The history of sports in Ohio is a history of idols. Names like Johnny Bench, Woody Hayes, Lebron James, and Paul Brown grace the record books here, and in true Midwestern fashion, Ohioans value grit and hard work just as much as pure skill. It is this unique brew of idol worship and respect for hustle that characterizes the Ohio sports fan, and it is this combination that has allowed for the ascension of Matt Calvert, at least in the hearts of the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ fan base. Though he’s never been a record breaker or an elite playmaker, a cursory glance around Nationwide Arena on gameday will reveal hundreds of sweaters bearing his name, and Fifth Liners will proudly refer to him as one of their own to anyone who asks.
To the outsider, the uninitiated, this adoration may seem out of place or unfounded. After all, this is a career bottom-six forward, a player whose career high in points for a season is 24. And yet, the love and respect for Calvert, appropriately nicknamed “Matty Hustle,” never wavers. For a franchise that has seen players come and go, he has been a constant in the team since his introduction in 2010 at the age of 21. Talks of trades rarely include him, as if the thought of his absence is intangible, and any badmouthing of him as a player is often met with immediate rebuttal.
Leaders Without Letters: Matt Calvert
To those in Columbus, Calvert is a role model. Not exactly large, and not quite a sniper, Calvert makes up for any perceived inadequacies with sheer determination and perseverance. He’ll never lead the team in points, and he’ll rarely leave the fourth line, but for the Jackets’ faithful, this is not a problem. In a city where bruisers like Jody Shelley and Jared Boll are remembered fondly, Calvert’s role as a constant thorn in the side of the opposition has not only solidified his place in the team, it has endeared him to the masses.
For an indicator of just how much the fans appreciate him, one need look no further than last Friday’s matchup against the New York Rangers. With 10:35 left in the second period, Calvert took a slapshot to the forehead from Rangers’ defenseman Nick Holden and fell immediately to the ground in a pool of his own blood. Fans looked on with great concern, and journalists insisted he would sit the night out, but Calvert had other plans. Not only did he return to the ice and continue battling, he managed to score the game-winning goal on a shorthanded two-on-one breakaway. What’s more, he gave post-game interviews with his head wrapped like a renegade mummy and claimed his 36 stitches like a badge of honor.
Matt Calvert takes a slapshot to the face. Returns 30 stitches later to score the game-winning goal. Hockey. pic.twitter.com/VQ2rXzJP3N
— Gino Hard (@GinoHard_) November 19, 2016
The Will of a Warrior
The most impressive part of this whole story, however, is that this is not a unique occurrence. As a hard-nosed fourth liner, Calvert is in the firing line more often than not, and has suffered through quite a few injuries as a result. In a sport that prides itself on toughness, Calvert has proven himself a warrior. In an organization that has rarely tasted true victory, he has become a cult icon by scoring an overtime winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014 Playoffs to clinch the Jackets’ first ever playoff win, and now by returning from a potentially serious injury to score the game winner against a powerhouse Rangers team.
He will never find himself enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and he may not be remembered by fans who’ve never watched him play, but if you were to ask a Jackets’ fan about Matt Calvert, you can be certain that their face would light up like a home decorated for the holidays. His relentless forecheck and eternally optimistic attitude serve as benchmarks for the young Jackets’ players, and his hard-hitting fourth line has proven to be a strong complement to the skill players on the top three lines. Most importantly of all, he has given players and fans alike someone to look to when the going gets tough. His role as a pest and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team has made him indispensable, and has earned him the role of leader, whether or not he wears a letter on his chest.