‘He never takes a shift off, he never takes a game off, and he brings it every night’

How Matthew Coronato’s tireless work ethic has propelled him into the limelight.

By Jonah Fleisher

The Chicago Steel have certainly had a lot of success in the NHL Entry Draft in recent years. In the 2020 draft, they had three players selected: Ian Moore, in the third round to the Anaheim Ducks; Sean Farrell, in the fourth round to the Montreal Canadiens; and Joe Miller, in the sixth round to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The way they prepare their players for the draft might surprise you: they tell them not to think about it at all. Instead, the Steel instruct them to control what they can: coming in every day with a good attitude and consistently putting in the work to improve.

We’re very fortunate that over the years, with the players we have had, the draft is always looming in the locker room,” said general manager Ryan Hardy. “It’s just always a thing and we don’t spend that much time talking about it. All that matters to us is that the guys prepare themselves to play at their best for as long as they can.”

Perhaps no one has committed to this ideology more than Matthew Coronato. The team raves about his non-stop work ethic and drive which sets the tone for the rest of the team.

Matt’s been with us for two years full-time and he’s practiced with us as an affiliate in previous years, so he’s been a big part of our program for these last two-and-a-half years,” said head coach Brock Sheahan. “I think the one thing that stands out with Matt is his work ethic, his drive, his motor, and how he brings it every single day. I don’t think he’s taken a shift off in his time here. It’s a gift that he has, and I think that that in itself allows him to lead and it sets a great tone with the guys. He’s also a very likeable person and a great teammate, so he leads in that way as well.”

Coronato has benefitted from the Steel’s talent factory, and he relishes the opportunity to be around his teammates who have already gone through the draft process.

“The Steel have done an unbelievable job of getting players here and continuing to develop them and put them in great spots to succeed past the junior level,” Coronato said. “This year I get to play with three guys who were drafted — Farrell, Miller, and Moore — so it’s great to be able to not only play with guys of that caliber, but also work hard against them in practice, because it only makes my game better.”

Coronato’s well-documented work ethic has earned him a new moniker from the team’s play-by-play announcer: ‘the Bison’. While he doesn’t fully understand where the nickname came from, the hard-working winger can’t help but laugh when he hears it.

“Our announcer, Mark Citron, and our video guy, Johnny Lehmann, they come up with a bunch of nicknames,” said Coronato. “They came up with mine last year: ‘the Bison.’ Citron says it’s because I like to go hard to the net, ramming like a bison. There are also some other little things he says I do that are similar to a bison that I’m not too sure of, but it’s definitely funny and I love when he makes the bison growl.”

Coronato grew up an Islanders fan, idolizing defenseman Nick Leddy. From there, his love for the sport blossomed.

“I started playing when I was about four years old,” he said. “I went to a ton of Islanders games with my dad, and I fell in love with hockey and started playing.”

He started to realize that he could go somewhere with hockey in middle school, but there wasn’t a specific moment when he realized that the NHL was a real possibility. In classic Coronato fashion, he just came to the rink and worked his hardest every day.

“I think I realized that I could have bigger opportunities with hockey when I was in middle school and maybe the start of ninth grade,” said Coronato. “My dad would be driving me over the bridge to go to practise and we were doing a lot of travel, and I started to perform. I quickly realized that with some hard work, I could do something with it.”

“Getting drafted and playing in the NHL was obviously a lifelong dream but it wasn’t something that just clicked in my head, thinking there was a chance it could happen. Just every year, I played as hard as I could, always trying to get better, and that’s all I could really control.”

The Steel have a glut of talented players with four of their players leading the points race, Coronato being one, and his linemate, Erik Middendorf, being another.

“It’s interesting — most of those guys, they played a little bit together late [last year],” said Hardy. “Usually [Coronato] and Middendorf play together, and Farrell plays on a different line with Samoskevich who’s been injured. They all kind of lift each other. I think by virtue of having so many good weapons it makes it a little more difficult for teams to check us. It’s not like they can say, “we’ll just stop this one line and we’ll be good,” because we have guys up and down the lineup who can score. So that kind of helps everybody, but I think on the flip side, by virtue of having so many good, young, talented players, we have to spread around ice time more. On a different team, Matt and those other guys would probably get more ice time than they do now.

