Shield player profile: Matt Gardner
GRAVENHURST - Four years in, two Game 7 playoff losses, a semifinal sweep at the hands of Temiscaming in 2011-12 and no less determination than ever — Matt Gardner deserves a Russell Cup.
VETERAN AT 21..
Assistant captain Matt Gardner brings leadership to the table every day according to his coach.
Photo by Richard Coburn
Albeit the biased opinion of his head coach and general manager Dallyn Telford, one of the South Muskoka Shield’s most veteran players has reached his last year of eligibility in the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) and nothing would make him more proud than to see Gardner hoist the Russell Cup at the end of this 2012-13 season.
“All of us (coaches) wish it wasn’t his last year,” Telford said. “As a coach, we know exactly what we’re going to get every night from Matt and that’s intense work ethic.”
The Port Sandfield native, who played his entire minor hockey with the Port Carling Thunder until major midget, joined the Shield as a six-foot-plus, 17-year-old defenceman. Before starting hockey at about the age of six, he was a figure skater, and the balance and grace the sport taught him translated well to the game of hockey, once he convinced his parents to let him play.
“All my friends were playing hockey so that’s what I wanted to do too; I think figure skating helped me a lot when I first started (playing hockey) though,” Gardner explained.
He said physically there hasn’t been much change since joining the Shield as a teen, “I’m pretty much the exact same size,” but now as a 21-year-old young man, how he sees the game is very different.
“I do find the game’s really slowed down for me; it’s not frantic anymore,” he said. “It’s still so exciting, but I find I can see what the other teams are going to do and it’s not so much reacting to a play anymore.”
He had tried out for the team as a 15-year-old but didn’t make the cut and returned to Port Carling for the following season before trying once more at 17. Telford saddled Gardner with an assistant captain label this year because of the vast improvement he’s seen in his play since joining.
“Definite leadership is what Matt brings to the table every day. He’s become our go-to guy,” Telford said. “He’s very respectful to all the coaches and his fellow players, and all the younger guys, especially on defence, look up to him for leadership. He’s very mature and passionate.”
A left-hander and tall, Gardner is not a prototypical grinder; he plays a clean game. In his four years, he has never exceeded 20 penalty minutes total and last year had something of a break-out year offensively with 20 points, having netted only 16 in his first two seasons combined. He also scored a game-winning goal in the second matchup against the Bracebridge Phantoms earlier this season. He said, as a team leader, he tries to instill a sense of pride and his work ethic into the younger players.
“I want the guys to play physically; we need to make up for our lack of finesse by going as hard as we can for 60 minutes and just play a simple but classic game plan,” he said.
As for the team’s chances this year at another Russell Cup, Gardner said the talent is in place and the attitude is right.
“I’m loving this locker room; it’s really a great bunch of guys,” he said. “That (the camaraderie) will be the difference (for a playoff run) along with if every single guy is willing to sacrifice their bodies, block those shots, sacrifice their pride and keep their mouths shut when something doesn’t go their way. And sacrifice their ego and buy into the team mentality.”