On the drive home after seeing his son Matt get cut from yet another Triple-A hockey team, Scott Moulson looked over at the 15-year-old and leveled with him.
He saw Matt outplay other kids who made the team and he saw Matt refuse to give up during tryouts despite being so sick he was throwing up in the dressing room afterward.
But that was simply not enough.
“If you want to continue to play hockey,” Scott told his son, “then you have to work harder and play so much better than everyone else that a team can’t afford to cut you.”
“That,” said Moulson, now 26, “has been my philosophy ever since.”
And it has to be.
Because as much as Islanders fans may view him as a sudden miracle of goal-scoring, some apparition that magically materialized in the off-season to invigorate a goal-starved team, Moulson endured a lengthy, arduous, obstacle-riddled road to his current success as the team’s top-line left wing and leading goal-scorer.
His circuitous route to the NHL took its first detour more than ten years ago, when Moulson – criticized for his size [he's now 6-1, 206] and skating – was cut at every single Triple-A and junior hockey team tryout he attended.
Moulson shrugged off the rejections.
“Matt has tremendous character,” said Frank Del Monte, Moulson’s family friend and childhood hockey coach in Mississauga, Ontario. “If you tell him ‘no’, he’ll find a way to prove that ‘no’ was the wrong answer.”
Instead of dwelling on the snubs, Moulson accepted an invitation to play Double-A hockey for Jim McGuire, a coach who made hockey fun again and gave Moulson the opportunity denied to him elsewhere.
“What could’ve been a down year,” said his father Scott, “turned out to be a positive one.”
After a successful season in Double-A, Moulson went on to play junior hockey in Guelph and then four seasons at Cornell University from 2002 to 2006.
After Cornell, Moulson was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Kings and assigned to their AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs. He played a full season for the Monarchs in 2006-07, and 22 games for the Kings and 57 games for Manchester in 2007-08.
In 2008 he made the Kings out of training camp. He had finally cracked an NHL lineup from the get-go. He thought he had arrived.
“That’s what made me so angry,” Moulson said. “I’ve never been complacent.”
Humble and hard working, yes. But complacent? For someone shunned and discarded at practically every level, that didn’t fit. Regardless, Moulson shelved his anger and trudged forward.
“He didn’t bring it to the rink,” said Manchester head coach Mark Morris. “He just got back on the horse and kept riding. No sulking, no pouting.”
Despite being sidelined six weeks with a knee injury, Moulson finished the season with 47 points (21 goals, 26 assists) in 54 games for Manchester and garnered interest from the Islanders, who signed him as a free agent in July.
Impressed with Moulson’s scoring ability in the AHL, coach Scott Gordon wanted to take a chance on him, despite the fact he was a late bloomer.
“Sometimes when a guy is that age, you wonder, ‘Why hasn’t he made it?,” Gordon said. “Sometimes you look for the flaws first instead of the assets.”
Moulson quickly emerged in training camp with his nose for the net and led the team in preseason scoring, essentially forcing the Islanders hand. They had to keep him.
“I just needed a chance – a true chance – to show what I can do,” Moulson said.
His production in training camp proved to be no fluke. While spending almost the first month of this season patiently plugging away while living out of a Long Island hotel room, Moulson not only continued to contribute – he has eight goals and eight assists in 19 games before last night – he also developed a keen chemistry on the ice with top draft pick John Tavares.
Tavares, who has seen Moulson’s incomparable work ethic while training with him during summers back in Ontario, isn’t surprised with Moulson’s rapid ascent, albeit through such a distinctively different path from his own.
“He’s had to prove himself every step of the way and it’s a credit to him,” Tavares said. “He’s a good friend and he deserves everything he got.”
And now that he has his shot, don’t expect him to let it to slip.
Could the veneer of his Cinderella story fade, could he fall short of the expectations that he has raised for himself?
Moulson won’t even entertain the possibility. Not after everything he’s had to overcome.
“I don’t think I would ever let that happen,” Moulson said. “There’s not even that thought in my mind.”
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