There’s no place like home. That’s been the mantra for many young players across the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season as the league returns to normalcy after COVID-19 restrictions.
For the first time in their young careers countless players have finally had the chance to live out their dream of playing in the Q in their hometown in front of their families and friends.
Sackville, New Brunswick’s Matteo Mann will live out that dream on Friday night when the young upstart Chicoutimi Sagueneens face the Moncton Wildcats at the Avenir Centre.
“It’s going to be a great experience to get the chance to play a QMJHL game where my junior dream really started,” said Mann.
“I have watched the Wildcats quite a bit growing up with my Dad, so to finally play in Moncton will be surreal.”
“Besides the memories of seeing Moncton play from a young age, just being able to have family and friends there to watch makes it that much more special,” said Mann who was the youngest player in the league a season ago.
Mann like many others a season ago experienced the ups and downs and uncertainty of a COVID year.
“Last year was very special in a lot of ways,” confessed the sophomore defender.
“Obviously it was a unique situation with COVID.”
“Getting to play games every few weeks, quarantining multiple times, living out of hotel rooms for weeks, bubbles and no fans.”
“This all created a very different first year compared to most 16 years olds when they enter the league.”
Mann has always been a student of the game and he tried to take advantage of all the extra practice time and time with his teammates.
“On the ice, I was really able to take advantage of playing on an older team with a lot of high end players.”
“With the limited amount of games we were able to play, it allowed me to learn a lot from guys in practice. It improved my habits on and off the ice, I learned how to act like a pro,” Mann said.
“Over the last year I really grew up a lot.”
“Moving away from home is one thing, dealing with school online or trying to figure out a new league can be challenging.”
Mann tried to take everything in stride.
“I really took it all as a positive because I knew it would help me moving forward. I became much more mature and understood how to manage everything the proper way.”
Saying Matteo Mann comes from a hockey family or hockey is a way of life would be a massive understatement. His uncle Troy is the Head Coach of the Belleville Senators and his dad is the Chief Amateur Scout of the Ottawa Senators. Nevertheless, Mann continues to forge his own unique path in the game with his family by his side.
“My family are the reason I am in the position I am today.”
“Without my families support, playing in this league would’ve never been possible,” Mann said.
“My parents have always supported everything I’ve wanted since I was little. I knew at a young age I wanted to play in the Q and although they had no clue whether it was realistic or not, they supported me the same way from Atom to my first training camp.”
“All the driving my Mom did for years on end to practice and games or the long talks with my Dad about the game in general. They have been incredible my entire career and I really can’t thank them enough.”
“It’s not only my parents that have helped me though.”
“My grandparents, uncles and aunts have always been there for me at every level I’ve played. They love to see me live out my dreams and for them to take the time away from their own lives to acknowledge what I’m doing is really special.”
Mann is quick to credit Sags General Manager and Head Coach Yanick Jean for also helping with his transition into the Q.
“Yan has been great with me during my time here.”
It’s been great to deal with two completely different scenarios within my two seasons. Last year, he really taught me the finer details of the game that I would need to succeed in this league. He made sure I was watching Louis Crevier as much as I could.”
“Yanick saw potential in me and continues to help me try and bring that out as much as I can.”
“I’ve really learned how to manage my own end well and improve my execution with the puck. We continue to work on fine details such as gap, stick positioning, execution and many more.”
“We are always watching video to see the things I am doing well and areas to improve on in practice that week.”
“We both agree that last year was really helpful for me to take a big jump this year in an expanded role.”
“Guys like Louis Crevier, Hendrix Lapierre, Dawson Mercer, Sam Houde, Harrison Caines and Cole Stewart all let me hang around them throughout the year,” said Mann when asked about veterans that took him under their wing.
“Our team was very close last year, so there wasn’t just one guy that I was always with.”
“Louis and I frequently discussed our position and how to constantly improve since we play similarly.”
“Lapierre and Mercer were who I was with majority of the time. We all went to school together and hung out quite often. I wanted to learn a lot from them because of where they were at in their careers.”
“They are obviously great players, but they are great people. They let me learn a lot and made my transition into the league much easier.”
“Sam Houde was a great captain and my billet brother. He made sure that I was comfortable and able to be included all the time. We got closer and closer over the year and I was able to learn a lot about leadership from him. Harrison Caines and Cole Stewart were both older guys with experience in junior hockey that let me hang around with them a lot of well. I was roommates with both frequently during the year. Those are two guys I will always remember as great friends that made my year much more enjoyable.”
This season is no different when it comes to the core leadership group of the Sags and impact they are having on Mann.
“Our captain Michael Pellerin, Sam McKinney and Alexis Dube are all guys I have been close to this year. I’ve played majority of the year with Pellerin and have learned a lot about the the position and dealing with opposing top lines. McKinney and Dube have really became close friends of mine that I can always rely on if something is going on.”
As for the city and organization that drafted him?
“I love Chicoutimi,” Mann said proudly.
“It’s a great city for me, not too big, but very inviting.”
“The people are great here and they all love the Sags.”
“The city all come together to rally around us and that’s a great feeling.”
“The fans love the game a lot. They are always into the game and bring a lot of energy. The atmosphere always makes you feel like you have momentum no matter how the game is going. They’re true fans,” Mann said proudly.
Matteo Mann understands his role and place in the game right now within in the league and in his developmental progression. That is a rare trait, given his age and the position he plays. That alone reveals his knowledge, skill, work ethic and character. You see Matteo Mann possesses all the intangibles it takes to be an exceptional defender for years to come. Like anything it’s just going to take time, patience and trust in the process.
The young two-way defender understands that better than anyone, which makes his homecoming even more special. We all get to see his progression, but that’s only a snapshot in his overall growth and development as a player and person.
Matteo Mann’s dream to play in the QMJHL and beyond continues to fuel his journey every day.
Like any student of the game and the veterans that helped him along the way, Mann is always looking to give back to the sport he loves.
When asked what advice he would give to other young players coming into the Q, Mann offered these incredibly wise words.
“I would say to be humble and work hard everyday. If you do that, you earn respect from the veterans and it’ll help you feel more comfortable.”
“I would also say play your game with confidence and you will be fine. You made it for a reason so don’t try and change how you approach the game.”
“Aside from the things you control in the game, be open to all feedback. Everyone wants you to become the best player you can be, don’t take it as a negative.”
“Your game won’t be perfect ever, so any tips you receive take them and don’t be mad over it. It’s not a bad thing.”
“Off the ice, try and help out around the room, help in the community, and respect the staff.”
“These are all things that help you on and off the ice over time. Finally, find guys you are comfortable with. You will be with each other all year. Try and and become close with everyone, when things aren’t going your way, you need people to talk to no matter what.”
“You aren’t just teammates you’re friends as well. Be yourself and have fun.”
“Personally I lost sight of that at times last year and it hurt me. The more fun you have, the easier everything is,” Mann said.
You live and you learn, Matteo Mann is learning and growing every day.
The nerves will undoubtedly be there when Mann steps on Avenir Centre ice for the first time in front of his family that means so much to him. As they say there’s no place like home.