I just want to take this moment and thank Blair for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. I debated and was initially hesitant to write about my playing career. Luckily, Blair was persistent in encouraging me to share my story. In fact, Blair is one of the few individuals that knew about the highs and jubilant moments, as well as the lows and adversity that I faced in my hockey career. Until now, I have never really opened up or told my story to many people. So again, thank you Blair for giving me this opportunity. In the end, this will all be worth it if I can help out even just one athlete.

I was born on September 28, 1989 in Edmonton, Alberta. I grew up an Edmonton Oilers fan and like many other kids wanted to be a hockey player and one day play for the Oilers. At a young age I fell in love with the sport. All I did was think it, dream it, and play it. It was rare to not see me with a hockey stick in my hands, or dribbling a soccer ball. Growing up, I played my minor hockey in Edmonton. When I turned 10 years old, my family moved to Sturgeon County where I played a few years in St. Albert before heading to Fort Saskatchewan to play Bantam AAA and Midget AAA. It was in Fort Saskatchewan that my hockey career began to unfold. After our team won the Bantam AAA Westerns Championship, I was drafted by the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. Swift Current may have been the smallest hockey market in all of major junior hockey, but I remember being excited to be a part of such a great organization and community. To this day, I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Swift Current. I wore the Bronco’s jersey with pride and thoroughly enjoyed playing for the fans and people of that fine city.

As a 16-year-old, I will never forget my first junior hockey camp. I recall working hard that summer and coming to camp prepared and ready to compete. Looking back, I had a great camp. Things were going my way. I even got 5 points in the annual Broncos’ Black vs. White game, and remember GM and Coach Dean Chynoweth and Assistant GM Eldon Moberg giving me the game sheet as a keepsake. The next night, I went on to score 2 goals against the Medicine Hat Tigers in my first exhibition game as a Swift Current Bronco in front of the hometown fans. Wow! It was a great feeling. Funny thing is, after that game, I always enjoyed playing against the Tigers and coach Willie, them and the Moose Jaw Warriors.

Like every other hockey player, I wanted to make junior at 16. Needless to say, I was disappointed when the Broncos told me I had a great camp but that I would be going back to the Fort Saskatchewan Midget AAA Rangers. They were only keeping one 16-year-old forward that year and it was their first-round pick who just happened to be 6’4”. Looking back now, it was the best thing for me. At the time, I was very determined to make the team but was able to go back to Midget AAA and work on the details of my game and the things I needed to do to improve. Plus, the experience of my first junior camp made me a better, stronger, and more confident player. When Coach Chynoweth informed me that I made the team the following year I was thrilled. My hard work finally paid off. I hit one of my hockey goals and that was to play junior hockey.

My first year of junior definitely did not go as I had hoped. I was a rookie, and I had to earn my ice time. It was an uphill battle of being in and out of the lineup and playing on the fourth line. This was all new to me, I’d never experienced this before. Since I started playing hockey, I always got plenty of ice time, played on the top line, and was on the powerplay and penalty kill units. This was my first challenge and real test. Junior hockey is a business, coaches do not have time to baby players. I was always waiting for the coach to tell me what to do instead of me going to the coach to ask what I needed to do to get more opportunity and stay in the lineup. It took me awhile to realize this. Eventually, I figured out that the more your coaches trust you, the more opportunity you get as a player. I began to soak in as much as I could from the veterans and older guys in the room. I could always put the puck in the net and put up points, but I needed to do more. I needed to carve out a role on the team, and find my own identity that would allow me to contribute. We had our goal scorers and point guys already. I found a role in being a solid 200-foot player that could fight. I was a big player. I had a temper. I stood up for my teammates. They always knew I had their back. At that time in junior hockey there was a lot more fighting so it was a good asset to have in your toolbox. So, I started to fight a bit and be a strong physical presence for my team. Funny thing is, I started to  stay in the lineup. I wasn’t getting scratched and when older guys were out of the lineup, I would move up from the fourth line. Finally, I was finding myself and things were going in the right direction, until that is, I was out on the ice during a penalty kill. I went down to block a shot as the Dman was winding up for a one-timer and boom…. BLOCKED IT. I felt that one pretty good. After we iced the puck, I skated to the bench with my knee throbbing and stinging. Our trainer came over to take a look. It hurt a whole lot but I still wanted to play. I brushed it off as a stinger. It hurts to block shots but when you’re a hockey player you’re tough. You just battle through things.

After the game, as I was getting undressed, I noticed that my shin pad had a huge crack in the knee cap. My knee was swollen so we decided to get x-rays. Sure enough, the doctor comes in to tell me that I have a fractured patella. Great… a season ending injury just when things were finally turning around for me. I had my leg in a splint for 6 weeks before I was able to start rehab. It was a tough way to end my first year of junior hockey. It was hard to watch games. I just wanted to be in the lineup. When you’re not playing, you never really feel a part of the team. You feel alone. The unfortunate thing is that even though hockey is a team sport, you are still competing with your teammates for spots and jobs on teams. When you’re not playing, other players are jumping ahead of you. You start feeling bad for yourself and start thinking why me.

I have always been fortunate to have my dad and family supporting me. Without them and their positive outlook, I would still be feeling sorry for myself. It was a tough hill to climb, but now I had the whole summer to rehab and get back in shape. I became better, stronger, faster, and more determined. The next year was my NHL draft year. I was easily motivated by that and ready to achieve another goal.

You start feeling bad for yourself and start thinking why me.

Back in Swift Current, my second year of junior hockey started off similar to the first. I was given nothing. I had to earn everything all over again. This time I knew what to do. I was a stronger, better, and more determined hockey player. I had a chip on my shoulder. I also learned that when you’re finally given an opportunity, you need to take advantage of it. That means if you get the chance to play on special teams or higher up in the lineup, you need to take it, run, and don’t look back. In my case, I finally got an opportunity to play on the second line and when that happened, I never looked back.

I had the mindset that no one was taking this spot from me. I was playing well, our line was clicking. It seemed we were a threat every time our line was out there. I was contributing offensively and that felt great. By now, my coach knew that I was also a very big team guy. I would take exception to anyone taking advantage of one of our players or if an opposing player threw a dirty hit. I was always the first one in, I fought a lot that year. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy that part of it. I liked it, It was a thrill. At that time, fighting was a bigger part of the game. During one of those fights, my shoulder popped out as I was throwing. It was the worst and most helpless feeling. Luckily, the player I was fighting realized what happened and we stopped. I went into the trainer’s room where we popped my shoulder back in. My stomach sank thinking I would be out long term. I pushed myself and was back in the lineup in a week and a half with a shoulder brace. I didn’t want to miss any games. I wanted to be in the battle with the boys. I finished off the season strong, and our line continued to play well. I still fought when necessary. From time to time my shoulder would pop out. I would just put it back in and continue going. I’d miss the odd game here and there to give it some rest but I was happy I was able to finish off the year with my teammates.

That year the Dallas Stars selected me in the 6th round of the NHL Entry Draft. I was absolutely elated. They described me as having a “really good balance of skill and toughness.” Despite some setbacks, all my hard work, determination, and perseverance finally paid off. Things were looking up. I worked hard that summer, I rehabbed my shoulder and I worked tirelessly on my skills and edge work. I got bigger, faster, and was determined to go into camp and make an impact. My first NHL camp went great. It was a fantastic experience.

Back in Swift Current, my third year of junior was my best year. I was on the top line, I was scoring goals and producing offensively. I was also sticking up for my teammates and fighting. I even got Team MVP that year. Over the course of the season my shoulders just got progressively worse. My one shoulder was popping out so much that I had to switch the way I threw when fighting. Unfortunately, with me compensating, my other shoulder separated. So, there I was, achieving my goal of getting drafted, playing a key role on one of the best lines in the league, and having to deal with not one but both my shoulders popping out.

That year, my shoulders probably popped out a dozen or more times. It was bad. I didn’t want to be out of the lineup so I kept battling. I just dealt with the pain and discomfort and kept rolling. Through it all, I was on pace to hit 50 goals. Best season yet. I remember my second to last game scoring 4 goals against the Prince Albert Raiders in their home barn. The next night we had a home game against the Saskatoon Blades. It would be the last game I played that year.

I went in on the forecheck, popping my shoulder out and landing on my other shoulder popping that one out too. I skated to the bench with both shoulders completely out. By this time, it was very easy for me to put them back in. After that game, I remember calling my dad upset, frustrated, and in a lot of pain. I just couldn’t play hockey like this anymore. Both my shoulders were at the point that I needed to get surgery. My season ended early that year. I played 55 games. I got both my shoulders done that spring staggering them by 2 months so I was still able to use one arm at a time. That was one of the toughest things I have ever had to go through and regrettably, it was just the start of things to come.

From time to time my shoulder would pop out. I would just put it back in and continue going.

