They may have taken different paths to get there, but Strathclair’s Morgan Geekie and former Brandon Wheat Kings captain Stelio Mattheos of Winnipeg are Calder Cup champions.
The pair celebrated with their Charlotte Checkers teammates on Saturday as they beat Zach Whitecloud of Sioux Valley, Brandon-born Keegan Kolesar and the Chicago Wolves 5-3 at Allstate Arena to win the best-of-seven American Hockey League final 4-1. Dauphin’s Myles Fee was one of Charlotte’s assistant coaches.
Geekie, who played all season with the Checkers, had a goal and an assist in Game 5 and led all AHL rookies in playoff scoring with 18 points.
"It was my first year pro so I was trying to take in everything that I could," Geekie said. "We had a great leadership group. Our captain Patrick (Brown) was unbelievable and all those older guys kind of helped us younger guys and showed us the ropes a little bit. The one thing I noticed was that everybody is on the same page. We all wanted to win. There was nobody on the fence about anything."
In 73 regular season games, Geekie scored 19 goals and added 27 assists. In 19 playoff games, he piled up 18 points, including 10 goals on the team’s top line with Andrew Poturalski and Aleksi Saarela.
"I think I just kind of hit my stride going into playoffs," Geekie said. "Everyone knew the energy level and level of play increased as the playoffs get going, so I just tried to rise to the occasion."
Mattheos joined the team in March after the Wheat Kings, who missed the Western Hockey League’s playoffs, finished up their season.
"It was unfortunate how the season ended in Brandon," Mattheos said. "Everyone was just so down after the season, and I got to Charlotte right away. It was pretty much all positive from there. It was just win after win and we went all the way. It was pretty crazy."
The Checkers posted the best record in the league in the regular season, going 51-17-7-1 in their 76-game campaign. Charlotte then went 15-4 in the playoffs, beating the Providence Bruins 3-1 in the best-of five division semifinal, before dispatching the Hershey Bears 4-0 and the Toronto Marlies 4-2 to reach the final.
Charlotte did lose some talent when the Carolina Hurricanes called up some players in late April as they made it to the NHL’s conference finals, but the Checkers weathered the storm.
"There was definitely kind of a hit to us when we lost some guys to the Hurricanes but we had some guys come in and step up," Geekie said. "I think having those guys come in and give it their all definitely pushed everyone else to keep pushing."
One of those players who came in late was Mattheos.
"He’s a great player," Geekie said of his six-foot-one, 196-pound teammate. "After he came up, there’s always that transition period where you have to catch up to the speed and I think he did a great job of anticipating that. He stepped up and played a big role for us, especially in the playoffs."
Geekie and Mattheos were selected six picks apart in the third round of the 2017 National Hockey League entry draft by the Hurricanes. Both felt there was definitely an adjustment to pro hockey.
"The first couple of games and first week you’re running off adrenalin so you’re playing good hockey," said Geekie, who spent his WHL career with the Tri-City Americans. "But once that slows down and you get comfortable, the speed catches up to you and it takes a little bit of an adjustment. There probably 15 or 20 games there where things seemed a little fast, but once I got accustomed to the speed and the quickness and how tight the game is in pro hockey, it definitely helped me out."
Mattheos, who had 44 goals and 52 assists with the Wheat Kings, signed a pro deal on March 21, five days after Brandon’s season ended.
In 11 regular season games in Charlotte, Mattheos had two goals and an assist, and he added three goals and an assist in 14 playoff games, including the winner in Game 3 against Hershey. He compared the transition to the Wheat Kings calling him up as a 15-year-old for the WHL post-season when they eventually lost to the Kelowna Rockets in the league final.
"It’s a big adjustment for sure," Mattheos said. "I will say that. When I was 15 in Brandon playing in the playoffs, I think that was bigger adjustment for sure, so I think I could kind of draw from that experience."
Mattheos saw real parallels between the Checkers and the 2016 Wheat Kings team that won the WHL championship in his 16-year-old season.
"The chemistry among the guys was similar and I think the other thing was that in Brandon in my first year it kind of seemed like we were never fazed by anything," Mattheos said. "We would get down in a game or a bad bounce, bad goal or bad penalty. The team was always able to move past that and find a way to win the game. It was the same thing here in Charlotte. We had some comebacks and some overtime wins and stuff like that."
It was actually uncharted territory for Geekie. It was the first hockey title in his career, although he had won baseball championships in the past playing minor and senior baseball in Oak River.
He certainly came up big when he was needed. Mattheos said Geekie was an integral part of the victory.
"Geeks had an amazing playoff," Mattheos said. "Him and his line were a huge part of the team. I think his best game might have been the last game actually. Their line was unbelievable … He’s a tremendous player and I’m really happy we’re teammates because he’s a great guy too."
In Game 5 of the Calder Cup series, Geekie scored the second goal and assisted on the third as Charlotte built up a 3-1 lead. Zach Nastasiuk’s empty-netter with 16 seconds left sealed the deal for Charlotte.
"When we finally put that last one in, it was definitely something special," Geekie said. "It’s not a feeling that you can really describe. It was great. It was awesome, something that I’ll never forget."
"It was awesome," he said. "It’s such a grind. I think all the series were tough. There’s just no feeling like it. You have a whole group of guys who are just overcome with joy. It’s a special moment."
It was Charlotte’s first championship in its nine seasons in the AHL, although the Checkers have won six others in different leagues. The team celebrated the accomplishment with its fans at Bojangles’ Coliseum last night.
Geekie admitted that the fact he just won a championship is still sinking in.
"Every once in a while you think for a split second that you won and it’s over," Geekie said. "It’s definitely something you’re going to look back on when everything catches up to you and realize how special it was. It’s definitely something I’ll cherish."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson