Jan. 8, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- This was a night to raise money for "a Michigan hockey brother" battling not only for his way of life and life itself, but to raise awareness for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
However, this benefit hockey game for Scott Matzka, who assisted on the winning goal by Josh Langfeld for the Wolverines in the 1998 NCAA championship game, was also very clearly about family.
It was about the Michigan hockey family and the hockey family in the broader sense, with retired Detroit Red Wings turning out for the fundraising exhibition game Saturday night (Jan. 7) at Yost Ice Arena.
Most importantly, it was about Matzka and his family -- wife Catie; daughter Reese, seven; and son Owen, who turned five on Thursday. Owen got to score on Wolverines and NHL goalie legend Marty Turco, beating him through the five hole and hearing the cheers and the public address announcer intone: "Matzka, unassisted."
Yet, there were two moments that stood out.
One was the heart-tugging message Bob Gassoff whispered in the ear of Matzka, his former house mate, classmate and teammate.
The other came when Wolverines coach Red Berenson, the head of this family that has grown for over three decades under him, was speaking afterward and Matzka came by to chat and thank his coach.
"There he is!" said Berenson, who rose from his leather chair and walked two steps to hug Matzka, seated in a wheelchair.
Matzka was beaming and said, "I want to thank you so much for letting us do this."
Berenson smiled and replied, "This is a great thing and we want to help. It was quite a response from your teammates, and former players and current players (seated together in Yost) were all here."
Matzka looked down and grinned, saying, "You never know what you're getting when you sign that (scholarship National Letter of Intent) paper that year."
Berenson added, "We didn't know either."
Matzka, an aggressive forward who scored 35 goals and 91 points in four seasons before a long minor league career, had a hot temper. But he learned to channel that aggression as a Wolverine.
"That's the family," Matzka told his coach, motioning outside the door. "That's way bigger than hockey and the team, and it's pretty incredible."
Berenson said, "I think there were 10 guys from your '98 team on the team tonight. It's a pretty good group."
Matzka added, "I wish it didn't have to be for this reason, but ..."
His voice trailed off, and Berenson picked up: "We were just talking about how it's a tough thing, but everyone's pitching in, and hopefully this can solve some of the mysteries of this disease."
Matzka smiled again and said, "Certainly, and this will allow us to make decisions based on quality of life and not the money."
Berenson added, "And we're not going away. If there's anything that comes up in your family that's important, let us know."
Matzka smiled and said, "Well, in 13 years, it might not be you, but they might have another Matzka here."
Berenson, 77, chuckled and said, "It won't be me."
Matzka nodded toward his coach, saying, "I didn't know he'd be here when I finished."
Berenson added, "That's right, but they won't let me go."
Matzka countered: "Why would they!"
Berenson said he was delighted to visit with Matzka's parents and they laughed about Owen scoring on Turco for the Red Wings.
"They needed a goal," said Berenson, and they chuckled heartily at that thought.
Michigan ran up a big lead on the Red Wings before winning, 10-7, and Berenson acknowledged that having the younger team was an advantage.
Berenson bid Matzka farewell for the night.
It was quite a night. Langfeld scored again, too. So did Gassoff.
When I asked Matzka if any one comment from the night stuck with him most, he nodded and said, "Bobby Gassoff came up to me, gave me a hug, and said, 'I love you, man. We're always going to be here for you, and we'll be here for your kids and your family when you're gone.'
"We're very fortunate and blessed to have surrounded ourselves with great people who will be with us through thick and thin."
Matzka's comment was relayed Gassoff, enjoying postgame pizza with the other Wolverines, and he smiled, getting a faraway look in his eyes.
"This shows the special bond Michigan hockey creates in all of us," said Gassoff. "I was talking to my son, little Bobby, saying, 'Do you get it? Look around. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter if you play junior, college or pro -- this is a hockey family.' It's a special fraternity and Michigan is a step above every place else.
"We picked up right where we left off. I've been a (Navy) SEAL for 14 years now, and now as a reservist, and the closest relationships I have are with my SEAL teammates I fought on the battlefield with and my teammates and classmates. We're always there for each other, through thick and thin.
