Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Isn't That Backwards?

Let's pretend for a second or two that it's February 2018. You're sitting in front of your TV watching the highlights from the men's hockey tournament happening at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Russia won big-time in their game. Finland performed well. Canada eked out a win. And that's when you do a double-take on the man wearing #1 and standing in the blue paint for South Korea. No, he's not Korean, and that's when it dawns on you that the curve of the blade on his goalie stick is facing inward rather than outward!

Who is this masked man, you ask, and why does he hold his stick the wrong way? Who is playing net for Korea?

That answer takes us to Clinton, Ontario where a young man tended nets in the Western Ontario Hockey League for the St. Marys Lincolns. Matt Dalton's performance in that league landed him in the North American Hockey League for a season with the Bozeman Ice Dogs in Montana where he posted a 1.63 GAA and a .940 save percentage in helping the Ice Dogs go 48-9-1 to secure top-spot in the league. Dalton would be named the league's MVP and a first-team all-star after leading the NAHL in save percentage and setting the NAHL single-season records for goals-against average and save percentage. The Ice Dogs would fall in the final game of the Robertson Cup, however, as Dalton's season came up just short from capturing the NAHL's biggest prize.

Dalton's performance didn't go unnoticed by scouts, though, and he was recruited to play hockey with the NCAA's Bemidji State University Beavers. His first season saw him play in only five games, but his second season, at the age of 22, saw Dalton backstop Bemidji State through the Midwest Regional tournament as the fourth-seeded Beavers downed top-seed Notre Dame 5-1 and third-seed Cornell 4-1. At the Frozen Four in Washington, DC, the magic in Bemidji State's run ended in the semifinal at the hands of a two-goal, one-assist performance from Tommy Wingels as the University of Miami-Ohio downed Bemidji State 4-1. Dalton was named to the All-Midwest Regional Team for his efforts, and the undrafted goalie who wowed a number of NHL scouts was signed by the Boston Bruins on April 22, 2009.

Dalton would spend six games with the AHL's Providence Bruins in 2009-10 before being sent to the ECHL's Reading Royals. Like he had done all his career, Dalton went into Reading and worked hard. It even earned him an emergency recall while Tim Thomas was at the Vancouver Olympics! He played in 46 games, going 22-20-4 with a 3.47 GAA and a .906 save percentage. It would be good enough to help the Royals make the playoffs as the seventh-place team in the American Conference despite finishing in second-place in the East Division. In the playoffs, though, Reading would catch fire as they dispatched Kalamazoo in five games, swept Florida in four-straight games, and narrowly lost in seven games to the eventual Kelly Cup Champion Cincinnati Cyclones in the American Conference Final. Dalton played all 16 games in the playoffs, posting a 3.02 GAA and a .914 save percentage.

Dalton would again spend a cup-of-coffee period with Providence in 2010-11, appearing in 16 games, going 7-9-0 to push his AHL record to 7-13-1. He would spent the majority of the season with the Reading Royals again, but showed improvement in going 20-11-1 with a 2.86 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Reading finished second in the American Conference and first in the Atlantic Division, and they met Cincinnati in the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs. They took the Cyclones out in four games before Kalamazoo swept Reading out of the playoffs. Dalton would only play seven games in these playoffs, and his stats took a serious hit as his GAA ballooned to 3.15 and his save percentage dropped to .902.

Matt Dalton's time with the Bruins would come to an end that summer after Vityaz Chekhov of the KHL came calling. Dalton signed with the club, and he made his debut in the KHL on August 14, 2011 where he allowed one goal in a 3-1 victory over Metallurg Novokuznetsk. If there was one team that was memorable for all the wrong reasons in 2011-12 in the KHL, it was Vityaz. They were a collection of goons, and this goon squad brawled with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Dinamo Riga, Avangard Omsk, and racked up the incidents and penalty minutes like they were going out of style. And on November 25, 2011, Matt Dalton would add his name to the list of brawlers on Vityaz when he engaged Michael Garnett of Traktor Chelyabinsk.
Dalton is still wearing his Bruins mask, clearly seen at the 1:00 mark, but I'm not sure he earned the win in this fight when he already was half-undressed when he started swinging at Garnett. That's poor form. Anyhow, Dalton finished the season 7-21-4 with a 3.49 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Vityaz did not make the playoffs.

In the summer of 2012, Dalton moved to a new KHL team when he signed with Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik. In 57 games with Neftekhimik over two seasons, Dalton went 18-27-7, posting a GAA of 2.64 and a save percentage of .917. Neftekhimik did play three playoff gamesin 2012-13, but they missed the playoffs in 2013-14. If Dalton was looking for a new opportunity, there was one coming on the horizon.

In 2014, Dalton was offered a spot with South Korea's best Asia Ice Hockey League team in Anyang Halla. In pitching Dalton to come and play for Halla, the South Korean Hockey Federation had their sights on Dalton to backstop their national team in the 2018 Olympics.

"It was kind of like that," Dalton told the IIHF's Martin Merk in 2016. "Obviously I had to go through a process to get my citizenship and nothing was guaranteed but it worked out and it's good. I love it in Korea. I love the everyday life there. It's very western-friendly, there's a big influence of Americans there. I've enjoyed it a lot."

And that's how a kid from Clinton, Ontario became the starting netminder for the South Korean men's national hockey team! Pretty cool, right?

Ok, so let's get back to him holding his stick with the blade facing inward. There's actually a fairly simple reason for it: he's a right-handed shooter!
And now you have the full story on Mr. Matthew Dalton! Matt will be one of the goaltenders for the South Korean men's team at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, so keep an eye out for that backwards stick. If anyone asks, you now know the story of the Canadian kid tending net for the Koreans and his funny stick!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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