by Jesse Eisenberg || AHL On The Beat Archive
Albany River Rats rookie right winger Matthew Pistilli recently revealed a talent of which few of his teammates were aware.
That revelation did not surface in his two-goal game against Springfield on Oct. 30, which saw the gritty winger notch his first professional goal on an unassisted breakaway, complete with a highlight-reel backhand finish.
While the big-bodied winger’s scoring touch may have caught the goaltender off guard, his offensive prowess is well documented at the junior level where he skated with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the high-octane Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
What his teammates and coaches may have overlooked in Pistilli’s player bio, just beneath mentions of his team-best 45-goal final campaign, is his impressive record of community involvement. Last season, the Montreal native earned the Canadian Hockey League’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, in recognition of his impact in the local community.
“I didn’t go to school last year so I had a lot of free time on my hands and I just wanted to give back to the community,” said Pistilli. “Especially where I played, they were hit really hard by the economic situation. Two of the four main factories in the city closed, so there was a lot of struggle. I decided to give back just by helping out with food drives, I did a lot of school appearances, I gave tickets to kids every game that weren’t fortunate enough to come to the games. Everything I could have done, I did.”
Fifteen games into his first professional season in Albany, Pistilli is already on his way to making the same type of impact in New York’s Capital Region that he had in Shawinigan. The 21-year-old has quickly become an important part of the River Rats MVP Health Care “KidPower at School” assembly program.
“Here in Albany we get a whole bunch of opportunities to give back to the community and I think it’s important to do that. The fans give us a lot of support, so we have to support them too.”
Every River Rats player will rotate evenly through dozens of charitable community appearances this season, including the “KidPower at School with the River Rats” program, designed to teach school-age children the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices and keeping active through sports.
As a rookie, Pistilli was offered the year’s first health and fitness talk. Though admittedly nervous at the start, the personable winger became comfortable in a flash and was such a hit in front of more than 200 Green Island Elementary students that he volunteered for the second go-around recently at Paige Elementary in Schenectady, N.Y.
“I really enjoyed taking part in the program,” said Pistilli. “You could see that some of the kids were struggling, and just seeing us made them feel good. With the rough times we’re having now it seems like everybody has their head down, so we’re just trying to bring a smile back to everybody as best as we can.”
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The fitness assembly features appearances by team mascot Rowdy The Rat and the MVP Health Care mascot Appleby, but Pistilli has stolen the show from both characters at this season’s events.
“It’s important for these kids to learn about having a healthy lifestyle and we try to make it as fun as possible for them. You don’t want to go in front of them and be a statue and just talk – you want to make it interesting. We try to talk about the five main food groups and getting the right amount of sleep. To hydrate as often as possible and, in general, just living a healthy lifestyle.”
Pistilli doesn’t allow the confines of the school stage to limit his lesson plan; he spends the bulk of the free-wheeling presentation in the stands with his audience. Every student gets a turn on the microphone to suggest a healthy food, or to help brainstorm exciting ways to stay active outside. Pistilli’s style keeps student’s involved, attentive, and often on their feet.
“It’s important, but the kids may not think it is the most fun subject to talk about so we try to add a little touch of hockey and discuss things that we used to do when we were younger to get them involved.”
The hockey talk is usually saved for last, when student’s grill their new teacher about the game.
“Have you ever fought?” is usually the first question.
“Yes, but we’re penalized for it, just like you guys are if you do something wrong,” is Pistilli’s rehearsed response.
“How many goals have you scored this year?” was the second question at his most recent appearance in Schenectady.
“Two so far,’ replied Pistilli, who then added, “When I was in juniors, I was the first guy they looked to when they needed a goal, but with the offensive guys in front of me here in Albany, I’m an energy guy right now.”
His enthusiastic audiences, and now his teammates, can certainly attest to that.