NORWOOD PARK — Jacob Matysiak describes himself as a "Chicago hockey player."
"I'm a grinder, get-in-your-face kind of player," said Matysiak, the lone player on the University of Illinois hockey team from the city. "When I play, I do think a lot about being from Chicago."
Matysiak, a junior left winger who has scored five goals in 31 games, has helped lead the Illini — technically a club team, but a program that has a large, boisterous fan base — to the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament in Newark, Del., from March 6-11. On Friday, Matysiak's squad plays in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League playoffs near St. Louis.
"He's a valuable player because of the energy and intensity he brings to the rink each and every day," said second-year head coach Nick Fabbrini, a former Lakeview resident. "He competes as hard as he can all the time, and I think that raises everyone else's compete level as well."
Matysiak grew up in Ukrainian Village, and his family now lives in Norwood Park. The U of I junior graduated from Whitney Young Magnet High School in the West Loop. He learned to play hockey for the Bulldogs at McFetridge Sports Center in Irving Park. His mother, Zuzanna, is a Chicago Police officer, working the night shift on the West Side.
The Illini Hockey roster consists of 31 players, and all but five are from the Chicago suburbs. Matysiak said that's been a similar theme throughout his hockey career.
"Every team I've played for, I've been one of the only guys from Chicago," said Matysiak, a communications major. "That represents the type of person I am on and off the ice.
"I take pride in where I'm from," Matysiak added. "Ever since I could remember, I knew I had a different perspective than most guys do on life because of where I came from."
Matysiak said he gets his tough attitude from his mother, a 5-foot-2 blond Poland native who he said "is literally the last person you'd think would be a police officer." Matysiak knew he had had a bad game if his mother said anything afterward, and she was always on him about school work.
"She's definitely the strongest person I've ever met in my life," said Matysiak, who noted he hasn't talked to his father, Maciej, in two-plus years since he returned to Poland.
Matysiak said he was used to seeing violence at an early age while living in Uke Village. On Sept. 3, 2011, one of Matysiak's best friends and Whitney Young classmate, Rodney Kyles Jr., was killed after being stabbed outside a party in Lincoln Park.
Matysiak said the death of Kyles, also known as the rapper "In Rod We Lust," had a "huge impact" on his life.
"That was a friend that I knew had died due to senseless violence ... he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago," Matysiak said. "It just shows how cold this city can be, and how lucky I am, because it can even take away innocent children with bright futures every day."
Matysiak, 22, considers himself "very lucky" to still be playing hockey. Before coming to the U of I, he had a two-year stint with the Chicago Hitmen, a high-level junior team, with hopes of becoming a professional player. But Matysiak realized he simply "wasn't good enough" to compete at that level.
He said the Illini, who have won two ACHA national championships, are a good fit. Despite their club status — the team is not affiliated with the university and players have to pay yearly dues to suit up — the Illini (19-16-2) have long been considered a popular ticket on campus and routinely draw 1,000-plus fans to their home games.
And he thinks the Illini can be a dark horse in both of their upcoming postseason tournaments.
"I think we can surprise a lot of teams this year," Matysiak said.