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Never an Easy Road

Mar 10, 2023
Written By: Randy Cleves

Matt Luff has surpassed expectations by pushing harder when others might have quit.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

This has been a memorable season for Matt Luff, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

To say the Oakville, Ontario, native has faced challenges this year would be an understatement, but Luff has built a career on overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion.

This is a guy who once played summer hockey in a rink located high on a mountain in Italy. He was a member of an all-star team assembled from his area, and if the ride on a one-lane road to the top was harrowing for a young teen like Luff, the upward trek was symbolic of the journey that lay ahead.

Growing up in a suburb west of Toronto, Luff was like any hockey-loving kid who might have dreamed that he was destined to play in the NHL, except that it was not going to be easy, no matter what he might have believed.

“I think you’re born with a [hockey] stick in your hand if you’re Canadian,” he said.

As a 16-year-old, Luff was a nearly point-per-game player for his hometown Oakville Rangers, but he fell to the seventh round of the OHL draft. A few months later, he failed to make the cut at training camp with the Belleville Bulls.

He found motivation in the rejection.

“I decided to go down and play with my buddies from my hometown,” Luff said, recalling the resentment he felt for being told he was not good enough.

Luff proceeded to score 56 goals in 66 games (adding 42 assists along the way) during the 2013-14 season in the South Central AAA (SCTA) Hockey League. “I think that was the year that I found my confidence and my game. It felt like I might have a chance.”

He subsequently made the Belleville team on his second try and became a finalist for OHL Rookie of the Year.

Although his play earned the notice of Central Scouting, he found himself forgotten during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. “I went through my first draft unnoticed and got no camp invites, which kinda sucked,” he said. “That was another motivator. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road.”

The Bulls moved to Hamilton the following season and he tripled his output to 27 goals while leading his team in scoring with 57 points in 61 games. He wore an “A” in recognition of his leadership role, but he failed to hear his name called during the NHL draft for the second time in as many campaigns.

He struggles to find an explanation for the snubs.

“We played on Olympic ice in Belleville, so I think my speed may have been an issue,” he said. “I’m still not the greatest skater, but it’s something I worked on and it’s still something I try to improve. Moving to the smaller ice in Hamilton was a little bit better for my game. I was able to produce more because it was a tighter surface.”

Luff became determined to show that he was good enough to play at the pro level.

“Every kid who plays hockey hopes to get drafted, but I knew I still had two or three years in the OHL, so I felt like I had to get going,” he said. “Luckily enough, I was put in the right spot in Hamilton with the right people. They had the same goal as me, which was to get guys into the NHL. I made sure to leave a good impression every time I got an opportunity.”

It worked.

Luff signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings after attending the NHL club’s development and rookie camps as a free-agent invitee. “I signed with the Kings, then took an overnight flight from L.A. to Toronto and met my OHL team in Mississauga for the season opener,” he recalled. “I got a hat trick and an assist, so it was pretty cool 24 hours.”

His last year in junior was not without some growing pains. He missed all of November with a shoulder injury, then part of February with a concussion. Even so, he tallied 25 goals and 24 assists in 45 regular season games, then added nine points (4-5—9) in seven playoff games. He also appeared in two games with the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ AHL affiliate.

Luff spent the following summer of 2017 preparing for his first full season as a pro. He worked with Mike Donnelly, the former MSU Spartan who had back-to-back 29-goal seasons with the Kings in the early 1990s before becoming a development coach in the Kings organization.

“Mike’s an unbelievable guy,” Luff said. “We formed a good relationship and he’s one of the people who helped me make the NHL. If you had asked me, I don’t think I would have been ready to play in the NHL at 21. I have nothing but great things to say about the L.A. staff and how they develop players.”

Luff showed that he could be a productive player at the pro level during his first full season with the Reign when he played for Mike Stothers, the former Griffins head coach (2007-08) who won a Calder Cup with the Manchester Monarchs in 2015 and is currently an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks.

“Mike Stothers is one of those guys who made sure I was doing the right things,” Luff said. “L.A. was big on defensive play and he preached that you play defense first and you don’t cheat for offense. He did a lot for me during my rookie year.

“I would go play for him any time because he was just a straight shooter. You could go into his office and ask him anything and he would tell you how it actually was. He knew all about messaging and reaching younger guys and he’s one of my favorite coaches to this day.”

