Matt Galajda Came to Cornell a Soft-Spoken Freshman Goaltender. He’s Taken the College Hockey World by Storm.
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In the spring of 2013, all Matt Galajda could do was sit and wait. The goaltender’s job was over, and like he’s become accustomed, he opted not to speak with his voice. He let his play speak for itself.
Soon the day would be here. The Ontario Hockey League, a major talent feeder to the National Hockey League and a dream destination for many young Ontarians, was drafting in early April. Galajda, fresh off a high-level Midget AAA season with the Markham Waxers in the Toronto suburbs, hoped he did enough to be selected.
Galajda waited. And waited. He never stopped waiting.
So a 15-year old Galajda did what any young Canadian would do. Shortly after going undrafted by all 20 OHL teams, he and his goalie coach, David Belitski, took a post-practice trip to ubiquitous coffee spot Tim Hortons and laid out an action plan: spend some time developing with the local St. Andrews College team where his dad is an administrator, hunt for a spot on a team in another junior league, head to the States to play in the NCAA and set himself up for the future.
And always work hard. Never forget that.
Each morning since, Galajda is greeted by a notification on his phone with a reminder of the lessons he and Belitski, a former professional hockey player in his day, discussed on that spring morning at Tim Hortons.
“Don’t leave anything on the table. Perform every night. Prove everyone wrong.”
“That’s still something I play with,” sophomore Galajda says now, in phase three of the action plan and a year removed from one of the most decorated individual seasons in Cornell men’s hockey history.
It wasn’t just a high caliber season in the history of Cornell netminders, which includes hockey hall-of-famer Ken Dryden ’69 and recent NHL starter Ben Scrivens ’10. Not just for skaters, which includes Joe Nieuwendyk ’88 and a handful of recent and current NHL players. Not just for rookies. Ever.
Galajda’s path is one marked by failure and resilience, reservation and confidence, risk-taking and staying true to his roots. In each stop along his journey, the self-described soft-spoken goaltender has made his name and presence known.
But through all the hardships and disappointments that have come his way, Galajda has added one credence to the list he developed with Beltski: Don’t forget to have fun.
“He models his game after [Vegas Golden Knights goalie] Marc-Andre Fleury, and if you know anything about Fleury, he’s always smiling in the net,” says Cornell senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea. “Sometimes I’ll see Matty — although he’s kind of a quiet guy off the ice — on the ice he’s vocal. And that’s how he gets his confidence, smiling a lot.”
In 2013, Galajda was denied an opportunity. In 2018, he’s earned the respect as one of the best players in college hockey after just one season.
“Some kids will turtle and blame the system. For him it was the opposite,” Belitski says. “We sat down and had a cup of coffee and said if this is something you’re passionate about it, which he was and he is, then it doesn’t mean anything.
“When one door closes doesn’t mean that another one isn’t going to open. He found a door that was a little bit open, and he pushed and pushed and eventually it opened for him.”
Getting shut out by the OHL may end the prospects of most young hockey players. For Galajda, it saved his career.
‘He had something’
For many who have known Galajda over the years, his freshman year was not a surprise. Perhaps a surprise that the Hobey Baker finalist and All-American selection came so early, but for the Galajda they know, his work ethic and training begets prestige.
“Seeing him at a young age, you could tell that he had something that was there,” says Belitski, the owner of a goalie school in Ontario that Galajada enrolled in after moving to play goalie full-time around the age of 10.
It started from a young age. Galajda did not originally plan on being a goalie, but when you start playing hockey at the age of five — “most Canadians start pretty early” — flexibility isn’t an issue.
It was a course set in a purposeful way as his father, David, stressed the importance of skating ability before even thinking of entering the net.
But ultimately, the draw of goalie was too much to not at least try. Galajda was enticed — and still is — by the masks goalies get to wear and the ability to customize them into your own.
“I don’t think [my dad] was too happy about it just because the goalie equipment cost so much more,” Galajda says, adding with a laugh that, “I think it’s worked out pretty well for the both of us, I guess.”
Schooling was never a hard decision. David Galajda is the director of residential life at St. Andrews College, a private, all-boys boarding school in Aurora, Ontario. Matt and his sister grew up on the campus, and young Matt spent his childhood looking up — both literally and metaphorically — to the varsity athletes that roamed his backyard.
