The dream had ended for Matt Youso.
He wasn’t going to play Division I hockey.
“I wasn’t too discouraged, I’d just accepted the fact that I didn’t get what I was working for,” Youso said.
At 21, the International Falls, Minn., native had aged out of the juniors level. There was some talk about walking on at Bemidji State, but the Beavers were well-stocked on the blue line.
He was going to continue taking online courses in the fall. Had a couple of jobs lined up, one painting, the other as a bartender and maintenance man at a resort. He might go on a couple hunting trips ...
That’s when Youso’s father ran into one of International Falls’ more famous natives, UNO hockey coach Dean Blais, in late July. The Mavericks had just lost defenseman Tony Turgeon, who turned pro.
Blais remembered Matt Youso. He and Blais’ nephew, Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Willie Corrin, were captains and teammates on the same prep team. Best friends since diapers.
“I’ve watched him develop over the years,” Blais said. “He was one of the top kids there every year. Instead of trying to bring in a freshman who wasn’t ready, I thought of Matt.”
And just in time.
The deadline to apply to attend UNO was the same day that Blais reached out to Youso.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Youso said of being asked to join the Mav program. “I wasn’t in that mindset any more. I wasn’t in the shape I would have been if I had been training.”
But he applied. And then talked to Corrin.
“He said I was definitely Dean’s kind of player and that I’d fit really well in the program,” Youso said.
He quit one of his jobs so he could train with his brother, Holy Cross forward Jake Youso.
“I’d been lifting weights, but that was just to stay in shape,” Youso said. “I wasn’t training for hockey. I didn’t skate at all. So I was kind of worried about getting back into the swing of things on short notice.”
That’s how, after giving up hockey, Youso wound up with a hockey scholarship.
“For me, every game is a huge bonus,” Youso said.
Youso has appeared in three of UNO’s eight games heading into the Saturday and Sunday home series with North Dakota.
Not only did the Mavs lose Turgeon in the summer, another of their projected regular defensemen, Preston Hodge, was kicked off the team in August. Youso is currently the seventh defenseman on a team that will typically dress six. But he’s suited up because of injuries to others, and he’s filled in at forward, too.
“I’m just here to be a good teammate, to work my way up the ladder and earn ice time,” Youso said. “I’m here to be a role player. That’s what I always was in juniors. I was never a star. There wasn’t one team I was a stud player on.”
Youso, who had three goals and 10 assists and a team-leading 131 penalty minutes last year with Brookings of the North American Hockey League, has always been a physical presence on his teams. Funny, he said, because his grandfather — former NFL offensive lineman Frank Youso — steered the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder toward hockey for a different reason.
“My grandpa told me I wasn’t big enough or tough enough to play football,” Youso said. “It turns out in hockey, I was always the guy who was fighting. So I don’t know if he was right about the toughness, but I definitely wasn’t big enough.”
Fighting, of course, is discouraged by the NCAA. But that doesn’t mean Youso can’t be physical.
“The fact that people know you’re tough is a big thing. Team toughness is huge,” he said.