Monday , January 22, 2018 - 5:15 AM
OGDEN — Matus Spodniak didn’t think he would spend three seasons playing hockey for the Ogden Mustangs.
He didn’t think he would ever come close to breaking the Western States Hockey League’s all-time goalscoring record.
And yet, here he is.
“I didn’t think I (would) be here for three years, but the organization is really good and they help me with everything. Every year I’m (a) better and better hockey player, so that’s the reason why I’m still here,” Spodniak said.
The Mustangs’ 20-year-old, Slovakian-born forward is in his third season skating at the Weber County Ice Sheet, dazzling fans every weekend to the tune of 119 goals in 133 games — just nine goals away from the WSHL all-time record of 128.
But it was never as simple as him showing up one day, trying out for the team and being such an efficient and deadly goalscorer right as he touched the ice.
The journey to Ogden for the Mustangs’ all-time leader in goals and assists started in one country and went to another before he ended up in Ogden.
Spodniak was born in the city of Kosice (pronounced ko-SHEET-seh), the second-largest city in Slovakia behind the capital city of Bratislava.
His father, Jaroslav, played professional hockey for five years in Czechoslovakia before the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Three of those years his father spent with HC Kosice, one of the most successful clubs in the Slovakian Extraliga, with eight league championships since 1995.
So Spodniak started playing hockey when he was 4 years old.
“So he (brought) me to (the) ice and asked me if I want to play hockey, and I say, like, ‘Why not? I can try that,” he said.
Spodniak came to the United States when he was 16, wanting to play in the American junior leagues like so many other talented Europeans.
He had an uncle living in Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City, and went to try out for Suffolk PAL, a North American Hockey League team in Long Island.
He didn’t make the cut and got sent to Florida to play for the Florida Junior Blades in Estero, about 20 minutes south of Fort Myers.
Spodniak spent six games there, then went to Canada to play the rest of that season for the South Muskoka Shield, a team with four other Slovakian players who could give Spodniak a better chance to integrate into the team.
That was one of the issues with the first two teams for Spodniak. He didn’t speak English well at the time, and no one really wanted to invest time and energy into integrating him into the teams, according to Ogden Mustangs coach Jake Laime.
“We were really the only ones to take the time to invest into him. He didn’t speak English, he was a boy at that time,” Laime said.
As it just so happens, Laime (pronounced la-MAY) coached at Suffolk PAL, then left to go to the Junior Blades just before Spodniak came to Long Island. The two briefly crossed paths in Florida, but Laime soon took the head coaching job in Ogden.
Laime watched Spodniak skate around the rink a little bit and made some mental notes of the apparent talent and skill on display.
Did Laime think Spodniak was a special talent? Yes.
A potential WSHL scoring-record talent? Not at the time, but that realization came soon after Laime recruited Spodniak to the Mustangs.
In the three years Spodniak’s spent in Ogden, he’s gone from a “teeny” kid working his way up from the fourth line, to a feared goalscorer, skater and all-around terror for the team. The reason, Laime says, is Spodniak’s work ethic has set him apart from just about everyone else.
“I see it because I’m here every day. Some guys in the league are like, ‘Man who’s this kid? Where’d you get him from?’ He’s been here for 3 years,” Laime said.
Right now, Spodniak is spending time studying for the ACT as he preps to go to college. That takes some more time, but he’s getting some help from tutors.
When he first came to Ogden, the scoring record wasn’t a thought in his mind. It wasn’t even on his radar at the start of this year. He found out about the scoring record on the internet.
“We have, like, a fan page on Facebook and they posted (that) I’m really close to breaking (the) record, so, I saw it over there. I didn’t know. No idea,” Spodniak said.
Spodniak had the potential to break the scoring record in last weekend’s three-game romping sweep against Casper at home, but a high ankle sprain suffered in a showcase event in Las Vegas before Christmas sidelined him for almost a month and threw him off the pace.
But that Las Vegas trip was still fruitful for him. One of the assistant hockey coaches he’d been in contact with from Division I American International College (Springfield, Massachusetts) went to the showcase.
Such is Spodniak’s apparent talent and skill that American International College was one of several D-I schools interested in him. He verbally committed to AIC and will head there this fall.
According to the team, Spodniak is the first player to ever make the jump straight from a WSHL team to an NCAA Division I college team. Players normally go from the WSHL to Division III.
WSHL players can end up in Division I, but normally they do so by way of moving up to the North American Hockey League or the United States Hockey League and then to the D-I level, not straight from the WSHL.
College hockey usually doesn’t work like most other college sports, where prep prospects play in college immediately after graduating high school.
From high school, hockey players go into a league like the WSHL or the USHL or NAHL, develop for a couple years and then go to a college team.
Spodniak’s main goal coming to Ogden was to someday be able to play in college. Now that that’s essentially taken care of, the scoring record is at the forefront of his mind.
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