For the past few days, I was planning to write about why I believe the New York Rangers are an absolute lock to win this year’s Stanley Cup. I was going to explain how this year’s team was brilliantly built through the draft, free agency, and trades and how happy I will be for so many former MSG and Rangers co-workers when the Cup is presented to Ryan McDonagh in June.
I was going to write about how I felt fortunate to have been working for the team when almost all of the current homegrown players were drafted and how emotional it will be to see McDonagh pass the Cup to Henrik Lundqvist, who is truly one of the best people in the game and could not be more deserving of such an honor.
Of course, I still look forward to that Cup-lifting moment — and it will happen, believe me. However, that is all I can say about these Rangers just 48 hours from the start of the playoffs, because my thoughts today have been focused on the memory of someone who passed away nearly four weeks ago.
I wasn’t paying any attention to hockey headlines when Matthew Wuest lost his battle with cancer last month. Focused solely on hockey’s past, researching the history of major-junior drafts, I had little time for the present. And so, regrettably, I missed the news that Matt, best known as the creator of CapGeek.com, had passed away.
In some ways, I am thankful I did not learn of Matt’s death at the time. I knew for months that Matt had a terminal illness, but his loss is a devastating thing for me to digest and learning of it when he has already been laid to rest makes it somehow easier to absorb.
Flipping through The Hockey News pages today, I saw that Matt was gone. It was a surreal moment. I knew Matt when he dreamed of getting a by-line in The Hockey News, and here I was looking at a full-page obituary.
I spent the next two hours reviewing all the online coverage of his death, including the Halifax newspaper obituary, tributes from fellow hockey journalists and fans, and the numerous Twitter mentions of him in the days around this incredibly saddening news. I will continue to read anything and everything I can about Matt, but I have to write, too. Years from now, if someone searches Matt’s name online, I hope they will find this story in the mix.
Like so many others who have saluted Matt’s life, I never met him in person, but for almost 15 years he was a loyal friend. From the start, I was awed by his passion. As he made a name for himself in hockey, I was awed by his humility. And when I learned that he was so very ill, I was awed by his courage.
Life is random, and it is not fair. Period. There is no other rational way to explain how a person this selfless could be taken from all of us at such a young age.
I came to this very conclusion 21 years ago when my cousin, one of the kindest people I have ever known, passed away due to cancer at age 43. Matt was even younger — only 35 when he died last month — yet he had come a long, long way from when we first crossed paths.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was working at an ill-fated dot-com called Rival Networks. The company’s flagship website, Rivals.com, was ahead of its time in recognizing the demand for fan-generated sports content, but had no real way to monetize it. This was still a pre-broadband world and a time when people were leery of shopping online. Like so many other dot-coms in 2000, Rivals Networks was hoping for an IPO which would make its founders rich. Due to mismanagement and the dot-com collapse, the company never got to that point. (Side Note: The Rivals.com brand was later revived as a college football recruiting site by a small group of former employees and sold to Yahoo! for big money, but that’s another story.)
Armed with tens of millions of dollars in dot-com venture-capital funding, Rival Networks had managed to aggregate hundreds of the best unofficial sports team sites under one umbrella. At the time, it seemed ridiculous for amateurs to be writing about teams that wouldn’t even consider giving them press credentials, and it seemed even sillier to have ridiculously biased hockey fans trying to “report” on their favorite teams. My friends in mainstream journalism mocked me for joining such a company, and they were right in the sense that I would be out of work in only 11 months.
That 11-month ride that still seems like a dream. During those 11 months, I oversaw the company’s network of hockey sites, which drew most of their traffic from popular message boards. The words “blog” and “social media” probably didn’t exist at the time, Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, and Twitter was five or six years away from existing, so those message boards were the cutting edge of interactivity.
Our Rivals.com Detroit Red Wings site was run by a fighter pilot named Barry. It didn’t have much traffic, because Barry was often busy flying jets and couldn’t put much time into working on it. As a result, Barry had to find an assistant to help him run the site.
That assistant ended up being a 19-year-old Canadian student named Matthew Wuest.
Although he had grown up in Maritime Canada, Matt was a die-hard Red Wings fan. He had discovered Barry’s site shortly after it launched in 1999 and really liked the Rival Networks concept. However, like most of the other people in our network, he had absolutely no experience as a journalist.
Matt was primarily interested in Red Wings draft picks and prospects, so he started out by helping Barry in that area. His early articles did not feel particularly professional, but they were always thorough, accurate, and highly informative. It was obvious that this kid from New Brunswick really, really cared about the Red Wings’ future.
He was particularly focused on a couple of European prospects named Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and he was tracking their progress on a daily basis. Both players were late-round picks, and very little was known about them in North America. Matt, however, was a true believer and did everything he could to alert Red Wings fans to their potential greatness. Matt, being Matt, was way ahead of his time.
