When Scott Matzka committed to play hockey at Michigan before the 1997-98 season, he didn’t know what kind of culture he was joining. All he knew was the Wolverines had won the NCAA Championship in 1996, and it was widely known that they were a premier hockey program.
In Matzka’s first season, Michigan further cemented its place at the top of college hockey, winning another NCAA Championship over Boston College. It was the Wolverines’ ninth national title, which still stands as the most all-time.
But while Matzka had experienced much success in his collegiate career, he wouldn’t come to fully understand how impactful the Wolverines’ hockey community would be until more than a decade after he was done playing — namely, this Saturday night.
In 2014, Matzka spent a lot of time in the car. He was working in automotive plants and had been making drives to and from those plants since he had retired from playing hockey the year before.
But over time, Matzka started to realize that something wasn’t quite right with his body. When he reached to grab a pack of gum, his forearm would sometimes cramp up. When he would make a fist, it would sometimes be difficult to uncurl his fingers.
“I felt like — especially as an athlete — I understood my body pretty well,” Matzka said. “I was very active at that point. I was still working out at the time. I just knew something was off, but it was very, very early on at that point.”
So Matzka began doing research on his symptoms, and a single result kept coming up: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. When his cramping and stiffness worsened, Matzka decided that it was time to see a doctor. But preliminary results from his general practitioner came back normal, and Matzka was referred to a neurologist to further examine his health.
Throughout August and September of 2014, Matzka travelled around Michigan seeing different doctors. He eventually ended up at the University of Michigan, where a neurologist confirmed Matzka’s fears, and he was officially diagnosed with ALS. From there, Matzka began to realize the road ahead of him.
“It was probably 16 months before we sat down and started thinking about what we could do to be advocates for the disease,” Matzka said. “By that point, we started understanding some of the things we were going to face physically and financially. So we were really at the crossroads of ‘OK, we want to do all these things.’ And by that point, we knew that my symptoms were severe enough that we had to, basically, shit or get off the pot.”
One of Matzka’s former employers created a website to help the Matzka family, where people could donate money to help with the costs of caring for an ALS patient. To date, Matzka estimates that the website has raised about 33-50% of his family’s goal of $500,000 in the last six months.
For his own part, Matzka has taken it upon himself to spread awareness about ALS.
“We decided that my biggest impact was going to be in helping to spread awareness,” Matzka said. “So what we’ve done is, for the most part, we’ve spent time trying to tell my story everywhere that we can, and use that as a tool to empower everybody around us and other people, and then spread awareness about ALS, but then raise money towards the family.”
Matzka’s journey to spread awareness has taken him all around the world. Last October, he took part in an honorary puck drop prior to Michigan’s hockey game against Union, which was deemed an ALS Awareness game. Soon after, Matzka travelled to the United Kingdom to attend a fundraising game put on by another one of his former teams, the Cardiff Devils.
“It’s really an honor for us to be a part of things like that,” Matzka said. “There are 20,000 people facing this in the US right now, and every 90 seconds someone is newly diagnosed. So we’re not the only ones that are facing this, but we’re obviously in the unique position that we’ve been and done things that most people haven’t been able to do.
“I’m honored to be the one. Unfortunately, I hate to be the one. But until this disease is figured out, somebody’s got to do it, so I feel like I’m a good person to do that right now.”
Saturday, Matzka will witness another hockey game in his honor. But this time, he will be watching some of his former Michigan teammates — along with other Wolverine alumni — take on former Detroit Red Wings players.
It was an idea brought to Matzka by former teammate LJ Scarpace, who, along with the Michigan hockey team, went to work inviting retired players to return for the game.
“Really, we just sent out an e-mail asking for the guys that would like to play, to (former Michigan players),” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Clearly we got a great response.”
And while there are many occasions when Wolverine alumni come back to Yost, this one will be a bit more somber. But that doesn’t mean that Michigan alumni won’t be attending in force.
“It seems like we’re always having a reunion of a championship team or an anniversary of something special,” Berenson said. “But it’s not very often that we have a needy, or a sad or a real challenging situation like this one. And when you do, it’s amazing how the Michigan hockey family comes together. I mean, we have a lineup. We’ve got probably too many players. We have more players than we need, but good for them.”
And no matter the result, both Berenson and Matzka realize that the final score doesn’t matter. For them, the heavy response from former Wolverines has already made Saturday’s event a success.
“What it means to me is it just makes me proud to be a part of the Michigan hockey family, and the Michigan family, period,” Berenson said. “I know our fans are going to support this event, and I know our team, I think, will support it, and obviously the community. So it’s not a happy thing, but it’s an important thing.”
Added Matzka: “We’re going to have a ton of people that are going to get a chance to learn more about ALS, and are going to Google it and hopefully have an opportunity to take part in some of the events to raise money for the cause.”
In addition to simply raising awareness about the disease, Saturday will also serve as an opportunity for people to support Matzka himself, as all proceeds from the event will be donated to his personal fund. Matzka knows how much of a difference those donations can make.
“It’s going to help provide us with the opportunity to make quality of life choices versus making financial choices,” Matzka said. “We have to say, ‘Do I want to live with this disease and see my kids grow up a little bit more, or not have that ability?’ So that’s really what we’re looking for.”