By Josh Sullivan, Sports Editor
The Sutters. The Hulls. The Howes. All of these families have something in common, and that’s the fact that they were born into the sport of hockey, practically having a stick in hand since the age they could walk.
Matias Cleland had a different route to hockey success. Growing up in a Colorado town right outside of Boulder called Longmont, both his parents had grown up in regions where hockey wasn’t very popular. His mom, Frances, was from Orange County, California, while his father Larry was from Vancouver, Washington. While in Colorado, Larry started watching the Avalanche play. Cleland recalls watching the 2001 Stanley Cup champions and attributes that as one of the reasons he decided to play.
“Why’d you start playing defense?” he was asked.
“Adam Foote,” he answered with a smile, crediting the famous Avalanche defenseman who played a huge role in getting Colorado its two Stanley Cup victories. After starting not on the ice, but on cement as a roller hockey player at the age of eight, he finally convinced his parents to let him play the sport on ice.
“I just remember walking into the local hockey shop and my dad picking up a stick,” Cleland said. “He took a look at the price tag and turned to me and said ‘Are you sure you want to play?’”
There was no looking back for the sophomore defenseman, who saw action in 41 games last year for Dick Umile’s Wildcats. His playing time increased dramatically when defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk went down with a leg injury on Jan. 18 last season, seeing minutes on both special teams units and being used as an offensive-minded defenseman. This year, Cleland has been thrust into a role as one of the team’s top three defensemen, pairing with either juniors Brett Pesce or Dylan Maller and anchoring a back end that was constantly being questioned coming into the season. Between of the suspension of starting goalie Casey DeSmith and the loss of captain Eric Knodel and van Riemsdyk, many wondered if the young guys could handle the responsibility. What people didn’t account for was the breakout success of true freshman goalie Adam Clark.
“It’s a lot easier to play when Clarkie’s been playing the way he has,” Cleland said. “We all kind of just rallied behind him. We knew it would be either him or Regan going forward.”
His journey to UNH began his junior year of high school, when Umile and the rest of the Wildcats coaching staff began recruiting him out of high school. He was playing high school hockey and AAA for the Colorado Thunderbirds when he first visited Durham. Despite receiving offers from Denver and Boston University, Cleland picked UNH after seeing what he thought was the perfect fit of a campus.
“It was just the right size, and with the Paul School going in, I figured it fit what I wanted with my major, too,” the business major said.
Between that and getting to see a No. 1 UNH team take on Maine at the Whittemore Center, Matias was sold. He then signed on to play junior hockey in the USHL with the Waterloo Blackhawks but was traded the Omaha Lancers after only three games. The following year in Omaha, he would go on to be named captain and rank fourth amongst defensemen scoring in the notoriously offensive-oriented USHL.
Though he’s only a sophomore, his presence in the locker room and leadership on the ice is something coaches and teammates make well known.
“He’s been a leader since the day he got here,” Umile said. “He’s great in the locker room and he’s a hard-nosed player. He’ll battle one-on-one and wins the majority of his battles.”
Senior alternate captain Casey Thrush has seen Cleland from the start of his college hockey career and knows the importance of the d-man.
Some of those traits have no doubt been passed down to him by former teammates Knodel and van Riemsdyk.
“It was cool to learn behind them,” Cleland said. “They just would tell me ‘Don’t grip your stick too tight, you’ve played this game a thousand times. Just do what you’ve always done.’”
Though the team is young and has been doubted by just about the entire hockey community, Cleland sees no reason why they can’t be successful now.
“I’ve just got to continue helping the team in anyway possible,” he said. “We just have to get better and keep trying to win national championship. Even this year.”