As the months passed, Matt took more control of the Rivals Red Wings site. While Barry had been my initial phone contact, more of the conversations were now with Matt. These long-distance calls from Seattle to New Brunswick were probably costing our company a fortune. Matt was determined to learn everything he could about journalism, and it was refreshing to speak with a young person who shared my passion for hockey in general and the draft in particular.
At the time, Matt was studying computer science. Because of his computer skills, he was able to do some cool things on the Red Wings site, and he had an unbelievable work-ethic. In fact, I have yet to see another 20-year-old with that kind of dedication and I’m sure I never will.
Shortly before Rivals collapsed in April 2001, Matt told me he had decided that writing about hockey was his true calling and he would shift from computer science to journalism. I remember thinking it was crazy to give up computer science for what would be a far less lucrative career covering sports, but this kid was determined and he certainly wasn’t risk-averse.
When the Rivals.com run ended, Matt took all of his passion to his own site, RedWingsCentral.com. He built that site into everything a fan of Red Wings prospects could have dreamed of and began to establish connections in the scouting world. He would continue to publish that site for its loyal audience until just last year, when his declining health forced him to limit himself to CapGeek.
As he pursued his journalism degree, Matt began free-lancing for The Hockey News, and eventually became a sports reporter in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he covered the local QMJHL team. Knowing Matt’s background, I always got a big kick out of reading his Hockey News pieces and seeing his QMJHL reporting online.
CapGeek was a spin-off of RedWingsCentral, which had ushered in the salary-cap era by providing contract and cap-hit information about the Red Wings alone. Given his natural coding ability, Matt was able to build something unique, and he had the foresight to realize he could expand his salary and contract database to cover the entire NHL — thereby filling a need that the league refused to address.
He did just that, and he revolutionized the world of hockey in the process. Everyone in the business used CapGeek for salary-related information. I remember seeing Cam Hope, then the assistant general manager of the Rangers, going through the CapGeek site one day and telling him I knew the guy who created it. Cam, who had helped put together all of the Rangers players’ actual contracts, said CapGeek was roughly 95 percent accurate in the case of the Rangers, and he marveled at how Matt Wuest was getting his information from player agents and other sources.
In 2011, I remember the excitement I felt when Matt was ranked No. 98 on The Hockey News‘ annual list of the 100 most powerful people in hockey. The kid from the phone calls had made it to the game’s stratosphere. It hardly surprised me. From those first conversations I had with him in 2000, I sensed that this person was destined to forever impact the game he loved. If it ever becomes possible for the Hockey Hall of Fame to honor online achievements in the way it honors writers and broadcasters, I would hope the award could be named for Matt.
The most impressive thing — and the thing I will always remember about Matt — was his remarkable humility and respect for the game. In a world of obnoxious bloggers and shameless self-promoters, Matt was never interested in the spotlight, and he was not about big money. There are dot-com dreamers out there who would give anything for what Matt had, but he cared about a bigger picture and was constantly sharing his love for hockey. He responded to every question that came his way and took every fan’s online request seriously, never forgetting that he was once one of them.
He also never forgot people he met along the way. When I started a twitter account for HockeyDraftCentral, Matt was the second person to follow me, even though I had not had e-mail contact with him in a couple of years. Last summer, I e-mailed him to ask if there was some way I could help him build out historical information on CapGeek, and I was genuinely excited about the prospect of working with him again after all these years.
Matt didn’t respond to that e-mail for several weeks, which wasn’t like him at all. But I had no idea he was nearly two years into a battle for his life. Then, in August, he e-mailed me to let me know that he couldn’t take me up on my offer because of his illness, which was not public information at the time.
I was stunned and saddened to learn he was sick, but I somehow thought that he was going to beat cancer. I had seen this young man go from obscurity in a New Brunswick computer-science program to the THN top 100. I had to believe that no matter how sick he was, he would find a way to survive.
I had one more e-mail exchange with Matt last November. He was going in for another round of treatment and seemed hopeful. He mentioned that he and Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray were fighting the exact same thing despite the big gap in their ages. It suddenly struck me that I had once met Bryan Murray in person but had never actually been in the same room as Matt.
So I knew he was sick, but subconsciously, I was avoiding the reality that his time was so limited. I hadn’t checked CapGeek since he shut it down in January, so I didn’t realize his health had declined so rapidly from November. I suppose that’s something I was afraid to know.
And now he is gone, and hockey will never be the same for his loss. He was remembered in most tribute pieces as an online pioneer, a person of great humility, a friend to all hockey fans and an inspiration to hockey writers. He was indeed all of those things, but none of those journalists had known Matt before he had joined their ranks. Few may have understood just how far he had come.
