Twenty miles to go

by Kimber Auerbach || AHL On The Beat Archive

Matt Stieglitz with Sound Tigers head coach Jack Capuano.

It’s about a quarter of a mile walk for Matt Stieglitz, or Mattie as the players call him, from his seat in Section 105, Row AA on the glass to Bridgeport Sound Tigers head coach Jack Capuano’s office in the team’s locker room at the Arena at Harbor Yard.

For his parents Rich and Gail Stieglitz, it is a walk that they never believed he would have the mental or physical capability of doing.

Every home game the 13-year-old leaves his seat at the sound of the buzzer to end the period, and goes to work.

This off-season, the Sound Tigers’ AHL off-ice officials, led by Bob Esposito and John Brilliante, appointed him an honorary member. In between each period, Mattie climbs the 20 rows of seats from his post on the glass next to his favorite team’s penalty box, and heads to the press box.

There waiting for him is the team’s media relations assistant, Pat Luongo, with the updated game stats and out-of-town scores. Luongo hands the papers to Mattie and the two are off on their trek to the visiting and home locker rooms. The two companions repeat the walk after each period and at the conclusion of the game.

However, this walk seems like nothing compared to the struggles Mattie has had growing up.

Mattie was diagnosed at birth with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, or CdLS. Common characteristics of CdLS include low birth weight, slow growth and small stature, seizures, heart defects and often a developmental delay. Mattie, like most people who have the syndrome, has slurred speech as well, making it tough to sometimes understand him.

The newly appointed AHL official has been a season-ticket holder since day one with the Sound Tigers. In that inaugural game in 2001, Mattie chose #21 Trent Hunter as his favorite player. Later that year, he had the chance to meet the now-Islanders power forward at a season-ticket holder event and from that day on, the friendship between the two and Mattie’s confidence has skyrocketed.

“Part of Matt’s syndrome has been his lack of ability to express himself and communicate with others verbally,” Rich, his father, said. “He knows that people cannot often understand him and that leads to his quiet and shy personality. When he speaks, a lot of times he leaves off the first syllable because his brain works that way. Over the years of communicating with the Booster Club and AHL officials, he has grown and often times has had some entertaining conversations with them because they love to see him laugh.”

Not only does he struggle to communicate at times but he also cannot move as quickly due to his coordination and poor muscle tone, making it tough for him to walk, climb stairs or run. For the die-hard Sound Tigers fan, his reward of climbing the stairs to retrieve his papers and then going back down them to the locker room, is having the chance to hand the stats to “Coach Jack.”

“He is the biggest fan and hardest working member of our team every night,” said Capuano. “We forget how lucky we are, just having to go out and play a game where he has the struggles of dealing with his syndrome each and every day. No matter if we win or lose, I can always count on him to come in after the game and hand me the stats with a big smile on his face.”

mattie1_200.jpgWith Hunter playing on the Island, Mattie has had to adjust his radar on a new favorite player. None have been able to knock Hunter off of the top of his favorites list but several have had their names put on it like Eric Godard, Tomi Pettinen, Wade Dubielewicz, Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Tambellini and most recently, Sound Tigers team captain Mark Wotton.

To get on Mattie’s favorites list, one key factor goes into the selection process. The players, who actually take the time to speak to him and find out what’s new in his life, have the biggest influence on his life. If you take the time, like Wotton has over the past few seasons, you’d find out that Mattie is quite an athlete himself.

Mattie participates in Special Olympics in the fall. Bowling is a family affair because his mother Gail and sister Nicole participate as partners. This past season, the Stieglitz team took home the gold medal at the yearly competitions. He also takes part in the Special Olympics Track and Field events and the Challenger Baseball league. His biggest accomplishment was having his baseball coach teach him how to run the bases. By the end of the season, Mattie ran them all by himself.

Back at the arena, and eight years since he took in his first hockey game, Mattie’s confidence has blown through the roof. Getting ready for the game with his sport coat and all-access Sound Tiger pass and then delivering the stats during the intermissions often takes a little longer now because of his comfort level inside the arena.

“I receive reports from the off-ice officials letting me know how Matt does when he goes behind the scenes and how sometimes it is difficult for Pat to get Matt to move because he is busy waving to all of his friends in the arena,” said Gail Stieglitz. “Whether its Cliff Lydiksen the Zamboni driver, Bruce Sheppard his favorite AHL official or Wotton, Mattie loves to stop and say hi. This is something that he would have never done in the past.”

Rich also serves an important role with the Sound Tigers as the official team photographer. With this role, Stieglitz often goes on away trips to shoot games.

Over the holiday break, both Rich and Gail posed a question to Mattie that showed them just how much this team means to him. Like any child, the thrill of opening gifts around the holiday takes total precedence over anything else going on. The Sound Tigers were in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 27, two days after Christmas, and Rich was scheduled to attend and shoot the game.

“I asked him if he’d like to go to Auntie Karen’s to open presents or go with ‘Coach Jack’ and the team on the bus to watch the Sound Tigers take on the Penguins in Wilkes-Barre,” Rich said. “His answer was ‘Bus’ not once, not twice, but about 12 different times.”

As most third periods begin, you can see Sound Tigers forwards Kurtis McLean and Jason Pitton at the front and back of the line of players that enter the ice through the home tunnel. Every now and then, you’ll here someone yell, “20 miles to go, boys!” — which refers to 20 minutes left on the clock.

For Mattie, that phrase could not ring truer. With him walking a quarter of a mile each period for all 40 games, and then add into that the 16 wins it will take if the Sound Tigers are able reach the summit of capturing the Calder Cup, Mattie will have walked just about a total of 20 miles this season.