“Do you want a hug too?”
In only three weeks as the President and General Manager of the Kootenay Ice, Matt Cockell has embraced the community — literally.
Walking in from his lunch break last Thursday afternoon, Cockell stops to greet the latest guests at the Ice office.
“Hi, I’m Matt,” he says, as he does for everyone who comes by.
A pair of fans introduce themselves, with their renewed season tickets in hand. They’ve had them since day one. He thanks them, and asks if they want a hug.
“We’re really excited, you’re going to do great.”
Cockell corrects them.
“We’re going to do great. We’re all going to be doing this together.”
At only 38 years old, the young GM and part-owner is taking on a monumental task in trying to rejuvenate the struggling Kootenay WHL franchise.
In late March, news broke that after 19 years of owning the franchise, the Chynoweth family had sold the Ice to Cockell and fellow Winnipeg investor Greg Fettes.
After years of rumours of relocation, it was swiftly announced that the team was staying in Cranbrook and Cockell would be moving to town to be the President and GM.
The WHL’s Board of Governors had faith that he could be the man to take the team with the lowest attendance and worst record in the league, and return them to greatness.
He’s come a long way.
“I missed the draft [for] the Western Hockey League because I wasn’t living in Winnipeg [at the time],” Cockell explains of how he first got involved in the league more than 20 years ago as a player. “When I moved [to Manitoba] as a 16-year-old, I just started trying out for a couple of teams and I guess somebody ended up seeing me somewhere.”
In the fall of 1996, the then-young goalie was invited to the Saskatoon Blades’ training camp.
“I didn’t have a lot of expectations, to be honest,” he says about his entry into the league. “I didn’t know much about it, other than [the] Western Hockey League [was] a place that you wanted to play.
“Somehow, I ended up sticking around and making a team.”
Cockell was born in Calgary in 1979, and fell in love with hockey in large part thanks to witnessing the 1988 Olympic Winter Games and the Flames ’89 Stanley Cup run.
“I remember going to those [Olympic] games with my dad and watching some of the Flames games [too],” he says. “There was a real excitement and energy around it. I started playing and I enjoyed it and ever since then I’ve had a great passion for it.”
Hockey ended up taking over his life, and despite being frequently on the move, it became a constant source of joy and inspiration.
Playing minor hockey in Calgary, and then London and Newmarket, Ontario, and finally Winnipeg at 16, he was prepared for a life on the road when he made the Blades.
He had no idea though that he would move around quite as much as he did.
In three seasons in the WHL, Cockell played on four different teams and also had a couple of NHL training camp experiences with the Vancouver Canucks.
After an out-of-nowhere breakout rookie year with the Blades, in which he played 47 games and had a 4.02 goals against average and .883 save percentage with a bottom-of-the-league club, he was drafted by the Canucks in the fifth round, 117th overall at the 1997 Entry Draft.
According to an article in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix from June of that year, Cockell was a surprise pick and didn’t attend the draft in Pittsburgh as he was at his high school graduation.
While he “didn’t want to get his hopes up” by attending the NHL ceremony, he was soon whisked off into the exciting world of pro hockey.
“Mark Messier, Trevor Linden, Naslund, Bertuzzi, Bure, Mogilny,” Cockell says, listing the players he faced off against at 18 in his first camp in Vancouver. “I remember the first drill, Messier was coming down the ice, leg up, takes the shot, hit me in the pad.
“I didn’t stop it,” he laughs.
“As a kid growing up and watching players like that, it was sure fun to be on the ice with them.”
The camp was considered a great success for Cockell, but he struggled in his return to juniors. After 22 games in Saskatoon, he was traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds. The next season he started the year with the Regina Pats before finishing up his career with the Spokane Chiefs.
“Life’s about perspective and how you look at things. I say this a little bit jokingly, but I like to think that a lot of teams wanted me,” Cockell says on his multiple trade career. “[Those were great] experiences [with] different people [and] different teams.
“I got a chance to play for some different organizations that did things different ways … I played for Mike Babcock, Don Nachbaur, Donn Clark, Tim Tisdale, Willie Desjardins [and] I feel very fortunate that I got the chance to play for a lot of great people […] it was a real positive thing looking back and I took whatever I could out of it.”
He even had a chance to see what Kootenay was all about.
