×

Keating set to take over Rivier hockey program

NASHUA – New Rivier University men’s hockey coach Matt Keating has always had faith that each step in his sports career was a means to an end, but not always an easy one.

“Whenever I’ve wanted something, it hasn’t come easy for me,” Keating said. “I’ve had to work at it. I got this (job) after 10 years.”

And it wasn’t one he was expecting. A finalist for the job as the first ever Raiders men’s ice hockey coach back in November, he had accepted that he wouldn’t get the position, as the school hired another assistant from a New England school, Eric Sorenson.

Ah, but college sports is ever changing, and as fate would have it, Sorenson left Riv after recruiting a full roster but never coaching a game to take an assistant’s job at Division I Holy Cross.

So Keating had hope.

“I heard Eric was leaving, and college hockey is a small world,” Keating said. “The school didn’t even know, and I don’t think the players did, either.

“Then one night I had a missed call and it was a Nashua number.”

And Keating was ushered up to Rivier for another talk about the job, which he was offered hours after that discussion.

Keating looked from afar at the job Sorenson was doing.

“That kid’s pretty good, this kid’s pretty good, and I’m saying, ‘Wow, Eric’s doing a pretty good job,'” he said.

And now that job is his. He’s a former minor league baseball player, college hockey player, married to a former Harvard volleyball player, father of kids who play sports.

“Sports,” he said, “is about survival.”

And Matt Keating has survived.

THE JOURNEY

Keating started his hockey life late, not putting on skates until he was about eight-years old. His family moved from Cambridge to Arlington, Mass., basically from a basketball town to a big hockey community. His father Ron was a basketball guy, but his mother’s side had a hockey history; his grandfather John Sullivan was a goalie at Boston University and his uncle Jack Sullivan, who now lives in Bedford, played at Boston College as a captain on a team that also included current Eagles coach Jerry York.

“In Arlington, everybody played (hockey),” he said. “Football, hockey and baseball. Those were the sports.”

And baseball was something that Keating certainly became involved with, even as a pro. But he had a love for hockey, so his father supported him.

“I worked at it, and I loved it,” Keating said, adding that he knew he had some catching up to do. “A few years later I passed a lot of guys, and worked at it off the ice, too. But I still played baseball, and was a better baseball player. I loved doing both.”

He was a left winger and a center for four years at Arlington High School. He did a year of prep school and went to his dad’s alma mater, Northeastern. Growing up, his father took him to a few Beanpots and also some NU baseball games, and he was offered scholarship money from NU for baseball. But he also wanted to play hockey, and the rules back then said if you played two sports you had to have scholarships for both. So he played hockey – he was recruited by then Huskies and former UMass-Lowell coach Bruce Crowder – and earned scholarship money for that sport after his freshman year as well. Technically he played baseball as a walk on.

But baseball kept calling. He was drafted in the 35th round his junior year at NU as a first baseman by the San Francisco Giants, and played three years in their system, a year of independent ball in Elmira, N.Y.and another year in Europe.

“I just could hit,” Keating said, as he left with the third highest career batting average at NU, at .355, part of his time there playing with former major leaguer Carlos Pena. “I loved baseball, don’t get me wrong.”

He was at third his freshman year at NU and eventually took over Pena’s spot at first when Pena was drafted by the Texas Rangers. Former Red Sox great Pedro Martinez would come to the NU games to see Pena.

“That was the great thing about playing with guys who made it to the highest level,” Keating said. “Not just watching them be really good and accomplished. It’s the preparation after work.”

One night Pena asked him what he was doing after practice. “Come over to my house,” he was told. So Keating did, and discovered Pena had a huge box filled with hitting tapes.

“All night, we just watched hitting tapes,” he said. “He used to love Ken Griffey (Jr.) so we’d have tapes of him, but a ton of other big leaguers. So I’m like, this is how you get to be good, right? It’s being a student of the game.

“I played with a ton of guys who made it to the bigs or the NHL. A lot of them were better (than Keating), but not by much. A lot of it was the preparation and taking care of your body and all that stuff that got them to the level they did. That was the cool part of playing guys like that.”

He played in the rookie Northwest League in Salem, Oregon and was on a championship team, and his first at-bat was against now former Seattle pitching standout Freddy Martinez.

“After a couple of weeks (of training), the first game, I’m facing a guy who (eventually) was runner up to Roger Clemens for the Cy Young Award,” Keating said. “I’m like, ‘I can play here.’ That’s the attitude you have to have.”

