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11/20/2004 1:45 PM - Matt Ellis is building himself into a player capable of success at the next level

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Matt Ellis wears a hard hat to work every day, which is appropriate for a lunch bucket type of guy.

Raised in a home where discipline was a cornerstone of family life, Ellis found the blueprint for success in the advice of his father. As the son of a corrections officer, Ellis came to understand that the sweat of one’s brow and a steely determination could be an unbeatable combination.

“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.”

His parents, Jim and Debbie, did everything they could to provide the foundation for Matt and his younger sister, Holly, to be successful.

For nearly 30 years, his father has worked at a prison in Niagara Falls, Ontario. “Seeing what he goes through each day, I understand what it means to sacrifice. I give him a lot of credit for putting up with all that stuff day in and day out. It’s not an easy job.”

Ultimately, his father provided the inspiration for Ellis to become a classic overachiever. He learned the importance of being accountable and accepting responsibility.

“I knew not to mess with my father,” Ellis says. “I knew if I was about to do something wrong, I didn’t want come home and have to answer to my dad.”

Growing up in Welland, Ontario – a hop, skip and jump from the U.S.-Canada border – Ellis was obsessed with sports.

“As a kid, I could never sit still. Even if I had the opportunity to stay inside and play video games, I’d rather be outside, whether it was playing ball hockey or playing football in the yard.”

Built like a linebacker (the same as his father), Ellis played every sport the same way. “My dad taught me that nobody can ever fault you for giving your best,” he says.

“When I’m preparing for games, it’s still in the back of my mind. “No matter what the circumstances, you never want to give up.”

A product of the Catholic school system, Ellis’ commitment to excellence was tested when he attended St. Michael’s, a private prep school in downtown Toronto, where he was also able to develop his skills in the Ontario Hockey League.

“St. Mike’s was the perfect place for me,” he says of the school where boys wore suits to class every day. “I grew not only as an athlete but as a person. I took a lot out of my experiences there that I still carry with me today.”

Ellis hadn’t been at the school more than a week when he contracted mononucleosis. “Right off the bat I got sick, which made my adjustment period a whole lot tougher. I was just starting to get to know my way around when I had to go home. As a result, I missed almost two months.”

His education in the school of hard knocks wasn’t finished. “I had been back for five or six games when I took quite a hit,” he recalls. “It was a late hit after a whistle, so I wasn’t ready for anything. I suffered a minor concussion, which meant I had a pretty rough start.”

Ellis’ statistics improved from year to the next at St. Michael’s. “It just came with learning the game, trying to adjust, and sopping up everything I was being taught,” he says. “A lot of it came with confidence. As I improved, my numbers gradually increased, as did my playing time and my role on the team.”

It was at St. Michael’s that Ellis formed a lasting bond with Darryl Bootland. For six straight years, they were teammates and roommates on the road, even though their personalities are polar opposites.

“I’m quiet and laid-back while ‘Booter’ is the life of the party, the funny guy who likes to have a good time,” Ellis says. “I think we always got along well together because we offset each other.”

Ellis knew he could always count on the support of his family and fiancee, but it really helped knowing that Bootland was always at his side. “You go through ups and downs in juniors. When you come to the rink and listen to ‘Booter,’ he always knows how to cheer you up.”

As a curfew captain at St. Michael’s, Ellis was able to repay his teammate for watching his back. “Of course, ‘Booter’ was one of the guys on my list,” Ellis says. “Sometimes I had to beat around the bush a little when the coach asked me about Darryl.”

A self-described late-bloomer, Ellis didn’t really catch the attention of scouts at St. Michael’s until his last season, when he had 38 goals and 51 assists in 66 games during his overage year.

“I had the attitude that I was going to have fun, leave everything on the ice and not have any regrets,” he says. “Signing with Detroit as a free agent after that season was a dream come true, especially since I had been overlooked in the draft.”

Two years ago, Ellis went to the Red Wings’ training camp in Traverse City with the hopes of playing in Grand Rapids. He wasn’t ready. Instead, he spent the entire 2002-03 season in the East Coast Hockey League with Toledo.

“In all honesty, I needed that year in Toledo to get playing time and develop my game,” he says. “I wasn’t ready to step into the American Hockey League, plus it was another adjustment, going from a billet house to living on my own.”

Ellis eventually graduated to Grand Rapids, where he enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, season a year ago.

“I took it upon myself to sit down with the coaches at the end of last season and we discussed where I needed to be this fall to have a successful year,” he says. “I took what they said to heart and went home to really address my weaknesses.”

He started strong this fall, thanks in no small measure to his summer-long workouts. “Fitness and working out have always been passions of mine,” he says. “I worked really hard this past summer to improve my skating and speed on the ice.”

His dream is to build himself up in order to play in the NHL someday. If he achieves his goal, he knows he’ll have earned his spot the hard way.

“I realize I’m not one of your so-called skill guys,” Ellis says. “I need to make a living in the corners, along the boards and in front of the net. I feel I’ve made definite improvement, but I’m going to have to give more than 100 percent toward my goals if I’m going to continue to succeed.”

His partner on his NHL-bound journey is going to be his girlfriend, Jen Cowal. Ellis proposed to Cowal this past summer and they are planning their wedding date for next July 22.

Their wedding, like their engagement, will take place at a winery. The Niagara area is home to more than 200 wineries.

“I’m not a connoisseur yet,” Ellis says. “I enjoy a nice glass of red wine now and then, but I’m just starting to learn about it.”

His wife-to-be recently finished school. She studied sports management, with an eye toward possibly pursuing sports law. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to keep some of those fees in the family.

In the meantime, Ellis is going to do everything he can to stay focused on his own career. “I want to help the Griffins win and, on a personal level, become a better team player,” he says. “Hopefully, it will increase my chances of playing at the next level.”

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