Editor's Note: Throughout the 2014-15 NHL season, USA Hockey Magazine will periodically highlight American-born players through various Q&A segments. The inaugural discussion was with Cory Schneider.
A product of Minnesota high school hockey, Matt Niskanen is currently a defenseman with the Washington Capitals, his first season with the organization. In two years at Minnesota-Duluth (2005-07), Niskanen tallied 10 goals and 35 points in 77 games. The Virginia, Minn., native had his best NHL season in 2013-14 where he posted 10 goals and 36 assists to go along with a +33 rating. Throughout his eight-year professional career, he’s registered 35 goals and 134 assists.
Besides hockey, what sports did you participate in when you were in grade school/middle school?
I played both football and baseball through the 12th grade.
Favorite Music: Country & 1980s Hair Bands
Favorite Food: Deep-fried walleye
Favorite Movie: Grumpy Old Men
Favorite Actor: Tom Hanks
Favorite Actress: Mila Kunis
Favorite Quote: “There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out. There is no such thing as life in-between.” – Pat Riley, President, Miami Heat
Favorite Television Show: Family Guy
Favorite Place To Visit: Lake Vermilion in Tower, Minn.
Favorite Offseason Hobby: Golf
If I wasn’t playing hockey, I would be: Working in the mine at Minntac in Mountain Iron, Minn.
When did you finally realize you wanted to commit to hockey full time? Why did you ultimately decide on hockey?
After I graduated high school I decided to commit to hockey. Hockey was my strongest sport and it was also the most fun.
When you were a kid were there any NHL players that you looked up to in the NHL? Was there anyone in particular you tried to model your game after?
When I was real young, I liked Mario Lemieux. Once I realized I was going to be a defenseman, I liked and followed Nicklas Lidstrom. He is the best all-around defenseman of my lifetime. Although I will never reach his level, I still strive to have his attributes (skating, skill, and awareness).
Do you have a favorite memory when you were playing hockey as a youngster? Maybe a memorable goal or tournament that you won?
By far my favorite memory is making it to the state high school hockey tournament my senior year. It was the first trip to the tourney for our school (Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl Blue Devils). It was important for me to accomplish that with my best buddies that I played with for over 10 years in the same small town.
Why did you ultimately decide to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth as opposed to heading the major junior route?
The tradition of the WCHA was the ultimate goal for many Minnesota kids at that time. Also, in recent years more and more college players have gone on to have very successful professional careers.
What was special about playing college hockey for two seasons in Duluth?
I loved the experience of playing in the WCHA, which had awesome rivalries and tradition. I formed great friendships at Duluth while living and playing with great guys from all over North America. I improved a great deal as a person and hockey player during my time in Duluth.
How much have small area games been incorporated into your practices at both the collegiate and professional level? What types of skills have you taken away from those situations?
The higher level you play at, the more important these types of drills or practices are. In the NHL, decisions must be made quickly and without a lot of space. The best players use their physical skills and creativity to find time and space to make plays. I love drills that force me to handle the puck quickly, which gives me confidence to do something positive with the puck even in tight-checking games.
What is the best perk about playing in the NHL?
We have access to the best equipment, trainers, accommodations and travel. NHL teams give you every tool and resource you need to play your best.
What advice can you give a young 10-year-old kid playing youth hockey who aspires to play junior, college or even professional hockey?
A: You’re never too old to practice skills.
B: Watch players at higher levels and listen to coaches. Learn how to be a better player.
C: Enjoy the journey. Don’t be in a rush to the finish line. There is no such thing as the fast track. Enjoy the process of becoming a better athlete.
Everyone has a life after hockey — any thought as to what you’d like to do once you’re playing days are over? Why would you choose that?
My wife and I hope to start a family in the future. So, I plan on being a stay-at-home dad. Also, I want to hunt, fish and golf, like a lot. I possibly would coach youth hockey in Virginia, Minn.