Because of how early I got the surgery, I should have been back playing the following season in September. Shockingly, I got a staph infection on my one shoulder 3 months in. It was a very serious situation. My body rejected the bone block and screws they put in. They had to redo the surgery. I was going to be out another 6 months. I have never been at a lower point in my life. It was tough, I was depressed and I didn’t want to talk to anyone or see anyone. I just laid in my room. Through it all, fortunately, I had the love and support of my family, girlfriend (now wife), teammates, coaches, and friends. They got me through this incredibly trying and difficult time in my life. I was thankful and grateful for their positive energy and love. I finally realized how blessed I was to have this amazing support network around me. There was more to this than just hockey. Hockey is a game. When I didn’t have hockey, I knew that I would always have my family and friends.

My fourth year of junior became the year that would define who I am. It would be a short season because I was not cleared to play until December. I was used to coming back from injuries and was excited to finally join my team. Playing my first game back in Swift Current was an absolutely amazing feeling. The welcoming I got from the fans was overwhelming. I was finally back playing my last year of junior in my favorite hockey city.

I’ll admit, it was a difficult year getting things going. It was a bigger adjustment than I thought coming back from my shoulder surgeries, but as I always do, I pushed myself and started to really find my game again. Then, in a game in Prince Albert, in the 3rd last game of the season, I collided with a player in the middle of the ice and crunched my neck pretty good. I remember skating off the ice as my back seized up. I knew something was not right. I went to the Hospital where I was told that I had fractured my neck. WOW… another injury. I was devastated. I remember just laying on the backboard hearing the doctor say I would never play hockey again. I was overcome with emotion. As tears ran down my face, I was determined to prove them wrong. I knew how to overcome injuries and adversity better than anyone, if there was anybody that could overcome this it was me.

A couple of days later, the Dallas Starts flew me down to Texas for surgery. To this day, I thank the Dallas Stars for believing in me and providing me the medical treatment I needed by a doctor they trusted. They are a first-class organization. As I said earlier, my teammates could always count on me having their back. As such, I will be forever grateful to the Dallas Stars for having my back during that difficult time. Despite my injury, they still gave me a contract. The surgery went well and I was determined to get back to work.

Through sheer determination, perseverance, and hard work, I was fortunate to play Pro the next 5 years. I still loved playing the game and everything that came with it. My teammates. The fans. During those five years, I was still a competitive player despite having to deal with constantly lingering injuries. Sadly, I had to end my career early because of injury. I had to finally close that chapter of my life. Thankfully, I had the love and support of my fiancé (now wife), family, and friends to help me through it.

As tears ran down my face, I was determined to prove them wrong.

Yes, perhaps my story could have been different. Looking back now, it is clear that my hockey career would have taken a different trajectory were it not for my injuries. What I am most proud of today is that despite all the adversity, misfortune, and setbacks, I never rolled over and quit. It wasn’t in my DNA then and it’s not in my DNA now. There are things that happen in life that you just have to deal with. Everything that has happened to me has made me a better person today. I’ve become more resilient, hardworking, dedicated, and loyal. I am not just a hockey player. I am a husband, father, son, brother, friend, and coach. I still miss the game. Wish I could still be playing, but I will always remember the amazing teammates, coaches, trainers, staff, and fans I have met through my 4 years of junior and 5 years of professional hockey. Those memories and times will stay with me forever and I am grateful I had the opportunity to play the game I loved.

What am I doing today? I’m happy to report that hockey has remained a big part of my life. After retiring, I became a coach with the NAX Hockey Academy in Devon, Alberta. I’m currently the Head Coach of the Northern Alberta Xtreme Midget Prep in the CSSHL. We’ve won back-to-back championships in the Midget Prep league. Players that knew me know that I was one of the most competitive players that they have ever played with or against. I now bring that same level of competitiveness and passion to coaching. I enjoy using my hockey skills, knowledge, and experiences to help these young players come up and fulfill their dreams. I see the same passion and dedication that I had when I played and I’m excited to be able to give back to the game.

Everything that has happened to me has made me a better person today

Blair, thank you again for letting me tell my story and finally opening up. If anyone ever needs someone to talk to or has similar stories, I would love to hear from you. Remember hockey is just a game. It doesn’t define who you are. In life, you are going to face adversity and hardship. You will have to deal with road blocks and barriers but learning to overcome them and to keep pushing forward will set you up in life itself. You will become a stronger person and it will give you amazing life skills for you to achieve whatever you want in life.

I now dedicate myself to the loves of my life – my beautiful and adoring wife and children – Alana, Tayden, and Braea.

-Matt Tassone

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