UNH Captain's Corner: Reflections on the 2016-17 Season
One year ago, at the 2016 Men's Ice Hockey Awards Banquet, Matias Cleland accepted and welcomed a unique challenge. He had just become the sole captain of the 2016-17 UNH Wildcats. There would be no co-captains or alternate captains. At the Media Day last September, I asked Matias about his role as the captain:
"Congratulations on being the only captain. Is this the first time you've ever played on a team with just one captain and no alternates?"
Cleland: "Thank you. I think so, yes it is."
"Does it introduce more pressure on you or do you see advantages of being the only captain?"
Cleland: "I don't think it adds any pressure to it. I think we have a large groups of leaders in that room. A lot of guys in the junior class, a lot of guys in my class are leaders and that's how we look at it. I think we're leading by committee and they're all going to be a leader, even if it's a sophomore or a freshman. We can all be leaders on the ice and especially off the ice."
So what kind of captain did Matias Cleland become? These quotes from UNH Head Coach Dick Umile near the end of the season say it all:
"Dick Umile said postgame that Matias Cleland is the best captain he has had in his 27 years behind the UNH bench." Nick Stoico, Concord Monitor
“A guy like Cleland. He is our leader and our warrior. He is committed to it and got his teammates ready to go to battle where they did not want to see the season end. It has been a frustrating season, but now in the new season, we just won two out of three.” Dick Umile, UNH Head CoachMatias Cleland's senior season will also be remembered as one of the best offensive performances by a defenseman in UNH Hockey history. As the starting left defenseman, point man on the UNH power play, and backbone of the penalty kill unit, Cleland scored 2 goals and 32 assists in 34 regular season games. He was the leading scorer among all NCAA Division I defensemen in the 2016-17 regular season. Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher of Denver University also scored 34 points but he played in 2 more regular season games than Matias.
Cleland's 32 assists in 34 regular season games were the most of any defenseman and he tied for 4th among all NCAA players. 20 of Cleland's assists came on the power play. Dylan Sikura (21), a Northeastern forward, was the only player with more power play assists in the regular season.
Matias added a goal and an assist during the 6 Hockey East Playoff games against Merrimack and UMass-Lowell. That brought his 2016-17 totals up to 3 goals and 33 assists in 40 games. Those 33 assists earned Cleland a special place in the annals of UNH Men's Hockey. Only three UNH defensemen have tallied more assists in a single season. Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway scored the most single-season assists (43) by a UNH defenseman in the 1976-77 season. Peter Hermes (1984-85) and All-American Tim Murray (1996-97) tallied 37 assists. On the impressive list of All-Time UNH Leading Scorers, Cleland is tied for 16th for the most assists in a single season.
Matias Cleland's overall performance was honored at the 2017 Hockey East Annual Awards Banquet in mid-March. He was named a Hockey East All-Star Honorable Mention.
Over the course of this season, it's been my pleasure to interview Matias for the "UNH Captain's Corner" series. In this, our final interview, we discussed the 2016-17 season and what his classmates have meant to him over their 4 seasons at UNH.
Mike Lowry: What was the biggest disappointment?
Matias Cleland: The biggest disappointment was losing to Lowell at the end of the year. We turned it up at the end and that loss obviously ended the year and my career at UNH. I was really proud of how the guys came together and fought until the end.
Lowry: What advice would you give the next UNH captain(s)?
Cleland: I would tell them to realize how great of a program they are privileged to be the leader of and to not take it for granted. I would also tell them to do whatever it takes to win because there's nothing better than winning.
Lowry: Over your four years at UNH, you've grown close to your classmates - Tyler Kelleher, Dylan Maller, and Jamie Hill. In the coming years, as your lives move in different directions, what will you remember about them, both as hockey players and friends off the ice?
Cleland: Our class is extremely close, and we will have a life long friendship. We have spent the last four years together, and we will be in touch no matter what we all end up doing.
Lowry: Soon after the season ended, you signed an Amateur Tryout Contract with the Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins. You scored a goal in your first game and accumulated 7 shots on goal over 5 games. How do you think your play stacked up against the ECHL players? What playing options are you considering for next season??
Cleland: My play stacked up well against other players in the league. There were a lot of good players and the hockey was good. I felt like I played really well and showed what I can do. I'm working to get into the AHL for next year and waiting on some things this summer.