July 21st, 2024

Rangers rookie Matt Rempe throwing fists and enjoying ride: ‘Can’t script that’

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on March 7, 2024.

New York Rangers' Matt Rempe, a six-foot-seven forward turning heads across hockey, is getting some recognition from fans eight games into his NHL career — mostly because of his fists. Rempe (73) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Ryan Reaves (75) fight during third-period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, March 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Matt Rempe was walking down the street in New York last week.

A car pulled up alongside the hulking Rangers rookie. Down rolled the windows.

“What’s going on?” he thought to himself. Then the chanting started.

“They’re like, ‘Rempe! Rempe!'” he added with a grin. “I’m like, ‘Hey!’

“Pretty cool.”

A six-foot-seven forward turning heads across hockey, Rempe has experienced plenty of similar moments eight games into his NHL career – mostly because of his fists.

The Calgary native dropped the gloves on his first shift against New York Islanders tough guy Matt Martin. He also went toe-to-toe with Philadelphia’s Nicolas Deslauriers and Mathieu Olivier of Columbus.

His face a bruised and discoloured mess after receiving as many punches as delivered, Rempe then squared off with Toronto enforcer Ryan Reaves at centre ice on “Hockey Night in Canada” last weekend.

“You can’t script that,” Matt O’Dette, Rempe’s junior coach, said of his former player’s rise. “Whole thing has been right out of a movie.”

The Big Apple has a new cult hero.

The 21-year-old has posed for pictures at a restaurant sporting two black eyes, been dubbed the “Rempire State Building” by fans, and had his name bellowed by the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

“Unbelievable,” said Rempe, a lanky 240 pounds with a long reach. “A lot of fun getting to live my dream.”

The 165th pick at the 2020 draft also wants to show he can play.

“I can do lots of different things,” said Rempe, who has a goal, an assist and 39 penalty minutes through eight NHL games. “But I want to be the guy to stand up for my teammates.”

He’s done that through his 24 periods in the show.

“Not an easy task,” said Rangers defenceman K’Andre Miller. “Done a great job.”

O’Dette, who coached Rempe for three seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds, remembers first seeing the undrafted beanpole at spring camp.

“If he’s lanky now, you should have seen him back then,” O’Dette said. “A baby giraffe.”

“Skinniest kid ever,” Rempe said. “A pair of ribs.”

But something was there. He worked on his skills and in the gym to fill out, scoring a combined 25 regular-season and playoff goals in 2021-22.

Rempe, coincidentally, didn’t fight much in junior. Roughly 10 times in the WHL before somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15 in the American Hockey League before last month’s call-up.

“He’s learning on the fly,” O’Dette said.

The Thunderbirds – the older players grew up under Rempe’s massive wing – were busing to Prince George, B.C., when he stepped outdoors and into the NHL at MetLife Stadium in front of 80,000 people against the Islanders on Feb. 18.

“The service wasn’t great,” O’Dette said of attempts to stream the game. “It cut out and came back. Remps was in the box. He’d already had the fight.”

Rempe’s rise has also reignited debates around the practice. Staged fisticuffs in the NHL have largely melted away with the increase of speed and skill, but that’s not the case with Rempe, who’s been challenged in warm-ups.

And any time he was near Reaves last Saturday once the puck dropped, the crowd buzzed until the pair eventually slugged it out to roaring approval.

“Seems to be a really nice, humble kid,” said the 37-year-old tough guy. “Going to be a menace in this league.”

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said fighting still has its place in the game.

“But the same time, I have a brother that had over 200 fights,” he said. “Certainly see the safety side.”

O’Dette worries each time Rempe drops the gloves.

“Trying to make a name for himself,” said his former coach. “He’s dedicated and committed to doing whatever it takes to stay in the NHL. But he’s a multi-faceted kid. Lots of layers to him.”

That includes playing musical instruments and being a big reader.

“Intelligent and genuine,” O’Dette said. “I’m excited with this attention. People will see what kind of person he is, and also see he’s a good player.”

Rempe, who made his NHL debut on the six-year anniversary of his father’s death, didn’t forget the help that got him to New York.

“Texted everybody on our staff to thank us,” O’Dette said. “He put in the work, but to have the wherewithal to do that “¦ special kid.”

Rempe, meanwhile, hasn’t been forgotten by people back in Calgary.

“My mom was like, ‘Your childhood doctor phoned,'” he said. “Called my mom’s landline and talked about how proud he was.”

A lot has changed for Rempe in less than three weeks.

He’s also enjoying this ride – and a new-found fame that includes getting recognized by passing motorists – in the city that never sleeps.

“Media attention is different,” he said. “I just go home and like to read my books.

“It’s been really cool, but just want to stay level-headed.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2024.

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