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ZEST FOR THE GAME

01/25/2017 12:02 AM -

Ontario native Matt Lorito is an American Hockey League all-star in his second year as a professional.

Story and photo by Mark Newman
               
When the chips are down, Matt “Cool Ranch” Lorito is a bold choice to bring to the table.
              
At 5-foot-9 and 171 pounds, the second-year pro is hardly the most imposing figure on the ice, but he possesses an appealing combination of acceleration, agility and all-around hockey sense – just the right ingredients to add spice to an offensive attack and brand him more than the flavor of the month.
              
In fact, Lorito was recently selected to play for the Central Division All-Star Team at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross, to be held Jan. 29-30 at the PPL Center in Allentown, PA. He will be joined at the event by teammate Robbie Russo, the Griffins’ second-year defenseman, and Griffins head coach Todd Nelson, who will be behind the bench.
              
For Lorito, the honor is a tribute to his dedication to the game, a passion that started when his father, a Toronto-based lawyer, put him on skates at the age of 3.
              
“I fell in love with the game at an early age,” he said, recalling how he lived to play hockey at every corner growing up. “My dad put a net in our unfinished basement and I used to roller blade around all the time.”
              
Lorito’s father had played hockey as a youth but he wasn’t the greatest skater, so he made sure that Matt would be better.
              
“My dad recognized that I had a big passion for the game, so he put me into skating programs and signed me up for hockey camps,” he said. “The emphasis on skating started when I was really young, because he knew how important skating could be in my development.”
              
Like a lot of boys, Lorito loved to play all sports, but his size prevented him from excelling in some. “I actually liked basketball a lot, but I was always one of the smallest players, so I knew that wasn’t going to be a career option,” he said. “I mostly played basketball just with friends.”
              
Lorito also played baseball and soccer for fun, but hockey was a different story. “At practice, I’d always be one of the first ones out, just waiting for the Zamboni to get off the ice, and I would always be one of the last ones off,” he said. “Even though I played other sports, all I could think about was playing hockey.”
              
The older he got, the more serious he became. Although Toronto was only a short drive east of his home in Oakville, he took a liking to a team 200 miles in the other direction.
              
“I think I was about 9 or 10 when I started to watch hockey a lot more,” he said. “I began to understand the game more and that’s when I gravitated toward the Red Wings – how skilled they were and the way they played the game compared to all the other teams.”
              
When the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002, it was their third championship in five years and the 11-year-old Lorito dreamed of the day that he might pull on a jersey with the Winged Wheel like Steve Yzerman, his childhood idol. “It was fun to watch all those great players on the same team.”
              
Of course, his parents, John and Lisa, were more concerned that he did well in school.
              
“I was a pretty good student,” Lorito recalled. “I didn’t always enjoy doing homework because I’d rather have been playing sports, but I always took pride in the work that I would hand in. I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I worked hard and did well.”
              
Lorito attended Appleby College from grades nine through 12, earning recognition as an honor student at the Canadian prep school. “The academics were a little tougher, but I think it’s what I needed to stay on track. I had good teachers who made sure that I kept learning a lot.”
              
Hockey was just as important as class to the young Lorito, who decided he wanted to go the NCAA route and play for a U.S. school rather than play for a Canadian university.
              
“I wasn’t getting recruited at the time, so I knew I was going to have to play juniors somewhere first,” he said. “I tried out for the teams in Oakville and Burlington, which were the two closest to me, but I ended up trying out for a Junior B team in St. Catharines, which is where my dad is from.”
              
A good showing in junior hockey might lead to interest from the U.S.
              
“I had a good tryout and made the St. Catharines Falcons my first year out of high school,” he continued. “It was a good experience for me. I had a good year and it taught me what it took to play junior hockey, plus I stayed with a billet, so it was my first year living away from home.”
              
The following year, he signed with the Villanova Knights in the North York area of Toronto after showcasing his talents in a couple of summer tournaments. While playing for the Knights, he lived on the campus of York University, where he bunked with a couple of Americans before he moved back home for his second year.
              
Lorito shined with the Knights, tallying 160 points in 97 games during his two seasons in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. His success garnered the interest of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Northeastern University, Canisius College, Niagara University and Cornell University. He eventually signed with Brown University.
              
