If there was one name synonymous with Charlottetown Islanders hockey after seven seasons of play, it would have to be Matthew Welsh.
After all, he’s been there for the majority of those years.
The 20-year-old netminder saw his QMJHL career come to an end this past March, all five seasons spent in Charlottetown. With countless franchise records, league records, and a legacy of community involvement and excellence in the classroom, it’s a decorated and celebrated career, one that started before he was even drafted.
As a Halifax native, Welsh naturally grew up a fan of the Mooseheads, like most hockey-playing children in the area. While many of his early QMJHL memories were shaped watching the Herd, Matt also got a look behind the curtain of what the QMJHL player life was like through his older brother, Nicholas.
“He was drafted when I was 14 years old,” Matt said of Nick, who would play over 300 Q games between Shawinigan and Moncton. “It was really cool to get to watch him go through his first training camp and see him make the team. It was exciting for our whole family to have that experience. I got to see his experience and it inspired me to follow in his footsteps.”
Following in Nick’s footsteps was familiar territory for Matt. It was a trend that began at an early age when it came to hockey.
“Growing up I always followed in my older brother’s footsteps. His path led my path all the way through the ranks, whether it be spring hockey or anything. Whatever he was doing, I always aspired to do. That went all the way through bantam, midget, and in to the Q.”
Welsh came through the Halifax minor hockey system with one of the more impressive age groups in recent years. He shared the ice with a number of major junior and NCAA players, including current AHL forward Mike O’Leary, Hobey Baker finalist and New York Rangers prospect Morgan Barron, and Colorado Avalanche top prospect Shane Bowers. In his one year with the Halifax Macs major midget program, Welsh was one of 13 players on that team eventually drafted to the QMJHL, including Bowers and fellow Q overagers Christian Huntley and Tyler Hinam.
His success with the Macs, along with Team Nova Scotia at the 2015 Canada Games, led to being selected by the Islanders at the 2015 QMJHL Draft. As the story goes, Grant Sonier, general manager of the Islanders at the time, interviewed Welsh ahead of the draft and knew immediately that he was the goalie he wanted. He traded a 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft along with the 87th pick in the 2015 draft to Rouyn-Noranda in exchange for the 37th pick, the one used to select Welsh.
That draft and subsequent training camp fulfilled a dream for Welsh; he had the opportunity to play major junior hockey close to home. He had NCAA options, but once he got to training camp the decision was easy.
“Ever since I was a kid I dreamed about playing in the QMJHL,” Welsh explained. “When I got drafted, went to training camp, and realized I had the ability to play in this league as a 16-year-old, my decision was made for me. When I received the offer to sign with the team, I jumped right on it, I didn’t have to think about it.”
“The thing that stood out about Matt right from the beginning was his demeanor,” said Islanders head coach Jim Hulton regarding Welsh’s first training camp. “He was a calm, controlled kid and that was evident right off the hop. He came in under the radar, quiet, was a hard-working kid and we thought the foundation was there to have a good career.”
Welsh made the team backing up de facto #1 goalie and fellow Halifax native Mason McDonald. Hulton gave Welsh the opportunity to play right away, starting him in the second game of the season against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. He made an immediate impact, shutting out the Eagles with a 20-save performance.
“My debut was a big starting point for me,” Welsh added. “Right away it gave me the confidence to believe that not only could I play in this league, but be effective and be able to challenge the older players in this league.”
While his rookie season started like most, starting sparingly as he learned the ropes from an experienced netminder, Welsh was later given a big opportunity as McDonald received the call to represent Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championships. In his absence, Welsh was entrusted with the crease, starting 9 out of 11 games in a stretch from mid-December to early January.
Matt took it as a chance to show that he had the ability to excel in the league. Hulton says it was mission accomplished.
“When Mason went to the World Juniors we hadn’t necessarily planned to play him that much, but every time we gave him a test he would pass it with flying colours,” explained Hulton. “That little stretch over Christmas he just kept playing better and better; that’s when we started getting the indication of what his career might look like long-term.”
Welsh’s success mirrored his team’s; sitting 17th in the QMJHL at Christmas, the Isles rose as high as ninth after Christmas trades brought in a number of key veterans like Samuel Blais and Alexis Vanier, along with the return of Daniel Sprong. Welsh got another shot as the starter near the end of the season after McDonald suffered an injury. In total, Welsh would make 29 appearances in his first season, recording 12 wins in the process.
“As a challenge-driven kid, he just kept answering every challenge. It’s why we felt confident heading in to his 17-year-old season that he was ahead of the curve than a normal 16-year-old.” Hulton said on Welsh’s first season.
The 2016-2017 season saw Welsh enter in a goaltending battle with veteran backup Blade Mann-Dixon. The Isles would reach new heights in the first half, prompting the team to go all-in at the Christmas trading period, acquiring a number of players in an attempt to make a run at the President’s Cup; one of those pieces included a veteran goalie in Mark Grametbauer.
