Matt Ellison’s first time suiting up for Team Canada pretty much worked out perfectly.
The Duncan-born hockey player, who now skates for Dinamo Minsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, was summoned to play for Canada in the Spengler Cup tournament in Switzerland last month, and played a big part in his team’s gold-medal win.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” Ellison said, a few days after the tournament wrapped up. “It was just an amazing feeling to be able to wear the Canadian jersey with the maple leaf on it and represent your country. Everything from travel arrangements to the hotel accommodations to the food and how they treated the families was first-class.
“Everyone who works for Hockey Canada and the coaching staff to the medical staff and trainers were all first-class and made the tournament and holidays the most memorable they could ever be. Every tournament you go in to you want to win so that was our goal, and for that to actually come true was amazing. It was a short period of time, but the amount of work the guys on the teams and the coaches put in to get us to learn the system and work together as a team was phenomenal. And in the end it paid off for us.”
Minsk didn’t have any games scheduled during the period when the Spengler Cup was held, so the Dinamo players suspected their team might be competing. That turned out not to be the case, but Ellison wasn’t going to be left on the sidelines.
“When we found out that we weren’t going, I got in contact with Hockey Canada and they got back to me a couple days later saying they would love to have me on the team,” Ellison explained. “So it was pretty exciting when it all got in motion.”
Ellison’s most productive game at the Spengler Cup came in the semifinal as he scored twice in the second period and set up Cory Conacher’s game-winning goal with three and a half minutes left in the third. The performance didn’t go unnoticed at home.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “Especially all the messages from family and friends I got after the game saying they watched and how exciting it was. It’s a pretty amazing feel knowing how many people at home followed it and all the support the team and myself had.”
The Canadian players, most of whom were drawn from European clubs and the American Hockey League, had only a short time to develop chemistry, but to hear Ellison tell it, they did so pretty quickly.
“I knew who a lot of them were but I had only played with one guy before [Minsk goalie Jeff Glass] and knew a couple guys through mutual friends, so it was fun to meet a whole bunch of new people and get to make some new friends while there,” he said. “It was a quick tournament, but what we went through in preparation to win, the guys will never forget how fast we came together as a team and played together to make it work.”
Playing for the Spengler Cup had been a goal of Ellison’s for a while, and even though he already has a gold medal to show for it, he wouldn’t hesitate to take another shot.
“I would love to do it again,” he said. “It was something I wanted to do three years ago when I signed in Switzerland and then when I left I never got the chance to do it. This year was amazing and I jumped at it and would do it again in a heartbeat if the opportunity came again.”
Ellison played a season with the junior B Kerry Park Islanders and three more with the junior A Cowichan Valley Capitals before jumping to the Western Hockey League for a year, where he caught the eye of the Chicago Blackhawks. Between 2003 and 2007, he put up 14 points in 43 games in the NHL for Chicago and Philadelphia.
Since moving to Europe to play in the KHL in 2008, Ellison has played for five different teams spread out over Latvia, Russia, Croatia and Belarus, in addition to a seven-game stint in the Swiss league in 2013. His 353 games, 118 goals, 153 assists and 271 points are all career records for Canadian players in the KHL, and his point total is the 10th-highest in league history.
Through 39 games this year, Ellison leads Dinamo with 21 goals and 41 points, and sits ninth in league scoring. He was voted to the Team West starting lineup for the 2016 all-star game on Jan. 23, alongside former NHLers Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov. Still, his concerns are more about the team than his individual totals.
“We’re in a battle for the last playoff spot right now,” he noted. “We are on the outside looking in but we have games in hand so we need some wins. Only 16 games left so we need to win now and as much as possible.”
This is Ellison’s second year in Minsk, and he’s happy playing in the capital of Belarus, as is his family; his wife and three daughters are living in Europe with him.
“It’s been awesome being here,” he said. “Good city with some good restaurants and the fans are amazing, so it’s easy to get up for a game with all the support they give. It’s a nice city for the family and there are lots of other import players with kids so the families get together and let the kids play all the time. There is an international school where a lot of the kids go, so it’s good for everyone here and easy living which makes it easier on us to just relax and play and not have to worry about off-ice stuff.”
Ellison will be a free agent following the 2015/16 season, and at this point, he’s not certain where he will end up.
“Minsk will definitely be an option for us if the team feels the same way, but as of right now I’m not focusing on it and waiting till the season is over before I commit to anything.”Ellison, who turned 32 in early December, last played in North American with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals in 2007/08, and as much as he has enjoyed his time in the KHL, he would welcome an opportunity to return to Canada or the U.S.
“I know it’s been a while and I’m getting older, but if I got the chance to come back and play in North America I would probably do that,” he admitted. “I’ve been over here for a long time and feel like I would like to be closer to home if I had the chance.”