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An unexpected star: Northern Michigan University hockey goalie Rico DiMatteo talks about wild freshman year

Northern Michigan University goalie Rico DiMatteo, left, pokes a rebound away as teammates Ben Newhouse, second from right, and Tyrell Boucher, center, try to block out Bowling Green State’s Connor Ford, second from left, and Evan Dougherty during the first period of their WCHA game on Feb. 20 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“We had good chemistry and we just came in and everyone was positive.” — Rico DiMATTEO, NMU freshman goalie,

on the Wildcats’ WCHA playoff run to the championship game

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MARQUETTE — Transferring to a different school during the offseason isn’t easy and it can sometimes be a difficult adjustment for college athletes.

Bug joining a team midseason with the playoffs quickly approaching can be even more difficult and downright stressful in some cases. That didn’t seem to bother Northern Michigan University hockey player Rico DiMatteo, though.

The Wildcats’ freshman goalie was called up to the roster from the North American Hockey League in January and was basically tasked with giving the Wildcats stability in net.

Northern Michigan University goalie Rico DiMatteo, center, guards the post as teammate Hank Sorensen, right, fights for the puck behind the net during a game against Alabama-Huntsville on Feb. 17 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Also pictured is Wildcats' defenseman Mike Van Unen. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

The move came as a shock to many, especially DiMatteo, but he was excited for the opportunity because he’d wanted to play college hockey since he was a kid in upstate New York, not far from NCAA Division I Clarkson University.

“It kind of hit me hard,” he said about the quick request from NMU. “I had no clue, either. I remember returning back to Dallas, Texas, after our Christmas break and I was there for a couple days to practice with the team.

“And (NMU head coach) Grant (Potulny) called me and said ‘Hey can you be here on Sunday?’ which was I think was five days from the day he called me. So I was super shocked, but at the end of the day, I was super excited and I knew that my career was going to be advancing a little bit sooner than I expected, which was awesome and I knew there was opportunity.

“That week was my birthday as well, so I was traveling on my birthday and I guess just being in that setting was a great birthday present all in itself.”

DiMatteo said things were basically a blur over the course of the week with a ton of paperwork and having to get accepted at Northern and getting into classes in the middle of the semester. On Feb. 7, he made his first start at Lake Superior State, where the Wildcats gutted out a victory.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I’ve always told people, this is a question I get asked a lot. It was a really emotional night, especially after the win. It was just years of hard work leading up to a moment that I’d always dreamed of.

“I played that scenario over and over a million times in my head throughout the years. Once I got into that game setting, it was like it was my thousandth game at that level and that made me settle in and just be comfortable right from the get-go. To win that first one was really big for me.”

The following weekend, the Wildcats got a big road sweep at Bemidji State and DiMatteo basically locked in the starting job. Two weeks later, DiMatteo had his breakout performance, shutting out Bowling Green State, including stopping every Falcons attempt in a shootout. He said he wasn’t really thinking about it at the time and once the shootout ended, he let out a yell and pumped his stick in the air.

“It was one of those games where as a goalie, you just lose track of time and you have no clue what the score is and the only thing that’s running in your brain is pucks coming at you,” he said. “Before you know it, the game’s over and that’s kind of when the present moment hits you and the emotions flare up, and obviously that was a great team win.”

NMU faced the Falcons again in the first round of the WCHA tournament and prevailed in a best-of-three series, bouncing back in the third game after a terrible Game 2. DiMatteo started all three games and shut down BG in the final game after it put up five goals the night before and credited the character of his team with coming out with a series win.

“I think it would be really easy and really comfortable for guys to kind of roll over after that loss the second night and kind of lay an egg the third night,” he said. “But like I said, it just shows the character we have in the locker room and the way the guys played in front of me that whole weekend was incredible and they helped me out a ton.”

Then came the big upset over Minnesota State in Mankato during the semifinals. The high-powered Mavericks, who went on to make the Frozen Four a couple weeks later, were stifled by DiMatteo and held to only one goal. DiMatteo said NMU went into the game knowing it was the underdog and approached it with a relaxed feeling.

“We did have nothing to lose, and when you have nothing to lose, it makes you dangerous and we were dangerous.

“Everything was clicking at that time. We had good chemistry and we just came in and everyone was positive. That’s the one thing that kind of stuck out to me was the character in the locker room and how positive we were from the first series in Bowling Green and then going into Mankato, it just felt the same.”

DiMatteo also said that the Wildcats felt disrespected going into the Mankato game and wanted to prove themselves against one of the best teams in the country.

“We were motivated, that’s for sure,” he said. “I remember we talked about earning our respect and we felt like all year, we just didn’t get the respect that we deserved. We felt we were a lot better team than what we were credited for in the national rankings and just within our league as well. We went out there and we definitely earned our respect that night, and I think as a team and as a program that was a great night.”

DiMatteo ended up making the WCHA All-Rookie Team, which he said was unexpected.

What makes his impressive season even more interesting is that he kind of fell into being a goaltender as a kid growing up.

“I honestly can’t remember ever wanting to be a goalie,” he said with a laugh. “I remember being on a mini-Mite team and we took turns being goalie and it was my turn to be goalie.

“For some reason after that, I was goalie the rest of the year. I guess I was good at it and everyone said you should just play the rest of the time. I said OK, whatever. So that’s how that went.”

Obviously, things worked out for him and the Wildcats. DiMatteo will likely be the starting goalie as the 2021-22 season begins and he thinks that coming one game short of making the NCAA Tournament will give him and his team something to aim for.

“I think with just the youth we had in our lineup this year, experience is everything, especially when it comes to playoff time,” he said. “I think now that a lot of guys have that experience under their belt moving forward in their careers and even into next year, it’s going to bring a level of maturity that’s really going to help us out.”

Looking at the season overall, DiMatteo said he was just happy that he got a chance to suit up and play this spring and he’s looking forward to whatever this year has in store.

“I’m sure everyone is super grateful to even be able to play this past season,” he said. “There’s a lot of hockey players out there who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to play this season, so to do that this past season, it was incredible.

“For me, I didn’t get a sense of that college hockey environment with the fans at full capacity. So I’m super excited to give myself that extra challenge honestly with that atmosphere in college hockey and I’m sure the rest of the team feels the same way.”

Based on how he handled an abrupt change to his season and the pressure of helping a team through a playoff run, it’s pretty clear that DiMatteo can handle whatever this year will shoot at him.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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