“We had a really special team, especially in that second half. We got Alex Dostie, Francois Beauchemin, Carl Neill, Nic Meloche, some real QMJHL superstars. Plus we already had Sprong, Filip Chlapik, Guillaume Brisebois,” said Welsh. “We were stacked, and I was just a kid on that team. In a sense, I was more of a rookie on that team than I was my actual rookie season; all those guys were fourth year superstars, legit players who were going to go pro. It was really cool to get to play with those guys and get to learn from them.”
When making moves to acquire veteran talent, a lot of pieces were traded away; promising young players such as Shaun Boudrias, Mitchell Balmas, and Marc-Olivier Alain, along with a number of draft picks were just some of the assets moved to get better. When it came to Welsh, however, Hulton would not budge.
“Going in to that period we had two mandates: make sure Welsh and (Pierre-Olivier) Joseph stayed here. They were our two non-negotiable players, even though we were in the position to go for it. We felt that strongly about both guys. Lots of people asked at that time, but it was never a consideration; in fact, it was a deal-breaker in a couple of spots.”
“When Christmas time rolled around, Jim could have easily traded me and went with a more veteran goalie.” added Welsh. “He decided to stick with me though and went with me for the next four years. I was really grateful for that opportunity.”
That Islanders team would roll into the playoffs and bulldozed their way in to the third round; unfortunately, the team was met by a stout Blainville-Boisbriand Armada team that surprised the Isles, defeating them in five games. One player who didn’t do much bulldozing, however, was Welsh. The crease had been turned over to the veteran Grametbauer for the playoffs, with Welsh only seeing action twice throughout that run. That setback motivated the young netminder as he headed in to his second offseason.
“I remember being really frustrated that I wasn’t playing in the playoffs. I wanted to be playing so bad, I thought I could have been the guy for that playoff run. I used that as motivation and really went all-out in the summer.”
Welsh used that time to reinvent himself as a goalie and push himself harder than ever before, both on the ice and off.
“I was in the best shape of my life going in to that training camp, I felt like my game had evolved over the summer, I even switched goalie brands to Bauer. I just remember feeling like a whole different player.”
The expectations for Charlottetown that season were low; after all, they had lost their entire top 2 lines from the season before. Internally, the team still had hopes for themselves.
“PO had just been drafted in the first round, we still had Keith Getson, we still had Pascal Aquin; we had some good players but still no one had any expectations for us,” said Welsh. “I’m not gonna lie, people saying that we were going to be awful, that we were losing all these guys, it pissed me off. We came back and knew we had something to prove. They weren’t giving us any credit for the players that we were and the leaders we could be.”
What followed was a season that nobody could have expected, a story that has since been told time and time again. The Isles, led by Welsh, Getson, and Joseph, went on a magical run back to the third round one season later, losing once again to the league-leading Armada, this time taking them to seven games. Welsh was a big part of that, making 54 of a possible 68 appearances and recording 31 victories. Off the ice, he was an extremely valuable leader in the locker room, using his experiences to motivate the teammates around him.
“It’s the maturation of a player throughout his career; each year you get a little more comfortable in your leadership abilities,” explained Hulton. “When we got to the semi-finals the first time, we underachieved in a sense. Our core of guys wanted to make sure that was rectified the following year. Matt in particular stepped up. He was now 18, he was ready to be that go-to #1 goaltender. It was a huge difference for us.”
“I remember that team being the closest team I’ve ever been on,” added Matt. “We were so tight and all really cared for each other,” said Welsh on that 2017-2018 team. “You need 24 guys that are brothers, there can’t be cliques in the dressing room. We didn’t have any of that, and that was big for our group.”
“Nobody believed in us, nobody thought we’d have any ability, then we went out there and had an unreal regular season. We get 40 wins, we finish ninth place, and even still we were counted out in the playoffs. We were a pissed off group and we played that way. We wanted to prove so many people wrong and we did that. We had so many guys who were hard-nosed, hard-working, do the right thing kind of players. No one was playing for themselves, everyone was playing for the team. It came together in a perfect storm. It didn’t end the way we wanted to, but everyone who was on that team looks back at that playoff run with fond memories.”
Despite Matt’s personal success on the ice, professional opportunities continued to allude him. He went through his second offseason without receiving a chance from an NHL team. With the benefit of hindsight, he understands why that was.
“Not getting the chance at an NHL camp was disappointing, but having since been to one, I realize how young 18 years old is at an NHL camp.” Matt explained. “The 18-year-olds who are at NHL training camps are superstars. Looking back now I understand that I was still maturing and developing. It motivated me that summer to work towards my dreams.”
One dream that did come to fruition was more international opportunity. Having already represented Team Canada at the Under-17 level, Welsh would be invited to the 2018 Hockey Canada Summer Showcase, the first opportunity for the best junior players across Canada to put their names on the radar for the World Junior Championships.
“I remember one day that summer I was driving home from the gym and Jim called me,” Matt reminisced. “He gave me the news that I would be going to the Summer Showcase. It was pretty emotional for me, there was so much hard work put in, and to be recognized for that and to compete for a spot on Team Canada was a huge honour, something I’ll never forget.”
