A Cup for the Iron Range
The local Virginia-MIB hockey community talks about the impact Matt Niskanen's Stanley Cup win will have on youth hockey.
VIRGINIA, Minn. – “I’d be a liar if I said I predicted Matt when he was 8 years old to be a 15–year NHL player,” Keith Hendrickson said.
Keith Hendrickson was the head coach of the Virginia–MIB boys hockey team from 1986 to 2011, including the four years where Matt Niskanen donned the blue and white.
And he remembers writing a player evaluation for Niskanen with some very high praise.
“After Matt’s ninth–grade year, I said “if you make good decisions on and off the ice and keep working and being the kind of player and athlete I think you can be, someday you could be in the NHL.” It was a process like it is for any good athlete generally and Matt took advantage of every opportunity to make himself better, not just in hockey, but as a football player and baseball player. He was just a great athlete,” said Hendrickson.
And even though he works as an amateur scout for the Vegas Golden Knights, he was still pulling for Niskanen’s Capitals.
“Right after the game, I just sent him a quick congrats and said the Cup looked good in his hands. It fit his hands well. A couple hours later, he texted me back and said some really nice things that meant a lot to me. But that’s Matt. He’s a humble guy and he hasn’t forgotten at all where he’s from,” Hendrickson said.
“He comes back every summer and helps out with the youth hockey program and the summer hockey camp and signs autographs for as many hours as you can ask him to,” former Blue Devils coach Reed Larson said.
Niskanen’s Stanley Cup run has already impacted youth hockey in the Iron Range. Their summer camp usually tops out at 140 participants. But a spike over the weekend brought in close to 200 campers, aspiring to become the next Matt Niskanen.
“As you see him raise that cup over his head, you can just see that dreams do come true and I think that is going to be enormous for the program here in Virginia and the kids as they move forward in the game of hockey. They continue to think that this could be me some day,” said Larson.
And from the Iron Range to the nation’s capital, Niskanen’s style of play has become the human embodiment of his hometown.
“Matt Niskanen is the kind of guy that you saw even in Game 6 that is going to get down and block a shot if it’s the last thing that he does because he wants his team to win. That’s your blue collar, steel worker, Iron Range, hard work type of mentality. He took that Range mentality to the Stanley Cup,” said Larson.
The Stanley Cup will be making the rounds as players and coaches celebrate with it. But it will inevitably make its way to the Miners Memorial Building later this summer.
“I assume that it would be here in this building, but they’re going to need it to be because not only is this a huge celebration for Virginia and Mountain Iron, but also for the Iron Range and Northern Minnesota,” Larson said.