by Travis Hall | AHL On The Beat
When Rockford IceHogs goaltender Matt Tomkins turned the calendar to December, he had no idea his dream of donning the Canadian jersey would come true in such a spectacular fashion.
The native of Sherwood Park, Alberta, received word just prior to the holidays that he had been named to Team Canada’s Spengler Cup roster. He rerouted his flight plans to Davos, Switzerland, and came home a week later with a gold medal, friendships and memories that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“Just to get that phone call and have it be official that I’d be representing the country and be on the team and in the tournament was unreal,” Tomkins said. “As you grow up in Canada and you realize what the Spengler is — how cool and unique the event is — it becomes something that you grow up watching on TV.”
Perhaps the most rewarding takeaway from the entire experience for Tomkins, though, was pulling the red and white maple leaf over his head for the first time.
“It was my first time being able to wear the Canadian jersey and represent my country, so that was pretty amazing,” Tomkins said. “It’s such an honor to be able to wear that jersey and to think of all the people who have in the past and will continue to wear it. To be a part of that, it’s one of those experiences you never know if you’ll be able to do it again, so I definitely wanted to jump all over the opportunity and take it all in.”
Tomkins is no stranger to jumping on opportunity. The 25-year-old netminder has had to fight for every inch throughout his professional career, beginning with two team-MVP seasons with the IceHogs’ ECHL affiliate, the Indy Fuel, and now earning his keep in the AHL despite battling in a Chicago Blackhawks organization rich with goaltending prospects.
He started one contest with Canada and once again seized the moment, turning away 22 of 23 shots to secure the 5-1 win for his country. It wasn’t just any regular game, though, as the opposition was that of the Spengler Cup hosts, HC Davos.
“Guys that had been to the tournament before spoke about how it was one of the highlight games as far as their fans were concerned,” Tomkins said. “Every year they’re gearing up trying to beat Canada, so it was pretty special to take part in that and experience the fans and the atmosphere. It was crazy, it’s like it was out of a movie, so to get the win and contribute that way was awesome.”
Tomkins shared his appreciation for those who year after year make the event a worldwide spectacle: the fans and the tournament staff.
“All the fans were so passionate, and every game was sold out no matter who was playing,” Tomkins said. “It was just cool to take it all in; it was quite the experience from everything from the town to the hockey and the whole operation of the entire tournament. They just rolled out the red carpet for us and all of our families. It really was the perfect storm with the environment, the tournament, winning gold and being able to contribute—it was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Of course, being on the stage that he was on, his teammates and coaches back in Rockford were watching his journey every step of the way and couldn’t wait to welcome him back in the room after the new year.
“It was just a lot of congrats, you know, everybody is thrilled for him,” IceHogs captain Tyler Sikura said. “It’s a unique situation that he’s in, especially being so talented and capable. For him, it’s just a matter of opportunity and when he’s gotten it, he’s done a great job.”
It’s been a whirlwind season for Tomkins. It was unclear in October just how much he’d be able to contribute in Rockford with top goalie prospects Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen in the mix, but fast forward four months and Tomkins has proved himself at the AHL level and brought home a gold medal.
In seven appearances with the IceHogs this season, the man nicknamed ‘Tommer’ has posted a 5-2-0 record with a 2.42 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
“I’m extremely proud of how he’s handled the whole situation,” IceHogs goaltending coach Peter Aubry said. “He’s a guy who hasn’t been given anything; he’s had to scratch and claw for anything that he’s gotten whether it’s going to the Spengler or getting some opportunities here in Rockford. His teammates and coaches love him because he sets a good example of how to be a pro.”
The Ohio State University alum’s maturity made him a perfect fit onto a Canadian roster that boasted over a thousand NHL games played and multiple Stanley Cups. One name that was very familiar to Tomkins was former IceHogs captain Kris Versteeg, who played a significant role in the Spengler Cup victory.
Tomkins took a moment to reflect on Versteeg’s decorated career and what it meant to be able to see such a successful veteran in the twilight of his playing days.
“For [Versteeg] to be able to represent Canada, win the gold medal and have that be the feather in his cap as far as his career is concerned was phenomenal,” Tomkins said. “It was so special as a younger guy to be a part of it and see how much that meant to him. We were texting the other day and he was so pumped for me to have that opportunity and hopefully have it kick-start my career here in North America.”
The 2012 seventh-round selection of the Blackhawks returned from the Spengler Cup to backstop the IceHogs to their first win of 2020 when he denied 20 of 21 Manitoba Moose shots on Jan. 8. The combination of winning gold and helping Rockford escape a season-long six-game skid has Tomkins feeling and playing perhaps the best hockey of his career.
“It’s massive for my confidence,” Tomkins said. “To go there, succeed, win gold and come back and rejoin the room here in Rockford—the reception was amazing. Obviously, things are tough right now, but that’s just part of a 76-game schedule and the highs and lows that come with it. For me, I’m just trying to bring a calm presence and stability on the back end whenever my number is called.”
With the month that Tomkins has had, it would seem difficult not to look ahead at what’s next in his development, but Aubry praised Tomkins’ humility amid discussing the incredible trio of goalies on the IceHogs roster.
“We’re so fortunate here in Rockford where we can look to [Lankinen], [Delia] or Tommer and lay our head down on the pillow at night and sleep easy,” Aubry said. “I think like all these guys, he wants to play in the NHL. But he does a really good job looking at the long-term while also looking at the three inches in front of his nose and what he needs to do for his next start. He’s truly only spent four months in the AHL, so when you talk about how well he’s been able to develop, there could be a lot more to his ceiling.”
Tomkins elaborated on the importance of not looking too far ahead and emphasized that the key to unlocking the next step is to stick to the process that’s gotten him to where he’s at.
“It is definitely a double-edge sword with that where you do want to stay day-to-day and focus on improving every day, but at the same time I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t thinking big picture and what’s going to happen,” Tomkins said. “But all I can control is how I’m playing and the consistency I’m able to bring. That’s been the focus from the start of the year — it’s been working well so far, so I’m just looking to make sure that I stick with it and the results will speak for themselves.”