdoor ice almost every time.
MHJ: You were influential in getting your high school team down to the Xcel Energy Center for the high school state tournament, what was that experience like?
MN: Virginia had never been there before and from a young age, I think my friends and I had our eyes set on that. We had cheered for teams ahead of us to make it when we were younger, but when we were seniors we finally put it together. We had a good playoff run and reached our goal. That was a big deal for our town and our school and to do it with a lot of my friends was pretty cool.
MHJ: Why do you think state tournament time is such a big deal here in Minnesota?
MN: There are a few things I think. There’s the tradition of the tournament, it’s been going on for such a long time. Another thing is that I think there’s something special about kids playing with their buddies from their hometown. You play for your school and people take a lot of pride in that…it’d be hard to find another place in the country that has high school hockey like we do in Minnesota.”
MHJ: Do you still keep a close eye on your hometown team? They did have a state tournament appearance again in 2009 and 2010…
MN: I’ve been able to watch like one state tournament, not a year where Virginia made it again, but if I can catch it on TV, it’s great. With my schedule it’s not the easiest.
MHJ: The University of Minnesota-Duluth allowed you to play Division I hockey. Growing up not far from Bulldog territory, were you always a UMD fan?
MN: I was actually a Gopher fan believe it or not. I liked UMD but forever was a Gopher fan until I got to the age where I started getting recruited by colleges. That's when I figured out what was really important to me and Duluth had a very strong interest in bring me into play for them. With them I would have the opportunity to log quite a bit of playing time and that was a role I was able to jump into right away from the moment I was a freshman out of high school. They changed my priorities a bit.
MHJ: You’ve taken on a big leadership role due to injuries this year, what’s that been like and how has it improved your game?
MN: Being a young defenseman in the league, it’s taken me awhile to really become a consistent player. I’ve seen that happen this year. The injury situation earlier this season gave me the opportunity to have more minutes, play in bigger situations and ultimately gave me a bigger responsibility. We obviously hoped our anchor guys would come back as soon as they could, but to be able to showcase what I and the other younger defensemen could do was great for our team.
MHJ: You've seen ups and downs in your career. How do you deal with that?
MN: Being in the NHL is a good life. There are some mental struggles that come with it but the motivation is that I want to win a championship and be a part of a team that wins a Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal and one that I'm chasing. Life is much better in the NHL when you're playing well and when you're winning it's a lot more fun to go to the rink. Having success, that's motivation right there.