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CAPTAIN 'CRUNCH'

01/21/2006 12:02 AM - Griffins captain Matt Ellis lifts the team’s prospects for winning with strong leadership

Story and photo by Mark Newman

If being captain of a hockey club puts extra weight on the shoulders of the man who wears the “C,” the Griffins couldn’t have found a better candidate than Matt Ellis.

Few players value the importance of strength training, weightlifting and off-ice conditioning more than Ellis, who has built himself into an NHL prospect through sheer doggedness, determination and dedication.

When he got married this past summer, he had the perfect excuse to relax. Never one to forgo one commitment for another, Ellis instead refocused himself in an effort to further enhance his chances of someday playing in the NHL.

“It’s always been my belief that summer is a great opportunity for players to get better and make improvements in all facets of their game, especially stuff like speed, strength and level of conditioning,” Ellis says.

So after a brief three-day honeymoon to a northern Ontario resort, Ellis and his bride, Jen, settled into their newly purchased property in Port Colborne, Ontario, not far from Lake Erie.

“It’s out in the country, set back in the trees, about a half kilometer from the lake,” Ellis says. “I love the outdoors and it’s beautiful to be able to jog along the lake in the morning.”

During a typical week, Ellis spends five days in the gym. “It’s definitely a commitment, but it’s something I love to do, so it never seems like work. In fact, I’d say it’s always been a passion of mine.”

His wedding present was an iPod, which quickly became his constant workout companion. “I strap on the iPod and play some pretty heavy music, like Metallica or Rage Against the Machine, and I’m ready to go,” he says.

Ellis happily trains by himself, putting together his own workout programs from all the fitness articles that he studiously reads. “As each year goes by, I find that I get to know my body a little better,” he says.

Finding motivation has never been difficult for Ellis, a self-avowed fitness freak whose physique exemplifies the commitment and conviction of a player with a singular focus.

Originally signed by the Red Wings as an undrafted free agent in 2002, Ellis has shown every sign of being the classic late bloomer, the overachiever who gets better with age.

Last season, Ellis nearly tripled his offensive production from the previous year, recording 18 goals and 23 assists in 79 games with the Griffins. This past summer he was rewarded with a new two-year contract from the Wings.

“The last couple of years, I feel like I’ve made some big strides,” he says. “I’ve never had anything handed to me, but as I’ve been given more ice time and more responsibility, I’ve tried to make the most of it.”

It’s his commitment to excellence that has earned Ellis the respect of his teammates – and the honor, at age 24, of being named the youngest captain in the Griffins’ 10-year history.

Choosing Ellis for the top spot was a “no-brainer,” as far as Griffins head coach Greg Ireland was concerned. “I don’t know if I can say enough about Matt Ellis,” he says. “I have such tremendous respect for him as a person and as a player.”

There’s more to Ellis than meets the eye. Sure, he will chip in the timely goal or assist now and then, but he contributes in ways that aren’t always directly reflected on the scoreboard.

“He’s starting to get rewarded with points, but he means so much more than can be measured in statistics,” Ireland says. “In terms of his work ethic, he represents what we stand for. He just works so darn hard on the ice.”

Ellis strives to live up to the high standards he has set for himself. He doesn’t take the responsibilities of wearing the “C” lightly.

“It’s an honor and privilege to be deemed the leader of this hockey club,” Ellis says. “I feel fortunate to have played with some exceptional captains the past couple of years and hopefully I’m able to follow in their footsteps and lead by example.”

The son of a corrections officer, Ellis knows the value of discipline, perseverance and self-sacrifice. He understands he’s going to have to work harder than most if he’s going to have any chance of playing at the next level.

It’s that same never-say-die attitude that has distinguished the play of the Griffins this season, as the team has mounted numerous third-period comebacks.

“We’ve proven that we are an elite team in this league, and the beauty of that is we’re getting contributions from every player,” Ellis says. “There is no one in our room who doesn’t contribute in some way, whether it’s offensively, defensively or playing on special teams.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the Griffins’ comeback ability than the five power-play goal outburst in the third period against conference rival Houston on Jan. 6 that erased a 4-1 deficit.

“A word that we use a lot in the dressing room is relentless,” Ellis says. “It all stems from guys believing in each other and having faith in the team. Not a whole lot needs to be said.”

If there’s one thing about this year’s Griffins that Ellis feels really good about, it’s the team’s lunch-bucket personality, a bunch of guys who come ready to work every night. In that regard, he’s more than happy to point the way.

“It all starts with work ethic,” he says, pounding his fist to emphasize his point. “In the game of hockey, you never can stop working. Fortunately, we have a good group of guys on this team who know what it takes to win.”

From a personal standpoint, Ellis feels back on track after an injury took him off-course for a bit.

“I wasn’t able to touch a weight for a month and a half and that was tough for me. I like to stay on top of my workouts during the season, so not being able to train the way I like was difficult.”

Ellis says he’s ready for a “big second half,” a statement he underscored by tying a personal-best when he recorded two goals and two assists against Hamilton on Dec. 30.

Scoring another goal the next night against arch-rival Chicago only helped to further boost his confidence.

“Being a fourth-year pro makes a huge difference,” he says. “Each year, you come in with a little more confidence, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some great players and coaches.

“It’s been nice to be able to learn from players who have been around the game a long time, guys like Travis Richards, Eric Manlow, Bryan Helmer, Kent McDonell and Donald MacLean.

“They epitomize what it means to be a good leader. I’m just honored to be able to play on the same team with guys like that. Hopefully, I can do what I can to be a strong leader myself.”


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