May 23, 2010
Leko finds his game in the nick of time
The forward comes back after five years off the ice and contributes to the NAPHL champion Titans
There was no plane crash or uncharted island, but for much of the past five years, Mateja Leko (Muh-TAY-uh LAY-ko) seemed to have been Lost.
After five years away from hockey, Leko, known to his friends and teammates as Mat, played Midget 18AAA for the Southern California Titans. In 51 games, Leko scored 12 goals and added 9 assists, helping the Titans win the North American Prospects Hockey League regular-season and post-season titles, where Leko scored a goal in the semifinals and in the championship game.
The team went on to a runner-up finish at CAHA State tournament and was a semifinalist at the Pacific District Regionals in San Jose.
“His improvement (over the past year) has been dramatic,” said Jack Bowkus, LA Jr. Kings Midget Major coach, who worked with Leko as the 18-year-old came back to the game. “Scott Yorkison and Luc (Beausoleil) with the Titans did a great job with his progression.”
So where did Leko disappear to? A tough turn off the ice seemed steer him away from hockey.
Leko began playing hockey in Southern California at age 5 and played consistently through to 13, when he played Peewee AAA for Jeff Turcotte for the California Wave.
Right around that time, Mat’s parents divorced and he went to live with his mom.
“I fell in with the wrong crowd and started doing the wrong things,” Mat Leko said. “I was doing a lot of skateboarding.”
Said his dad, Mike Leko, “I think he got a little burned out. We were driving from Ventura County to Westminster 3-5 times per week.
“(Last year) he called me and said he wanted to come live with me. That he wanted to get back into it (hockey). He hadn't skated or had a stick for five years. He was looking for a little more discipline.”
Mat borrowed a pair of skates from a buddy and started skating again on his own, then worked with Bowkus and started playing in high school leagues. “I found I loved it again. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to play games.”
Said Bowkus, “I had known him (Mat) for years going back to a 91 team when he played with the California Wave. He came to me and I worked with him on skating and shooting. He worked very hard.”
Mat went to tryouts for the Jr. Kings as well as for the Titans. Mike said Mat could have wound up with either team. The Titans were able to offer a spot first and “I took it because I needed to get Mat back into hockey.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound right wing also put in work off the ice, getting his GPA at Oxnard High back up to 3.8, according to Mike. Mat says it's that ethic that is key to his makeup on the ice, too.
“My strength is working in the corner, grinding away, with good puck possession,” Mat said. “I know I have to be a hard worker.”
That work has led to more opportunities: just what Mat and Mike hoped it would. First up: An invitation to the May Cali-Camp in El Segundo run by Bowkus. That is regularly well-attended by scouts from the British Columbia Hockey League, Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, North American Hockey League and by some Division I colleges. “It's a good opportunity to be seen before the June tryouts,” Bowkus says.
“I really want to play Division I college on the East Coast or play in the BCHL or KIJHL,” Mat said.
Which seems to indicate that what once was Lost – Mat's passion for hockey – now is found.