I will forever remember Matt as the young man on the phone going on to reach heights that might have seemed unimaginable. I was 34 when I had my first conversation with Matt. He was 35 when he died. In those intervening 15 years, he touched the lives of millions of hockey fans who spent countless hours interacting with both him and his work.
I have been looking forward to this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs for a long time, and I fully expect to feel a lot of happiness for a lot of Rangers people in June. But if any other team proves me wrong and takes the Cup instead of this great Rangers team, I want it to be the Detroit Red Wings. And no matter what happens during these playoffs, I will be thinking a lot about Matthew Wuest and how grateful I am to have known one of 21st century hockey’s most important and ground-breaking people.
The first team to win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They have not won it since, and I’ll be 48 this fall.
It’s almost tragic how the center of the hockey world — an area where people live and breathe the game — has had to wait so long to see the Cup in the hometown team’s hands. Montreal is a great hockey city, but Toronto is even greater. If you love hockey, being in Toronto feels like a religious experience, particularly when you visit the Hockey Hall of Fame or stroll through neighborhoods where countless NHL stars were raised.
There are many reasons why the Leafs have not raised the Cup, or even reached the Final, since 1967. Many of the wounds were self-inflicted in years when Harold Ballard owned the team. Now the pressure to win is astronomical, and that’s part of the problem. Each time it seems the Leafs are ready to take a step forward, they somehow move in the other direction. That’s sad, because the Maple Leafs should be an NHL standard-bearer, not a team that struggles just to keep up with the pack.
This week, for the first time in memory, Toronto did something that suggests a new era really has arrived. The Maple Leafs hired a 28-year-old named Kyle Dubas as their new assistant general manager. Dubas is widley recognized as a front-office prodigy — the NHL’s first executive to emerge from the technology-rich new world order of sports.
Dubas is known to make data-driven decisions when it comes to running a hockey team. He relies more heavily on statistical measures than gut feelings, which helped him drive the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds out of the cellar and into the upper echelons of major-junior hockey within three years. This analytical approach has already taken him very far in life.
Hiring Dubas was not a move of desperation, but rather of inspiration. Hiring Dubas required guts and it required a willingness to embrace change. The Leafs are to be applauded for this one, and the guy who deserves all the credit is team president Brendan Shanahan.
To be truly great at anything in life, you need absolute passion for it. You need to love what you are doing so much you would do it for free if that were an option. When it comes to hockey, and doing things for the betterment of the game, few people share Shanahan’s passion. He played a huge role in reshaping the NHL after the disastrous lockout of 2004-05 and then took on a thankless job of disciplining players primarily to make the game safer than it was when he played.
When it comes to hockey, Shanahan is never set in his ways. He has always been open to input and change. He thinks outside the box. And he does it because he really, truly loves the game in the same way devoted fans love it.
Shanahan has had critics, and there are those who say he engineered his playing career in a very calculated way that didn’t always show great regard for others. His personality might not rub everyone well, but if that’s the case, he has a lot of company in the Hall of Fame. When he missed the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, it almost seemed that the selection committee was putting him in his place a bit. If so, that was petty. He should have gone in on that first ballot that year ahead of either Mats Sundin or Pavel Bure.
Regardless of how Shanahan comes across, no one should ever question his devotion to the game or that he views its rich history with the utmost respect. There was a moment when I realized he was special in this way, and it had nothing to do with on-ice performance.
During the 2007 playoffs, while I was working on the Rangers’ website, I was allowed to travel with the team. Just before I left for the airport, a new copy of The Hockey News arrived in the mail, and I took it with me to read on the plane.
I was sitting in an aisle seat, paging through The Hockey News, when all of a sudden I sensed someone else was standing next to me, reading the magazine over my shoulder. I turned around and saw that it was Shanahan. He had been there for a fairly long time, even though I was reading parts of the issue that weren’t specific to the NHL.
It was as if this guy was such a fan that he could not walk past the latest issue of The Hockey News without stopping. Unlike many other players, he had an innate degree of curiosity and a love for hockey that went way beyond just reading about himself or his own team — or not reading at all. I remember offering to let him take my magazine, but he shook his head, as if he didn’t want to prevent me from enjoying it.
Shanahan barely knew who I was, or why I was on the plane, but he knew the magazine I was holding, and he cared the subject matter far too much to walk past it without taking a look.
This passion for hockey has already opened the door for Kyle Dubas to enter the NHL at a high level, and I suspect it will open more doors for other talented executives who share Shanahan’s incredible reverence for the game.
It might not happen overnight, but the Leafs have a leader who will make thoughtful decisions that bring pride back to hockey’s greatest city. If Shanahan can’t do it, then perhaps nobody can.