They knew he could skate.
“He’s a beautiful skater,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon.
They knew he could handle a stick and control the defensive end of the ice.
“He’s a shutdown player,” Tallon said.
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They knew he was determined.
“He’s dedicated, committed,” Tallon said. “We like his energy and passion and love of the game. All of those things.”
But there was one extra ingredient that attracted the Panthers to Mike Matheson when they took him in the first round of the 2012 entry draft out of Boston College — one special talent that gave them one more reason this week into signing him to an 8-year contract extension worth $39 million.
Matheson didn’t skate through college, literally or figuratively. He studied hard and earned a degree in psychology. While it’s been estimated that about 30 percent of NHL players attended some college, fewer actually stuck it out to earn their degrees.
“It was just the way I was brought up, that school was important,” said Matheson, who was born and raised in Pointe-Claire, Canada, and opted to attend college in the U.S. to advance both his hockey career and his education.
And so, after the Panthers drafted him, Matheson headed off to Boston College, which combines both a strong academic and hockey program. U.S News and World Report ranks B.C. as the No. 32 best national university in the country. It’s hockey program, meanwhile, has made more Frozen Four appearances (25) than any team in the country, and it has won five national titles.
Matheson committed himself to the classroom and the rink.
“I think it’s important,” Matheson said of school. “You never know when [hockey] is going to end. If you never end up using it, at least you can tell your kids that you went through it, you graduated and they have to, too.”
While he left B.C. after three years, he didn’t leave empty-handed.
“I finished it,” he said of earning his degree. “I was able to take classes during the summer while I was there. My last year I overloaded my course load. I took three classes the summer after I signed. My first year of pro I took one. I did an independent study my first semester, and then I was done.”
Matheson didn’t participate in graduation ceremonies. He was playing in the World Championships at the time. But he received his diploma. So did another of his Panthers’ teammates, Ian McCoshen, who also hails from Boston College.
“There’s no guarantees in hockey or any other sport,” Matheson said. “As much as the two of us were drafted really high, and there were high expectations, you never really know if you’ll be able to crack it at the pro level, let alone whether injuries could come up or anything like that. It’s nice to have a backup plan.”
Matheson, 23, now has the financial security that comes with the guaranteed contract he signed earlier this week with the Panthers. But he also knows that his hockey career will end at some point, and there will be life after that.
“I’m still young and, even though I was able to sign a very long contract relative to professional sports — even if I got a second contract after that and retire —I’d still only be 35, 36, 37. I don’t see myself as someone just sitting around doing nothing all day.”
Matheson said he might try to apply his psychology degree to hockey once his playing days are over. But those are decisions for a later time.
“When the time comes I’ll kind of see where I am in life,” he said. “But it definitely gives me the opportunity to do certain things you wouldn’t be able to do if you don’t have [a degree].”
For now, Matheson is focused on helping the Panthers win — and for years to come.
“He’s one of those guys you don’t mind giving a long-term deal to because you know he’s going to take care of himself,” Tallon said. “You can sleep at nights. You don’t worry about it. We’re always recommending they develop their minds as well. We don’t want a bunch of dummies running around here.”