DUBNetwork spent 20 minutes with Rockets forward Leif Mattson last week following practice at Prospera Place.
Now 20, and occupying one of three overage spots on Kelowna’s roster, Mattson has spent his entire Western Hockey League career with the Rockets. The Manitoba native was born in Thompson and played his minor hockey in Stonewall before heading west to play junior hockey.
While a member of the Drumheller Dragons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Mattson’s WHL rights belonged to the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Rockets acquired those rights from Brandon on October 6, 2016 in exchange for a conditional 2017 draft pick, which became an 8th round selection.
(The Wheat Kings made two eighth-round selections in 2017, William Highet who has yet to appear in a WHL game and Bode Hagan, who has appeared in five games this season with Brandon.)
Since arriving in Kelowna, Mattson has played 189 regular season games. collecting 56 goals and 91 assists for 147 points and plus-22 rating. Through 11 games this season, he has yet to score, but has chipped in with 10 assists.
DUBNetwork: We have to ask you as a 20-year-old; goodness, time sure flies, eh? It’s your fourth full season now?
Leif Mattson: “Yeah, exactly. It’s definitely been very fast journey. I guess everybody says the same thing though, they remember it just like it was yesterday. Coming in for me when I was 17, and four years just goes by so quickly. Now I’m just trying to enjoy every last game and every last practice and all the time I have left here for this year.”
DN: What were your thoughts when the Rockets traded for you. You were kind of set up to play that season in the AJHL?
LM: “Well yeah, it was my 16-year-old year. I was with the Brooks Bandits and that summer I was traded, so at the start of my 17-year-old season I was in Drumheller. At that point, I was planning on going the college route. And then a trade came along, and my agent kind of pitched me the idea about Kelowna and I decided I couldn’t really pass it up.”
DN: We’ve been able to watch you closely the last couple years. You’ve been pretty healthy. We recall you getting knocked around a bit your first full season, but since then you’ve been pretty durable. What’s the secret?
LM: “Knock on wood! My second season, I got hurt the very first game of the year and missed the first eight games. Ever since I haven’t missed a game. So, hopefully that keeps going and the good luck continues for me.
“I know not to put myself in super vulnerable situations where I’m going to get my head taken off or something like that. Obviously, I like to be the guy that sacrifices and blocks shots and also use the body. So, saying that, I guess I am kind of surprised nothing has happened. I keep saying knock on wood, but you can never be too sure. I think honestly it just comes down to being in the right place at the right time and not being in the wrong places.”
DN: We have felt that during your career, you’ve become better along the boards, particularly in the attacking zone. Anything that you have to work on to be efficient along the boards? Where does that confidence come from?
LM: “I think a lot of that stuff comes from the time and effort you put in during the summer. It kind of comes down to strength and if you’re saying ‘that’s my puck, I’m going to get it done by winning this battle’, you put in the work in the summer and get strength in your legs and strengthen your body.
“Obviously, being an older guy, I expect to win those battles along the wall and I think I’ve put myself in position over the last couple summers with strength training. I’ve trained for three summers now, getting stronger and preparing myself for those scenarios, where I can put myself in positions to win those battles.”
DN: Where do you train?
LM: “At Bold Athlete in Calgary. My trainer is Alex Allan. My agent set me up there after my first year in Kelowna. Prior to that, I never worked with a personal trainer. I knew once I made that jump to junior and how fast and strong guys were, I needed to take my training up a level. So, the last three summers I’ve been there and he’s really helped.”
DN: Kelowna has kind of a long history of dominating the B.C. Division, but that’s changing. You’ll play about 50% of your schedule against division rivals. We’re curious about your thoughts on the division this season?
LM: “You look at Vancouver, a super strong team there, they were really good last year and we had our troubles with them. They had to make some moves, I don’t know how many 19 year olds they had last year, but they definitely had to unload a few of them. We got them on a Sunday of a three-in-three this year (a 4-0 loss). I want to see how we stack up against one another on a good night, but saying that, they’re going to be a good team.
“Kamloops, they’re obviously building and they brought in some guys that will help them. We know every time we go, playing in Kamloops, you know our rivalry there is pretty much a war. We know every game against them is going to be probably a one- or two-goal game and it’s going to be a grind game.
“Victoria we haven’t seen yet this year so I don’t know much about them.
“And Prince George? I mean, everybody says they’ll have their troubles, but they just play such a simple and hardworking game, even though they might not have the most talented lineup. They still work really hard and they make it difficult for teams to create.
“So, there’s no easy games for sure in our division. Every point is important for sure. We saw that last year as we just got beat by a point.”
DN: Your head coach, Adam Foote, was a little cheesed off a couple of weekends ago when he kind of called out the older players after the loss at home to Kamloops (5-2, October 12). You’re one of the guys that’s been in the league for a while. What’s the mood with the Rockets, the vibe, among the veterans?
LM: “Looking back after that game, those points are huge. We know with our lineup right now that we’re underachieving, even though we have not too bad a record. We know we can be better.
“Every point matters, so I’m saying for our older guys…all the older guys…Adam just wants to get that mindset right now so that you start building towards winning those one-goal games, so by the time we get into a format with big games, we will be ready to go.”
DN: That leads us to our next question. You’ve got to have motivation to play in the Memorial Cup, you’ve been in the league for some time. How important is it to be productive, so that you know you’re going to be one of the guys that’s there come May?
LM: “It’s in the back of everyone’s mind for sure. It’s not going to be too long until it starts coming closer so obviously everybody on the team is doing what they can right now to showcase themselves, to show the coaches and our management that we can be key players, so we can get to that point in May and win.
“Even though we have the free pass to play in a Memorial Cup, everybody’s still playing for spots to be there, so every game really matters, every period, every shift matters for all the guys and everybody knows they can’t take it for granted.”
DN: Can you put your general manager’s hat on? Is there a type of player or something you think of that the team could add, with a long playoff run in mind?
LM: “Obviously, our goal is to be able to have the same team, a team that will enable us to win hockey games in May. Obviously people know that moves are probably going to be made. And that’s gonna happen to allow you to be the best possible team.
“So as I said, we hope for this to be the lineup we have going into May. But it comes down to these next couple months, leading up to the January 10 trade deadline, then seeing where it goes from there. We have to prove right now that this lineup can win hockey games.”
Rockets Fuel…The Rockets are 6-4-1 through 11 games…Four of the Rockets six wins have come against U.S Division teams. Kelowna has yet to play Portland. Another victory came against a Central Division foe…Against B.C. Division rivals, the Rockets are 1-4-1. They have yet to play Victoria…Kelowna plays a rare mid-week game in Prince George Wednesday, has the weekend off, then heads to Vancouver Island for a mid-week doubleheader in Victoria against the Royals…Nolan Foote, who was named the team’s captain last week, leads the Rockets in scoring with six goals in 10 games. He has 13 points so far, tied with rookie import forward Pavel Novak, who has scored five goals and added eight assists in 11 games…Roman Basran has started and finished nine games this season, compiling a 2.20 goals against average and a .929 save percentage…The Rockets are 13-for-54 on the power play, third best in the WHL. The penalty killing unit has killed 38 of 48 shorthanded situations, 15th in the WHL at 79.2% proficiency…Kelowna is fifth overall in attendance, averaging 4,941 per contest…
While the rest of the Rockets traveled by foot from Prospera Place to practice at the venerable Memorial Arena in Kelowna, you can click right here to see it was Mattson with the veteran move on that damp Monday afternoon.