Catching Up With Spodniak

by Manny Brizuela

It’s every parents dream to see their child ascend into something that they truly love. When the opportunity for success presents itself there is no greater feeling of satisfaction.

Jaroslav Spodniak played pro hockey in his native country of then Czechoslovakia from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Although he was able to grace that level of play and then retire, hockey wasn’t going anywhere for the Spodniak family.

A retired pro hockey player but most of all, father to a newborn, Jaroslav sustained a new purpose. His son, Matus, was born in 1997 and it only took four years before he laced up a pair of skates and hit the ice—literally. He learned to skate at the age of four with “Coach Dad” setting pace for the powerful presence he was soon to become. The initial tumbles to the ice did not deter Matus as it doesn’t most hockey players to be, and soon he mastered the ability.

(All photos taken by Mark Mauno)
Eventually, Matus honed in on his abilities well enough to play for his hometown, HK32 Liptovsky Mikulas U18 and HC Banska Bystrica U18. The progression of his game wasn’t known at the time but in retrospect his playing career reflects exponential growth in point production. 

For Matus, the biggest and boldest leap in his life was leaving home.

Sure, thousands of kids each year leave home to billet with a junior hockey team—Matus entered a new world. He faced a lot of hardship due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. It became tough to acclimate and coaches simply lacked the patience to work with Matus or to effectively communicate with him.

“In the beginning it was pretty tough,” Matus said. “My English was really bad. In Europe I played in a different size rink. When I came here I started playing in a much smaller rink so it’s a big difference. You have to be faster.”

Matus moved to Canada before playing in the United States. In Canada, he played for the South Muskoka Shield of the GMHL where he logged 41-points in 32 games played. His hockey trajectory took a boost as his production rose. Then, Coach Jake Laime of the Ogden Mustangs took notice.

“Coach Laime called me and asked me if I wanted to play for his team,” Matus said. “I wanted to try the league. He told me I would be in power play and penalty kill so my ice time would be better. I said sure why not I can try it for one year.”   

The promise of one year eventually turned into three star studded years in the WSHL. Everyone learns to play hockey for a reason. When his father, Jaroslav, laced him up at four years old, that pace he was setting was toward the WSHL all-time goals record. Blake Barkwell originally held the record during his time with the Phoenix Polar Bears from 2006 to 2008.  

Matus had a four-goal night with Ogden early this year that saw him break the record but that wasn’t his biggest achievement. He became the first WSHL player in league history to make the jump directly from the league to an NCAA Division-I school. This time around it was the associate head coach of American International College (AIC), Mike Towns, who took notice.

AIC competes in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. With that being said, Matus will be stacking up against opponents such as Mercyhurst, Army, Canisius and Air Force. AIC finished 8th in the conference last season under Head Coach Eric Lang. Recently, Atlantic Hockey was represented by Air Force in the NCAA D-I Frozen Four National Tournament. Air Force defeated St. Cloud State, No. 1 in the nation at the time, in the first round.    

Towns of the AIC Yellow Jackets, played a similar role to that of Laime in that he saw something in Matus that needed to be given an opportunity.

“It was at the Vegas showcase that Coach Towns saw me play and hung out with me,” Matus said. “I talked to him and he liked me so he told me a lot about AIC.”  

“First of all I think education is very important. My goal right now is to have good grades and play as much hockey as I can. It’s fun [playing D-I] but I have to say it’s much faster hockey so I try to work hard and be prepared for practice.”

The Yellow Jackets begin their season on a three game road trip starting Oct. 6 when they visit No. 5 Providence College and then Niagara University. Matus will experience his first home D-I game until Oct. 16 when AIC hosts Bentley University followed by Quinnipiac.   

The Ogden Mustangs fought for the 2018 Thorne Cup versus heavy favorite El Paso Rhinos. Matus wasn’t able to hoist the cup but he left the WSHL with 288 points in 146 regular season games played (135-153). The void will be difficult to fill for Ogden but Matus says he will definitely keep up with the Mustangs through out the season. In turn, Jaroslav keeps up with his son’s games and is watching Matus steer his own destiny—the same destiny that was born in Liptovsky Mikulas, Slovakia.