By Chris Sanders
When Matt Mistele got drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, making the National Hockey League didn’t seem so farfetched.
When Mistele committed to the Rams in 2016, it left a head-scratching question: Why Ryerson? Why not continue to pursue a career in the world’s top league?
“I really wanted to get my education,” Mistele says. “Hockey is something I wanna do after I know I have something to fall back on.”
After finishing up his 2015-2016 season with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, Mistele’s future was filled with uncertainty. Despite NHL rookie camp invites from the Kings and the Boston Bruins, his results were precarious: a one-year American Hockey League contract offer from the Bruins and a third training camp invite from the Kings, but no crack at suiting up for an NHL team.
“Boston asked me to go back to their AHL team and I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do; I wanted to start to school,” Mistele said. “LA asked me to return to their camp, and I decided Ryerson was what I wanted to do. It was obviously a tough decision, but a good one.”
Now, instead of battling it out for ice-time in the minors, Mistele is tearing it up in U Sports. Part of the reason he chose Ryerson is due to Duco. No, not Ryerson head coach Johnny Duco—his brother, Mike, a former NHLer who had stints with the Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks.
For six years, Mistele trained with Mike, and due to that relationship, Johnny knew the young forward would fit on his team.
“Ryerson was the first school I wanted to come to,” Mistele said. “I was lucky enough Johnny reached out and everything worked out well.”
Of course, Mistele had high hopes to make the NHL before settling in at Ryerson, but he had trouble finding a spot amongst the young talent around him.
“LA is a great organization, but the fit just wasn’t right. They told me I did everything right, but it was fit, a numbers thing,” Mistele told the Boston Globe in 2016 while attending Bruins training camp.
But numbers are typically Mistele’s strong suit. In his OHL career, he scored .76 points per game, finishing with 262 points in 327 games. In his first full season with the Plymouth Whalers, he had 60 points, better than his teammates Vincent Trocheck, Tom Wilson and Ryan Hartman—all future NHLers—fared that season.
“He’s a goal scorer, he’s got great hands, a good release, a good shot. The thing that holds him back a little bit is—or was—his skating,” said Mike Vellucci, his former coach in Plymouth who’s now the head coach, assistant general manager and director of hockey operations of the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. “If you watch the NHL, I don’t know too many slow skaters if there are any.”
As Mistele continued his junior career, his scoring dipped amid injury-riddled seasons, and at NHL camps, younger, faster skaters advanced past him. Duco says Mistele’s skating has always been the thin line separating him from the game’s best young talent.
“If you’ve watched lately, he’s skating with a lot of energy and it looks like his stride’s gotten longer and more powerful,” said Duco. “That’s what’s gonna allow him get to that [NHL] level that he’s fully capable of.”
“I’ve always had to work on my skating, it’s something I struggled with,” Mistele said. “Right now I’m skating better than I ever have so hopefully I can retain that.”
So far, so good. Last season, Mistele was named to the OUA all-rookie team after recording 25 points. This season, he’s continued his strong play, pacing the Rams with a team-best 10 goals and nine assists. As of Nov. 15, he was second in the OUA in both points and goals.
After Mistele collected three assists to help lead the Rams to a 5-2 win over the Lakehead Thunderwolves on Nov. 12, Duco was effusive in his praise.
“Game in, game out, he’s been one of our best players,” Duco said. “He’s becoming one of the most elite players in the league, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
So maybe an NHL career isn’t an outlandish dream. After all, the jump from Canadian university hockey has been been made before.
The most notable Canadian university alum is probably Joel Ward, a University of Prince Edward Island alum who’s racked up 683 games in the NHL over 10 seasons. Former Maple Leaf Darryl Boyce and current Hurricane Derek Ryan have also both made the transition.
To make the NHL, Mistele will have to overcome adversity. Luckily, that’s nothing new. At 16, Mistele cracked Plymouth’s roster and was the sixth youngest player to suit up in the OHL during the 2011-2012 season. Then, he won the 2015 Memorial Cup with Oshawa playing on a broken ankle with the Generals.
In other words, Mistele doesn’t back down from daunting tasks. He also doesn’t plan on letting any facet of his game stop him from playing professionally.
Mistele’s confident he can make the AHL and play in Europe once his career at Ryerson is over.
“I see a lot of the guys I played against [in the AHL]. I know I can play at that level and I’m very confident in the player I am,” he said. But knowing he has a shot at the minors, Mistele isn’t ruling out making an NHL roster some day.
“For me, it’s just about being the best I can be,” he said. “I’ll try and make pro after but if not hopefully I can do great at Ryerson and win here.”
Perhaps Mistele’s NHL dream is too lofty. Or maybe his humility hides his desire to play in the big leagues.
Either way, his main focus is bringing Ryerson’s hockey team its first championship, but Duco expects his star to get his shot.
“With the way he’s playing right now, he’s still going to have opportunities at the next level,” Duco said. “He’s definitely continuing to (open) some eyes and show that he’s an elite hockey player, and people should take notice.”