When asked what they want to do when they grow up, most youth hockey players would undoubtedly say they want to be a pro hockey player. For two UW-River Falls men's hockey teammates, that dream is alive and well in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Seniors Eddie Matsushima and Joe Druplak are both currently playing with the Pensacola Ice Flyers in Florida. They only finished playing college hockey a few weeks ago at the end of February, but the SPHL didn't waste any time in bringing them in as the regular season ends in three weeks before the league playoffs begin.
UWRF coach Steve Freeman said he's been getting calls about a number of his players, especially Matsushima, who after two consecutive seasons of being named first team All-WIAC had a combined 28 goals and 31 assists.
"All of these teams keep an eye on college teams, and they're looking to add players as their eligibility and season runs out," Freeman said. "They see what their situation is and if they're willing to leave during the school year."
Freeman said he's probably had over 60 student-athletes play professionally after competing for the Falcons in his 23 seasons as head coach. Tanner Milliron, Mike Dietrich and Mike Fazio are all recent players to come through the UWRF system to play in the SPHL in the past three years.
"A lot of college athletes have that dream of playing professionally," Freeman said. "Other guys are jumping into their careers, some are getting married and some want to be pro hockey players."
Matsushima registered 38 goals and 46 assists in his four years, while Drapluk had 27 goals and 23 assists in his time with the Falcons.
"The first thing that comes to mind (with these two) was their work ethic and dedication as hockey players, and that's what carried them this far," Freeman said. "They were at practice early and some of the last guys to leave the ice each day; they loved the game and were driven to improve."
Matsushima first began to hear interest from Pensacola coach Rod Aldoff in the final weeks of this year's regular season. Aldoff had expressed interest in bringing Matsushima to the team after the college season ended, and he had personally seen Matsushima play in junior hockey and in college.
"It was a pretty crazy morning after we lost to Stevens Point; we drove back in a snowstorm and didn't get back until 5 a.m.," Matsushima said. "When I woke up at 9:30, I had a few missed calls from some teams in the league. My agent had called me a couple of times and was getting phone calls as well."
When it was all said and done, Matsushima decided to pick a team in the SPHL that had a coach like Aldoff that he knew understood his game and would give him a good opportunity. Once he got his academic plan to graduate in the spring in order, he quickly put together his belongings and made the 18-hour drive to Pensacola.
Matsushima credited his four years at UWRF for being a big reason he was able to become the player he is today. He said he was less skilled and less confident when he first arrived after playing three years of junior hockey, but his leadership as a captain the past two seasons also led to some prolific individual moments, including four hat tricks and the first four-goal game in 15 years for the Falcons.
"A lot of the systems we ran in River Falls are what we're doing currently," Matsushima said. "It's a really easy transition because when you go to a new team you have to learn systems and faceoff plays, but a lot of the stuff we did at River Falls."
SPHL teams are made up of some of the best Division I and Division III graduates each year and can also have players who have trickled down from higher-ranked professional leagues like the Eastern League or the AHL. Freeman said it's very competitive to even land on a pro team, let alone have success early on. Besides the new situation, teams play 56 games in a season and have a lot more travel than they would in college.
Matsushima and Drapluk joined a team already 42 games into their season, but they have both already provided points in their opening weeks. Matsushima has two goals and four assists in five games, while Drapluk had an assist in his only appearance. Pensacola currently sits in eighth place in the final playoff spot and has a chance to secure a better finish in the closing weeks.
"When you come to a new team, these guys have been here the whole year," Matsushima said. "The vets have been great about getting me situated, and I've been put in some pretty fortunate situations to put up some points."
Having Drapluk join him in Pensacola has made the transition to pro hockey more comfortable for Matsushima. He said having someone he's been close to for four years and can hang out with outside the rink has made the move even easier.
Matsushima will walk across the graduation stage in May with a degree in business management and exercise sports science; the latter he's currently finishing up with an online class and independent study while he's in Florida. However, he currently is focused on moving up the ranks of pro hockey.
"There is a protected roster for every team in this league, so I would like to be on that at the end of the year," he said. "Let's see if I can make an East Coast Hockey League team and then make it to the AHL."
Freeman said there are already teams in the ECHL that are interested in bringing Matsushima up and have called his former coach to ask more about him. Matsushima's team-high eight shots in his opening game with Pensacola especially stood out to Freeman.
"Any player has that dream (of pro hockey) at some point in their career," Freeman said. "It's quite a feather in your cap if you can say you were a professional athlete."