When Matthew Wood committed to UConn in August 2020, he had never set foot on campus. In fact, he had barely seen any pictures of it.

Wood didn’t even know what the hockey facility was like until he first walked into it after moving in for the fall semester. In terms of facilities, Wood had only one requirement.

“As long as there’s a rink, as long as I can skate, I don’t care what it looks like,” he said.

Wood’s trip to Storrs is not uncommon for a prospect during the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference is that he’s the best prospect UConn has ever had.

As the Huskies tried to set up the program early in their tenure in Hockey East, they worked to develop an approach to finding talent. They knew they needed to find the same caliber of players as the Boston schools or other top Hockey East teams, but also knew they were hardly an attractive option for top conventional prospects.

So head coach Mike Cavanaugh and his staff got creative. They looked overseas – Russia’s pipeline becoming the most notable – and were opportunistic. When Max Letunov didn’t enter BU due to admissions issues, UConn rushed in. They also found players who had warts that could keep other teams away like Jonny Evans — the program’s first Division I All-American — who needed to take a year of online classes to come to UConn.

Wood, on the other hand, is a real pro talent — The Athletic ranked him No. 9 among 2023 NHL Draft hopefuls. The Huskies didn’t need a fluke to land Wood . It was pretty much compatible with the coaching staff and the program.

Last August, Cavanaugh and then-associate head coach Joe Pereira traveled to Nanaimo, B.C. for a home visit when they could have continued to recruit him from a distance. This had a lasting impact on Wood.

“That’s really when I was like, ‘Wow, I really respect these people and I want to play for them,'” he said.

Wood was familiar with UConn through the success of the basketball teams, but was not as familiar with the hockey program. The more he learned about the culture, the style of play, the expectations, the more he felt attracted to the Huskies.

“They have a different style. I’ve never seen that look… It creates a lot of offense out of the D-zone,” he said. “The coaches, they want everyone to do well. They don’t just want the best players to succeed. They support everyone on the team and it makes everyone feel like every shift they can make a difference and that’s what you need on the team.

“There has never been a year where they have gone downhill. They always go up,” Wood added later. “It was really appealing when I looked at all the schools.”

To land Wood, UConn didn’t just have to separate itself from other NCAA schools. He also had to compete with major juniors, an alternative route to the pros for top prospects. The Regina Pats selected Wood in the second round of the 2022 Western Hockey League (WHL) draft and have been pushing hard to get him in.

If he had gone the major junior route, he would have had the chance to play alongside Connor Bedard, which would certainly have helped increase his visibility with NHL teams since Bedard is considered the best prospect in the 2023 Draft. the NHL. Instead, Wood wanted to forge his own path.

“I think the ability to play a little less games, probably being a little bit higher in college than major junior and being able to work on strength, acceleration off the ice and stuff like that is something I need to achieve my best,” Wood explained. “Obviously Regina is a great place to play for everyone, but for my particular background I felt it was the best route.”

The best route — or a variation — is something Wood repeated many times when explaining why he came to UConn. Wood wasn’t caught up in the brilliance or history of certain programs. Regarding his own story, Wood said he felt UConn was the right place for him.

“I haven’t really tried to focus on my facility decision as much as how I’m going to be used and how I’m going to develop,” Wood said. “At the end of the day, it’s not really where you play that matters, it’s pretty much who you play with.”

“There’s something that just felt right about UConn.”

Ian Bethune / The UConn Blog

The hallmark of Wood’s game is his shooting. Cavanaugh compared him not only to UConn great Tage Thompson, but also to NHL legend Alex Ovechkin. UConn fans didn’t have to wait too long to see the proof.

In the team’s first game at Vermont, he showed his power with a single shot to score UConn’s first goal of the season and of his career. The next day, Wood showcased his finesse with a snipe from the slot.

The foundation of this plan began in high school. In ninth grade, Wood lodged with Bedard, and the two spent much of that year in Bedard’s backyard working on their shots. When summer arrived, Wood continued that work with her father, a former Middlebury College player and former New Hampshire women’s hockey coach.

“I started doing a lot of off-ice shooting in the summer with my dad with weighted pucks, weighted sticks and a lot of weird and different shooting things that really helped a lot,” he said. “I’m also lucky to have a really good shooting setup in my garage and I just like spending time there.”

However, Wood’s game is not limited to his shooting. He has the ice vision, the hockey IQ and the passing ability to be a dangerous point guard anywhere on the ice.

The freshman showed it with two assists in UConn’s blowout win over Ohio State on a three-point night. He can also move defensemen without even having the puck, like when he cleared a path for Andrew Lucas to find Ryan Tverberg on the power play at Vermont. In six games, Wood leads the Huskies with seven points.

“He’s got the whole package,” Cavanaugh said.

What’s most impressive about Wood’s early success is that he’s only 17 and won’t be 18 until February 6, making him the youngest player ever. college hockey. Some of his first-year classmates are four years older than him and the closest teammate to him in terms of age is Arsenii Sergeev, who is still 26 months his senior.

Originally, the plan was for Wood to come to Storrs in the fall of 2023 once he finished high school. But then he lit up the BC Hockey League – one of the top junior leagues in North America – for a record 45 goals and 85 points in 46 games with the Victoria Grizzlies. It made no sense to keep him there for another year.

“I just think he was ready. That’s why he’s coming,” Cavanaugh said ahead of the season. “There are players who need extra years and some guys are scoring two points a game in the BC League He played against a group of 2002, 2003 (prospects born in 2002 or 2003), so it’s time to take the next step.

Ian Bethune / The UConn Blog

UConn finally opened its new on-campus hockey arena in May 2021, and Wood signed on three months later. In September, Cavanaugh credited the still unfinished facility with helping out with a few unnamed recruits.

“We’ve had success on the recruiting track with a few kids that we probably wouldn’t have seen three or four years ago,” he said.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the new rink directly helped UConn land Wood, but he played down that idea.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they have a new rink, I should come here,'” he said. “Obviously the new rink is super amazing and we’re very lucky to have it, but I don’t really know how much that made me come here.”

However, when Wood learned of the existence of the Huskies’ original home – an outdoor ice cap covered with a roof – he admitted that he had some standards.

“I won’t say no, I won’t say yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know if every day in winter I come to an outdoor skating rink. Its pretty hard.

The new rink may not have meant much to Wood, but what it represents matters. UConn has made an impressive rise in its first nine years of Hockey East from its beginnings as a scrappy underdog through its years as a quality mid-level team until last year, when he was one goal away from winning the league championship. The new arena is a symbol of the growth of the Huskies. Soon they will have an installation on par with their league rivals – just as they become par on the ice with the rest of the league.

Wood wants to be part of this story.

“I felt like I was on the rise, just like this program,” he said. “We finally meet when we both get to where we need to be.”