“I always wanted to be one of those guys,” Galajda says now.
Eventually, he became one.
At St. Andrews, like he’s had to do at every stop of his career, Galajda fought for the starting job. When he finally earned it, he flourished. In 25 games his first season at the varsity level, Galajda sported a 1.27 goals against average and .929 save percentage. Those numbers stayed relatively pat the second go-around at 1.40 and .938, respectively.
“I had all this confidence all of a sudden,” Galajda says. “The snowball effect just kept building up.”
If the Tim Hortons meeting with his goalie coach Belitski laid the groundwork for Galajda’s future success, two seasons at St. Andrews were a worthy first step.
‘He’s like an alien’
Seeing many St. Andrews alumni find success in the British Columbia Hockey League, Galajda decided this could be the right step for him. With an aunt in the neighborhood, Galajda lasered his focus on the capital of British Columbia with the Victoria Grizzlies, 70 miles southwest of Vancouver.
Galajda made his voyage to the western point of the continent at the age of 18. There, time was split between the rink, the gym, the city and in his temporary home avoiding Penny the Pig, the 150-pound pet of his host parents, Chris and Kira.
“Going into the kitchen at night and the thing was just walking around the house,” Galajda says with a fond smile. “My room was in the basement, so I would just tiptoe my way upstairs and try to find something without it waking up or anything.”
When Galajda wasn’t avoiding Penny, he was stopping pucks. Once again, his place on the team was not given, and he had to fight for the starting job. But once again he earned it, and when he settled in, he ran away with it — much like last season at Cornell when he filled in for an injured Hayden Stewart ’18 and never looked back outside for a few clunker performances.
Statistically, Galajda’s worst year of his career was his first season at Victoria, where he played 43 games to a 2.70 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
“I thought if we have a good team in front of him — a good defense — he’s going to get MVP for the league,” Jason Reimer, assistant coach and goalie specialist for the Victoria Grizzlies, says now. “That didn’t happen that first year because we had a bad team.”
In the offseason, Galajda went back home to Ontario and worked with Belitski and Tom Lawson, his goalie coach from St. Andrews and a former player in Russia’s top hockey league.
When he wasn’t training, Galajda was working as the equivalent of a residency advisor at St. Andrews, welcoming in new students and getting them acclimated to college life. One of those residents happened to be a current classmate on the Cornell team, forward Morgan Barron.
Barron was already committed to Cornell at the time while Galajda was preparing for his second BCHL season, though the goalie and Cornell had already been in contact. While Galajda was teaching Barron how to live in a dorm, Barron was teaching Galajda how to commit to a college.
“It was kind of funny being in charge of him at night and having authority on him,” Galajda says.
But the main focus that summer was personal development, and when he returned to Victoria, Reimer saw a new beast in the crease of The Q Centre, home of the Grizzlies.
“You could see that his mission was to get a scholarship at the time and be the best goalie in the league,” Reimer says now. “He told me that all the time.”
Galajda left the Grizzlies a much better team than he found it. In his second season, when he “owned the show a little bit,” as Reimer says, Galajda led his team to a first-place finish with an MVP selection in the Island Division before falling short in the league semifinals.
“There’s something just sewn in his DNA,” Reimer says. “That inherent knowing he could go out and steal a game at any point and stop every single shot if he wanted to.”
Galajda’s legacy on Victoria extends far past postseason success and accolades. One of Victoria’s current netminders, Zachary Rose, was on the team with Galajda. When Reimer today looks over tape with Rose, Galajda’s name often comes up in conversation as the paragon of how a drill or on-ice approach should be done.
“Rose would say to me, ‘You would all bring up how Galajda did it. Sometimes I feel like Galajda taught you more than you taught him,’” Reimer recounts. “Then I say, ‘Well you know what, he was a pretty good goalie.’ …
“… He’s like an alien. You only get these every so often, players or goalies like this. He’s kinda from another planet when it comes to how good he is at stuff. How he became so well-rounded. Most goalies that come in the league they are not well-rounded and they suffer in an area here or there. But he didn’t.”
