The most compelling sports story of the week was not in the NFL playoffs, the college football playoffs, the NBA, or the NHL. It wasn’t even televised.
On Saturday night, the Red Wing alumni team took on a squad of former University of Michigan players. It was just an exhibition, which only mattered to those who thought it mattered. But 2,000 folks did, because it mattered a great deal to a former Michigan star named Scott Matzka.
Matzka grew up in Port Huron, and went to Michigan in 1997, along with ten other freshmen. He was the fastest player on the team, a feisty forward with a knack for killing penalties.
In his first season, Michigan made it to the NCAA finals. In overtime, Matzka passed to fellow freshman Josh Langfeld, who slipped it into the net for the goal, the game, and the title.
Matzka was also a star student, majoring in computer science. He helped his roommate, goalie L.J. Scarpace, get through calculus. After graduating, Matzka played in the U.S. and Europe for eleven years. Along the way, he married Catie, and had two kids. When Matzka retired from hockey, they settled in Catie’s home town of Kalamazoo, where he put his degree to good use developing software, then consulting. Life seemed pretty great.
Two years ago, while hanging drywall, Matzka noticed his hand cramped up, and wouldn’t release. It happened again when he was digging for change in his car. Something was wrong – but what was it?
After a year of tests, the doctors gave him the answer: he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurological disorder that progressively robs victims of the ability to control their muscles – and finally, their breathing.
When he told his old roommate, L.J. Scarpace, they both shed a few tears. Scarpace decided he needed to do something, so he called a few of Matzka’s old teammates to play in a benefit hockey game. They took over the task and rounded up all 30 of his teammates in a few hours. Every one of them volunteered to pay his own way, flying in from Miami, St. Louis, Omaha, and Las Vegas.
Scarpace was impressed. “There are a lot of great humans. I can tell you that.”
When word got out to the Michigan hockey family, they got to work. At a reunion of the 1964 NCAA championship team, one of them asked, “What can we do? We don’t even know him.” Bob Gray, their goalie, said, “Know him? He played for Michigan. That tells us all we need to know.”
On game night, 2,000 fans showed up. The students filled both their sections, even though some of them hadn’t been born when Matzka was a freshman. But they got the message. So did the Alumni Band, which came out in full force. When they blasted “The Victors,” it felt like a home game.
The night started with Matzka at center ice. He wasn’t flying around, terrorizing opponents. He was sitting in a wheelchair, his hands draped in his lap. When Catie held the microphone for him, Matzka told the crowd, “When I signed my letter of intent, almost 20 years ago, you don’t realize everything you’re signing up for. And then you learn: you signed up for the Michigan hockey family.”
The game’s high point was a play by a kid named Matzka. Not Scott, but his five-year old son, Owen, who suited up in a miniature Michigan jersey with his dad’s number 10 on the back. He sat, proudly and patiently, on the Michigan bench, until the second period, when the coaches asked him to take a penalty shot.
Owen skated the puck toward goalie Marty Turco, who won two NCAA titles before playing eleven years in the NHL. But when Owen shot the puck, Turco couldn’t seem to handle it. When Turco spun around, he accidentally dumped the puck into his own net. I’m sure he feels horrible about that.
Afterward, Matzka said, “When I see my son wearing that maize jersey, it hits me in the heart. I’m sure Owen will never forget that goal against Turco.”
I’m sure his father won’t, either.
Matzka’s teammates can’t stop what’s happening to their friend. Even the doctors can’t. But the $25,000 they raised will make life a little easier for Scott, Catie, and their kids. And when Scott can no longer speak, he’ll be able to remember a cold night in January, when he could feel the warmth of 2,000 people who care.
Best game of the week. Hands down.
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