A “full circle” moment: Matt Bryant’s call up to Gophers hockey

The LaCrosse, Wisconsin native became a hometown hero when he was called up to the Gophers’ Division I program to serve as a goaltender for team practices.
Matt Bryant walks down the tunnel at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
Matt Bryant walks down the tunnel at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
Image by University of Minnesota Athletics (courtesy)

Matt Bryant sat on a bench with the Gophers locker room on his left. Recalling his time with the club team, he turned to his right and pointed at a maroon door.

“For club, our locker room is actually right there,” Bryant said.

Last year, Bryant had no plans to compete at the Division I level. He played high-level and competitive hockey before attending college and joined the club hockey team to keep the sport in his life.

Those plans changed on Oct. 2, 2023 when Brennan Poderzay, the Gophers’ goaltending coach, called to offer him a spot on the Gophers roster.

He was a season-ticket-holding freshman, strapping on his goaltender pads in the club locker room. Now, he’s three doors down dressing for the Division I program.

A chance to enjoy hockey again

Michelle and Kevin Bryant, Matt’s parents, have three other sons, all of whom grew up playing hockey in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Matt first fell in love with playing goalie as a child when his two older brothers encouraged him to play since they wanted a goalie to shoot at during a game of knee hockey.

“As we had each child, everyone wanted to do what their older brother was doing,” Michelle said.

Throughout their childhood, the Bryant family owned three junior hockey teams. One of the teams they owned was the Coulee Region Chill of the North American Hockey League, now known as the Chippewa Steel.

The Chill produced professional goaltenders like Adam Carlson and the late Matiss Kivlenieks. Carlson last played for the Rapid City Rush of the ECHL while Kivlenieks was a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.

A younger Matt Bryant in uniform for his youth hockey team. (Image by Michelle Bryant (courtesy))

Ryan Ess, the Chill’s goaltending coach at the time, trained Matt during his first year of formal goaltending lessons. Matt said seeing the skill of the junior teams that his parents owned also fueled his dream to play at a high level.

Matt’s hard work in 2018 earned him an invite to the USA Hockey National Player Development Camp, which led to him being drafted a year later by the Madison Capitols, a top-division junior team in the United States Hockey League (USHL). However, Matt never played a game in the USHL, instead opting to play Tier I hockey in Omaha, Nebraska.

“He’s always worked really hard in his role,” Michelle said. “He gave up a lot of personal time, just like a lot of the players do that want to go to that next level.”

Matt took a gap year after his senior year of high school when he got an opportunity to play in the North American Hockey League, a league in the tier below the USHL, but was cut from the team after a month. He said he thought he did well enough to play in games, so the team’s decision was hard on him emotionally.

“There was about a month time period where I wasn’t playing,” Matt said. “I was just sitting at home, didn’t really know what my future was going to bring me.”

After being cut, Matt played hockey in Cleveland, Ohio, for a year before he ultimately decided to move on from hockey full-time and attend college. He chose the University of Minnesota because of its close distance to home and the historic hockey program.

“I was not going to a college that did not have a really good hockey team that I can go and watch every weekend,” Matt said. “It was a no-brainer, to be honest.”

Matt knew he did not want to completely abandon hockey when he came to college, so he decided to play at the club level. He said playing club was an opportunity to enjoy playing hockey.

“The past years before [playing club], hockey wasn’t as fun for me because it was so competitive,” Matt said. “I had some things happen that didn’t go my way. It just became less fun.”

Then came the unexpected opportunity to join the Division I team. Michelle said the experience allowed Matt to “blossom” as an individual and his career to come “full circle.”

“You can just see that extra twinkle in his eye,” Michelle said. “He has been able to be a part of a team that he’s dreamed about for so many years.”

There was about a month time period where I wasn’t playing. … I was just sitting at home, didn’t really know what my future was going to bring me.