Luff split his second pro season between Ontario and the NHL. In 33 games with the Kings, Luff recorded eight goals and three assists. In Nov. 2018, he became only the fifth rookie in L.A. Kings history to score goals in four straight games, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in more than 30 years.

“I had a good stretch,” he said. “I found good chemistry with Carl Hagelin and Adrian Kempe. Getting to play with both of those guys was great. They put me in a good position – I got some power play time – and I was able to put up some points.

“The best part was I can look back at that time and know that whenever I get the chance, I know I can play in [that] league and I can produce. L.A. took a stab in the dark on an undrafted kid, and to be getting a regular shift at age 21 was pretty surreal.”

The next season was a different story. The Kings had a new head coach, Todd McLellan, the former Red Wings assistant coach who had previously led the San Jose Sharks (seven seasons) and Edmonton Oilers (four seasons).

The change meant Luff had to prove himself all over again. He began the 2019-20 season in Ontario but was back in L.A. within the first month of the season. He saw action in only 18 NHL games, as he found himself in and out of the lineup.

“It was one of those situations where you have to keep working,” he said. “You build confidence the more you play. But when you are in for a game and then out for five or six, that can be pretty hard on you. Many people don’t understand how hard that is on a guy, no matter how old you are.

“When you miss games, it’s not easy to step right back in and play like you would if you were playing every game. You try to stay positive. Once you get on the negative side, you’re giving them reasons to take you out. I was looking for a regular spot that just never came to fruition.”

After five years in the Kings organization, Luff decided he could benefit from a change of scenery. After an amicable parting of ways, he prepared his bags for a new start, although the departure was not without feeling.

“I respect them for the fact that they gave me a chance when 31 other teams didn’t want to give me one,” he said. “And I’m grateful for the opportunity to play for one of the coolest organizations in hockey.” (Editor’s note: Wayne Gretzky spent eight seasons in L.A.)

Luff signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Nashville Predators for the 2021-22 season. He was assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals and played 30 games in the AHL before he was recalled by the Predators in December 2021. In 23 NHL games, Luff totaled three goals and three assists.

“I settled into a spot as an in-and-out fourth-line guy and stuck to that role,” he said. “I had a pretty good year there. If you’ve been to Nashville, you understand the hype around the city. My girlfriend loved it and I have nothing bad to say about the organization.”

Luff felt his time with the Predators helped strengthen his play.

“Nashville helped me with teaching me how to use my body to protect the puck or how to finish checks,” he said. “I think that’s what is cool about changing organizations. People all want different things that you might not have known you had in you.”

Like the Kings, the Predators preached defense first.

“I had learned during my first full year in the NHL that defense is what is going to keep you there and offense is something that will come as you go,” he said. “I think defense is the reason I was able to stick after a couple of months in the AHL. I was able to play their system in the D-zone or be out there for the last minute if we were up a goal. They could trust me.”

Even so, Luff was ready to change jerseys once again. He signed another one-year contract, this time with the Red Wings.

“They had been on my radar because they’re a team close to home. They were also a team that I thought might need guys at some point in the year, whether it was right at the start of the season or sometime later through injuries,” he said. “I had talked to them the previous year during free agency.”

He took Detroit’s inquiry into his availability as a sign.

“Any time a team comes twice, it’s a team that is interested,” he said. “I look at what Steve [Yzerman, the Red Wings’ general manager] did in Tampa Bay and what he has done [in Detroit] and I think that’s awesome, plus he’s another straight-shooter who tells you how it is. So it was a pretty simple decision.”

Luff enjoyed a great start in Grand Rapids, picking up three goals and four assists in his first five games in a Griffins jersey. His showing earned him a recall to Detroit, but his luck changed during his second game with the Red Wings.

In a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 29, Detroit blocked 19 shots, including three by Luff. The only problem was that one was with his face. Matt Dumba took a slap shot from the point that slid up Luff’s stick and smacked the Red Wing right in the face below his visor.

Luff dropped his stick as he slid across the ice, then quickly tossed aside his gloves and helmet as he made his way off the ice.

“It’s like you’re in instant shock,” Luff said, recalling his misfortune. “I looked down and thought, ‘Oh no, here we go.’ I saw all the blood and I don’t do good with blood. So I got off the ice and ran down the tunnel to the medical room. They told me they were going to throw some stitches in my mouth and you think, ‘All right.’ The worst part is the needle in the mouth.”

