Matt Leon knows adversity firsthand, yet the Queen City Steam goalie has learned to push that aside and pursue his hockey dreams.
First off, Leon grew up in North Carolina and with not much in the way of hockey in the area when he was younger, Leon saw that as the first obstacle.
Then, once his parents divorced, that was another obstacle Leon had to overcome.
If that’s not enough, a close, personal friend of Leon’s passed away earlier this year.
Couple all that with the fact that hockey isn’t a popular sport in the Latin American community and it’s a wonder Leon never quit the game he loves.
“I played basketball and soccer for a while, but those sports just didn't give me the satisfaction that hockey did,” said Leon. “My dad got me to take karate for discipline and I didn’t quit until I tested and earned my black belt in Tang Soo Do.
“Then I just wanted to play and enjoy contact sports and those sports, even though they are action sports, in my opinion don't give nearly the adrenaline rush as hockey for me. I was going to play lacrosse in high school, but by that time I wanted to put all my focus on hockey so that one day I could play college or pro hockey.”
Still, Leon’s Latin American heritage and southern locale played a role in his hockey opportunities, or lack thereof, even as recently as a few years ago.
“Even though my father is Cuban-born and my mother has Italian roots, I don’t look ethnic,” explained Leon. “I’m 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds with hazel eyes, so I never really felt different.
“The biggest challenge has been the access to quality hockey in the South. Players growing up in hockey-rich cities and towns have so much advantage over those that don’t. I had a very difficult time getting quality shots, so I joined an adult league just so I could face shots from former and current NHL and professional hockey players. I played with guys like Jason Dawes, Mike Hartman and Steve MacIntyre and that helped me see some hard, quality shots.”
So why has hockey not caught on with Latin Americans as much as it has with other ethnicities?
“My dad would probably be better qualified to answer that question, but I believe that it’s a geographic and ethnic issue,” said Leon. “There aren't many ice rinks in Colombia or Puerto Rico or Cuba, but I believe it’s possible to convert the Latin American community into hockey fans.
“The NHL and USA Hockey would need to market and spend the dollars to hire Latin broadcast teams and televise games to Latinos. There are a few players of Latin origin and one Cuban American (Al Montoya) who have played in the NHL, though.”
Vancouver forward Raffi Torres, Montreal forward Scott Gomez and former NHL forward Bill Guerin are three more Latin American players that Leon mentioned.
Leon’s father, Santiago, believes there are a number of obstacles to overcome.
“Chief among those is physical difference as North Americans and those of European descent are taller and bigger than our South of the border neighbors,” he explained. “As you may know, Latinos dominate the boxing sport at the lower weights. Also, some of the best soccer and baseball players in the world come from Central and South America, so it has nothing to do with desire, heart, speed or physical skill. Stature, though, is an issue. I’m 5-foot-10 and considered somewhat taller than average in the Latin American community.
“You just don’t find many, if any, Zdeno Charas or Steve MacIntyres speaking Spanish. Having said this, participation in the sport is just part of the formula. There’s also exposure to the sport. If they don’t see the sport, they can’t learn to appreciate it. I’ve introduced ice hockey to several Southern friends from North and South Carolina and even though they had never been exposed to it, they have come to really love the sport. I’ve invested the time and energy to teach them the rules and strategies of the game.
“As I see it, the Latin American sports culture is very well-suited for hockey as I know that Latinos love action and more than most appreciate an overwhelming ‘never-give-up’ spirit, which is quite present in the top teams in hockey and in some individual players. As my son says, the NHL and USA Hockey need to recognize the tremendous potential of the Latin American community living here in the States and make a commitment to promote to and develop this awesome market.
“There are very few Latin American players, but the NHL can change that if they promote the sport to the Latin American community.”
Leon, who turns 19 in early January, first got involved with hockey when he was 6 years old. He and his father were watching the Detroit Red Wings play the Dallas Stars in the NHL playoffs and the love affair was instant.
“I started to play that upcoming season for a house league team in Pineville (N.C.) and from then on, hockey just started to take over my life,” Leon said. “I was always outside having my father shoot plastic pucks or street hockey balls at me for hours. Then I’d have the few buddies that shared the same passion for hockey as I did over and we would play pick-up games until late at night when we all had to go in.”
Going through the divorce was a bit rough on Leon, but he said that it’s only helped to make him a better hockey player and person so as to make both parents proud.
Losing one of his best friends along the way didn’t help matters, either.