— Matt Bryant

The story behind the call-up

Nathan Airey, the Gophers’ backup goaltender, suffered an injury before the seaso that left a vacant roster spot. At one point, the Gophers had one goaltender able to practice, forcing Poderzay to put on goalie gear despite retiring from competitive hockey eight years prior.

The Gophers’ head athletic trainer, Jeffrey Winslow, told Poderzay he was hesitant to rush Airey during his recovery. Poderzay looked to Matt to fill in for Airey at practices.

Matt attended Poderzay’s summer goaltending clinics in Richfield, Minnesota, when he was in high school. Poderzay said he keeps tabs on players he coaches to see where they end up later in their careers.

“For me, it was a pretty easy decision because of the type of character Matthew is,” Poderzay said.

Matt said he was on his way back from a computer science class when he saw that he missed a phone call from Poderzay. He called Poderzay back as soon as possible.

“How would you like to be a Gopher,” Matt recalled Poderzay asking over the phone.

Matt accepted and met head coach Bob Motzko, his staff and some of his new teammates at 3M Arena at Mariucci later that day. 

“It was definitely one of the most memorable days, just being taken through those doors,” Matt said. “It’s an absolute privilege.”

Matt Bryant before a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena. (Image by University of Minnesota Athletics (courtesy))

Poderzay said he experienced a similar situation in 2020 when he used to work as a goaltending coach for Minnesota State-Mankato. Jaxson Stauber, the Mavericks’ backup goaltender at the time, left the team mid-season, forcing them to find a replacement.

Getting acclimated to the team

Due to the rigor of a computer science major’s schedule, Matt chose to switch majors to attend the Gophers’ practices. 

At first, Matt could not tell his teammates on the club team he was called up to avoid spreading rumors before the news became official.

“I actually had to fake an injury for a week or two,” Matt said. “I finally told them a few weeks after and everyone was so happy for me. That’s kind of every club guy’s dream, right?”

When Matt first walked into the locker room and joined the team, Airey said he noticed Matt was quiet.

“I can understand that,” Airey said, “but he fit in right away and we connected pretty well.”

Airey said the two spent time together when the Gophers played an away series at North Dakota in October. Matt said Airey helped introduce him to the team and their routines.

Matt Bryant poses with Nolan Sauter, a youth hockey player from his hometown on Nov. 24, 2023. (Image by Ryan Sauter (courtesy))

Matt dressed for the first time on Nov. 10 for a game against the Michigan Wolverines. Although he did not play in the game, Bryant participated in pregame warmups.

“It meant the world,” Matt said.

Matt dressed and remained on the bench in the following two home series against Notre Dame and Michigan State. 

Matt’s brothers, Kevin II, Will and Thomas, attended the Gophers’ Nov. 24 game against Michigan State while his parents watched the game from home. 

“That was even cooler,” Matt said. “To see the home crowd fired up and we got a good win. It was a really special experience.”

An impact back home 

Nolan Sauter, a ten-year-old youth hockey player from La Crosse, attended the matchup versus the Spartans. Nolan plays for the River City Flames, the same youth hockey club Matt played for.

Ryan Sauter, Nolan’s father, said he took his family to the game since he is originally from St. Paul and grew up going to Gophers games. Ryan said he heard of Matt’s story and told Nolan to take a picture with him.

“It’s really inspiring,” Ryan said. “The kids thought it was awesome, they talked about it all week leading up to it.”

When Matt returns to La Crosse, Michelle and Ryan said he works with the young goaltenders on the Flames.

According to Michelle, when the news was officially released about Matt’s call-up, she received hundreds of supportive messages from friends, Matt’s former teammates and their families.

“He’s kind of a mini-celebrity around town,” Michelle said. “It’s really just been unbelievable. They’re so supportive of him.”

Matt has not played in a game for the Gophers but said playing is not a concern of his because of the three talented goaltenders in front of him.

“I’m just trying to compete every day in practice,” Matt said. “If I get the call to start, I’ll be ready for it.”

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