The highest he reached was San Jose in the California League. In Europe he played in Cologne, Germany, playing with someone he knew from Boston College.

Hockey? As a player, it ended up being men’s leagues. “I wanted to get to the highest level, and I felt baseball gave me the chance to get to that level,” Keating said. “But hockey, I was pretty much obsessed with it, wanted to be around it.”

When he returned from Europe, he decided he wanted to get back into coaching. After a few years of overcoming some health issues, he was offered a volunteer assistant position at Bentley and then moved on to Tufts, then Babson.

“I loved it,” Keating said. “I always had a feeling I was going to be a hockey coach. I didn’t know if it would be college or high school, but I knew I’d do it.”

Why coaching? Simple, it kept him in hockey. “I wanted to do something I love, not just work,” Keating said. “I had a passion and love for the game of hockey.”

And he enjoyed shaping players’ lives. “To me, it’s not just about hockey, but trying to help them get to the next level of their profession on the outside. You’re younger, you kind of think things are going to happen easily, and you don’t realize the competition that’s out there and how hard it is to get to your goals.

“I want to help them get to that level professionally so they get a good push out the door once they’re done. I just love working with kids, this age. Combine that with my passion for hockey, I just love college sports.”

Tufts was the first job he went out and recruited, and he took to it. After a four-win season, the program improved to nine wins and a tournament game win, the first in the school’s history. “We needed kids who had a passion for hockey,” Keating said.

And the program took off.

“It’s about giving kids a good experience,” Keating said. “It’s about giving them the best four years of their life. These kids and their parents are sacrificing a lot for you, to play for you. We owe it to them to get them to that next level in their professional life.

“I played with a lot of guys who didn’t make it to the big leagues and the NHL. They had to get jobs after.”

At Babson, life was a little different, but that program made the NCAA tourney in 2020 with an at-large bid after being upset in the conference tourney, but the plug was pulled due to the pandemic just before the NCAAs. Babson played an abbreviated 8-0 season – 14 were scheduled — in Division III this past year, all precautionary due to COVID-19.

THE RIVIER ATTRACTION

Keating likens Riv to himself, as he feels the school’s administration understandably wants its student athletes to succeed.

“Every school has a niche to recruit to and I think Rivier has a lot of niches,” Keating said. “A lot of good majors, it’s more me and my personality – hard working people.”

Keating met a lot of the people who work at the school, saw how they loved being there, and he took to the culture. He also liked the commitment athletic director Joanne Merrill showed the players who Sorenson recruited.

“She had the players’ backs, to make sure they had a great experience,” he said. “That the team was in place, and I wanted to stay loyal to the kids who stayed loyal to the school. The administration really worked hard behind closed doors to get the kids in a great position for their experience next year.”

It’s a unique situation. Keating did a zoom meeting with the full roster, and at first he talked to them about who he was and what he could bring to the program.

“I wanted them to stay,” he said. “It was more of this is my vision, my vision for you and the team.”

Then he spoke with them all individually on the phone.

“I was really excited about the way they were talking,” Keating said. “I think this adversity is going to help them out in the long run. They connected with each other through the whole thing.”

And they told him how special it was for them to be part of the foundation of a brand new program.

“I thought it was great how they took ownership of it,” he said. “And I got great feedback right away, ‘I’m staying, I’ m staying’.

“You’re not just going for a coach, right? There’s a lot of things that go into a decision to go to college. There must be a lot of things you loved about the school, the reason why you came here in the first place.”

Keating said that there are a lot of new programs that have popped up around the country that have had some immediate success. Usually the refrain, as he put it, is “We’ll be pretty good in three or four years. But I think we can be successful right away. If you have that mentality, it can happen. I’m always a believer that if somebody else can do it, we can do it too.”

Keating says that’s the nature of the beast in college hockey – lots of parity.

“It’s so close now,” he said. “You think about it, you have states like Florida, Texas, Iowa, California producing these hockey programs, right? All over the country. When I played, it wasn’t like that. A lot of this talent, more hockey players now. And the way it is with skill development, the way hockey players are, the lack of Division I programs now, all that talent is trickling down to Division III.”

So Keating feels the Raiders can be in just about every game. Of course, he knows his challenges are going to be different as a head coach vs. being an assistant.

