The tunnel from the Michigan hockey locker room opened and 28 former players skated onto the ice at Yost Ice Arena on Saturday night. Some players knew Scott Matzka personally from their time in Ann Arbor. Others participated simply to see old friends and to help a member of the “Michigan family.”
But one player stood out from the rest. He was a bit younger and a few feet shorter. Wearing his father’s No. 10 jersey, Owen Matzka joined his father’s former teammates in the pre-game skate and would later score a goal.
“That’s probably the most difficult emotional thing I’ve had to deal with,” Scott Matzka said. “I see the guys out there, laughing and having a great time, but seeing (my son) really pulls at my heartstrings.
“It’s so cool that he’s getting some of these cool experiences, and stuff he’s never gonna forget. I’m trying to not cry and not get emotional, but I see him out there and then I’m tearing up.”
Matzka was diagnosed with ALS in the summer of 2014. The event Saturday featured Matzka’s former teammates taking on the Detroit Red Wings alumni club to raise money for ALS.
After the pre-game skate, Matzka and his family stood at center ice and participated in the ceremonial puck drop. Matzka thanked the 1,500- plus fans in attendance.
Then, Matzka joked with the players, urging them to avoid suffering a heart attack during the game.
Designed to raise awareness and funds for Matzka’s ALS foundation (MyTurn), the event also reunited former Wolverines, some of whom have lost touch with each other over the years.
Josh Langfeld is only one example. They played together at Michigan but distance keeps them from seeing each other regularly. This game, though, provided an opportunity for the former linemates to reconnect.
“It was awesome,” Langfeld said. “A truly great experience. Scott was my roommate freshman year in West Quad. We won the national championship together, we did a lot of great things. … He was my guy. We leaned on each other a lot over the years, so it’s a great thing to celebrate.”
Added Matzka: “I haven’t had a chance to stay in touch with all these guys, and it sucks that it has to be under these circumstances, but it’s incredible to see everyone that’s shown up. The guys, the fans, people that are helping out around the rink. It’s hard to put into words.”
It wasn’t just former Michigan players who enjoyed participating in the game, as the event also involved a team of former Red Wings players. Dave Coulier, perhaps best known as “Uncle Joey” from the television show “Full House,” relished the opportunity to play with the Red Wings while supporting Matzka’s cause. Coulier has played with the Red Wings alumni team before and heard about the event from some of his friends who went to Michigan. Though he lacks a personal connection to Matzka and the disease, he recognized the importance of the event and what it meant to Matzka and his family.
“I think you’ve got a lot people with big hearts, who realize the importance of life, and how something like ALS can affect family and friends and personal lives,” Coulier said. “It’s brave on a whole other level, and guys just want to come out and support that. (They say) ‘Hey we’re looking out for you and we’re here to lend a hand.’
“It’s something we love to do. We love to get together and play hockey, but it’s especially great when you can take that and turn it into helping someone and their family.”
The game itself featured 17 goals, with the Wolverines’ alumni holding off a late comeback by their Red Wings counterparts in a 10-7 victory. The score had little importance, though. What mattered was that Matzka’s teammates all returned to support, honor and play for him.
“Obviously as a team, especially being from the class of 1998, and then you go ‘99, ‘00 and then ‘01, whenever you have a cause like that, the Michigan men assemble,” said former Wolverine forward Matt Herr. “It was great to see everybody. Whenever there’s a cause or a teammate needs you, nothing ever changes, the guys are there.
“It was fun tonight to get out there, put the skates on, and great to see Scott and his family. I think it meant a lot to these guys to be able to do that with Scott. If there is anything we can do to help another Michigan man, it is always good.”
28 players took the ice for the Wolverines, but Herr believes many more could have participated. Numerous alumni reached out to Chris Frescoln and L.J. Scarpace, who helped organize the event. Herr guesses that Michigan had the potential to “fill six teams.”
The night included reunions, tearful hugs, jokes about college life, and of course, a hockey game. Yet, most importantly, it honored Matzka and his fight against ALS.
“Thank you on behalf of all of Michigan for your strength and for everything that you are doing,” Herr said to Matzka during the event. “It takes a lot of courage, to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna battle this.’ With two small kids and a wife, it breaks your heart.
“He could have done a lot of things like (say) ‘Hey, I feel sorry for myself.’ But that’s not the Michigan way, and that’s not Scotty Matzka. Instead, he’s chosen to get the word out and help other people, and hopefully that carries on and keeps battling ALS.”