Like many Michiganders, Scott Matzka grew up with a stick in his hands, surrounded on and off the ice by a bevy of buddies who became lifelong friends.
As Matzka grew, so did his game. The Port Huron native’s playmaking abilities and offensive prowess helped the 5-foot-10 center rack up seven 20-goal seasons as he advanced from the United States Hockey League to the University of Michigan to a professional career in the American Hockey League and in European leagues.
“Hockey has been an integral part of my life from the time I was only 3 years old, when I suited up as the mascot for my older brothers’ teams,” Matzka said. “I’d say I’ve learned about 95 percent of my redeeming qualities from time spent at the rink or preparing for competition – things like teamwork, resilience, work ethic, sacrifice and dedication.”
In 2012, Matzka returned to Michigan where his 16-year professional career ended with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings. From there, Matzka entered the business world and settled into life as a full-time husband to his wife, Catie, and dad to Reese (7), and Owen (5).
Two years later, things changed. The strong, quick, athletic body that scored more than 250 goals began to fail – stiffening fingers, twitches, tremors and cramping signaled that something was really, really wrong.
After countless tests and doctor visits, the diagnosis came in: Matzka had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurological disease with no known cause and no known cure.
Despite that, the news wasn’t all that surprising, said Matzka, who first noticed a finger “locking up” while doing construction work the year before. Worst of all, ALS forced a timeline of sorts onto the remainder of Matzka’s days.
“The most difficult part of this is the fact that I will not see my young children grow up,” he said. “I feel like my priorities were reasonably well-aligned prior to my diagnosis but, certainly, being told you may only have a few years to live changes what’s important and what’s not.”
Today, beyond his family, friends and work, Matzka’s passion is to bring light to ALS and those, like him, affected by the condition. Although he says it’s truly impossible to compare himself physically to when he was playing hockey – as the progression of symptoms has become much more apparent and physically limiting over the past six months – Matzka wants to share his story in hopes of giving ALS the exposure it needs for someone to find a cure.
Earlier this year, he spoke at TedXUofM, held at the University of Michigan, and continually raises funds through MYTURN, an organized campaign to raise money for ALS causes, living and caregiving needs.
“Beating ALS will depend on all of us stepping up to take a turn,” he said. “I wanted to do what I could to further the message, and I felt like I could be effective using my platform to engage as many people as possible on the topic.”
Every few years, a team of old Port Huron friends would get together and participate in a local hockey tourney, the Kalamazoo Adult Classic. Inspired by Matzka’s courage and strength, this year’s My Turn Marauders roster was filled with fellow skaters playing in support of their fallen friend, who could no longer skate alongside them.
Team captain Jeff Smith’s goal was to raise $3,500, a total that was quickly surpassed as local friends and players from Port Huron’s weekly leagues found themselves rostered with Matzka’s former teammates and friends who flew in from across the country. Matzka was named the team’s coach and honorary captain, and his son, Owen, joined the team for warmups and sat on the bench during each game.
“It was a great opportunity to see and catch up with many people whom I had not seen for many years in some cases,” Matzka said. “We had a fun weekend together, and we can't thank Justin and the rest of the guys enough for showing up and taking their turn.”
In total, team members and corporate sponsors raised more than $6,000 for Matzka’s ongoing care.
“Scottie is an amazing father, and a caring and loving husband and friend,” said Smith, who grew up playing with Matzka in the Port Huron Minor Hockey Association. “He’s got greater inner strength than anyone I know, and doesn’t allow ALS to bring him – or those around him – down.
“Over these last few years, he’s showed so many of us that life is too short to worry about unimportant things.”
To learn more about ALS, or to support Scott Matzka and MYTURN, visit http://scottmatzka.com/