Matt Ellis had never been to a National Hockey League training camp when he arrived in Traverse City after the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002.
A 20-year-old free agent bypassed in two NHL drafts, Ellis hadn’t even spoken to an NHL team until former Red Wings general manager Jimmy Devellano offered him a three-year, three-way contract after watching Ellis play on Sunday afternoons in Toronto with the St. Mike’s Majors of the Ontario Hockey League.
“Jimmy saw something in me,” Ellis said. “He grabbed me at Christmas of my overage year and said, I understand you’re making plans to go to Canadian college. He said you can continue to make those plans but we’re going to bring you to training camp and give you a tryout in the fall. My confidence went through the roof.”
Ellis improved his point totals in all four seasons with the Majors, including a 45-goal season in his final year but in 2002, he was entering a Red Wings’ dressing room with nine Hall of Famers (Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov, Brendan Shanahan and Dominik Hasek) with two more future Hall of Famers on the way (Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg).
Six months earlier, he was planning on going to school and playing hockey on the Canadian east coast with other OHL graduates at either St. Francis University in Nova Scotia, UPEI in Prince Edward Island or the University of New Brunswick.
“All it takes is one person to see you and give you an opportunity,” said Ellis, who went on to a successful nine-year NHL career with the Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres and was named the Sabres’ director of player development earlier this month. “It goes to show you. You just never know. I can still picture the guys up in Traverse City in the gym and seeing the hunger, the drive, the work ethic.
“I remember a moment that means something to me even to this day. Steve Yzerman spent a couple of minutes chatting with me on how I ended up in Detroit and asking about my junior career. He settled me down. Here’s one of the best players to ever play the game, investing his time, going out of his way to make someone feel like they’re a part of the team. From their best players to their role players, everyone had a role and you were all family. That’s the right way to do things.”
Ellis brings that experience in Detroit to a Buffalo franchise which has the longest active postseason drought at nine seasons. The Florida Panthers (2012) and Edmonton Oilers (2017) went 10 years without making the playoffs. The Red Wings have gone four years without playoff hockey, three years shy of the bleakest period in the team’s 93-year history with seven straight years out of the playoffs from 1970-1977.
“On some teams, a lot of guys do a lot of talking but they don’t walk the walk,” Ellis said. “They get labelled as heroes because they turn it on and off when the time is right. In Detroit, the guys just did it and it wasn’t broadcast all over the place. This is what we do, our habits, our preparation. They aren’t necessarily the sexy things, the work, the sacrifice but when it’s driven internally like that, you have a really good thing going because the people who come in are either on board or they don’t last long.”
Ellis spent six years in the Red Wings’ organization, starting with a 27-goal season with the ECHL Toledo Storm and then another four straight years of improved point production with the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins.
Named the youngest captain in Griffins’ history at age 24 in 2005-06, the 6-foot, 210-pound forward went on to become captain with the Portland Pirates and Rochester Americans and registered 21 goals and 28 assists in 356 career NHL games.
“Being a leader and being counted on in Grand Rapids allowed me to grow and gave me the very, very solid foundation and great lessons to draw on to this day,” Ellis said. “The beauty of the organization was the great mentors to look up to, the great players and great staff to look to, to learn from. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
After retiring in 2015, Ellis spent four years with the Sabres-affiliated Academy of Hockey before being hired by new GM Kevyn Adams, another late bloomer who turned four years of AHL apprenticeship into a 59-goal, 540-game NHL career including a Stanley Cup championship with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes.
They take over a team which fired 22 people in hockey operations in June, including former Wolverines Jason Botterill (GM) and Mike Komisarek (player development coach) as well as 10 scouts, two assistant GMs, two scouting directors, one pro scout, one rehab and development coach and three AHL coaches in Rochester.
Seth Appert, the former National Team Development Program coach in Plymouth for three years, was hired by the Americans last month.
“Businesses have had to adjust their approach and find different ways of doing things especially with this downtime during COVID,” Ellis said. “We’re utilizing different resources and tools with video and technology and trying to understand what the structure looks like and what everyone’s beliefs are. We’ve gained traction with our scouts and analytical department to have everyone on the same page.
“We believe we have some very good prospects in the organization and we want them to achieve some individual success which translates to team success. The biggest thing from the get-go is formulating the relationships and communication. That’s the environment that helps people reach their potential and achieve goals.”
Matt Ellis glance
Who: Matt Ellis
Age: 39 (Aug. 31, 1981)
Birthplace: Welland, Ontario
Detroit connection: Signed as a free agent from the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors by the Red Wings in 2002. Played for the Toledo Storm and Grand Rapids Rapids. Scored two goals in 51 games in Detroit in 2006-2008.
NHL career: Scored 21 goals in 356 career games with the Red Wings, Kings, Sabres.
Sabres role: Named the Sabres’ director of player development after spending four years working for the Academy of Hockey in Buffalo.