Once dismissed from team, college hockey star turned his life around

Apr 4 2011 - 4:30pm

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Giby Frattin is a tough, no-nonsense boss.

"I have 50 employees, and 99.9 percent are whiners," said the owner of two Edmonton bakeries.

But one doesn't have to listen hard to sense the pride he has in his son, Matt.

"He learned a lesson; it turned his life around," Giby said.

And Matt Frattin's remarkable turnaround will be on display this week at the NCAA Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center. Kicked off the team in 2009, he's now the nation's leading goal-scorer for top-ranked North Dakota, which plays Michigan in Thursday's semifinals. And he's one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to college hockey's best player on Friday.

The first criteria for the Hobey Baker Award: Candidates must exhibit strength of character both on and off the ice.

That qualification could trip up Frattin or maybe -- in the eyes of those who know him best, such as his father, coach and teammates -- clinch the award for him.

Throughout the NCAA regionals, TV viewers saw a video clip of Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol talking about Frattin's redemption, and a clip of Frattin talking about the responsibilities the team's players have.

Things were quite different two years ago.

On Aug. 19, 2009, Frattin was stopped by North Dakota campus police and charged with driving while under the influence. He already was in trouble for a bizarre incident a month earlier when he and a former teammate were charged with disorderly conduct for throwing objects, including a lawnmower and a kitchen table, from their garage into a busy street. Frattin, then 21, also was charged with fleeing the scene, and the campus police chief said alcohol was involved and that the players told authorities "they routinely destroy each other's property."

Frattin was fined $225, received a 10-day suspended sentence and was placed on probation for one year.

After the DUI arrest -- Frattin was acquitted in a jury trial six months later -- Hakstol dismissed Frattin from the team.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Frattin said after North Dakota completed Wednesday's practice.

Hakstol called his meeting with Frattin one of the most difficult ever with a player.

"Matt is a great person," Hakstol said. "He is an honest young man. He is a fun guy to be around. He is laid back.

"But his focus was not there."

Said Frattin: "It was tough to hear. But it was a lot tougher to call my dad and tell him what happened. He let me go off on my own and this is the way I repay him -- getting kicked out of school and (losing my) scholarship."

So Frattin went home to Edmonton to live with his parents.

"He was scared, very scared -- over the path he took and facing his parents, who paid his bills how many years," said Giby Frattin, the son of Italian immigrants. "We talked about (what happened) twice and never brought it up again. We could have taunted, taunted and he would not have healed. They weren't pretty, those two conversations."

The college hockey community fully expected Matt to sign a pro contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who drafted him in 2007 in the fourth round, or with a European team. But something gnawed at him.

"The biggest thing (my father) told me was never give up on your goals, the things you want to accomplish in life," he remembered.

Said his father: "If you have skeletons, the only way to bury them is face them."

"Work never scared him," Giby added. "If you asked him to cut the grass, the grass was cut."

Soon Matt started putting in 11-hour days on a cement crew. He did everything from setting in the framework for sidewalks and driveways to flattening the cement after it was poured.

He also stayed in touch with friends on the hockey team and worked out as hard as he could. Hakstol told him he might be able to rejoin the team for practices only during the second half of the 2009-10 season.

In early December, Hakstol called with a better offer -- the chance to play in January. Frattin agreed without hesitation. "We didn't need lights in this house -- Matthew lit up the whole room," Giby Frattin said.

The redemption started.

"I didn't want to leave Grand Forks and North Dakota with a reputation the way I left," Frattin said. He also had formed strong friendships with his classmates, and that tugged at him to return, too. The team's close-knit current seniors -- Brad Malone, Evan Trupp, Frattin, Jake Marto, Brent Davidson and Derrick LaPoint -- started out together as freshmen, and no one left along the way. A seventh senior, captain Chay Genoway, had a medical redshirt and is in his fifth year.

Frattin returned despite no scholarship. Out-of-state tuition and other expenses would cost $9,000 for a semester. He asked his father for the money, who told him to borrow it. So he secured a student loan for $10,000. Back on the team, Frattin had a slow start to his abbreviated junior season. He had no goals and only three assists his first 11 games. Then Hakstol put him on another line, with Malone and Trupp. Frattin scored 11 goals in the final 13 games.

As a senior, he is on scholarship again and his goal scoring has continued. Besides his NCAA-high 36 goals, he has 24 assists for 60 points. Frattin had an eight-game goal-scoring streak in the middle of this season and a nine-game streak that ended in his last game.

At 6 feet and 206 pounds, he seems likely to be a reliable power forward in the NHL.

"He's got a pretty complete game," said Dave Poulin, Maple Leafs vice president of hockey operations. "He has a pro shot and a pro release, and he is physical with and without the puck. He has made a couple of poor decisions, but how he has handled them was more impressive."

Postseason honors for Frattin have come frequently. He was the WCHA player of the year, the WCHA Final Five tournament MVP and the College Hockey News player of the year.

"With his talent and the kind of dedication he has had the last year and a half, a lot of us saw this coming," said Malone, who remains one of his linemates. "But he is playing a little better than we expected."

Giby Frattin tears up sometimes watching Matt play, knowing the price his son paid.

"We knew he had potential, but not to this extreme," Giby said.

Hakstol has seen the tough love pay off.

"Character is revealed through your actions," the North Dakota coach said. "The easy thing for Matt would been to take the easy route, become a pro athlete."

Frattin visits a counselor once a month. His counselor is someone with whom he can be honest and talk to about anything, Frattin said.

"I have definitely grown up and matured so much the past two years," said Frattin, now a 23-year-old who has a baby face and looks several years younger. "Back in the day, when somebody wanted to party, I said, 'OK, let's go. Let's go have a good time.' But now I worry about what I have to do tomorrow."

And he says no.

Interestingly, Frattin almost didn't go to North Dakota. He had five recruiting visits, the maximum allowed, set up when the Sioux called. He canceled one of those trips to visit Grand Forks in 2007.

While there, he called home with the news that he had signed a national letter of intent.

That upset Giby Frattin: "We always told him, 'Don't sign nothing until you talk to your parents.' "

But his son knew what to say: "You always said it was my decision."

Just as the other tough decisions have been.

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