By Matt Mackinder, Arizona Rubber
For Scottsdale’s Matt Raiola, getting cut by a couple of North American Hockey League (NAHL) teams last summer couldn’t have worked out any better.
After relocating to Minnesota in 2010 and graduating from high school there in 2011, the Scottsdale native was recruited by the NAHL’s Alexandria Blizzard and Austin Bruins. He competed at both of the Minnesota teams’ main training camps, but didn’t earn a roster spot.
“Both coaches thought I’d benefit from a year in the North American 3 Hockey League (3HL) and suggested (the) Granite City (Lumberjacks),” explained Raiola. “I really didn’t know much about the league, but found out quick the level of play is very fast and physical.”
It didn’t hurt to have an experienced and connected coaching staff behind Granite City’s bench, led by head coach Brad Willner and assistant Howie Borden.
“Those two are fantastic coaches and they explained to me that if I put in the work and effort, both on and off the ice, good things will happen,” said Raiola, a defenseman.
And they did, both for Raiola and the St. Cloud, Minn.-based team. The Lumberjacks plowed through the regular season with a 33-11-1-3 record and went on to win the 3HL championship earlier this month.
Experiencing a successful season in the Tier III Junior A league, which is administered by the NAHL (Tier II Junior A), was something Raiola anticipated back in September.
“The team is committed to the players who want to put in the effort and want to excel,” said Raiola, 18. “I think we had the least amount of player movement (in the league) and we were a veteran-heavy team, which really helped the younger players get used to playing junior hockey.”
Raiola certainly did his part on the Lumberjacks’ blue line, recording a goal and 14 assists in 41 regular-season games (he was held scoreless in six postseason contests).
“Playing in Minnesota is considerably different than Arizona,” said Raiola. “There are thousands of players who are extremely good and would be the best in Arizona - and that’s not a slam on Arizona; it’s just that they have thousands of high-quality, skilled players in every age group.
“The best part of playing in Minnesota is the competition and training you can get in every aspect of the game, from skating to weight training to nutrition, not to mention the contacts available to further your career.”
Still, Raiola had his fair share of positive coaching influences growing up in Arizona, starting with his father, Mike.
Rick Ferreira and Kevin Turner were important mentors at the Pee Wee and Bantam levels with the Desert Youth Hockey Association and Valley of the Sun Hockey Association, as was Mission Arizona’s Jeremy Goltz in the Midget ranks.
Raiola also attended Notre Dame Prep, where he won a state championship and participated in the first high school national tournament in 2010 under the guidance of head coach and skating guru Mark Ciaccio.
“I owe a lot to him for being the player I am today,” he said.
And while Raiola’s plans for next season are to secure a roster spot on an NAHL team, he ultimately wants to find himself on a college roster.
“My goal is to continue through the junior ranks and earn a Division III opportunity or even a D-I scholarship, if possible,” he said. “It’s a big dream, but one I’m committed to achieving.”