Coronato would be one of the first to point out his linemate’s strong play.

“Mittendorf’s been great this year,” he said. “He’s a great guy to play with. Works super hard, a great leader, knows how to finish, so it’s been great playing with him. We both played together a good amount last year, too, so we know each other’s games very well. We’ve been getting some good bounces this year, and it’s been unbelievable playing with him this year, for sure.”

Together, the two have ripped the league to shreds. Coronato has potted a league-leading 28 goals to go along with 28 assists. His linemate has racked up a similarly impressive 23 goals and 25 assists. Coronato and Middendorf rank first and second in goals, and second and third in points, respectively.

Coronato, ever the model of consistency, set a USHL record for the longest point streak earlier this year, grabbing a point in 28 straight games dating back to the 2019-20 season. The streak came to an end on January 22. Steel staff didn’t even know about the streak until it had almost reached its conclusion; the team simply came to expect that production from him each night — it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“It definitely speaks to the work habits that he has,” said Hardy. “We didn’t actually know he had a streak going until it reached 24, 25 games, and we just looked down and went, “oh man, he’s scored in every game.” As it started to get more notoriety [in the media], it became a little more of a thing, but for Matt, it didn’t really impact his play. I think there probably is a level of confidence that comes with knowing that every night you’re going to rack up some points, but I think it’s more the work he puts in that gives him that confidence.”

The hard-working Coronato, of course, didn’t know about the streak either. He just went out, put his head down, and tried to play the right way each night.

“We weren’t really aware of it,” Coronato said. “The streak was just a result of hard work and consistency. Just going in looking to play the right way, preparing the same way, always being locked in and focused for every night. Definitely things were going my way for a little bit at the beginning of the year. My linemates were playing great. It’s something that really just comes with hard work and a little bit of luck.”

It really goes to show the humility that Coronato has. No matter the amount of success he has, he always stays even keeled and never gets ahead of himself.

“He’s an unreal kid,” said Hardy. “Takes his hockey really seriously. He’s got a good mix of intelligence and goofiness to him. Everybody likes him, he’s a great teammate, and he’s very humble and selfless. With the production that he has, it’s not something that goes to his head. He just comes, works, does his job, and always tries to get better.”

“He’s pretty quiet [in the dressing room]. He’s funny — one of those guys who doesn’t take himself too seriously, lets the other guys make fun of him a bit, and doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke. I think his way to lead is just by setting the tone with his work habits and mindset, and he’s very humble in his approach. When really talented young players can come to our team and watch players like Matt, and they can see him go about his business with such humility, I think it sends a great message to the young players and they really buy into it. Matt is a big catalyst for us in that way.”

Coronato had to work within coronavirus regulations to train this offseason. Still, he found a way to get in the gym and put on some muscle.

“Stuff was shut down pretty much until the beginning of June, so it was tough to leave the house,” Coronato said. “But once June hit, things started to open up and I was able to get to the gym with one of my teammates, Ryan Ufko, and a couple other junior and college players. I got about three months in at the gym which I think was big for me — I added some weight and some strength, and I think I’ve gotten faster since last year, so I think that was huge for me.”

While the pandemic has certainly changed much about the current season, Coronato has not taken for granted the ability to play hockey — especially with other junior leagues having not been able to play thus far.

“I think for us, we’re just grateful that we have the opportunity to play right now,” Coronato said. “I know there’s a lot of guys who haven’t gotten that opportunity so far this year, so whether it’s the masks in the locker room or no fans at home games, we’re grateful just to be able to play. At the end of the day, we’re still able to come out and do what we love.”

Any discussion of Coronato starts with his work ethic and drive, but he is also a very well-rounded player with strong hockey sense.

“In terms of Matt’s impact on everybody else, I think his shift-to-shift and game-to-game work habits — he never takes a shift off, he never takes a game off, and he brings it every night — that elevates the level for everybody else,” said Hardy. “He’s also really versatile. He can play really any style of hockey that we want him to play. He’s very competitive. He has some very good secondary elements in terms of just being strong, being able to win those 50-50 puck battles, and understanding his responsibilities off the puck. With the puck, he’s also got a lot of versatility there too. He has a knack for scoring goals, he can make plays, he can beat you with his speed, he’s got good hands. He’s just a very well-rounded player.”

Sheahan echoed much of the same sentiment.