“That was one of my more enjoyable experiences with Matt,” said Hulton on the Showcase. “It’s a big milestone in a player’s career to get recognition from their country, especially for Matt, who was one of only two players at the camp not drafted pro. It spoke volumes to the eyes that he opened in the hockey world.”
The 2018-2019 season saw the Islanders turn over a new leaf; the team started to get younger with future stars such as Brett Budgell and Nikita Alexandrov alongside premiere rookie Lukas Cormier. Part of the cycle to get younger meant moving older players for future assets. Two of those players were the two closest to Welsh, P-O Joseph and Keith Getson.
“It was really tough to see those two guys traded,” said Welsh on the moves. “We had a really good team that year, a lot of talent. We were one of the better teams in the first half of the season. That said, we were probably still a few pieces away from being a real contender, and we had eyes on the future. You have guys like Brett Budgell and Lukas Cormier, then you make a trade for Noah Laaouan who was only 17. Jim wants to be competitive every year, and believes in the underdog.”
Following that 2018-2019 Christmas trading period, Welsh was one of the few remaining players who had experienced two deep playoff runs. For a team only getting younger, that experience was invaluable.
“If you want to maintain an organization that can compete every year, you have to have great internal leadership. That mantle has to be passed down from generation to generation,” Hulton explained. “Welshy has a legacy of being a big piece of the couple great runs we had; he had to pass those lessons down to the Cormiers, the Plandowskis, and the Goobies of the organization in hopes that we can continue our success.”
That leadership role carried in to the 2019-2020 season as the Islanders added another 16-year-old goalie from Halifax in Jacob Goobie. The young rookie was given a shotgun seat to Welsh’s final run in junior, one that saw him build on the legacy he had established in year’s past.
“This year, coming in I felt I had the ability to really be a dominant player in the league. I just wanted to go out there every night and give my team the best chance to win no matter who we were playing. There were so many contending teams this year and I just felt that no matter what, if we played the right way, we had a chance to beat any team.”
As his final season came to an abrupt end, Welsh finished with 224 career appearances and 125 victories, both top-5 in league history. His 13,080 minutes played by a goaltender is the most in QMJHL history. He’s also amongst the top-10 in many other career goaltending stats including shutouts, shots faced, and points scored.
“Obviously we didn’t want to end the season this way but it was such a special year for me. This was the closest I’d been to our fans and our community; I got to see and meet so many great people over the past five years. To be able to share my final season with everyone was really special. It’s important to me.” Welsh said on his final year.
While his work on the ice is to be celebrated, his off-ice accomplishments are equally impressive. Welsh is a two-time finalist and one-time winner of the Marcel-Robert Trophy as the QMJHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year. He also finished as a finalist for the league’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2018-2019 for his outstanding work in the Charlottetown community.
“For me, I just wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity we have in Charlottetown,” Welsh said about the community. “The Island is such a small place and everyone knows everyone, so we’re in this position where people know who we are. We have that ability to be close to our fanbase, and to the entire Island. I just wanted to take advantage of that and really do my part in the community to inspire young hockey players and help however I can. We’re lucky to be able to be so close to our fans and have that influence on the kids of PEI. The best example we can set in the community will have a huge impact.”
Welsh could often be found making hospital visits to the young children he’d met over the years, while also championing academic efforts and blood donation efforts; he served as a Player Ambassador for Hockey Gives Blood, helping to raise awareness about donating blood throughout the hockey community.
Matthew Welsh has been a mainstay of the Charlottetown Islanders community, and will continue to be so for years to come. Although he’ll be moving back home to be a member of the St. Mary’s University men’s hockey team, his impact on the Islanders organization will continue to reverberate long since he’s departure.
“It’s going to be weird,” Hulton said about his first Islanders training camp without Welsh. “Particularly given the circumstances this season ended under. It’s not the way anyone wanted to see it end but certainly not how anyone wanted to see it end for Matt. His legacy is going to live on for a long time, not just within the Islanders but within our community. He’s done so much for us, he’s been a great example for our young players. His name will be quoted a lot in our future; it’s going to be fun to watch the next stages of his career.”
In closing, a number of people helped Welsh get through these five years of major junior hockey.
Big shoutout to all the teammates I’ve played with. I’ve had so many great teammates over the years, especially Getsy, PO, and Pascal.”
“Kevin Elliott and Spider MacNeill do everything for this team, they don’t get nearly enough credit that they should. I wouldn’t have come this far without them and wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
“I’m so grateful for the way Jim has treated me over the past five years. The biggest thing with Jim is he’s always believed in me. He’s always put his confidence in me and you can’t ask for more than that from your coach. There are times where I know he could have moved me or went with a different guy, and time and time again he went with me. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities he’s given me and what he’s taught me as far as professionalism and how to be a leader.
“Another final shoutout to my billets. They’ve been unbelievable for me; having a place where you can go and not have to be a hockey player, where you can be yourself and not have to put up the hockey persona is huge. My billet family has been so welcoming to me and open that they’ve practically become my family. I’m so grateful for them and everything they’ve done for me.”