On November 23, 1998, during the team’s first season in Cranbrook and Cockell’s final year in the WHL, he started a game for the Regina Pats at the Memorial Arena.
He may have broken Ice fans’ hearts that night with 34 saves in a 4-2 win, but even then he was in awe of the local crowd.
“I remember walking through the stands at the Memorial Arena [that night] and the atmosphere was electric,” he recalls. “The city was obviously really excited … those things stick with you for sure and when you talk to people that have played in Cranbrook against the Ice over the years, they think of this community [as] fully engaged behind their team.”
Although he attended two training camps with the Canucks as a teenager, after his junior career was complete, Cockell decided to forego a shot at a professional career and focus on his education.
“It was a tough choice, [but] I was always a guy that paid attention to school and it was important in my upbringing — my parents really instilled that in me,” he says. “I chose to start using my scholarship education package from the Western Hockey League right away and I don’t have any regrets.”
Cockell attended the University of Manitoba and graduated with an Honours degree in Marketing and Small Business Finance in 2004. Although he stopped playing competitively, he never gave up on hockey and immediately started coaching while still focussing on his business career.
“I really enjoyed coaching and started right away, which sent me down a coaching development path as I was going through school,” he explains. “I had the good fortune to work with some really great athletes and start to do more on the coaching development side and get involved with hockey in a different way.
“I had a great experience at school [and now] I’m fortunate to be able to combine [many] passions, in terms of business, community, sports, athletics development and put it all together.”
During his time as a business professional and part-time coach, Cockell acted as the Vice President of Corporate Partnerships for True North Sports + Entertainment, was the Chief Customer Officer at 24-7 Intouch, was a goaltending coach for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings and also was part of the staff for the 2014 Canadian women’s gold medal national hockey team.
His wide and varied experience is something that he believes will help him immensely in his new role at the helm of the Ice.
“Diversity is a really valuable thing if you embrace it [and] I’ve been really fortunate not just in terms of my work experience and hockey experience, but also the people I’ve been around,” he says. “[My co-owner] Greg [Fettes] and I certainly want to bring ourselves and our personalities to what we’re doing here, but I think [I’ve also learned] over the years that the more you listen, the more you take in.
“There are great ideas around you and [you need] to let the passion that’s surrounding you trickle into what you’re doing.”
Having been on the other side of the WHL-life as a player, Cockell is acutely aware of the impact his management has on players. Although he is only three weeks in, he’s already talked to every single returning player to help build a positive culture.
“One thing about successful cultures is that they’re patient and they give people the room and time to have a fair opportunity, to make the most of it and to surround them[selves] with the things to be successful and the people to help them be successful,” he says. “That’ll be the path that we embark on as we move forward … we’re just in a listening, evaluation stage, but we think there are some great people here.
“[Our players are] really passionate, great young men [and have] really good feedback about what they’d like to see moving forward. And so that line of communication, if you keep it open and keep that dialogue going, great things can happen.”
While the team ignites a lot of passion for Cockell, just coming to live in Cranbrook is an exciting opportunity. After spending “a fair amount of money to vacation here”, now he gets to live in the Kootenays.
“My family is excited and we’ve really enjoyed the experience so far getting to talk to and meet a lot of people in the community,” he says. “The community cares. They really care about each other, they care about the team and they care about the wellbeing of everybody around them.
“That stands out. It makes you work that much harder to want to be a part of it.”
While his wife and three young children are still in Winnipeg until the end of the school year, Cockell says they are all chomping at the bit to get here and start a new chapter of their lives.
In many ways taking on a lead role with a WHL team is a full-circle ending to a tremendous story of dedication, perseverance and a love for hockey, but it is also still just the beginning for Cockell.
He knows that a lot of work is still ahead, and getting the Kootenay Ice back to where they once were, as a pinnacle of the WHL, will not be easy. He is ready to rise to the challenge, with a smile on his face, and maybe he’ll even throw in a few hugs.
“We are going to be ourselves. We don’t know any other way to be,” Cockell says when asked what he wants the community to know about himself and the new ownership. “I’m genuinely interested and excited about all the feedback that we’re getting. I’ve gotten countless emails and people stop me on the street because they all care about what’s happening here. That’s not lost on me.
“I think we have a really exciting responsibility to try and enable as much participation as possible. We’re looking ahead.”