Bringing in players from programs across the country for the U Sports All-Star team, everyone comes with their own ‘how they made it’ story. But perhaps none are more improbable than that of Mathieu Pompei’s, the only member of the U Sports All-Stars to have never played a game of major junior hockey.
Mathieu Pompei is one of the best players in the OUA. With 29 points through his first 17 games, he sits alone atop the OUA scoring leaderboard and has sparked McGill to a 12-3-1 record after the first semester of 2016-17. Not only is Pompei one of the most lethal offensive threats in the OUA, but you’ll have a hard time finding a better conditioned athlete.
“He’s trained really hard in the summers, put on a lot of muscle mass, and it’s really given him an extra step in his game,” says head coach Kelly Nobes. “It allows him to battle with the biggest guys in the league for pucks.”
That physical strength is key for a player who stands at 5-foot-8. But it’s certainly no surprise to see a player of small stature succeed at the U Sports level. In fact, three of the top four point-scorers in U Sports this season are under 6-foot-0. But when you consider Pompei’s journey that resulted in him barely getting into McGill, he becomes one of the best ‘where did he come from?’ stories in U Sports hockey.
In 2009, Mathieu Pompei was playing for Kings-Edgehill School U18 in the CAHS. Located in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Kings-Edgehill sits on the precipice of hockey obscurity. Not known for being a factory of top-quality hockey talent, Pompei knew he would have to look elsewhere if he wanted to further his hockey career.
“I was already 18 years old then, so [playing major junior] wasn’t in the picture,” says Pompei. “I was close to Yarmouth [Nova Scotia] and knew a few people in the area, so I tried to make it there.”
Relocated from Dartmouth in 2002, the Yarmouth Mariners are a junior A hockey club in the MHL (Maritime Hockey League). Although their history isn’t particularly rich, Yarmouth has produced solid U Sports hockey products such as Robert Lepine (Guelph), Colin Campbell (Nipissing), and Kyle Campbell (York) among others. It’s a desirable place to play for young players looking to ply their trade in junior hockey, and it represented the next logical step for Pompei’s hockey career. As a 19 year-old, Pompei showed up to training camp as a virtual nobody.
“Talking to [Yarmouth’s] coach later, I don’t think he was even expecting to take a long look at me,” says Pompei. “But I came in pretty strong, I was ready, I worked out all summer, and I didn’t give them the choice to cut me.”
By the end of his second season, Pompei lead the entire MHL with 43 goals in the regular season, and registered 19 points in 18 playoff games on route to the MHL finals in 2012. Pompei finished his MHL career with a whopping 126 points in 103 games. Yarmouth made the right choice in keeping him around.
Even after all the success in his two years of MHL hockey, Pompei wasn’t exactly juggling offers heading into the 2012-13 season. You’d think that leading the MHL in goals would garner more attention, but how Mathieu Pompei ended up on McGill’s radar isn’t the conventional route for most recruits.
“I didn’t really have any options until July,” recounts Pompei. “Applications were almost done, and it was the assistant coach, Daniel Jacob, who knew someone who knew me.”
Kelly Nobes on the other hand was continuing his never-ending search to find the right guy to help his team out for the upcoming season.
“My assistant coach says, ‘you gotta come and see this kid’, and I ended up watching him in a summer league,” says Nobes.
The OUA’s leading point-getter halfway through the season was recruited out of a summer league. But Pompei’s story doesn’t end there. He barely managed to apply to McGill in time, and he still wasn’t considered a ‘high-end’ recruit by any means heading into training camp.
“He was gonna have to grind it out just to get in the lineup,” says Nobes of the expectation for Pompei in his rookie season. “We knew he could score goals, the question was whether or not he could learn to play without the puck and not be a liability on the ice defensively.”
Pompei grabbed the attention of his new team immediately, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-1 preseason win against RMC in his first career U Sports action. Pompei would go on to score 10 goals in the regular season, tying Christophe Poirier for the team lead, and was a point-per-game player in the postseason. Not bad for a guy who was just days away from not even getting into McGill, and had to ‘grind it out’ to make the lineup.
Now in his fifth and final season at McGill, Pompei can look back on what has been a remarkable career playing hockey for one of Canada’s most storied, and reputable hockey programs. Pompei would go on to suit up for McGill at nationals in 2014, and had a career season in 2015-16, posting 37 points in 28 games, including 19 goals, tying him with Jordan DePape for 6th in the entire country. As for the questions about his ability to play defence, they were answered quickly.
“He learned and adapted really fast. That’s why he’s become such a great player in our league,” says Nobes. “He’s a two-way guy now, and he wasn’t when he started.”
The ability to adapt and become a better defensive player is what Pompei credits towards most of his success with McGill, although he admits there’s still room for improvement.
“Defensively I wasn’t as solid I am today, although I still need some work there. But it wasn’t part of my game, especially in junior. I’ve developed a lot, and I think [playing solid defence] changes the game a lot when you can play 200 feet, you’re more reliable, and your coach believes in you more. You start on defence and the offence will come.”
Pompei’s roadmap to success in the OUA has been a lengthy one, but you can’t argue with the philosophy of a guy who has 122 points in 114 career U Sports games. With his invitation to represent U Sports against Team Canada, Pompei is finally getting the respect and recognition he’s worked so hard for.
“I’m a late bloomer. I never gave up, and I just kept pushing and pushing through and I’m really happy about where I’m at today,” says Pompei.
Always confident in his ability to learn and adapt, Pompei still keeps an honest perspective of where he was as a hockey player in 2009.
“I never thought I would be [playing against Team Canada], and I never thought I’d be at McGill. It’s been unbelievable, and I’ve been quite lucky with the journey and how things have happened.”
But the job isn’t done yet for Pompei. McGill has a team capable of going and long way this year, and Pompei plans on continuing his hockey career in Europe next season after he graduates.
It’s a good thing Mathieu Pompei didn’t give the Yarmouth Mariners the choice to cut him back in 2010.
Written by: Victor Findlay (@Finder_24)