By Mark Newman
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Expectations have been the undoing of countless prospects over the years.
Get yourself drafted in a high round and people naturally expect that you’ll work hard to improve your skills, develop your talent and make yourself an overall better hockey player.
Of course, things don’t always work out the way people expect. Forget all the talk about potential. If there is no heart, no determination, no desire, there is no way, no chance.
Then there are guys like Matt Ellis, players of whom little is expected but much is realized. Once barely on the Red Wings’ radar, he’s worked hard to put himself in a position few expected – a legitimate prospect.
Originally signed by the Wings as an un-drafted free agent, Ellis is the classic late bloomer, the overachiever who gets better with age.
Still only 24, Ellis was recently named the youngest captain in the Grand Rapids Griffins 10-year history.
“It was a no-brainer to pick him as captain,” says Grand Rapids head coach and former Dayton Bombers head coach Greg Ireland, who made the decision after consulting with Griffins general manager Bob McNamara and assistant coach Jim Paek.
“More than anything, we want to be a team that’s professional and stands for certain things: character, integrity and work ethic. Matt brings all of those things to the table, plus he’s a pretty good hockey player.
“He’s worked really hard to get himself to where he’s at.”
A leader by example, Ellis is the epitome of hard work, a blue-collar guy who busts his behind to better himself, whose works habits serve as an example for younger players, and who does everything possible to put his team in a position to win.
In other words, the perfect captain for the Red Wings’ primary development club.
“I feel privileged to be considered one of the leaders,” Ellis says. “It’s a role and a responsibility that I’m willing to accept. I’m both humbled and honored to wear the ‘C’ on this team.”
Ellis was an alternate captain during his time in the Ontario Hockey League with St. Michael’s in Toronto, where he played with best friend and current Griffins teammate Darryl Bootland, who played for Toledo in 2002-03.
“I feel fortunate to have played with some exceptional captains the past couple of years and I’ll do what I can on the ice and off to be the kind of leader the coaches expect me to be.”
The son of a corrections officer, Ellis knows the value of discipline, perseverance and self-sacrifice. He saw first-hand what it means to go to work every day and uphold certain standards.
“The biggest thing I took from my father was the value of hard work and tenacity,” Ellis says. “He instilled in me the idea that you don’t need to be the most talented guy, that if you go out and give 100 percent, that will make up for the other things.”
It’s true that Ellis has had to work harder than most. He knows he’s not the most talented player in the world, but that’s not going to stop him from making the most out of whatever talent he has.
He has shown improvement every year he has played. His offensive totals steadily improved during his four years in the OHL, and he has made great progress since turning professional.
Three seasons ago, he tallied 27 goals and 32 assists in 71 games for Toledo in the ECHL. Moving up to the Griffins for his first season at the AHL level, he played primarily on a checking line two years ago.
Last season, Ellis nearly tripled his offensive production, recording 18 goals and 23 assists in 79 games with the Griffins. This past summer he was rewarded with a new two-year contract from the Wings.
“The last couple of years, I feel like I’ve made some big strides,” he says. “I’ve never had anything handed to me, but as I’ve been given more ice time and more responsibility, I’ve tried to make the most of it.”
He made a strong impression at Red Wings training camp in Traverse City this fall and saw action in a couple of exhibition games. “It was the first time since I signed with the Wings that I actually felt like there was a chance of making the team.
“I got to see how the game works up there and it’s a big thrill just to be there with some of the greatest players to ever play the game. I was like a sponge up there, watching their work habits and picking up whatever I could.”
Ellis paid attention when Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman stayed on the ice, even after a session was extended past its scheduled time. He took note of the uncompromising workout regiment of Chris Chelios, the oldest player in the NHL this season.
“You can always find ways to get better and keep improving,” he says. “Last season was a great year of growing for me. My offensive totals improved and my all-around game seemed to fall into place with a larger role on the team.
“I hope to continue building on where I left off.”
If Ellis fails to impress, it won’t be for lack of effort.
“Matt’s a great example of what we want to stand for as a team,” Ireland says. “His improvement has been outstanding. I really like the way he’s going.”
Confidence plays no small part in his development.
“It’s definitely a big factor,” Ellis says. “You can totally tell the difference when there’s a guy out there playing with confidence and when a guy’s unsure of himself.
“Being a fourth-year pro, it makes a huge difference. Each year, you come in with a little more confidence, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some great players and coaches who were there to give me a pat on the back or help me out and keep me motivated.”
Finding motivation has never been difficult for Ellis, a self-confessed fitness freak whose physique shows every sign of the commitment and conviction of a player with a singular focus.
In terms of increasing his potential of playing for the Wings, Ellis has definitely been bulking up.
“I’m hoping,” he says when asked about his chances of seeing action at the NHL level this season. “Grand Rapids is a great place to learn and develop, but I’d like to get my feet wet in Detroit – for sure.”