“He’s got a really good shot, good release, he can shoot the puck a bunch of different ways, and he can one-time a puck,” said Sheahan. “He’s also a good skater with great explosiveness and edge work, and he’s really hard on the puck. If he gets into traffic with possession, he comes out with it. He’s just a really smart player. When we first got him, he was a guy who would beat players one-on-one and he would beat guys down the ice, but he has shown he has the ability to add pieces to his game. He’s more of a playmaker now and has learned to use his teammates more and play at different paces.”

Coronato tries to model his game after Tampa Bay Lightning star Brayden Point.

“I try to learn a lot from what he does,” said Coronato. “We’re similar size, he’s super quick, has great vision, and does a great job in the offensive zone finding spots where he can get open and get pucks from his teammates. I’ve definitely been watching his game, he’s a superstar in the NHL, and I’ve been trying to learn from what he does.”

Coronato identifies his play in the offensive zone as one of his biggest strengths, with his tenacity, speed, and hockey sense as key catalysts.

“First, I’d start with my compete level — I think that’s huge for me,” Coronato said. “Always having my feet moving, never giving up on plays, that’s something that I take a lot of pride in. Speed has been good for me — those two kind of go hand in hand — but my speed has been able to create some plays for myself and my teammates. One more thing that’s been big for me is finding good spots in the offensive zone, moving without the puck to create space and passing lanes for my teammates.”

However, the star forward would like to improve on some of the details in his defensive game.

“A big area I’m trying to improve in right now is five-on-five in the defensive zone,” said Coronato. “There’s a lot of little details that I go over in video with our staff and try to improve on every day in practice. Just trying to stay more focused and more locked-in with good attention to detail in the defensive zone, it’s something you can always improve on.”

Coronato’s general manager chose to identify a different aspect of his game: his lateral, east-west play.

“He’s put a lot of work in already on trying to make more east-west plays,” said Hardy. “I think from last year to this year, that’s probably been the biggest area of growth, and I think it’s an area where he can continue to grow. We’ve had players here in the last few years, whether it be [Leafs’ prospect] Nick Abruzzese, Sean Farrell, or [Golden Knights’ prospect] Brendan Brisson, where that east-west ability is innate in them whereas it’s an area where Matt has had to learn and continue to evolve and grow as he’s been here. Just slowing the game down and feeling pressure on all sides. That’s an area that he has definitely made a lot of headway in, but as a 5’10” guy, he needs to continue to add those elements to his game. I think that’s the only hole he really has and, even then, it’s not really a weakness, but just an area that he’s only above average in, where some of his other traits are elite.”

Sheahan, like Hardy, cannot identify a weakness in Coronato’s game. Rather, he sees many areas in which Coronato excels but still has room for growth.

“His play off the puck and attention to detail is really good,” said Sheahan. “Using his teammates is an area he is already good in, but I think he can still get better. He can continue to add different layers to his shot. I think that any player who thinks they’ve got it figured out, they’ll get left in the dust. Matt knows that he’s got to continue to work and get better, and that’s why he’s having the year he’s been having, and I think he’ll only continue to get better.”

This season will be Coronato’s last with the Steel. He, along with some other teammates in Chicago are committed to play for Harvard next season. Coronato, for one, is looking forward to playing NCAA hockey.

“I’m really excited to go to Harvard next year,” said Coronato. “Still have half a year here in Chicago to continue to develop, improve my game, and prepare myself for college hockey, but I’m really excited to play for coach Donato and play for Harvard.”

With many past Steel players having gone on to play for the Crimson Tide, Hardy is familiar with Harvard coach Ted Donato’s program. He thinks it will be a great experience for Coronato, who can get a premier education while playing for one of the best college teams.

“He’s definitely excited to get there,” said Hardy. “We have a lot of guys on our team committed to Harvard so it’ll be cool to be able to go with four or five of his buddies. Harvard, especially in recent years, has done a great job with guys going through that program and moving on and getting NHL opportunities. I think Ted Donato has really done a great job and a lot of our players look at it as an opportunity to go and get one of the best educations in the world while being able to develop and play at a high level and eventually go on to play in the NHL. Matt [Coronato] certainly sees that as his path, and that’s what we expect him to do.”

All photos courtesy of the Chicago Steel.

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