Although the list of Bulldogs alumni currently playing professional hockey is impressive, it all started with just one. Matt Luff was the first of a growing group of Bulldogs “underdogs” (see: Ben Gleason and Kaden Fulcher), who have overcome all the odds to achieve the extraordinary.
Following the Bulldogs’ 2015-2016 season, Luff eagerly awaited hearing his name called in NHL Entry Draft. It was his second year of eligibility; he had been passed over the year before. He hoped that his 57-point season with the Bulldogs would be enough.
But, it didn’t happen.
“I didn’t hear my name called and it was frustrating,” said Luff. But his NHL dreams were far from over, even before the draft ended. “LA reached out to me during the fifth or sixth round and said ‘Come to [Development] Camp.’”
Going into Development Camp as a free agent is an entirely different experience, one with both advantages and disadvantages. “People aren’t expecting much out of a free agent, an undrafted kid coming to camp vs a kid that was picked 1 to 7,” said Luff. “But then I also knew I had to stand out even more than the kids that were drafted.”
After Development Camp, the Kings organization made it clear that they were interested in signing him, granted he had an outstanding performance at Rookie Camp that September. “I went into the summer knowing what I wanted to do,” Luff said. “And that was to earn a contract.”
On September 22nd, 2016, Luff achieved his goal, signing a 3-year Entry Level Contract with the Kings.
With the signing bonus, he made his first big purchase: a bulldog puppy named Meatball.
He returned to Hamilton for a final season of junior hockey, where despite being plagued by injuries, he managed to put up 49 points in 45 games.
The following season, after the Kings’ training camp, he was assigned to the Ontario Reign of the AHL.
He finished his rookie season with the Reign with a solid 29 points in 67 games. He was developing at an impressive rate, a rate that turned heads within the organization.
He began his sophomore season in Ontario, but as the LA Kings continued their rebuild, the opportunity arose for younger players to make the jump to the NHL. He got the call up to LA in November and would spend the majority of the next 3 months as a staple in the Kings lineup.
Luff had a number of stand-out moments from this season, but notching his first NHL goal was at the top of the list.
“It was a wild moment.”
“I’m sure you saw my reaction,” said Luff, laughing. “My mom said it was the happiest she’d ever seen me.”
Matt wasn’t the only Luff with an outstanding rookie year. Meatball took down a number of heavy favourites, including Gustl Kopitar and Reggie Doughty, to be crowned 2019 Bark Madness Champion.
Luff was one of few glimmers of hope in an otherwise dim season for the Kings. He finished the season with 11 points (8 goals, 3 assists) in 33 games, including an impressive 4-game goal streak.
Undoubtedly, one of the keys to his success has been his offseason training. Luff spends his summer working under renowned trainer and BioSteel Founder, Matt Nichol (who also happens to be the Director of Sport Science with the Bulldogs). With Nichol, he is given the unique opportunity to train alongside hockey’s brightest stars: Tyler Seguin, Wayne Simmonds, and Jordan Binnington, to name a few.
Rubbing shoulders with experienced NHL athletes has changed the way Luff trains. He now finds himself observing those around himself to improve his own regiment, “it’s [amazing] to get a look at these guys and just see how they do…especially with me just entering my first half-time NHL season.”
He also credits his time with the Bulldogs as another key factor in his success as a professional hockey player. “Hamilton was huge for [my development]. They were part of the process to get me to where I am today,” said Luff. “So, I’m grateful for what they did for me and everything they’re doing for other kids that are making it to the pros.”
He’s remained close with his former Bulldogs teammates, including Matt Strome and Mackenzie Entwistle, and even attended the 2018 Championships to watch many of his former teammates capture the OHL title. “Seeing it all come together last year was huge. I would have loved to have been [a part of it], but they earned it and the fans earned it.”
Of his favourite memories with the Bulldogs, Luff cites the team’s introduction at Hamilton TigerCats game (where they received a standing ovation) and the team’s first-ever Family Day game as standouts. “I had never played in front of that many people at a young age,” said Luff of the Family Day game that saw a season-high 7,100 fans at FirstOntario Centre. “I’d like to go back and just play a couple more games in front of that crowd”
LUFF CELEBRATING A GOAL DURING FAMILY DAY GAME (FEB 15, 2016)
For the next generation of Bulldogs, Luff offered some valuable insight, “just enjoy your time. Enjoy the process,” was Luff’s message to young athletes. “It might be long and the road might be not as straight as you want it to be, but it shapes you into the athlete that you’re going to become,” said Luff. “And it’ll show that no matter what, you can get through anything.” Luff’s journey to professional hockey has certainly been a testament to exactly that.
In Matt Luff’s story lies a valuable lesson, not just for hockey players, but for each of us. As long as you’re willing to put in the work, you can get where you need to go, even if you need to take a different route to get there.