Former Bemidji State hockey captain Matt Read is a few days away from playing in front of the largest audience of his young career.
Read and the Philadelphia Flyers host the New York Rangers in the National Hockey League's Winter Classic on Monday. Around 44,000 fans are expected to attend the outdoor game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and millions more will watch on national television.
"It's obviously pretty exciting," said Read, who has emerged as one of the top rookies in the NHL. "Two teams get to do this every year and to just be a part of it, to have the festivities and all your friends and family around - it's going to be a special event. At the end of the day it's another game and another two points in the standings. As special as it is, you can't take it for granted and have to be prepared to play."
Read signed with the Flyers after Bemidji State's season ended at the WCHA Final Five last spring, made the Flyers roster out of training camp this fall and scored his first career goal against veteran New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur on Oct. 8.
He enters Thursday's game against Pittsburgh tied for fourth in rookie point scoring with 21 points on 11 goals and 10 assists in 32 games played. Read is second only to Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' 13 goals in rookie goal scoring.
"I think there's a lot of things and factors that have contributed to my success so far this season," Read said. "Just playing with great players is one of the main reasons. When you're playing with the best players in the world and playing with guys that see the ice, you just work hard and benefit from those guys."
Read plays a versatile role for the Flyers. The Ilderton, Ontario native has seen time on the Flyers power play and penalty killing units. He's also played at both wing positions.
Read, who holds Bemidji State's Division I-era records for goals (65), points (143) and games played (147), said game speed was his biggest challenge in making the jump to the NHL.
"The time and space when you have the puck is very limited," Read said. "When you get the puck, you pretty much have to know where the open spots are on the ice and know where to put the puck if you're in trouble. When you don't have the puck you have to know where the dead areas are."
Read's most productive game so far came Oct. 18 against Ottawa when he scored a goal and had three assists in a four-point game.
He generated more buzz around the league when he scored seven points in five straight games from Nov. 13-21. Read was named the NHL Third Star of the Week.
"Things were clicking and it just seemed like I was always in the right spots at the right times," he said. "It was pretty neat to have a week like that and hopefully I can have more in my career."
That week also put Read in conversations with some experts as a contender for the Calder Trophy, which is awarded at the end of the season to the NHL's top rookie.
"It's kind of surreal but at the same time but I try not to pay attention to that stuff," Read said. "It's a long season. If you get your head stuck in the clouds about winning a Calder trophy or scoring races with rookies, then you're caught up in little things that might take away from your game. For myself I just try to focus on being the best player I can be everyday at the rink, get better every day and hopefully at the end of the year it pays off. I take it day-by-day right now."
Read said he still talks with former BSU teammates Ryan Cramer, Dan MacIntyre, Jordan George and current BSU captain Ben Kinne. The grind of the NHL schedule limits those opportunities and he hopes to spend more time catching up during the summer offseason.
Part of that schedule includes non-stop filming of the HBO Sports 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic documentary. The teams have been followed by camera crews for the last month as part of the four-part series, which airs Wednesday nights on HBO.
"Sometimes it's a little distracting I guess," Read said. "They're everywhere you go. If you're in the locker room stretching a little nagging injury and seeing a trainer, they are right there filming that. Personally it doesn't bother me. I know they are there and it's part of the month they are here. It's pretty special to see everything go on TV and how much work those guys do. You just go out and do your daily routine. I guess we're part of a project to entertain the hockey world and show what goes on behind the scenes."
The Winter Classic will mark another first in Read's hockey career. Read said he has never played an official game outdoors.
Citizens Bank Park is the home to Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies and is located off of Broad Street in southern part of the city. It is adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles and the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA's 76ers and Flyers.
"I'd say that Philadelphia has the best fans I've ever played for," he said. "It's similar to Bemidji but the big difference is that if you're not playing good, the fans aren't afraid give you their opinion, yell or boo you. They are pretty serious about their sports. If you're winning, you are on a pedestal. If you're losing, they hate you. It's a tough crowd. But they're at every game and it's fun to play at home."
Read scores a goal against the Florida Panthers