Luff’s initial repair took 16 stitches (eight inside and eight outside his mouth) and probably cost him four teeth (three on the bottom, one on top). Even so, he was back at practice the next day after a sleepless night. As far as Luff was concerned, there was no debate.

“You’re a hockey player and you’re a guy who just got called up, so you want to be at practice.”

The aftermath of getting hit in the mouth was not something that he was looking to repeat anytime soon. Luff compared the experience to a sensation similar to having a mouth full of canker sores.

“My mouth was a mess,” he said. “My stick might have helped a little by deflecting some of the speed. It hurt and it hurt for a long time after, too. I couldn’t eat anything solid for quite a while. I blew out all the gums inside my mouth on the left side. I still have bumps all down along the side where it happened.”

Luff played the next four games wearing a protective cage, which he finally shed before a home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 8.

Late in the third period of a 2-2 game, Luff was clobbered by Canadiens rookie Juraj Slafkovsky, getting drilled into the boards with a nasty hit from behind while he was off-balance with the puck.

The timing couldn’t have been worse because he was still healing from his first injury. “My dad was there with a business partner and his kid and it was the first game that my girlfriend had seen [a game] since I joined the Red Wings,” he said.

His face smashed against the dasherboard, not only reopening the wounds inside his mouth and breaking his nose but also doing a number on his wrist.

“I think I was a little lucky because my wrist took most of the hit,” said Luff, who stumbled to his feet. “It could have been worst because I could have injured my neck. I went to the hospital to get my head and neck checked out. It turned out to be a long night.”

Slafkovsky was handed a two-game suspension after serving a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for the hit. Luff, meanwhile, felt like he had been hit by a truck.

“It was scary because I didn’t know the timeline, whether I would need surgery, but I knew that I had obliterated my wrist,” he said. “I’m an unserious guy away from the rink, but I was fully cast with my arm in a sling, so my dad wasn’t joking around like he normally would. He knew it was serious.”

Luff was told that he needed surgery and would be out for 10-12 weeks. The rehab that followed, in Luff’s one-word estimation, “sucked,” but he is thankful for the guidance of Griffins physical therapist Eldon Graham and strength and conditioning coordinator Marcus Kinney during his recovery.

“It was a lot of meds and a lot of physio and a lot of uncomfortable things,” he said., “It took a month before I could move my fingers and get some kind of movement. Eldon and Marcus were the main two guys who stuck with me and made sure I was here seven days a week and they were here right there with me. There were setbacks and there were days where I came in and I was just in a mood.”

His wrist was not the only thing that required rehabilitation. His mental state needed some repair as well. “You train for three months to get ready for a season and it’s frustrating when you’re watching your teammates battling and you know you still have two months of rehab to go,” he said. “I can’t say I was the happiest kid all the time.”

Luff spent countless hours on a stationary bike in an attempt to keep his legs in shape.

“There’s off-ice shape and on-ice shape. They’re completely different,” he said. “Once you add your gear and your skates and you’re striding on the ice, it’s way different from a bike. I rode the Airdyne seven days a week for three or four weeks until I could tie my skates. When I got on the ice and did my first skate, I think I lasted 15 minutes. I had to stop because I couldn’t breathe.”

When Luff finally returned to action with the Griffins more than 11 weeks after his surgery, he played three games in four nights. He appeared in back-to-back road games against Milwaukee and Chicago in late January, then was back on the ice in Milwaukee two nights later.

“When we went on the ice for the second game against Milwaukee, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got no legs. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this game,’” he said. “Other guys were halfway through the year, systems all dialed in, and I’m trying to get myself back into playing shape.”

By the time the calendar turned to February, Luff was starting to feel like his old self again. He had three assists in a pair of games in Texas to start the month, a showing that he hopes signals a big second half for himself and the team.

“When I’m playing my best, I’m moving my feet, getting the puck, being around the net, creating plays, and being an offensive threat,” he said. “I’m communicating with my linemates, helping to end plays in the D-zone, and then spending the next 20 seconds in their end to create scoring chances.”

Luff has had enough tumult for a season and hopes that the only drama ahead is the Griffins winning enough games to make a run for a playoff spot. “It’s nice to be back in the lineup and see things go in a positive direction,” he said.

Setbacks aside, he is remaining positive. “We have one of the best teams on paper but this is not an easy league,” he said. “We’ve got the edges of the puzzle figured out and now we’re working on the middle. Once you get into the playoffs, it doesn’t matter where you finish, so getting into the playoffs is what matters.

“I think we’re getting our stride back just in time.”