“I didn’t plan on attending an Ivy League school, but I was definitely excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I really liked the school and the whole atmosphere. The guys on the team were great and the coaches seemed to really want me.”
              
Lorito was age 21 when he started college.
              
“I was a little older, but the experience of playing juniors helped me,” he said. “I think I was more comfortable with myself and it was easier to talk to the other guys. The age difference only mattered to the non-athlete students who didn’t really understand how I could be 21 and a freshman.”
              
Although the classroom work was challenging, Lorito thrived in the college setting.
              
“I loved Brown,” he said. “I really liked the city of Providence, too. I wouldn’t change anything about my experience there. There were ups and downs, but I definitely grew as a person and that’s one of the main reasons to go to school.”
              
Lorito was a point-per-game player during his sophomore and junior seasons, but he struggled a little during his senior year when he served as a team captain.        
              
“I was hoping to sign an NHL contract out of school, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and I obviously wanted the team to do well,” he said. “But we didn’t have the greatest team and when the team doesn’t do as well as you hoped, you tend to try to do too much. You get away from what made you successful in the first place.”
              
Nevertheless, he earned All-Ivy honors for the third straight season as a senior. As a student-athlete, he was a three-time member of the ECAC All-Academic Team and served as a peer advisor away from the ice.
              
“I learned what it takes to be a good leader,” said Lorito, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. “You can’t really let it change the way you play the game. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it until after the season, but it was an overall good learning experience.”
              
Lorito began his pro career right after his senior season, appearing in 11 games with the AHL’s Albany Devils at the end of the 2014-15 season. He had been scouted by Chris Lamoriello, the son of longtime New Jersey Devils boss (and current Toronto Maple Leafs general manager) Lou Lamoriello, after attending the Devils’ development camp following his junior year.
              
He recorded 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) in those 11 games, earning an AHL contract last season when he led the Devils in scoring as a rookie. He tallied 54 points (18 goals, 36 assists) in 71 games, which was nearly twice as many games as he had ever played.
              
“There was definitely a point late in the season where I slowed down from a production standpoint,” he said. “I wasn’t used to playing that many games, but I was generally happy with the way the season went.”
              
Lorito benefited from the tutelage of Albany coach Rick Kowalsky, who had been a point-per-game player himself during a 12-year career in the ECHL and AHL. “He taught me a lot of little things, including what it takes to be a pro,” he said.
              
This past summer, Lorito felt he was at a crossroads.
              
“I was interested in staying, but I wasn’t sure how much they liked me,” he said. “The Devils ended up offering me a pretty decent contract, but then the Red Wings came long and I had the sense they wanted me a little more than New Jersey.”
              
Detroit signed Lorito to a two-year, two-way contract. “A two-year deal gives you the comfort of knowing you can just play and not worry about whether you’re going to be back or not,” he said. “It’’s definitely nice to have that security.”
              
Lorito started the season at center before Griffins head coach Todd Nelson realized that the slick playmaker was more comfortable on the wing. After going the first 10 games of the season without a goal, he recorded nine goals and 10 assists in his next 15 games.
              
“There are things I’ve learned that I wasn’t doing last year, which is why I’ve been able to produce more this year,” he said. “It’s not any one thing. It’s knowing that if I’m playing the right way, the points will come. Last year I think there were times when I got frustrated because the points weren’t coming and I got away from my game.”
              
Nelson thinks Lorito has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential.
              
“He’s a highly skilled player who sees the ice well and creates offense,” Nelson said. “His production has gotten more effective since we put him on the wing. He needs to continue to work on his play along the walls and to be stronger in his one-on-battles.”
              
Despite his all-star recognition, Lorito recognizes that he still has plenty of room for improvement.
              
“I have to make sure that I’m staying accountable defensively and that I’m tracking back,” he said. “When things weren’t going my way last season, I might have cheated a little bit for offense or not backchecked as hard as I should have because I wanted to save energy to go the other way.
              
“It’s important that I stick to the team game,” he said.
              
An injury suffered on Jan. 4 threatened to derail his early season success, but Lorito stayed focused. While he would love to get a chance to play in the NHL, he isn’t going to lose any sleep worrying about it.
              
“It’s out of my control,” Lorito said. “I just have to worry about what I can do down here and always look for ways to improve. I want to get better every day so if the call comes, I’m ready.”