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“I was on the rise and so is this program”: Why UConn is the right place for star prospect Matthew Wood

Six games into his freshman year, Matthew Wood is demonstrating what kind of difference elite talent makes for the team.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When Matthew Wood committed to UConn in August 2020, he’d never stepped foot on the campus. In fact, he’d barely even seen pictures of it.

Wood didn’t even know what the hockey facility looked like until he walked into it for the first time after he moved in for the fall semester. In terms of facilities, Wood only had one requirement.

“As long as there’s a rink, as long as I can skate, I didn’t really care what it looked like,” he said.

Wood’s journey to Storrs isn’t uncommon for a prospect during the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference is he’s the best prospect UConn’s ever landed.

As the Huskies tried to build the program up during the early days of their Hockey East tenure, they worked to develop an approach to finding talent. They knew they needed to find the same caliber of players as the Boston schools or the other top teams in Hockey East, but also knew they were hardly an attractive option to conventional top prospects.

So head coach Mike Cavanaugh and his staff got creative. They looked overseas — with the pipeline from Russia becoming the most notable — and were opportunistic. When Max Letunov didn’t get into BU due to admissions issues, UConn swooped in. They also found players who had warts that might keep other teams away like Jonny Evans — the program’s first Division I All-American — who needed to take a year of online classes in order to come to UConn.

Wood, on the other hand, is a bonafide pro talent — The Athletic ranked him at No. 9 among 2023 NHL Draft prospects. The Huskies didn’t need a lucky break to land Wood. It was about fit with the coaching staff and program.

Last August, Cavanaugh and then-associate head coach Joe Pereira went out to Nanaimo, British Columbia for a home visit when they could’ve continued to recruit him remotely. That made a lasting impact on Wood.

“That’s really when I was like, ‘Wow, I really respect these people and want to play for them,” he said.

Wood knew about UConn thanks to the basketball teams’ success, but wasn’t as familiar with the hockey program. The more he learned about the culture, style of play, the expectations, the more he found himself drawn to the Huskies.

“They run a different style. I’ve never seen this look...It creates a lot of offense out of the d-zone,” he said. “Coaching, they want everyone to do well. They don’t just want the top guys to do well. They support everyone on the team and it gives everyone the feeling that like every shift they can go make a difference and that’s what you need on the team.”

“It’s never had a year where they’ve gone downhill. They’re always going uphill,” Wood added later. “That was really appealing when I was looking at all the schools.”

To land Wood, UConn didn’t just have to separate itself from other NCAA schools. It also had to compete with major juniors, an alternate path to the pros for top prospects. The Regina Pats selected Wood in the second round of the 2022 Western Hockey League (WHL) Draft and made a heavy push to bring him on board.

Had he gone the major junior route, he would’ve had a chance to play alongside Connor Bedard, which certainly would’ve helped increase his exposure to NHL teams since Bedard is considered the top 2023 NHL Draft prospect. Instead, Wood wanted to forge his own way.

“I think the ability to play a bit less games, probably having a bit higher level in college than major junior and being able to work on strength, acceleration off the ice, and stuff like that is something that I need to get to my best,” Wood explained. “Obviously Regina is a great place to play for anyone but for my particular path, I felt like this was the best route.”

The best route — or some variation — is something Wood repeated multiple times when explaining why he came to UConn. Wood didn’t get caught up in the flashiness or history of some programs. When it came to his own story, Wood said he felt UConn was the right place for him.

“I didn’t really try and focus on my decision on the facilities as much as how I’m going to be used and how I’m going to develop,” Wood said. “At the end of the day, it’s not really about where you’re playing, it’s about like who you’re playing with.”

“There’s something that just felt right about UConn.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The defining trait of Wood’s game is his shot. Cavanaugh compared it to not only UConn great Tage Thompson but also NHL legend Alex Ovechkin. UConn fans didn’t need to wait too long to see the proof.

In the team’s opener at Vermont, he showed off his power with a one-time blast to notch the first goal of UConn’s season and his career. The next day, Wood put his finesse on display with a snipe from the slot.

The foundation of that shot started back in high school. In ninth grade, Wood billeted with Bedard and the two spent much of that year in Bedard’s backyard working on their shots. When the summer came around, Wood continued that work with his dad, a former player at Middlebury College and a former coach with New Hampshire women’s hockey.

“I started doing a lot of off-ice shooting in the summer with my dad with weighted pucks, weighted sticks a lot of weird different shooting things that really helped a lot,” he said. “I’m also fortunate enough to have a really good shooting setup in my garage and I just like spending time out there.”

There’s more to Wood’s game than just his shot, though. He has the ice vision, hockey IQ, and passing ability to be a dangerous playmaker all over the ice.

The freshman showed that off with two assists in UConn’s blowout win over Ohio State as part of a three-point night. He can also move defenders without even having the puck, such as when he opened up a lane for Andrew Lucas to find Ryan Tverberg on the power play at Vermont. Through six games, Wood leads the Huskies with seven points.

“He’s got the whole package,” Cavanaugh said.

What’s most impressive about Wood’s early success is that he’s still just 17 years old and won’t turn 18 until Feb. 6, making him the youngest player in college hockey. Some of his fellow freshmen are four years older than him and the closest teammate to him age-wise is Arsenii Sergeev, who’s still 26 months his senior.

Originally, the plan was for Wood to come to Storrs in the fall of 2023 once he finished high school. But then he lit up the British Columbia Hockey League — one of the top junior leagues in North America — for a league-best 45 goals and 85 points in 46 games with the Victoria Grizzlies. There was no sense in keeping him there another year.

“I just think he was ready. That’s why he’s coming in,” Cavanaugh said prior to the season. “There are some players that need extra years and some guys score two points a game in the BC League. He’s played against a bunch ‘02s, ‘03s (prospects born in 2002 or 2003) so it’s time to take that next step.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn finally broke ground on its new, on-campus hockey arena in May 2021 and Wood committed three months later. In September, Cavanaugh credited the still unfinished facility for helping with a few unnamed recruits.

“We’ve had some success on the recruiting trail with a couple kids that we probably wouldn’t have gotten a look from three or four years ago,” he said.

It’d be easy to draw the conclusion that the new rink directly helped UConn land Wood, but he downplayed that idea.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they’re getting a new rink, I should come here,’” he said. “Obviously the new rink is super amazing and we’re super fortunate to have it but I don’t really know how much it played into me coming here.”

However, when Wood learned about the Huskies’ original home — an outdoor ice sheet covered by a roof — he admitted he did have some standards.

“I’m not gonna say no, I’m not gonna say yes,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know about every day in the winter coming to an outdoor rink. That’s pretty tough.”

The new rink might not have meant much to Wood, but what the rink represents is important. UConn has made an impressive ascent through its first nine years of Hockey East from its early days as a scrappy underdog to its years as a quality middle-tier team to last year, when it came one goal away from winning the league championship. The new arena is a symbol of the Huskies’ growth. Soon, they’ll have a facility on par with their league rivals — just as they’re becoming equals on the ice with the rest of the league.

Wood wants to be part of that story.

“I felt like I was on the rise and so is this program,” he said. “We’re finally meeting when we’re both coming to where we need to be.”

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