“It’s funny, as an assistant, you’re recruiting, run some systems, but head coach is a different beast,” Keating said. “Everybody thinks it’s Xs and O’s, but that’s probably 10 percent of the job.”

The other 90? Try working in collaboration with the school’s administration on bringing players in – admissions, the athletic department.

“Every piece of it,” Keating said. “The administration part is something new (for him). I’m working the first day on the scheduling part of it, the physical forms, trying to get that out to the players right away. I’d been in college hockey long enough to know what I was getting myself into.”

He loved Conway Arena, which will be the Raiders’ home. “I had a really good vibe when I walked in,” he said.

What kind of head coach will Keating be?

“I came from Babson, and I think you are a coach of who you played for, and who you coached with,” he said. “You mold that into the coaching style you want. All those coaches who I respected, played for, and coached with, they’ve been good people.

“From a hockey standpoint, to me it’s about being disciplined, and creating a culture where the older players kind of talk to the younger guys. The coach sets the standard. To me, discipline is very important.”

Talent is big, he said, but there’s something even more important.

“Culture over talent,” he said. “To me it’s about being proud to put on that Rivier jersey. Work in the community. Good citizens at the school. Getting those types of kids.”

At Babson, Keating felt that the program recruited those types of kids and that’s why it’s been successful.

“It’s not about getting the best players,” he said. “It’s about getting the right fit for the school. Players who want to be here, love playing the game, have a chance to play, start a program, and have a chip on their shoulder.”

That’s how Keating always sees himself, so he sees himself fitting in with the players who Sorenson brought in. But he’ll certainly be recruiting for down the road.

“As a coach you’re always recruiting, no matter what the sport is,” he said. “Every year is a different year, too. You just have to have that mindset.”

He’s worked in college hockey long enough, he said, to have the connections to continue the recruiting success Sorenson began. He loves the recruiting aspect.

“To me, it’s the most fun part of coaching,” he said. “You get to go to games, and identifying the talent is fun for me, too. You go to a juniors game, and everyone looks the same.

“Then you talk to them, build a relationship with them. I think that it’s the No. 1 compliment a parent can give you – sending their kid to play for you.”

But being a coach, Keating says, is “all about how you respond. It’s obviously going to be hard work (playing) and tedious, but the fun can’t leave practice.”

The only time Keating says he actually didn’t have fun was in baseball’s minor leagues. Why? Job security.

“I was always worried about if I don’t get a hit, I could get released,” he said. “I was a young kid. That’s one thing I regret, not having fun when playing professional baseball. I was always worried that if I don’t do well, I’m done.”

Instead, he says he should have taken the approach that he was getting paid to play a game he enjoyed in front of thousands of people.

“I want these kids to have that same mentality,” he said. “That ‘I get to play college hockey.’ For them to be in this position, they are really good players. I told them this over the zoom. It’s like two or three percent of players get to play college hockey. So for them to be here right now, even though it’s a new program, for them to be a college hockey player is a major accomplishment.”

That’s Keating’s mission.

“It’s my job to mold them into a team with a culture and obviously represent the university well,” Keating said. “But also have them drive to the rink every day being like, ‘I get to practice, this is fun.'”

Keating now gets to put his signature on Rivier’s athletic history, as it’s his program now.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in that. I’m honored to be the first coach. I want to make people happy, they’re looking out for me, so that’s what it comes down to: the school having pride in your team.”

So he wants a relentless, never-say-die team with a culture that the Raider community can relate to. “I don’t want to be scared of anybody,” he said. “I didn’t win all the time, but I was never scared of anybody.

“But I’m humbled, too. I’ve seen it all the time where other coaches act like they invented the game. I want to be somebody who’s successful, runs a good program, but I’m not going to be that guy who thinks they’re better than anybody. I just want to have a solid, good program.”

When he was 10 years old, Keating played on a youth hockey team that played in a championship game, but he never saw the ice, not a single shift.

“I cried all the way home,” he said. “My Dad, when we got home, said ‘Enough.’ The medal we got, he hung it on the mantel. He said ‘I want you to feel the way you are right now, when you feel like giving up, the way you do now, you’ll want to work twice as hard so you never feel this way again.”

And when he’d go home, he’d always see that medal. He texted his father a couple of weeks ago to thank him for the motivation. “No, no,” Ron Keating told him. Matt had done the hard work to get to the level he wanted.

“Not many people,” he said, “know that story.”

They do now, as Matt Keating has a job he set his sights on eight months ago.

COMMENTS