A D-man with some dazzle Dominion City’s Denton Mateychuk looks like a first-round pick in NHL draft
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DOMINION CITY — On a quiet street, just a stone’s throw from the Dominion City Arena and a five-minute walk from Roseau Valley School, you will find Camp Mateychuk.
An 80-foot long batting cage is nestled in a grove of oak trees on the right side of the circular driveway.
There’s a basketball hoop just to the left of that, a workout room in the shed further back behind the trees. Around the rear of the main house sits a synthetic skating surface for hot summer days when the arena doesn’t have ice.
You should be getting the picture by now: Active people live here.
Jason and Keela Mateychuk and their five kids — sons Maddux, 19, Denton, 17, Kasen, 15 and Crosby, 12, and 10-year-old daughter Brylee — are preparing for the start of summer vacation like it’s no break at all.
“Yeah, we’re a big sports family. We’ll go out and play basketball, and with four brothers we’ll have a two-on-two game and it gets pretty intense — we like to give it our all when we’re playing,” says Denton. “And I’ll go into batting cage and hit. So, there’s lots of things that we like to do here.”
Maddux, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, is home after surgery to repair a broken bone and a torn ligament in his foot suffered during his college baseball season with the Campbellsville (Ky.) University Tigers.
He’s been rehabbing the injury while spotting in with the Altona Bisons of the Manitoba Junior Baseball League.
Meanwhile, Kasen, Crosby and Brylee have baseball and spring hockey commitments that require transport to various locations around Winnipeg — more than an hour’s drive north — and various other spots in southern Manitoba.
Denton had joined Maddux in Altona, playing first base for the Bisons, but that was before he tweaked his left knee and had to withdraw from some of the physical testing at the recent NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo, N.Y.
The damage wasn’t serious but it was a reminder of the precarious nature of the next month of Denton’s life.
After a superb sophomore season with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, he’s expected to be among the first 20 players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, scheduled for July 7-8 in Montreal.
“Once the season’s done, you’ve done everything that you can do to prove yourself as a player,” says Denton. “Now you’re just getting ready for it. You’re a bit anxious and you’re excited but you’re also a bit nervous for it. I think I’ll just try to use it as momentum, because I want to start training now to be ready for next year.”
The defenceman is one of most unique players in the 2022 draft class.
While scouts marvel at his all-round skill set, he is viewed as undersized (5-11) for an NHL blue-line prospect and he also seems to have a reckless, risk-taking side that leaves some talent evaluators concerned.
But Denton appears to harbour no such self-doubt.
“I think I’ve always had that offensive instinct,” says Denton, who scored 13 goals and 64 points in 65 regular-season games with the Warriors in 2021-22. “I was always a D-man… I’ve just always tried to create as much as I can in the offensive zone. I know that I’m a defenceman first, but I like to jump into the rush, and sometimes maybe that’s not the exact right play. It’s a bit of a risk. And I think that’s something I need to manage.”
He wasn’t always so self-assured. His dad remembers a time as a 10-year-old when Denton made an aggressive pinch in the offensive zone and was burned (the play turned into a 2-on-1 the other way and a goal for the opposition).
A year later, Denton was still wary of making a mistake when he joined an all-star team for a spring tournament. One of his teammates that year was a player from Ontario named Shane Wright, the presumptive No. 1 choice in this year’s draft.
“When he played with the spring team from Vancouver, the coach really pushed him to be offensive and it was a real struggle to get him to do that,” says Jason, who’s heavily involved in the local hockey and baseball scene while also serving as the principal at Roseau Valley School.
“And it goes back to the experience he had early on where the coach wanted him to be more of a risk-taker. He took the risk, got burned and then got benched. He’s a smart kid. (Denton thinks), ‘If I play decent defensively with a little bit of offence, I’m not going to miss any shifts.’ It took that one assistant coach with the Vancouver team to say, ‘You’ve gotta play this way, you have it in you.’”
Mateychuk’s parents have been gratified to see those instincts nurtured in Moose Jaw, where head coach Mark O’Leary has a distinctively modern tactical approach. Denton’s silky smooth skating, robust 188-pound frame and brain for the game made it clear to O’Leary his young star needed to be unshackled.
“You have to understand that there’s certain risks that need to be taken with some players because the rewards are there if you let that happen, and Denton’s a great example of that,” says O’Leary.
“You saw the growth that he had this year in his defending and his ability to play on the other side of the puck. If he’s doing those things then he’s got the green light to be creative because he’s got the gifts to make those rewards well worth it. I just think that’s the way that the game is going right now.”
At the young player’s suggestion, O’Leary successfully employed Denton in the bumper position on the Moose Jaw power play, a spot normally reserved for a team’s most creative forward.
When the club is playing 5-on-5, O’Leary has great faith in Denton’s ability to recover from a deep foray into the offensive zone.
“He can trust his feet that he can be in (the offensive zone) first but he can also be back first,” says O’Leary. “And I think that is rare. When he’s in, he’s out just as quick and very rarely does that result in trouble.”
Much of the credit for his mobility should go to mom Keela, who teaches figure skating and power skating at the local rink in addition to her duties as a French and home economics teacher at the school.
There’s a lasting memory of Denton, just three years old at the time, already speeding around the arena ice.
“I remember a mom from an older team walking into the rink and saying, ‘Who’s the kid with the NHL moves on the ice?’” says Keela, who also coaches some of the school’s volleyball, basketball, cross-country and track and field teams. “And here’s little Denton. He was always so solid on his skates, just a beautiful skater.”
Ready access to sports facilities in Dominion City (which had a population of 353 in the 2016 Census) is important in keeping the family involved. But as the kids got older, commuting to practice and games for high-level hockey took extra commitment.
For instance, during Denton’s three seasons with the Eastman U15 and U17 Selects, practices and games in Beausejour required 100 minutes in the car each way. This month, the family’s day planner maps out the daily activities for each of the three youngest kids. Every date in June is filled with times and locations.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re on the go a lot — constantly — your kids are busy and that’s so cool to see and I wish our kids were more like that,’ that kind of thing,” says Keela. “But I know, too, we’ve lost some friendships along the way because we kind of put our kids first for the last 20 years.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
CLASS OF ‘22
Top prospect: defenceman Denton Mateychuk
Name game: Named after MLB hall-of-famer Cy Young, whose real first name was Denton.
Hometown: Dominion City
Measurables: 5-11, 188 pounds
NHL Central Scouting: Ranked 14th among North American skaters
Quoteable: “It’s not even a negative but I think (what I’m hearing) from a lot of scouts is they’re having a tough time finding a comparable,” says Moose Jaw Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary. “Their job is to see, ‘OK, what’s Denton going to be like when he’s 25 years old? Where’s the NHL comparable?’ There’s just not a lot of them out there.”