By Rebecca Castagna, QBSN Online Editor
Matthew Peca isn’t sure about how he got his start in hockey, but he is sure about one thing: he’s far from done playing for Quinnipiac.
Just days after he played in the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, Bobcat fans let out a collective sigh of relief as Peca announced his plans to stay for the 2013-14 season.
“I don’t think I’m ready to leave yet,” Peca said. “We’re going to be an excellent team next year … hopefully I can make some strides to get better.”
This self-motivational mentality has been a core part of Peca’s play since his time in junior hockey when he played for the Pembroke Lumber Kings.
Though he was shy at first, his teammates say he played with a quiet confidence.
“He wasn’t very outspoken, but he led by example,” Brandon Gagne said, who often played on Peca’s line. “He didn’t really have a lot to say in the dressing room, but when it came to the performance on the ice, that’s when he did his talking.”
Disappointments on the ice served as motivation to improve.
“[Peca] was always pushing himself,” former teammate Ben Reinhardt said. “He learned from the mistakes and he got better. That’s why he’s in the position he’s in now, and is doing as well as he’s doing. It’s because he just wants to keep getting better.”
Former teammate Ted Pletsch echoed what Peca has repeatedly stressed throughout this season, about bouncing back from bad games and keeping a level head.
“He’s definitely a guy who doesn’t get too low on the lows,” Pletsch said.
Through his example, Peca encouraged his teammates to improve their play.
“It was exciting to be around a guy like that,” former teammate Stephen Farrell said. “[He] had so much potential and had so much going for him that he kind of pushed a lot of the older guys to be better as well.”
A 16-year-old Peca found himself playing with guys who were three to four years older than him – quite a change from what he was used to growing up.
“I was playing against guys who were just as old as the guys I’m playing with now, and I was much younger then,” Peca said. “I kind of had to adjust to the older, more mature fellows. But it was fine. They helped a lot and they made me grow up quicker.”
His young age was but a number. He matured from a soft-spoken kid to a more vocal part of the team, becoming assistant captain his last year in Pembroke.
“He was a real leader for someone who was only 17, with guys like myself who were three years older,” Reinhardt said. “Everybody had nothing but respect for him.”
When Peca was in junior hockey, he was faced with many options, including pursuing major junior hockey with the Ontario Hockey League or going to the NCAA for college hockey, something he didn’t know a whole lot about.
But for Peca, Quinnipiac was an easy pick.
His reasoning was, in a way, threefold: a beautiful campus with a promising hockey program, a head coach willing to take a nine-hour drive for a personal recruiting visit, and the opportunity to pursue a college education while playing the sport he loves.
Peca’s attitude towards education runs in his blood. His mother teaches senior kindergarten and had him in class as well.
“Yeah, she got me when I was young,” he said, smiling.
His teammates from Pembroke say he consistently prioritized academics.
“When he was in Pembroke, school came first before hockey,” Pletsch said. “That’s definitely a big part of who he is and how he operates.”
Peca’s teammates remember him bringing his backpack on the road to do work to and from games.
“If I was trying to sleep, he would always have his light on, and he’d be flipping through his notebooks,” Farrell said, who often sat in front of him on the bus. “It may have been 1 a.m. on the bus, but he’d still be reviewing his homework for the next day or trying to get an assignment done.”
Though he is a marketing major, Peca has always wanted to teach.
“He’s always been instilled with the value that hockey has a shelf life, and even the best players only play to their 40s,” Reinhardt said. “After he signed with Quinnipiac, he said that one of the reasons why it was so appealing was not only for the hockey, but it had a program so he could become a teacher.”
But first Peca has hockey to play and teammates to lead on the ice, as he starts working with the incoming talent to shape the team for the next year.
“That’s what I’m most excited for,” Peca said. “To get new faces in and to not necessarily start from scratch, but to try and pass along the knowledge that we have of what it takes to make it to the national championship … we know what we’re capable of.”
Though Peca came to Quinnipiac already drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and after this season has an NCAA tournament record to his name for fastest hat trick and has been featured on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” he always shifts the conversation back towards the team.
“You try not to think about it too much,” Peca said of the swarm of press he received during the ride to the Frozen Four. “It’s nice to get the recognition, but I think every team was taken by it … just having that type of spotlight on your team really prepares you for basically anything we’re going to meet from now on.”
He personifies the old saying that there is no “I” in team.
“He was just a great, all-around, team guy,” Reinhardt said. “You can’t be successful without a team mentality and that’s what he was all about.”
As the team prepares for next year, Quinnipiac hockey fans have high expectations for Peca. But his team mentality and desire to improve his play for the team remain constant.
“I don’t want to set the standard too high … [but] I think it just kind of makes me a little more confident now that I know what I’m capable of doing,” Peca said. “You kind of try to put that stuff in your rearview because you don’t want to let it go to your head.”
Even as his Pembroke Lumber Kings teammates continue their own careers, they have followed his two seasons at Quinnipiac and are hardly surprised by his success.
“I think everybody knew that he was an elite hockey player,” Gagne said. “He wasn’t cocky though. He kind of minded his own business. Watching him grow up, we all knew that he was something special … he’s one-of-a-kind.”
Whether modeling humility and teamwork, valuing an education, or demonstrating his dedication through hard work and self-reflection on the ice, Peca has already become a teacher and has had a lasting impression on his teammates.
“He was a great teammate and he was an even better person,” Pletsch said. “He’s one of the nicest guys off the ice, willing to do anything for anybody else, but especially on the ice. You couldn’t help but notice how great he was.”