It was during tryouts ahead of this season when Moncton Flyers head coach John DeCourcey first noticed Zach Wheeler off the ice.
It’s not often that a 14-year-old tries out for an under-18 team, and Wheeler needed special permission to enter the New Brunswick/Prince EdwardIsland Major U18 Hockey League (NBPEIMU18HL) at such a young age.
Wheeler’s on-ice ability was certainly something the coach noticed. Off the ice, though, he could see the young forward wasn’t chatting much with the other players and was having a tough time finding his place in a room full of 16- and 17-year-olds.
“He wasn't in the middle of the group, you know?” DeCourcey says. “He was sitting near the door. So we had talked to Noah Matulu and asked him to make sure that Wheeler feels included and look after him. He made it a point in our dressing room to sit next to him and asked other players to move over so he could stay there. And just take care of him."
That was the start of a friendship between two players that has grown and evolved over the course of the season and a relationship that is as tight as any on a hockey team.
A friendship between a player in Wheeler, who was fresh out of middle school, and another in Matulu, who was about to start his last year of high school and begin thinking about careers and long-term goals.
“I just went and talked to him in the summer at hockey camps, we got to know each other, he told me a little bit about himself, I told him a bit about myself and we knew each other better after that,” says Matulu. “Once the team [was selected], we started playing on the same line and I picked him up from school on the early-day practices and we’re also roomies when we go on road trips. We’re pretty close now.”
Matulu chuckles when asked if Wheeler has changed over the course of the season. Has he broken out of his shell?
“Now he can’t keep his mouth shut,” Matulu says with a laugh.
It’s never easy being the kid that people are talking about, that player with skill and maturity beyond his years that make hockey parents, coaches and players notice. Often, it’s that player who has a target on his back. Wheeler has been that kid, the one playing with older players in top leagues.
Wheeler says there was a sense of comfort early on this season that had a lot to do with Matulu, the way he took Wheeler under his wing, showed him the way, and included and treated the youngster as a hockey player and teammate.
A three-year difference is a lot outside of hockey but, when we’re playing the game, it’s like we’re all the same.”
“When I first came in, I wouldn’t really say a word. Now that I know everyone, and Noah obviously helped me a lot with that, I feel like I talk a lot more now,” Wheeler says. “The maturity levels are obviously a lot different. Sometimes the boys will chirp me about only being in Grade 9 and some of the boys are Grade 12 and 11. Now, it’s not much of a big deal. I don’t really see it as affecting me much. The boys don’t mind me. A three-year difference is a lot outside of hockey but, when we’re playing the game, it’s like we’re all the same.”
It’s that last point that perhaps sheds the most light on what kind of player and person Wheeler is. DeCourcey and Matulu both mention during separate conversations that anyone who watches or plays with or against Wheeler would never know he was 14. He’s a 14-year-old who has grown confident in talking to peers and adults alike and, on the ice, he’s a 6-foot, two-way forward who can take over plays and games.
He put up 34 points (16-18—34) in 30 games during the regular season – one point back of Matulu – and co-led the Flyers in playoff scoring with eight points (3-5—8) in seven postseason contests.
He taught me on the ice that, even though you’re not the bigger, stronger guy out there, you can still make a big impact on the team,”
“He taught me on the ice that, even though you’re not the bigger, stronger guy out there, you can still make a big impact on the team,” Matulu says. “When he came out here, he was ready to play but he got a lot better during the year and now he’s one of our top players and top scorers. Even though he’s young, age is just a number and the possibilities are endless for Zach. I like the way he’s playing, he’s contributing a lot to our team and I try to play a little like he does, bring a positive impact to the team.”
As for Wheeler, his biggest takeaway and learning from Matulu comes down to including everyone and simply treating people the right way.
“He’s an older guy and, for me, I do camps with younger kids, so a younger kid meeting an older guy, you’re going to be more timid and shy,” Wheeler says. “He really showed me that I have to introduce myself, make them feel welcome and just treat people how you’d like to be treated.”
A few months from now, Matulu is scheduled to start the next chapter of his life at the University of Moncton, where he plans to study criminology with a long-term goal of becoming a police officer. He also hopes to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Wheeler, meanwhile, will be back for a second season with the Flyers before he is QMJHL draft-eligible in 2023.
Before that happens, though, the duo and the rest of the Flyers have a national title to play for – Moncton is making a ninth appearance at the TELUS Cup, looking to win Canada’s National Men’s U18 Club Championship for the first time.