“The divorce didn’t really affect me too much, except to try and keep my parents proud of what I’m trying to accomplish and to give them something to mutually encourage me to pursue,” said Leon. “One of my dear friends passed away in the beginning of this season.
“Nick Dudkowski played defense for me for most of my life and was also someone who really pushed me to try and succeed. I have a “RIP” sticker on my helmet for him and dedicate every game for him knowing he would do anything to be able to be playing hockey right now. His passing makes me realize that I need to not take anything for granted, on and off the ice. I try to reverse the affect most obstacles should affect me and try to make it make me more determined.”
In suburban Cincinnati, where the Steam calls home, Leon is in his first season in the NA3HL and is enjoying every minute of it. Of course, having an ex-pro goalie in Randy Petruk, a player who backstopped the Kamloops Blazers to the 1995 Memorial Cup as a 17-year-old, guide him on a daily basis is never a bad thing.
Queen City’s head coach, Don Biggs, played nearly 20 years at the professional level, including 12 NHL games with the Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers.
“Biggsy and Trucker have done a tremendous job with my development,” said Leon. “They not only push me and critique my technique in practices, but they also have helped my mental game a great deal. They have helped me try to find my level in between getting too ‘up’ for games or too ‘down’ for games and also to come to the rink prepared every practice.
“I hope under their tutelage I can grow to be a collegiate or professional athlete. They also both have a very competitive nature that just leaks down into the players and just gets me fired up to play to the best of my ability, day-in and day-out.”
Leon said he also looks up to Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller, both for different reasons. For Thomas, it’s for the roadblocks and obstacles he fought through to reach the NHL; for Miller, it’s for the way he plays the game.
“Thomas refuses to give up and will throw any body part in the way to make the save,” noted Leon. “My style is probably closest to Miller and a number of people have said that physically, I resemble him; I only wish I could play like him.”
On the ice or off it, Leon has a simple philosophy and it’s one he looks to each new day.
“I really do believe in pursuing dreams, goals and life aspirations,” Leon said. “I’m certain that if you focus and put the effort and time into anything, you’ll be successful. I always wanted to prove that it didn't matter where you’re from or what you start out with, it is how you play the game that counts.”
BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Three players - Justin Locante, Brett Menton and Radney Ritchie - have double-digit point totals for Battle Creek - a team still searching for its first win of the season.
CHICAGO HITMEN: Captain Quentin Bicknase leads the NA3HL with 41 points, including 14 power-play points, three shorthanded goals and four game-winners. Nick Clarke is also tops among league goalies with a 1.59 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage and is one of two goaltenders with nine wins (St. Louis’ Justin Davis is the other).
CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: Cleveland has had more success on the road this year (8-2-1-0) than it has playing at home (4-6-0-0).
FLINT JR. GENERALS: The Jr. Generals are 4-2-0-0 in their last six games, earning half of their season’s win total in that span. Andrew Lay, who was an All-State selection last year at Flint Powers Catholic High School, leads the team with 14 goals.
METRO JETS: The Jets completed their second trade with Toledo within the past two weeks recently in acquiring defenseman Jordan Jones. Metro picked up forward Matt Stemkoski from the Cherokee on Nov. 12.
MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: Jacob Endicott has scored all three of the team’s shorthanded goals this year.
PEORIA MUSTANGS: Peoria’s top three scorers - Nathan Chasteen, Mason Riley and Kyle Hamilton - are all products of the Peoria Youth Hockey Association.
PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: In the Jr. Pens’ 11-3 win at Metro last Sunday, all but four players and goalie Mike Hynes recorded at least one point. David Dinnison, Mike Kretz and Fredrik Eriksson all tallied two goals apiece.
QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: Kyle Vesling has 10 points (six goals, four assists) over his last five games. His best outing over that frame was a three-goal, one-assist effort in a 7-4 win at Toledo on Nov. 7.
QUEEN CITY STEAM: Zachary Olson leads all NA3HL in scoring among defensemen with 20 points on the year. Eric Woodward (11), Justin Short (10) and Josh Stingley (10) have combined for 31 of the team’s 75 goals this season.
ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: St. Louis is on an 11-game winning streak and has gone from fourth in the standings to first overall in that span. Every Jr. Blues player has at least three points, except for goalies Mitchell Fernsler and Justin Davis.
TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Captain Chad Tickner is averaging better than a goal per game with 24 in 23 games. He has had seven multi-goal games, including a hat trick on Oct. 22 vs. Battle Creek.