‘In his element’
To say Galajda was surprised with how he elevated himself into the conversation of best in the country in just one year would be an understatement.
When Galajda arrived at Cornell after committing before his second year in Victoria, he was — surprise, surprise — thrust into a goalie battle. The veteran Stewart seemed to have the upper hand, but Galajda’s play made it hard not to deserve a longer look.
He ultimately won the job, and once again, never looked back. His first two starts saw him stop a combined 38 of 39 shots he saw — the second a 3-0 shutout. Galajda led the nation with nine shutouts in 2017-18 and his shutout streak of 227 minutes, 11 seconds across five starts in mid-January is the second-longest in program history
Galajda will be one of the first to tell you how surprised he was to put up a freshman season at Cornell that earned him ECAC top rookie and Ivy League top player awards, All-American status and Hobey Baker finalist, among several other recognitions.
It was so surprising that Galajda would sometimes pull up last season’s results on his phone to make sure that it happened. Not in a cocky way. In a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming way.
“You don’t want to look back at it every day or anything like that. This year is a new year. You have to start over and really not have any expectations for yourself,” Galajda says now. “But at the same time, I definitely reflected on it after the season last year. … There were some nights where I checked my phone after the season and was kind of in shock all that stuff happened.”
But Galajda will trade every individual award if it means turning Cornell’s last two elimination losses into wins.
“We worked so hard the whole year and to have it taken away from us in two games was heartbreaking,” Galajda says. “I had a couple rough games, so now I’m just having that mindset of being in the moment and thinking of every puck like it’s your last. … I definitely let that slip a couple games last year and just want to be really consistent at that this year.”
He’s accomplished it all with a quiet confidence. On game day, Galajda famously keeps to himself and won’t even touch a soccer ball — a popular warm-up activity across locker rooms. Once in eleventh grade he did and proceeded to have a bad game. It’s bad luck.
But once he steps on the ice, that reservation morphs into hollering at his defense, smiling under the cage and speaking with his performance.
“When I get out there I guess you could say I turn into a different person,” Galajda says. “I always have a little grin on my face. … It’s a game, so you might as well have fun with it.”
“When he’s in the net he’s just in his element,” adds junior forward Jeff Malott. “He loves just making a big save or shutting the door. He just has a blast when he’s in net and it’s just contagious.”
But he’s not that quiet.
“I’m in the hotel school. It’s hard to be shy in that school,” Galajda says. “But I’m not one of those guys who leads all the conversations in the locker room.”
“He can be assertive when you’re around him. When he knows what he wants he’s direct and he’s firm,” reassures Cornell associate head coach and defensive mastermind Ben Syer. “He doesn’t waste words, and I see the same on the ice.”
‘Gives us that confidence’
Friday hosting Michigan State will be the first test if Galajda can repeat his success from last year. Given how improbable and incredible his first season was, that may not be a fair standard to hold. That’s because Galajda’s bar is higher.
Playing in the shadow of Dryden’s legendary No. 1 sweater in the Lynah rafters and under a long tradition of Cornell goalie excellence, perhaps Galajda won’t need to replicate 2017-18.
“Whether he can put up the same goals against, that’s not in our control. And it’s not in his control,” says head coach Mike Schafer ’86 “I’ve seen goaltenders make the same mistake where they want to beat that tremendous statistical year. That’s not his issue. His issue is to play his best and lead us to winning hockey games.”
Might Galajda’s No. 35 jersey hang alongside Dryden’s No. 1 in the rafters of Lynah Rink?
“It’s certainly a drive to him when you reference that. But I think that’s putting the cart before the horse,” Syer says with a chuckle. “But when you look at him, he’s got a drive to him and wants to prove everybody wrong.”
No matter the result, the top Cornell defense enters the season rest assured Galajda is behind them. “He just gives us that confidence as a defense corps,” McCrea says.
And that confidence can be traced back to one meeting at Tim Hortons. A meeting that set the course for every save, every win, every accolade, every milestone. A meeting that came on the heels of Galajda’s biggest hockey disappointment.
But maybe Dunkin’ Donuts was the more apt venue.
“Everyone [on the team] always says they miss Tim Hortons, all the Canadians,” Galajda says. “But I really don’t. I don’t really drink coffee.”