Matt Nuttle stepped on campus freshman year, moved into his empty dorm with a few of his Cornell men’s hockey classmates and had a lot to be happy about. He had won one of the top American junior league championships just three months prior, he was a defenseman slated to join a nationally-competitive college hockey program and his first game was set to take place at Niagara University — a stone’s throw from his home just outside Buffalo. Somewhere between 30 and 40 of his uncles, aunts, grandparents, immediate and extended family were all expected to show.
The anticipation that began in 2003 was killing him. Nuttle’s father, Joe, brought Matt and his siblings to see Cornell take on New Hampshire in the Frozen Four in what was then the HSBC Arena, home of the Buffalo Sabres — official hockey team of the Nuttle household. Nuttle enjoyed the game, but the eight-year-old was perhaps more so infatuated with the Cornell band just a few sections over that it made him fall in love with not just college hockey but the Cornell aura in particular.
Cornell’s 2015-16 season opener 12 years later by the Canadian border was supposed to be a culmination of a dream come true for Nuttle: finally being able to throw on the carnelian and white after years of build-up.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play, which was a tough moment for me,” Nuttle said recently. “I remember the coaches telling me we know this is where you’re from, but, obviously, it’s a college hockey game. We can’t make decisions on who we’re going to play based on if you’re in someone’s hometown.”
Nuttle was kept out of the lineup via coach’s decision almost the entirety of his freshman season, playing in just two games. For a kid with the high standards he holds for himself, it was crushing and confusing. Nuttle says now he struggled with confidence as a freshman. At times, he found himself wondering if the sport he loved for so long had stopped loving him back.
“I’d be lying if I said that at times I didn’t think that this is really difficult and maybe this isn’t for me,” Nuttle said, later adding, “When things go poorly, you start to question your abilities.”
But following that freshman year disappointment came a summer of change, and with that, a season of emergence. In his sophomore season, Nuttle played in every game but one.
The year after that, every single game.
Flash forward three years after his rookie year, and Nuttle was voted by his teammates as alternate captain for a team that is once again in the hunt for a national championship and will embark on the playoffs this weekend at Lynah Rink. The offensive-turned-defensive blueliner who never played on the penalty kill before coming to Ithaca was also named a finalist for the ECAC’s Best Defensive Defenseman award Tuesday — the most compelling example of the Cornell culture.
“I think those guys who have to overcome that adversity, they have a special story to tell,” Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said recently. “They are very persistent and they are very mentally tough, and I think they carry that aura about them that they’ve had to overcome something to have success.”
It’s an adversity that once nearly pushed Nuttle to the breaking point, to lows he looks back upon now with appreciation — but that feeling didn’t exist at the time. He was almost driven away from the sport, but now he’s one of the most dependable, consistent skaters in the Cornell lineup.
Nuttle’s been able to look inside himself and know the importance his words now carry due to the adversity he’s faced. Others before him played a big role in his being able to make it here. The least he could do is return the favor.
“I feel like with my experience that if I can pay it forward, then I definitely should,” Nuttle said.
His teammates recognize it, too.
“He’s probably one of the most respected guys in our locker room, easily,” classmate and fellow captain Mitch Vanderlaan said recently. “Has been for a while.”
A Leader, Rebuilt
Before Matt Nuttle ever set foot in Ithaca, before he ever became an appointed leader for a team in the hunt for a third consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament, before he struggled, he was on top of the world.
It wasn’t just the state championship he won with his high school team, the Iroquois/Alden consortium squad, in a year he out-tallied the next player on his team by 17 points, nor was it solely the Clark Cup he had won with the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL just months before he arrived on East Hill.
Quite simply, “I was feeling good about myself as a hockey player,” Nuttle said, adding, “I had confidence coming in.”
But Nuttle struggled, and that sentiment quickly soured. He was an offensive-minded defenseman his entire youth hockey career, making Cornell’s values of staunch, unwavering defense a culture shock.
“As soon as I got here I realized the speed was a little faster, and I was smaller back then,” said Nuttle, who’s gained 12 pounds between freshman and senior year. “I struggled defending people, and I definitely struggled with decision making, which are two really important things for Cornell hockey.”
