By Evan Stockton | AHL On The Beat Archive
Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of Matthew Peca. You’re a bright-eyed 21-year-old forward who has just completed his senior season at Quinnipiac University (Connecticut), having posted your fourth straight season of 30 points or more. You were picked in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and have come to the Syracuse Crunch on an amateur tryout contract to finish the 2014-15 season. Your whole professional future is in front of you, like a blank canvas waiting for its first brush stroke.
Then, you walk into the Crunch locker room for the first time, and find the “Michael Peca” nameplate adorned above your stall, i.e. the 15-year pro who played for seven different professional hockey teams during his career, including the Syracuse Crunch during the 1994-1995 season. The same Michael Peca who will be back in Syracuse on January 31 and February 1 as an honorary captain during the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic at the War Memorial.
If you’re Matthew Peca, you shake your head, laugh a bit, and start unpacking your stuff. Matthew Peca has been asked about a hockey player he is not related to and has never met more times than he can count. Through 35 professional games, it’s time to take a closer look at another hockey-playing Peca that is poised to burst onto the big stage.
The two Pecas took different routes to arrive in the professional hockey ranks. While Michael Peca skated four years in the OHL before beginning his professional career, Matthew played two years of junior hockey with the Pembroke Lumber Kings (CCHL) before going off to Quinnipiac. For Matthew, the Pembroke connection was easy: his hometown of Petawawa, Ontario, is just nine miles away. Matthew credits his hometown for giving him a great opportunity to begin his career.
“You don’t have to look very far to get involved in hockey there,” Peca said. “There are two really good arenas, and they are always looking for things to do. Whenever I go home, there’s always something going on.”
After a 2010-11 campaign where he posted 72 points (26g, 46a), the second highest point total on the Lumber Kings, Peca headed off to Quinnipiac. Matthew’s career with the Bobcats culminated with an honor Michael Peca knows all too well: He was named captain his senior season. Matthew credits his captain responsibilities as a springboard for a successful transition to the pro game.
“The amount of responsibilities I had as a captain has allowed me to see what goes on behind the scenes,” Peca explained. “I can take a step back when the team is struggling and say ‘Oh, you’ve been here before,’ and see both sides of the story.”
While Matthew has a ways to go before he can equal Michael’s five years as a captain in the NHL (including captaining the Buffalo Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999), he has both experienced and benefited from the responsibilities that come with leading a hockey team both on and off the ice.
After recording six points in eleven games (including playoffs) with the Crunch at the end of last season, Peca has shone in the early stages of this season. Matthew is third on the Crunch with 15 points (4g, 11a), including three assists in the last three games. As his development as a professional continues, Peca notes how his time at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s training camp before the regular season made the learning curve a little less steep.
“It taught me how to be a professional and approach the game as a job,” Peca said. “The organization expects highly of us as players, and it was fun to be a part of.”
Camp wasn’t just a mental experience for the forward. Peca left camp encouraged by his performance on the ice.
“Honestly, I surprised myself with how well I did,” said Peca. “After the first couple days, I think I really settled in, and it’s such a great group that they make you feel right at home.”
With the way that players have shuttled between Syracuse and Tampa Bay this season (13 different players have played for both the Crunch and Lightning this year), Peca’s official debut with Tampa Bay may be ahead soon.
Remember that “Michael Peca” nameplate that greeted Matthew Peca when he first walked into the Crunch locker room? It still hangs above his stall every time he laces up his skates at the War Memorial. After nine months with the Crunch, Matthew doubts the nameplate (now more of a gag than a mistake) will ever change.
“I mean, it doesn’t bother me,” Peca laughs. “They all actually know what my name is.”
As for finally meeting the real Michael Peca when he comes to town for the AHL All-Star Classic? Matthew would love to. Michael Peca’s place in hockey lore is solidified after a long and productive career. Matthew Peca’s journey in pro hockey is just beginning, and after 38 games, the now 22-year-old has shown the promise that may just stake his own claim in the hockey universe someday soon.