Small-town boys, big-league dreams

by Michael Mulhern || AHL On The Beat Archive 

Each night, countless young hockey fans around the globe lay their heads to rest and drift off into dream worlds that temporarily allow them to live out their most profound aspirations in near-realistic fashions and become professional hockey players.

For two current San Antonio Rampage forwards, Stefan Meyer and Matt Watkins, those dreams can be traced back to Fox Valley and Aylesbury, small farm towns situated in the heartland of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

After growing up in communities with populations of 300 and 35, respectively, Meyer, 24, and Watkins, 23, currently compete in the American Hockey League and reside in one of the 10 largest cities in the United States: San Antonio, Texas. However, both players will never forget where it all began.

Meyer’s high school graduating class was comprised of 10 total students, many of whom today work on local farms, on gas patches and as contractors on oil rigs. His family farms grain and Meyer returns home each summer to help his father prepare for the ensuing harvest. After spending the majority of the fall, winter and spring traveling from city to city as a professional hockey player, the 2003 second-round draft pick of the NHL’s Florida Panthers loves to return home, roll up his sleeves and assist with the summer duties on the farm.

“My dad wakes up at 5 a.m. and doesn’t return home until after dark. I love to help him in the summer and enjoy being outside and working hard,” said Meyer.

Watkins’ family raises beef cattle and harvests wheat, lentils and barley. His high school class featured 13 students, 10 of which were boys.

“On the farm my responsibilities include ensuring that the calves are healthy, tagged and vaccinated, assisting with the harvests and herding the cattle from one patch of grass to the other. Modern technology has really helped to make farming more efficient over the years, but it’s still a lot of work,” Watkins said.

Nonetheless, while growing up the two balanced their agrarian responsibilities with the same summer leisure activities enjoyed by children raised in larger Canadian cities: baseball, fishing and, of course, hockey.

Coincidentally, during Saskatchewan’s cold winter months, Watkins and Meyer were the beneficiaries of a common perk: 24-hour access to the lone ice rinks in or near their small towns.

“We have one rink in town and my mom was a figure skating teacher so she had a key to the building that I used to borrow. When I couldn’t take the key, for years my friends and I used to sneak into the rink through a little hole in the back until I was too big to fit,” said Meyer, who now stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 195 pounds.

The upkeep of Watkins’ local rink, which he ascribed as more of a barn with a sheet of natural ice inside, was a family-oriented endeavor.

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“The nearest artificial ice rink is 10 miles away, but we also have one rink, about three miles away from my house, with natural ice. While growing up, my great uncle was in charge of taking care of it,” Watkins said. “Instead of a Zamboni, we had a barrel of water with a broom attached. Thanks to my great uncle, I always had a key and free reign to skate whenever I had time.”

Growing up on farms instilled core values and discipline in both Meyer and Watkins, elements that were paramount in helping the two to transform their dreams of being professional hockey players from mere ideals to realities.

“The farm taught me all that I know about working hard and, as a result, I never take anything for granted,” Meyer said.

Watkins echoed Meyer’s sentiments and, like Meyer, attributed his work ethic to the examples displayed daily by family members.

“I think growing up on a farm and seeing the way my grandfather, father and other family members worked taught me the values of hard work and dedication,” Watkins said.

However, in the end, both players credit their parents for playing fundamental roles in helping to provide the resources necessary for achieving their dreams as exposure to better coaching and competition forced them to move far away from their respective homes for extended periods of time.

Prior to being drafted by Florida in 2003, Meyer played one year of junior in Saskatchewan and four and a half seasons of major junior with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL. Watkins played a year of junior hockey in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia before receiving a hockey scholarship to the University of North Dakota, where he was a three-time WCHA All-Academic team member.

“I wouldn’t have been able to achieve my dreams without the help and support of my parents. They spent a lot of money to help me and as a result I owe them everything,” said Meyer.

Watkins stated that his parents have been unbelievably supportive. “They’ve never pushed me to work on the farm instead of playing hockey or vice versa. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their help and I’m truly grateful.”

In spite of the fact that Meyer and Watkins now spend their days traveling to and from cities like San Antonio, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto as professional hockey players, the farm will always maintain a special place in their hearts.

“My parents are excited about how far I’ve come,” said Watkins, “and they remind me that at the end of the day, the farm will always be there.”