"We lived together for four years -- L.J. (Scarpace), Billy Trainor, Josh Langfeld, Scott and me. We all spent the best four years of our life together, and we just want to make sure Scotty knows we'll be with him every step of the way through his battle, and we will do what we can to help him through his journey, and we'll be here for as long as it takes to take care of his kids and his family. They're part of our family."
Berenson said, "Bobby Gassoff is a heart-and-soul guy. Boy, if you want one person to take into a tough spot with you, you'd pick him in a heartbeat. He is the real deal."
I mentioned Berenson's comment to Gassoff, who added, "When you have that special bond, you'd take a bullet for somebody. And I was fortunate to have relationships that matter that much on both the SEALS and Michigan hockey. They are right up there together. The relationships are everlasting, and this is a special place."
Trainor also scored a goal for Michigan, but this night was about the Matzkas.
"It was fun to have Owen on our bench," said Trainor. "We put that Red Wings jersey on him so he could score that goal on Marty Turco, and the first thing he said was, 'I want this Red Wings jersey off. I want the Michigan jersey back on.' I said, 'You got the right team, kid.' I took it off for him and put the Michigan jersey back on. He was really happy, really engaged."
Trainor, an attorney who also was a radio analyst for Michigan games, walked down the tunnel to the locker room in amazement of what he'd been able to witness.
"Just to see the look on Scott's face," said Trainor, "and to bring a smile to his face, and the hockey family answering the call, that was the greatest thing."
Trainor credited Scarpace, now director of player development for the Michigan hockey team, for the work he did with Berenson and team director of operations Matt Trevor to pull the benefit together in less than two months.
"There were tough feelings out there tonight," said Scarpace, "but it made me just so proud to be a part of Michigan."
His daughter, Kylie, a budding entertainer, sang the national anthem. Family was everywhere.
Matzka said it was a thrill to have Hockey Hall of Famer Larry Murphy and other players he "idolized" while growing up turn out on his behalf, and having Red Wings analyst Mickey Redmond, who played with Berenson in Detroit, also meant much to Matzka, who grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.
"We're fortunate to be invited," said Murphy, "and we could see how important it was for Scott and everybody in the Michigan program. And to play in this great arena against their alumni was an honor. Unless you are in Scott's position, you have no idea. But I spoke with him before the game, and he's been dealt a tough situation, but he is doing his best. If we can meet him and help him financially with this game, that's great."
Redmond added, "For us, it's really important that we give back as much as we possibly can, and we're very fortunate that we're in a position to do so. We're really happy to help make a difference. It's unfortunate to see, but it was great to see his family and hear the great speech he gave tonight."
Redmond and Matt Herr, Michigan hockey class of 1998, took part in the ceremonial dropping of the puck prior to the game by Matzka. Little Owen skated into that and stole the puck from Redmond. Reese, a figure skater wearing a pink helmet, pirouetted and occasionally kicked a puck around during the pregame action.
"That's the most emotional thing that I've found," said Matzka. "I see my son wearing that maize jersey, and it hits me in the heart. I'm sure Owen will never forget that goal against Turco. They both love to skate. I guess they were born to be on the ice. My kids were having a blast."
Turco, the goalie on the 1998 champions and one of more than 30 former Wolverines participating, was moved by the experience.
"This is what being a 'Michigan Man' really is all about," said Turco. "Under Red's tutelage, we became teammates and brothers forever. For one of our brothers to go through what he's going through and hold his chest up high instead of feeling sorry for himself, to use this for something bigger than him, well, we've got their backs.
"I remember Scott as a freshman and taking him under our wings, and he had a chip on his shoulder. He was a really fast, talented hockey player and figured out how to become a 'Michigan Man,' and what we see today is his courage and conviction with what's going on in his life. There's a lot of Michigan in that, and we'll always be there for him.
"Red will probably have a big smile on his face for a few days, knowing that the group of young men he's led made this weekend happen, and how it happened was awesome. We can't know what the future is going to be like for Scott, but we hope this helps him down the road."
Berenson praised his boys, saying "I feel lucky to be here. I was lucky I choose Michigan, and it just keeps growing."
And giving back.
For more information visit www.ScottMatzka.com and Twitter #MYTURN4ALS.