On the night of Feb. 20, 2015, Nuttle got a simple reassurance that he was, at the very least, being noticed. He had already participated in the only two games he would see that season — “I wish I was more ready to play when my number was called,” he’d later admit — and he was packing up the team bus with equipment of skaters who actually played in a 1-0 win over Dartmouth — a common chore for the healthy scratches — when Schafer called the freshman into a small side office in the bowels of Thompson Arena in the middle of New Hampshire.
The message from Schafer was nothing groundbreaking — “‘I can see you are struggling … [but] everyone always tells me how hard you are working,’” Nuttle recalled — but for someone battling confidence, it was crucial.
“As a freshman a lot of times you wonder — ‘Does coach even see what I’m doing out here?’” Nuttle said. “You worry about everything as a freshman, so him saying [that] to me was actually very cool.”
A broken finger can mend. A sore shoulder can improve. But a mental barrier — that’s something that can’t be fixed passively.
Nuttle was not the only freshman defenseman who struggled. He and classmate Brendan Smith were regularly scratched from the lineup — albeit Smith at times for injuries — and the good friends and roommates would pick each other’s brains after and during practices, critiquing and supporting one another.
“I watched the guy just work his ass off the entire time and he did absolutely everything he could, started listening to the coaches a lot more, really had a focus on that and his game has grown so much and he has become such a good player,” Smith said recently.
“I don’t know if people really understand how difficult it is to go to the rink every day and know you are not going to get into the game,” Cornell product Alex Rauter ’18, a close friend and mentor of Nuttle’s, added.
Things got better, and after spending the summer between his freshman and sophomore year training with Cornell athlete performance director Tom Howley in Ithaca, a rejuvenated and refocused Nuttle would see his name among the healthy scratches just one more time his entire career.
He needed a niche. Working to adapt to the Cornell system during and after freshman year, he eventually found himself breaking into the penalty killing units, and by sophomore year was a stalwart on them. He led all Cornellians with a plus-23 scoring margin when he was on the ice last season, and so far this year, he leads the team once again at plus-17. Both those duties have played a huge part in his Best Defensive Defenseman nomination.
But even through the occasional lows that linger with any player, Nuttle has had a simple message he’s followed ever since the pitfalls of freshman year:
“If you don’t believe in your skills and your ability to succeed to be a leader or to be a great player, why would anyone else believe in you?”
Making the Next Nuttle
The case of Matt Nuttle isn’t a groundbreaking story in the world of sports. Nor it is for Cornell hockey in specific. Alex Rauter had an eerily similar path through Cornell hockey, playing just five games his freshman year before being named a captain by senior year.
Same goes for Jacob MacDonald ’15, Rauter’s version of a senior mentor who scored his first NHL goal earlier this season.
“I had a role model in the way I saw him do it,” Nuttle said of Rauter, “and I guess I was able to follow in his shoes.”
Cornell will graduate three defensemen at the end of this season, all of whom are integral cogs for one of the most vaunted defenses in the country. Barring incoming freshmen, that opens slots for several younger, perhaps struggling defenseman to rise up. Spots for more Nuttles.
And now Nuttle feels obligated to be the MacDonald to the next Rauter, to be the Rauter to the next Nuttle, to keep alive the hopes of someone who struggled in ways he once did.
“He’s confident with where he’s at now … but he also doesn’t forget the challenges he’s had,” said associate head coach Ben Syer, who directs the defense. “He’s living proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
One day sooner or later, should all go according to plan, Nuttle will have the chance to take his career full circle. The 2019 iteration of the Frozen Four is back in Buffalo. There’s a lot that has to happen before Nuttle will even allow himself to think about that possibility of having the band that made him fall in love with Cornell now playing for him at the same exact location. Before he could play just down the road from his Marilla, New York home that sports a garage still flush with dents from practicing as a kid. Thinking too far in advance distracts from the task at hand: Union.
But sometimes, he lets his mind wander.
“It would be just about the coolest thing possible,” he said. “A lot of things to go through to get there, but it’s definitely something that I’ve had as a long term goal of mine ever since I found out that the Frozen Four was going to be there for my senior year.”
A few years ago he struggled to dream of making it this far. Why not try and dream some more?
“When I look back on it, I think of more positive things than negative,” Nuttle smiled.
“I definitely try to stay in the moment,” he reassured. “I’m sure someday I’ll look back and I can say I’ll be proud of the transition I’ve made.”